Author: Molly Sheridan

Joshua Fried: Let’s Dance

Joshua Fried

Joshua Fried begins each of his RADIO WONDERLAND shows with a spin of a boombox radio dial, snippets of caught commercials and DJ chatter popping out of the static and drawing his audience’s ears in on a raft of mainstream culture before he starts cutting it apart.

There is also a boombox in nearly every room of Fried’s apartment, which after a few hours in his company chatting about processing sound, seems to be not just a fun decorating choice but also an illustration of how connected he is to his music-making tools.

More than sharing space, however, it’s time that Fried has invested deeply in his music, labor-intensive processes becoming something of a hallmark. As a result, his projects have a tendency to spiral out across years of his professional life. Splicing elaborate tape loops and coding his own software have been just par for this artistic course—intimacy with the tools and materials an essential part of the work.

Yet whether in a dive for self-preservation or simply a yin-yang bit of balance, Fried sets up his musical game boards with elaborate care, but then prefers to play out the final aspects of his creative process live in front of an audience. In the ’90s that meant feeding his performers their material in real time over headphones. Since 2007, it most often finds him alone on stage, a couple pairs of men’s dress shoes concealing gate-triggering microphones and a Buick steering wheel drawing the audience’s eyes as he grabs bits of radio chatter from which he builds each RADIO WONDERLAND concert.

His creative path has led him from The Pyramid Club to more esoteric new music circles, but he hasn’t abandoned his pursuit of great grooves, and it’s a prime driver of RADIO WONDERLAND. “I had this metric, which is that I wanted it to be actually danceable,” he explains. “As a creator, as a composer, to have that metric and believe in it, to me, it’s not a cheap thing in the least. It’s so helpful. Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on.” In live performance and in track after track on his just-released album SEiZE THE MEANS, the drive of the pulse, the transparency of the process, and common commercial radio core prove to amplify rather than dilute the music’s broader unique aspects.

Fried anticipated that his lack of interest in “high-end signal processing of very theoretical stuff that you do your Ph.D. thesis about” might result in his work being dismissed in certain circles, but while that has happened, he has actually felt accepted and free to pursue the work he wants even if it comes attached to a beat that encourages serious toe tapping. It’s not something he’s looking to transcend. “I love dancing. I sometimes find myself bopping my head in music concerts when it’s not really thought of as head-bopping music, but I’m hearing a pulse. Okay, maybe in that situation, maybe you could argue that I’m missing something. But there are many cases where I feel like no, I’m not. I am moved and I’m moving, and I’m immersed and involved. And I just love it.”

Joshua Fried in conversation with Molly Sheridan
November 10, 2016—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Joshua Fried: I think I have long had this idea that I’m going to be the thorn in the side of some establishment that isn’t going to like me, and it turns out they do.

Molly Sheridan: But you don’t trust that?

JF: I have a little bit of imposter’s syndrome, but I’m on much more solid ground than I was when I started. It’s funny because “new music” is awash in people doing sophisticated things in funny meters and odd things with tonality and pitch, and whether I do or don’t, I tend to be accepted and no one has a problem with 4/4. It’s kind of amazing to me. I’m sort of waiting to be dismissed—and that’s happened to me—but I feel very accepted and able to pursue what I want. It just so happens that what I want is rather clubby, especially with RADIO WONDERLAND.

MS: I actually wanted to start by just talking about the evolution of RADIO WONDERLAND, especially for readers who may not be familiar with this project. It seems to me there’s a sort of ritual to these performances and to the pieces you create, including the equipment that you use and have used for a number of years now.

JF: Oh, yeah.

MS: So I want to trace the evolution of that visually and sonically, whether you have to go back to 1987 to do that, or just 2007.

JF: I have been cutting up sound and processing sound since I first started composing, and I started using radio really early on. I did one piece where I would start with FM radio playing the easy listening station—cascading strings and completely mellow “beautiful music”—and then cut to this underlying tape loop that was cut up very precisely. I would do it several times and it was random what I got from the cascading strings station. Then I was performing in clubs in New York with multi-channel tape-loop processing. Basically I was taking the technical structure of dub reggae, only instead of remixing an existing reggae song, I would remix a multi-channel tape loop that I had constructed laboriously and do that live.

I also had a thing where I would use something to trigger a gate. Like I would speak into the microphone, but it would be opening up a gate on a tape loop. It was theatrical. As a performative schtick, I started hiding the mic inside various objects. I put the mic inside a shoe and took it to the Pyramid Club where I was performing live, and I was whacking the shoe with a drumstick so the tape loop could be in time with my underlying groove. Then as I evolved as a composer, I wanted to do more with gates, so I said, let’s have four shoes. And this is 1988 at the La MaMa New Music Festival. I had the shoes and a radio—two channels of shoe-controlled gates from radio and two pre-recorded ongoing sounds.

Fried's stage set-up with shoes

Fried’s stage set-up with shoes (Yes, that’s Todd Reynolds in the background!)

Then a few years later, I realized I could do something that’s all radio. What I had to do next was the club-oriented funky tape loops that I had done in the ‘80s, only make those collages in real time in front of an audience and all out of commercial radio. I could do that with technology. I didn’t know what technology, but I knew I could do it with technology. I could trigger the radio with the shoes, but I wanted to do more. What I was doing in the ‘80s in clubs, these tape loops that I mentioned where I did things based on dub reggae, got increasingly intricate and I would do very high-precision tape splicing. As digital sampling was taking off, I would kind of say to myself, oh, I can do that with splicing and I would end up with something that was like those samplers, only more hi-fi because I had a quarter-inch tape deck, which was giving me better quality than the 8-bit or 12-bit samplers at the time. So there was this kind of odd period where, because I felt that I would live forever and it didn’t matter how long a project took, I would just do even more labor intensive, high-precision tape splicing.

But I slowly transitioned to MIDI and sampling, and so getting back to the beginnings of RADIO WONDERLAND, I realized that I could use technology to precisely cut up the found sound that I got off the radio and turn that into a groove. I have notebooks full of notes about what I could do and the more I thought about it, the more I got serious about it. I went through a period where I thought: how far am I willing to really elaborately process? Because what I love most in processing is the cutting up, running backwards, playing at different speeds, collaging as opposed to the high-end signal processing of very theoretical stuff that you do your Ph.D. thesis about. The simple processing that has a big musical payoff is more fascinating to me. What’s the least I can do, the most transparent processing I can do, and have it give me my musical result?

Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on. And sometimes I think it doesn’t matter so much what that framework is.

And I had this metric, which is that I wanted it to be actually danceable. As a creator, as a composer, to have that metric and believe in it, to me, it’s not a cheap thing in the least. It’s so helpful. Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on. And sometimes I think it doesn’t matter so much what that framework is. You need it. Especially when it comes to structuring things over time.

I was doing the tape loop stuff in clubs, and that was more or the less the ‘80s, and in the ‘90s it was the headphone-driven performance, [concert work that requires performers to try and imitate vocal sounds that are played over headphones]. Then halfway through that, I realized the next thing I wanted to do was club-oriented again, but by that time, I was so steeped in sort of the new music scene, it was no longer the Pyramid Club, it was the Bang on a Can Festival. And so when I first started doing RADIO WONDERLAND, it was music festivals and electronic nights, the Juilliard Electronic Music Festival and Boston Cyberarts. It didn’t really steer back to the clubs until I went through this long, long period of software development and then started channeling it to the clubs, and that’s a transition I’m sort of still making because I had so many years with the—if you want to call it—new music audience. The NewMusicBox audience! I still sort of feel like I’m steering back. In the late’80s, I was known if you read Billboard and not if you read the American Composers Forum newsletter. And then that switched. I still sort of feel I’m switching back.

MS: Was that all self-selected or did you feel pushed?

JF: It’s funny because I’ve sort of been following my nose the whole time as far as what I do. I was so involved with the clubs in the ‘80s, and to me it was equivalent with innovation. No, that’s not right. It’s not that simple. I was doing experimental stuff, and I was working a lot with Linda Fisher who’s a composer who worked with Cunningham and David Tudor and Douglas Dunn, who was a Cunningham dancer. But I was focused on the clubs; I was working in clubs. I could go on stage in any open-minded nightclub if I had my tape-loop act—I say open-minded, because at the time there was a certain population of people who enjoyed popular music but had to see a drum kit and/or a guitar on stage. There was one guy who said to me at the end of a gig, “If you had just had someone with a guitar on stage, even if they were just standing there, it would have made me feel more comfortable with what you did.” I was amazed at that. And I also really appreciated his honesty. He knew how absurd it was, and he was being completely real about it.

And then I got a record deal with a big record label. It went nowhere and it’s a long story, but it was a great thing that happened to me. I think I was kind of blown away emotionally, because I had this major label deal and I sort of didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t have the skill to adapt. I tried to write some conventional pop songs for the occasion, but I didn’t do very many. They didn’t really fit. I needed to be like Howard Jones or M, the guy who did the song “Pop Muzik,” but I wasn’t versatile enough to do that. So I was just the tape loop guy doing my innovative stuff—which certain people really loved—marketed the wrong way.

It took me a long time to sort of get over it and decide what to do next. I didn’t have a next step for the record label, or I guess for the clubs. And then the headphone-driven stuff kind of took off, although it’s a slow motion take off. Over a few years, I did a lot of that stuff, and then the Bang on a Can All-Stars said, “Well, can we perform it?” And I said okay and I worked with them. I basically won’t let people perform this work unless I feel that they can do it—because it’s so awful if people don’t have the proper training. It’s hideously boring and uncomfortable, and it gives me and it gives the music a bad name. But if performers can handle it and they have worked with me or someone that I’ve worked with to know what I want from it, it can be this compelling, rigorous, worthy stuff. So anyway yes. The Bang on a Can All-Stars did it and then other people said they wanted to do it, and it had this life, including a 16-week series at HERE Arts Center in 2001.

It was so enormously labor intensive. It was amazing to be able to do it, but each performer can do each headphone role only once, so I rotate through performers. We had a total of 64 people over the course of this run. I would have to get more and more performers. How could I tour with this? I decided that this piece, if it can’t walk on its own, is going to have to be set by the side of road where if it wants to walk, it can walk, but I can no longer be pushing it along. I need something more practical, and that was going to be this radio, found sound, groove-based thing.

That’s also solo, so it makes so much more sense. Then all that was left was the years of doing the software programming. I did it myself in Max/MSP and it was a wonderful adventure, but it took years. It was absurd. By fall of 2007 I realized I have not utterly, thoroughly 100% debugged my own code. However, the state of performing this is hampered more by my lack of knowing how to do it and lack of rehearsal than by the bugs. I could put this on stage, work around the bugs, and six months of being on stage is going to put this out in the world. And it’s going to get that much better. Better than six more months of programming to iron out the last few bugs or add the last few features that I want. So all of sudden, I realized, oh, it’s not a matter of being done and then going on stage. I’m going on stage now. Let’s start gigging!

 

I decided that for a year I would just perform any and all performances—paid, unpaid, bring my own PA, what have you. This adventure started and I was going to do this for a year and then record. So that was fall of 2007. And then 2011—that’s a year after, right?—I realized I was doing more and more gigs. I started going out of town. I performed at this big sort of techno/rave-y complex in Venice, Italy. It was so great, but it was also crazy. I didn’t have a record to sell at the gigs. It seemed almost counterproductive. And also I didn’t mention, I made a deal with myself: not only was I going to stop coding—only since it’s Max/MSP, it’s drag another line with the mouse—but I was declaring a technology freeze. I wasn’t going to upgrade any piece of hardware or software until I had that record out. So I figured I’d gig for a year, do the record, upgrade the software. Instead it was a few years of gigging. Now, it’s antique software and a G3 Powerbook. It’s the same thing with my tape-loop stuff. When I started doing tape loops, it was high tech, but then I did it for so many years. Same thing kind of happened with RADIO WONDERLAND where I had a Powerbook that was state of the art and I just kept it. And I was so glad that I did.

Now my case might be extreme, but there are musicians and composers who are upgrading so fast, I feel like they’re not going into depth. On the other hand, they don’t need to go into depth the way I do. I get really involved with materials, the tools, and that is a big part of what I’m doing. Other composers are different. They’re pursuing other things, and they can have a—not a derogatory use of the term—more shallow connection with the nuts and bolts of their technology and it’s not such a wrenching big deal to upgrade. If they throw out their old software and have new software, great. They take advantage of that.

Fried's boombox collection

For me, it just couldn’t be that way. I wrote this software myself. I’m very intimate with it. It’s just not the same deal. I love that kind of intimacy with tools and materials. I guess for some composers, the intimacy is on the level of the score, or the concept, and the technology is secondary.

MS: Okay, that was a lot of answers to a lot of questions.

JF: Whew. So we’re done?

MS: We’re done! No, we’re not done. You were talking about intimacy, which makes me think about your use of commercial radio as your raw material. I’m curious, of all the things you could pick, what is your attraction to that specifically as your primary source?

JF: Well, there are a couple things that really dovetail nicely. Since I was kid, I’ve had this attraction to the commercial stuff and just reframing it as something that’s funny. When I was in fourth grade, we had a field trip to the L.A. airport and we got to walk inside an airplane. Then the next day, or maybe that afternoon, we were back in our homeroom in my elementary school, and we were asked to write about it. I wrote some spiel and at the end of it I wrote, “Welcome to the friendly skies of United.” It was a laugh line that has a certain needling twist to it.

Maybe that’s the whole sort of appropriative, ironic shtick that we’re all so tired of now, but I think I am of a generation where that is compelling to me. It’s a way of talking and of negotiating the world by quoting the mainstream stuff in this kind of snarky way. I feel in many ways, culturally we’re past that, but that kind of appropriation is like a language. And maybe this is a loaded word, but it is subversive. It is knocking, needling, and when I am cutting it up, it is cutting up the mainstream culture. It may be very basic, but great—be basic. Also, it’s ubiquitous, so it’s something that’s familiar and when I process the familiar, the process is that much more transparent. Just like when you do a cover tune, if you have an odd musical bent, your odd musical bent can be revealed by performing someone else’s work.

That’s why Devo’s version of “Satisfaction” is so satisfying, because we know this song and you get what Devo is. FM radio is dynamically compressed and has a decent frequency range. It is made to be grabbed and sampled. It’s so technically easy to grab the pre-compressed feed from FM radio. I know exactly where I have to put the volume control on my boombox. I don’t change the input level on my rig. I haven’t had to. And that’s great. It is perfectly pre-processed for the stuff that I’m doing.

MS: Is your choice of controllers born out of that same instinct—the steering wheel, the shoes? I mean, is that a joke? Is that a commentary? Is that playing off familiarity?

JF: It’s not the subversive appropriation kind of thing. I’m not knocking the industrial age because the steering wheel is a symbol of something evil. Arguably, it is. But I am doing it because of the transparency of the process when the controller is so large. I don’t want a tiny little knob that no one can see, so I want this object that’s the wheel.

Instead of the shoes, I could use electronic drum pads, but they have this sort of added message to me that you have to have something that looks like fancy high tech music hardware in order to whack something. But this is a completely un-acoustic instrument. The sound that you’re triggering has nothing to do with the physical makeup of the thing that you’re hitting. There’s this disconnect between the controller and the sound that results, and I want to underscore that disconnect. It’s a funny thing, and I’d rather have it be that funny thing than have it be like the cool drum pad. If you had the money to buy this in the music store, you could have this cool drum pad. I don’t like that.

Fried takes the wheel

Fried takes the wheel

Once I had the shoes, I knew that I wanted to have not just a large knob, but an ordinary object taken from life and give it that surreal feeling. I was really taken by surrealism when I was kid. It’s that kind of twist I was talking about before with appropriation. There’s a different, maybe related sort of twist when there’s something absurd. I just love it so much.

Another thing about the wheel is that, technically, it’s no different from the little knob you can get in the portable controller, which is a lot easier to pack on an airplane than a steering wheel, but you would never play a melody on that little knob. With the steering wheel, I can, and so now I practice the wheel, and it’s become this whole other level of instrument that I didn’t even realize. The quantitative difference of size is a real qualitative difference, and it’s so much fun.

MS: You’ve been working with commercial radio for a long time now. I’m curious if you’ve noted any changes to that particular stream of media and how that’s impacted your work.

JF: Well, part of it’s a little sad because when I started doing this, radio was more monolithic. Everybody knew half the songs on any of the pop stations. I don’t feel that’s the same thing now. Radio, even mainstream commercial radio, is in its niches. There was a sort of lingua franca of pop in the heyday of Michael Jackson and Madonna and Culture Club. They were so ubiquitous and corporate and massively popular. I was dismantling this common mainstream.

I have developed my aesthetic, but I haven’t really adapted. That’s just the way it goes.

I have developed my aesthetic, but I haven’t really adapted. That’s just the way it goes. My projects take absurd numbers of years to fully play out, and that’s more acceptable in the movie business than it is in the music business. But I’m here, and so part of what RADIO WONDERLAND signifies has evolved out from under me. I’m using vintage technology now in a way that I wasn’t back then by virtue of not changing the technology. Very recently, I decided to use AM radio because I need more topical stuff because of what’s happening in the world. That’s one thing that I decided only in the last few months. It’s not enough for me to know that crazy stuff is happening in the world. They’re kind of talking about it on NPR, but I want to be dealing with more commercial culture and they’re not talking about global warming on the rock station.

MS: Not just RADIO WONDERLAND but also your work with headphone-driven performance leads me to thoughts of how it pushes and pulls on the ideas of Cage, which is something you address specifically on your website:

It celebrates randomness in a way that’s utterly different from Cage.  Chance choices can be simply betterin the right context.

What are the elements of that “right context”?

JF: Well, there’s no one right context. But if you can create a context in which the best choice is going to be by the roll of the dice, you’ve created a beautiful situation.

I guess what I’m talking about is hey, we’re stochastic instead of completely random. I like the negotiation of what’s chance and what’s not chance, and also the extremes of how much I prepare, how much I work on my algorithms, and then how much I’m dependent on what happens to be on the radio or, with headphone-driven performance, how rigorous my input is and how it interacts with the complete lack of control of the performers. The chance choice can be the right choice, if in the right context. Building the kind of context that can do that gives me something that to my ears is just better than any other way. And it’s such a beautiful thing. You feel like you’re tapping into something, instead of sort of cheating it. Well, there’s my chord progression and if I avoid all the leading tones in the first half of the phrase, and then I hit octaves in the second half, then it will kind of cover up the fact that this is a lame chord progression. No, no, no! I want this. I want the dappled sunlight to fall on my fabric and it just has to be good enough fabric so that it looks good, however the sunlight falls on it. Something like that.

MS: I want to dig further into the process of the headphone-driven performance and learn more about what is really happening in those headphones—the audio score, if you will—that is generating the performance you want. Can you pull the curtain back? I’m sure that there’s a lot of thinking that went on with why you’re even doing that in the first place.

JF: You want to understand the mechanics.

MS: Yes, but you can be philosophical too.

JF: What the performers are hearing is mostly spoken word and some singing, and a lot of the spoken word is taken from very expressive, emotional parts of old movies. Like Richard Burton bellowing.

Just to be clear, I have six different channels of headphone material, all independent. So they can be unison or not, and they can have conversations and such. But it’s completely, rigorously timed because they’re not separate tape decks that are running out of synch; they’re all coming from the same multi-track sound source. The synch is maintained, and the accompanying music is on two additional tracks for left and right playback over a PA system. So the musical accompaniment and all six headphone tracks are audio scores—or audio parts, you could say—sent out via a headphone feed to the performers.

My instruction to them is not to repeat immediately after the input, which would be a sensible thing to do, but my instruction is to talk along with the input, which is not sensible. It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. I’m asking them to be listening and talking at the same time, which kind of ruins their chances of hearing most of it, because they’re talking over it. But the headphones are fairly loud. They’re listening, they’re picking up stuff, and they’re vocalizing and catching stuff as they can, and as the headphone material repeats—and it repeats a lot—they get more of it and their proportion of gibberish to regular language gets more towards the regular language. I work with performers, one-on-one or in a group of two or three people, I demonstrate, I have them try this. It takes some understanding and most people don’t really believe until they try it that this really means doing this ridiculous thing of talking over. Now, sometimes your cue to start talking is the input itself. So obviously at that moment, the performer will enter late. I know that. That’s just the laws of physics. But I tell them, don’t think about that. You are there the whole time; just imagine that and keep on jumping ahead to the present moment. Try this for about a minute, and then you’ll kind of find a place where you can just go.

Headphone Driven Performance (demo)

Practice track for two performers (stereo)

One thing I say to them is you are doing this with utter confidence, believing that you’re absolutely getting it. That input, as you are saying it to yourself, is you. You are that accurate and you have that much confidence. At the same time, I’m not saying just pretend everything’s perfect because I told you to. I want the performers to really be trying. It takes effort. It takes a lot of concentration. You’re tuned into what’s happening. You’re picking up stuff, so you’re keeping these two things going. You’re working, but you also are constantly outputting with complete gusto. This kind of conversation over a couple of hours of demonstrating gets good performers in a place where I need them to be to do this, and so it comes out this sort of proto-language—half gibberish, half non-gibberish.

This evolved from a party game with these performance artists that I was collaborating with, and they called this party game the Nancy Sinatra game, because they were using a cassette tape of Nancy Sinatra’s greatest hits. I kind of took the idea for my own compositions and started making my own source tapes with the musical accompaniment. That covers a lot of it, doesn’t it?

MS: That does cover a lot of it, and it leads me very neatly to my next question, because even before knowing that bit of backstory, I was already struck by how big a role the aspect of game play or a puzzle to solve in the moment figures into both in the headphone-driven performance and RADIO WONDERLAND. Because you have a structure and there are rules, but then you’re getting things that are chance-y that are being thrown into the mix, and then you’re having to do something with that for an audience.

JF: The game is how I handle the input. That makes it exciting for me. One thing I sometimes say is that I feel like I come from a planet where it’s not live music unless it’s completely unexpected. If it comes from a score and you’ve rehearsed it, what’s that? You can’t do that. That’s just cheating. That’s not anything. Where we come from, live is where you deal with life as it comes, or something like that.

I feel like I come from a planet where it’s not live music unless it’s completely unexpected. If it comes from a score and you’ve rehearsed it? That’s just cheating.

I don’t actually come from that planet, but this sort of thing is compelling to me. It is such a great discipline, and it also puts the emphasis on things that I think should be emphasized. In this case, when it comes to RADIO WONDERLAND, it’s the process. It’s the juxtaposition. It’s what I do with it, as opposed to choosing the perfect sample—which would be, I think, just an awful way for me to compose. I’m kind of a perfectionist. So, given that, what would I do? I’d go over what’s in the commercial media and decide what’s best to dismantle because it’s sonically good, but more importantly, the content is what I think is just the thing that needs to be interrogated and subverted. I’m exhausted just thinking about that. I don’t want that. It’s not a good compositional challenge for me. It might be sort of a moneymaker, if I can grab something that’s so telling and it’s so hysterically funny. Then maybe I have to bargain to get the rights to it. Then I cut it up, and I make it into a dance track that could be fun and maybe get a lot of attention, but that’s so not the discipline that I want. To me, if I can develop the algorithms and train myself as a performer to deal with it as it comes in, those are good musical processes. That’s good performance training. It’s going to be a good performance.

It’s amazing how well things fit together, how the synchronicity seems to come up again and again. I remember one time when Will Smith, the movie star, was in the headlines a lot. I got the name Will Smith off the radio, and someone said to me, “Unbelievable! How did you get that? It’s so amazing that you got that because he’s iconic, and it’s such a coup.” Well, but that’s how this thing works because the stuff that’s the most popular comes up the most. And I love that. I find I’ve really learned a lesson that you can take two different pop songs from two different times—let’s say a commercial or a station ID and a pop song—cut them up, try to juxtapose them tonally, and your odds are better than even that they will somehow work.

Inside Fried's home studio

Inside Fried’s home studio

Now maybe I’ve had this sort of brilliance at improvising and choosing things that I don’t give myself credit for, but I think a big part of it is that there’s more sense in the stuff that we would grab by chance than we ever imagined. When I first made RADIO WONDERLAND, I made sure that there would be a means to take any of the individual bits and suck away the pitch—the De-Pitcher, I called it. Turns out what I used was ring modulation. Boom! Computationally, it’s incredibly cheap and easy, but I found after a while—it took me a long time to even believe it—I almost never have to use it! The pop song that I get 15 minutes after I grab the other pop song is gonna work. Or I can transpose with the wheel, so I have these five different bits from a pop song or a commercial from 15 minutes ago. Here’s a new slab of audio. I take a couple of different bits, juxtapose them, they’re in rhythm and maybe two thirds of the time I need to transpose with the wheel. And that’s it. I never suspected it would be that easy. I was kind of terrified. I figured you take two random songs, even if they’re both based on A-440, then we have like 24 different choices of different modes and stuff, different keys. They’re not going to match. They’re going to be badly dissonant in that way that’s just not fun musically, especially when I’m trying to be funky and groovy and melodic in a more-or-less conventional sense. It’s just not going to work out, and I’m going to need the De-Pitcher. I’m going to have to transpose like mad, that’s just how it is. That’s going to be part of the game of RADIO WONDERLAND. And it turns out that it wasn’t. It just tends to work.

MS: Does this process ever feel like it “fails”? Or maybe just that you couldn’t easily see how you were going to make it work in a way that was going to satisfy you and you had to sweat through that on stage? It sounds like that hasn’t happened.

JF: Oh, it happens and of course I blame myself. To the extent that I take credit when it works well, I also blame myself when I think it isn’t funky. I’m highly self-critical and I also have this absurd metric where I want it to be as danceable as my favorite dance track, even though that was worked over in a studio for three weeks and I have five minutes in front of people. I do have to scramble, and a lot of it has to do with timing. It’s also a question of how well I can hear, because it’s a most unforgiving set up in terms of monitoring.

If you’re in a rock band, or even if you’re playing from a score in a formal concert setting, you know your instrument is tuned. You know where the underlying beat is. You know what the conductor’s doing. You know where your hands are. You’re okay, even if you can’t hear that great. In a rock band, things are loud and chaotic, but your guitar has frets and you have your tuner. You feel the kick drum. You’re good to go. But with me, I don’t know what my instrument is until I’m on stage with it. I’m taking a piece of radio, usually around one second, and I cut it into eight bits and deploy them. I need to get a sense of how they differ from each other and what they sound like, and then decide how I want to further deploy them and transpose them. I have to hear them really well. I can’t decide that since my finger’s on the right fret and I know my telecaster and it’s in tune, that I’m okay. I’m kind of sunk. So it really depends on them.

MS: Why is the dancing so core to you?

JF: It’s a metric that I can believe in, and it’s so great to have that metric as a composer. I almost feel a little embarrassed because it’s so basic. A lot of my favorite music has never been assessed on the basis of whether or not people dance, and it’s successful on the basis of much more subtle things, but I’m in this situation.

But in addition to that metric, I love dancing. I sometimes find myself bopping my head in music concerts when it’s not really thought of as head-bopping music, but I’m hearing a pulse. Okay, maybe in that situation, maybe you could argue that I’m missing something. But there are many cases where I feel like no, I’m not. I am moved and I’m moving, and I’m immersed and involved. And I just love it.

And when the emotion isn’t completely positive, when it’s not just catharsis or love, when it’s sad, angry, difficult, and it’s danceable, oh that’s so powerful. It’s dark, but there’s this cathartic dancing. It can work so, so well. And I go out dancing; I’m still going to clubs. I feel a connection to that culture or cultures. I am also looking forward to going back to other stuff. There are areas I want to go with it that aren’t quite so dance-y, but the initial concept is so focused on that, mostly because of this idea of a metric.

And what a great guide it is. Because otherwise, if I was going to do a sound collage with radio and sophisticated algorithms, it doesn’t matter where you go with it. To put RADIO WONDERLAND through this almost absurd metric of having to be done in real time, without choice of material, and have it be danceable, to sort of make it through to the other side gives me these incredibly powerful tools, software which I intend to finally further develop now that I have the album out. I think I’ll be able to do longer-scale things and different time scales. It won’t be as much about dancing, which is a little bit like the dance music artists that branch out.

I kind of imagine that trajectory. This first album is basically a bunch of dance tracks with kind of a slower one at the end, but even the slower one at the end has this boom-boom bass drum. I like that trajectory, not because it matches to some sort of commercial flight pattern, but artistically, that discipline and those rules are putting me in a great position for the next step.

It’s a little bit like my performance technology which, believe it or not, does not allow me to loop anything that I have just played. It allows me to loop what was just on the radio, but when I process the radio with the shoe or the wheel, that doesn’t loop. It’s crazy if you think of the current state of Ableton Live and live processing technology, which is all about the live looping. You’re a soloist with your instrument and a bunch of pedals and software. You play your thing, you loop your thing, you play over the thing you looped. I don’t do that with RADIO WONDERLAND. If I’m not hitting the shoe, that sound doesn’t come out, and it has been such a discipline over the past few years to perform that way.

Now I’m ready to revise my software and say okay I’m going to include the ability to retain that pattern. When I transpose on the wheel, I’ll make a riff, and here’s this piece of radio, it’s deployed over one bar. It’s got some nice syncopation, but it’s all taken from one second of radio. Then I transpose it with the wheel, so all of sudden we have a four-bar phrase, and it’s fun, it’s tonal, and there’s something cool about the transition because it’s transposing a whole chord, which is a little bit like classic house music where there’s a sample and the musician just has one finger on the keyboard and they’re transposing the sample of that. That’s part of the house music sound that I really like. I do that with the wheel, right now, but if I have that four-bar pattern, it stops being a four-bar pattern when I turn away from the wheel and go back to the shoes, or what have you. But it’s been I think a more interesting, at least for now, that I got to this point without these various crutches or enhancements.

Fried's software

MS: So you’ve mentioned a few times since we’ve started the milestone position this record has in your mind. Let’s talk about the fact you have a new record out.

JF: That’s right.

MS: Congratulations!

JF: Thank you very much.

MS: Why did this record become so important for you? Every bit of the philosophy you’re underlining here is how exciting it is that it’s live. It’s live radio. You’re doing all the processing live. Why the hell did you want to make a record?

JF: You know, it’s funny, the turntablist Maria Chavez has talked about how she does not release recordings. And boy, I respect that. I’m a good candidate for not releasing recordings, but I wanted to. For one thing, and I’m glad you reminded me of this, one of the motivations of RADIO WONDERLAND was to become prolific because my process became slower and slower. I had this thing that became Headset Sextet. I finished it—or so I thought—in ’94, and then about three days before the opening night at La MaMa, I realized no, this is too good not to make it right. So I renamed it Work In Progress, and then I spent about another five years revising it, but the time scale is indefensible. It’s just absurd, but I’m proud I finally finished it.

But with RADIO WONDERLAND, I thought okay, let this be a ticket to being prolific. The album is part of that process. Can I be prolific in that I generate this new material and can have it out on recordings, which do this great job of representing you when you’re not there playing it? I never had a full album out, which seems crazy because in the ‘80s I had a record deal on a major label. I worked on remixes for famous recording artists. I work with recording technology, and yet I didn’t have my own album.

So the emotional stakes became kind of high, and it’s too bad because I’m older now, and maybe I’m less resilient as far as the sheer emotional strain of getting it all done. Part of the test of RADIO WONDERLAND is: Are these algorithms, or the algorithms plus me manipulating them, are they so robust that this can be a dance groove even without the loud PA and me up there in the excitement and electricity of live radio? I love that electricity. I live for it, and it is still fundamentally a live show. But I wanted to put it to that test.

Given that I wanted this album to sound good to my ears, I knew there was going to be some post-production. Well, how much? That is something I had to answer by doing it. One thing I’m happy about—and this had a lot to do with my co-producer Marcelo Anez—is that each track really is taken from a single concert without any non-radio overdubs. Some of it is highly processed—more processed by a long shot than anything I was able to do on stage. But a lot of this extra processing I can do on stage in the future. So it’s somewhat of a prospectus for new projects.

seize the means cover

Listen/Buy via Clang/iTunes/Spotify. Also available on vinyl or USB drive. No CDs!

MS: What about that fact that you’re going back and revisiting the work for this, because you’ve avoided that in the live version quite explicitly. It was all about the new, the first brush, and now you’re going back and not just looking at them once, but looking at them many times as you crafted them into an album.

JF: Well, I did resist that. I did a sort of test album—it was just three songs—a few years ago, where I chose three different concerts that I edited, not very carefully. I have hundreds of concert recordings, so isn’t it the perfect test of RADIO WONDERLAND to pick concerts at random and see how well they work as recordings? That was really dumb. What I want to do is choose the best concerts, and for me, a lot of that was the best grooves. It makes it a heck of a lot easier to go through hundreds of hours of concerts when you’re looking for good grooves, as opposed to simply looking for the best music. In order to favorably represent RADIO WONDERLAND, I realized what I had to do was listen more and edit less. So I went through and listened and listened and listened, and chose the best shows, the ones which needed the least amount of editing. And that felt fine. I’m very focused on live and real time and all the ephemeral stuff that we talked about, but I also like to geek out in a studio. I’ve long used recording technology and I love making records. This was a good reason to go and get into that headspace.

Some of the issues that I had to address on the album were almost purely technical having to do with the low end, and I can address that with the next iteration of the software, and that’s a really exciting prospect. So maybe instead of working on a track for three weeks before it’s really ready for a final mix, I can work on a track for a day before it’s ready for a final mix. My fantasy is that I will be able to put out as a live recording whatever I did that night without any post-production.

MS: But weren’t you distilling to a larger degree, because these tracks are like seven minutes, and it does seem like there’s a ritual to RADIO WONDERLAND performance. I don’t know if they’re always 30 minutes, but it has that kind of scope. And then you’re condensing it in some way.

JF: Oh, absolutely. Part of the process is to distill a 30-minute concert into a four- to eight-minute album track and not to pretend that they’re mini RADIO WONDERLAND concerts. The idea is to take a half hour to create a great groove, and that’s going to create a monster five-minute radio mix and twelve-minute remix of a dance track. It is perhaps an easy adjunct to the RADIO WONDERLAND concert format, but that is the needle I seem to be trying to thread. And it’s worked out okay. But you’re absolutely right. That’s a crucial part of it. Yes, I’m condensing them.

Oh, you brought that up because I was talking about releasing a live concert as is. Yeah, that would have to be a different thing. But that’s not what the album was. The album was to see, if I throw you right into the middle of the groove, is this going to make sense without the construction of the groove and without me jumping around and spinning wheels and stuff?

Fried's desk

Andy Costello: The Power of the Unexpected

Andy Costello

As regular readers of NewMusicBox know well, there’s something special about the stories told by musicians. Whether they’re reminiscing about family history, sharing the memory of meeting a favorite collaborator, or revealing the impetus behind an important piece, artists offer unique and compelling insights into their lives and the work they create—and often the broader world at large.

New Music USA was proud to present NewMusicBox LIVE!, a special program that featured three very different artists and the work of this site, during the Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago (October 8, 2016). Shulamit Ran, Nicole Mitchell, and Andy Costello each took the stage and, using both their words and their music, pulled back the curtain just a little bit further on the motivations and inspirations that fuel their creative lives.

We’ll be posting all three presentations for you to view this month on NewMusicBox. Here we begin, as we did in Chicago, with Andy Costello’s playful exploration of communication and the power of the unexpected in performance. Utilizing short pieces drawn from multiple authors, Costello follows a throughline built around “masking the mode of your communication. Music is about that a lot of the time. We use words to speak to one another and we use music to communicate on a different level in a different way, so this is something I’m exploring in my work.”

Since May of 1999 when the site first launched, NewMusicBox has profiled hundreds of amazing music makers. It’s been very important to us that artists have a platform to speak for themselves, and they have told us some unforgettable stories. Some of them have had some particularly vibrant memories of Chicago, and we also shared just a few highlights with our gathered Ear Taxi audience in October. Check it out below.

Corigliano, Who Set Dylan Text, Reflects on Songwriter’s Nobel Lit Win

A great deal of reporting and online chatter flooded in behind this morning’s announcement of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win in literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But could the text be separated from the music? Was this choice brilliant? Was this choice a publicity stunt?

Beyond the mainstream commentary and think pieces bound to follow, John Corigliano is in a unique position to reflect on Dylan’s text for a new music audience, as he set the songwriter’s work in 2000 to create the song cycle Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. We asked him about the literary merits and character of Dylan’s text, from his perspective as someone who worked with this material at such a granular level.

When I wrote my seven-song cycle Mr. Tambourine Man, I had not heard the music to Bob Dylan’s songs; but I had purchased a large book of his lyrics and, on first reading, immediately recognized them for the poetry they are. These lyrics can evoke a Whitman-like grandeur, as in “Chimes of Freedom;” etch an Agee-like portrait of small town life, as in “Clothes Line,” or declaim a terrifying indictment of militarism (“Masters of War”). I can see why the Nobel committee awarded him the prize for literature.

The POTUS concurs:

Made in Chicago: Original Sound, Original Voice

This Wednesday, Chicago kicks off the Ear Taxi Festival, a 6-day, 88-composer, 350-performer, 54-world premiere celebration of the city’s new music community spearheaded by Augusta Read Thomas. The event will include concerts, lectures, webcasts, and artist receptions—plus a special edition of NewMusicBox LIVE, which will highlight stories and music from Andy Costello, Nicole Mitchell, and Shulamit Ran. (If you’re in town, we hope to see you on October 8 at 5 p.m. in the Harris Theater.)

Inspired by this concentration of activity, here at NewMusicBox we’ll be devoting the week to an examination of the creative energy that fires Chicago from a variety of angles. We will reflect back with Patricia Morehead, consider aesthetics with Michael Lewanski, and examine culture past and present with Seth Boustead. To further showcase the spirit of the community Ear Taxi is organized to celebrate, we’ve asked for short posts from a diverse roster of local creators to highlight the stand out (but quite possibly under-the-radar) aspects of the scene—to pull back the curtain on Chicago for those in the know about new music but maybe a stranger to the city.

But to get things rolling, we’re going to start with an essay by our very own Frank J. Oteri penned for the festival’s program book, but do check back for more as we explore what makes Chicago an inspiring place to create.

INDEX:

Why the 21st Century is the Most Exciting Time for Music

Chicago New Music as Assemblage; or, Why Are We Doing This?

Uniquely Together: The Chicago Paradox

Great Moments (for me) in Chicago New Music History

Chicago: What Makes It Great

Better Know a Composer: Disambiguation Edition

composer disambiguation

If you’ve ever quickly skimmed a concert program and wondered when Kim Kardashian learned to play the viola, you’re in the right place! Kim Kashkashian’s 2013 Grammy win may have confused the mainstream media and the reality star’s fan base, but even here in the infield we could use a bit of disambiguation after a glass of reception wine. Let’s make a cheat sheet, shall we?

Hahn Rowe vs. Huang Ruo

Hahn Rowe vs Huang Ruo

(l to r): Hahn Rowe and Huang Ruo

Hahn Rowe is a composer, producer, and violinist/guitarist working at the borders of rock, electronic music, improvisation, and new music. He has collaborated extensively with choreographers such as Meg Stuart and Benoît Lachambre, with musicians such as Glenn Branca, Ikue Mori, and David Byrne, as well as composed scores for television and film. He is of Korean descent.

Huang Ruo mixes Chinese folk, Western avant-garde, rock, and jazz influences in his work using a compositional technique he calls “dimensionalism.” His catalog includes music for orchestra, chamber music, opera, theater, and modern dance, as well as sound installation, multi-media, experimental improvisation, folk rock, and film.  He was born in China.

Jefferson Friedman vs. Jason Freeman vs. Joshua Fried

Jefferson Friendman vs. Jason Freeman vs. Joshua Fried

(l to r): Joshua Fried (Photo by Paul Jendrasiak/grnow.com); Jefferson Friedman; Jason Freeman

Joshua Fried performs solo live sound processing by drumming on old shoes and manipulating a vintage Buick steering wheel under the moniker RADIO WONDERLAND. His music turns bits of live commercial FM radio into remixed dance grooves, a.k.a. “recombinant funk.” If you don’t remember him from the steering wheel, you might recall his work with They Might Be Giants.

Jefferson Friedman‘s myriad works for soloists, chamber ensembles, and orchestras have been performed across the country, from the Hollywood Bowl to the Kennedy Center. The Chiara String Quartet and Leonard Slatkin/National Symphony Orchestra have commissioned him multiple times. If you haven’t heard his music in the concert hall, you may have heard his work with Shudder To Think or Matmos.

Jason Freeman uses technology to create collaborative musical experiences in live concert performances and in online musical environments, utilizing his research in mobile music, dynamic music notation, and networked music to develop new interfaces for collaborative creativity. You might remember his project “Shakespeare Cuisinart.”

Larry Polansky vs. Paul Lansky

Larry Polansky vs. Paul Lansky

(l to r): Larry Polansky and Paul Lansky

A pioneering music software developer (his work in the development of Hierarchical Music Specification Language eventually led to Max/MSP and SuperCollider), Larry Polansky is also a composer, theorist, teacher, writer, performer, editor, and publisher. He currently teaches at UC Santa Cruz and is the Emeritus Strauss Professor of Music at Dartmouth College. He is also co-director and co-founder of Frog Peak Music and the founding editor of Leonardo Music Journal.

A pioneering figure in the field of computer music (he also authored Cmix), Paul Lansky has in recent years turned his ear toward more instrumental composition for groups such as Sō Percussion and the Alabama Symphony. He spent 45 years on faculty at Princeton University, where he is now William Shubael Conant Professor of Music Emeritus. Radiohead’s Kid A quotes his very first computer piece, mild und leise.

Delta David Gier vs. David Alan Miller vs. David Alan Grier

Delta David Gier vs. David Alan Miller vs. David Alan Grier

(l to r): Delta David Gier, David Alan Grier, David Alan Miller

This one is even trickier!

Delta David Gier is a conductor and passionate advocate for new American orchestral music. He has been the music director of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra since 2004.

David Alan Miller is a conductor and passionate advocate for new American orchestral music. He has been the music director of the Albany Symphony since 1992.

David Alan Grier is an American actor and comedian. We do not know his feelings about new American orchestral music.

John Coolidge Adams vs. John Luther Adams

John Coolidge Adams vs. John Luther Adams

(l to r): JCA (Photo by Christine Alicin), JLA (Photo by Molly Sheridan)

Okay, so no one is likely to confuse these guys in the concert hall, but when in doubt, look for the hat!

Summer Rewind: 10 Posts To Read Again

bullhorn

What have the most read, shared, and discussed posts been on NewMusicBox over the past few years? It’s an inspiring list reflecting how passionate the field is when it comes to discussing everything from race, age, and gender diversity to industry concerns surrounding vital tools of the trade. The following ten articles, spanning the past five years, are all worth another read while considering where we stand on these issues in 2016.


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1. NOTATIONAL ALTERNATIVES: BEYOND FINALE AND SIBELIUS

Sexes

2. THE POWER LIST: WHY WOMEN AREN’T EQUALS IN NEW MUSIC LEADERSHIP AND INNOVATION

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3. CHICAGO: THE DEAFENING SILENCE OF THE BEETHOVEN FESTIVAL MUSICIANS

Seamless boys chorus

4. CON VIBRATO MA NON TROPPO: RETHINKING SOPRANOS

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5. WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THE RECORD INDUSTRY?

Rieder Münster

6. FOUND: THREE EXAMPLES OF 21ST-CENTURY MUSIC

sheet music

7. TO UPGRADE OR NOT TO UPGRADE? A NOTATION SOFTWARE UPDATE

Hildegard-600

8. THE ‘WOMAN COMPOSER’ IS DEAD

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9. AGEISM IN COMPOSER OPPORTUNITIES

RedKey-600

10. MY BILL EVANS PROBLEM–JADED VISIONS OF JAZZ AND RACE

Celebrating John Duffy with Music and Memories

John Duffy Celebration

“What we did was very radical,” Frances Richard told the crowd gathered to honor the life and legacy of composer, advocate, and Meet The Composer founder John Duffy. “Sitting here so calmly all these years later, I don’t know if you realize it. The idea was to pay composers. Whoever heard of such a thing?”

The audience erupted into applause and laugher, as they had throughout the evening of music and remembrances which also included remarks shared by John Corigliano, Robert Cross, Tania León, Annette Duffy Odell, and Steve Reich. There were also performances by Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Sherry, Miranda Cuckson with Aaron Wunsch, and the Cassatt String Quartet with Glenn Morrissette and Tomoya Aomori. For those who missed the May 3, 2016 event at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn, full clips are available below.

Songs by David Lang and J. Ralph Denied Oscar Performance

David Lang and J. Ralph
David Lang and J. Ralph

J. Ralph and David Lang (Lang photo by Peter Serling)

Updated Friday, February 26 at 10:15 AM

If you plan to tune in to the Oscar telecast on February 28, you will only hear three of the five nominees in the “Best Original Song” category performed during the broadcast. Contributions penned by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang as well as two-time Academy Award nominee J. Ralph (with lyrics by ANOHNI) will not be included in the lineup, Variety has reported:

The Oscar-nominated songs “Manta Ray,” from the documentary “Racing Extinction,” and “Simple Song #3,” from Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth,” will not be performed on the 88th Academy Awards, Variety has learned. The reason, according to a source: “time constraints.”

During a year in which the Oscars have received strong criticism for their lack of diversity, this seems an especially odd move–not only in terms of the music itself, but also when considering that it means the absence of Korean soprano Sumi Jo and transgender performer ANOHNI.

The music and lyrics for “Simple Song #3” were composed by David Lang. This is his first nomination. “Manta Ray” features music by J. Ralph and lyrics by ANOHNI (formerly Antony Hegarty). This is the first nomination for ANOHNI and the second for J. Ralph. He was previously nominated for Chasing Ice (2012).

Performers and composers representing all five of the nominated songs did gather earlier this year for a photo shoot and lunch. A podcast was also taped and can be heard here.

 

 

Update: ANOHNI has announced  that she will boycott this year’s Academy Awards.

 

Daniel Wohl: The Seamless Ideal

Daniel Wohl

Composers often pick up nearly unshakable identifiers in the press that follow them like a tagline. For Daniel Wohl, that call-out has been praise for the remarkably seamless integration of the acoustic and electronic timbres that thread his compositions. It’s a talent that generated significant buzz after the 2013 release of his album Corps Exquis, and it’s a modifier that will likely only cling more tightly in the wake of his full-length follow-up Holographic.

Which is all well and good since it is remarkable. Wohl says that while some artists make use of placing these sounds in opposition, they’re all just sounds to his ear, without distinction. It’s a way of working that comes naturally and simply offers him an enhanced palette that he finds more engaging.

“I feel like a lot of things are born out of being dissatisfied with something,” Wohl acknowledges, further explaining that electronics make acoustic instrumentation more exciting to him, while instrumentalists add vital energy, especially in live performance situations. “And so why not [use all of them]? You can do all of that today, so it doesn’t make sense for me to have arbitrary distinctions between the two.”

In an age of boundary dismantling, this sounds entirely sensible, but the distinctions he makes between live and recorded performance is equally compelling. Taking the album version of Holographic as an example, several of the works were created independently for live performance. These and the other pieces included on the disc were later recorded by a range of (often their commissioning) ensembles—Iktus Percussion, Mivos Quartet, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Olga Bell and Caroline Shaw, and Mantra Percussion. (Lucky Dragons even pops up with a writing credit on the closing track.)

Holographic is an album and live performance co-commissioned by Baryshnikov Arts Center, MASS MoCA, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The album was released by New Amsterdam Records.

“When I’m writing commissioned works, I definitely think about the album as well,” Wohl admits. “I think the album is a great way to bring it all together,” allowing each work to have a longer and more polished life and to be heard by a much larger group of people. “For me that feels like a very comfortable place for what I’m doing because the studio becomes an instrument and you can really fine tune. I don’t always have the luxury of recording, but it’s great when it works and makes sense.”

The recording for Holographic wrapped last September, but the work was not yet finished. Wohl arranged the music to suit a touring ensemble (after stops in New York, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Minnesota, one show remains on February 27 in Los Angeles) consisting of percussion trio and string quartet, plus Wohl himself holding down the electronics. During a weeklong residency at MassMOCA in early January, Wohl further refined the performance with the live players and added the final essential element—a visual accompaniment special to the live presentation created by Daniel Schwarz.

While Wohl considers the album complete without the video work, he finds that the live performance is enhanced to the point that “I don’t think I would do it without the video.”

Even for the well initiated, laptops in performance can seem an enigma. Here, Wohl and Schwarz sit together within reach of the other performers on stage, Wohl’s MIDI designed to communicate with Schwarz’s visual software. In terms of content, the setups mirror each other in a sense—some of the material pre-rendered and some of it mixed live, allowing in-the-moment control over movement, shading, dynamics, and other effects.

It leaves Wohl the room to be involved enough in the performance to feel like he’s another performer on stage playing his part. “Definitely not as much as a violin,” he’s quick to point out, “but certainly I feel like I’m having an impact on the way the strings are reacting to the electronics.”

Still, why leave room for mistakes?

“I don’t really have a conceptual problem with someone who presses play, but I like to be entertained while I’m doing it so I leave as much as I can handle to the live process. But someone could probably handle more than I can, and other people just want to sit back and enjoy the performance themselves.”

On reflection, Wohl’s most distinctive skill may be his knack for balance even more than blending, the music swinging across a wide range of timbres that can carry a piece without slipping the noose of his control.

Born and raised in Paris (his father hailed from Los Angeles, if you’re wondering where his accent is hiding), then educated at Bard College, University of Michigan, and Yale, Wohl recently made the jump from New York to LA, for “no real good reason except that I wanted a little bit more space and better weather,” he jokes. But on a more serious note, he underlines that commonality of being moved around by the economics of being an artist—the seemingly straightforward yet complex equation involved in securing the time and space to create new work.

“People ask your reasons why you’re making things, and sometimes you have some and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it’s really simply, ‘I’m making something,’ and your intuitive, creative approach is all it’s about.”

It’s something that makes him self-conscious at times, but he suggests that perhaps artists are simply searching for some sort of ideal. “Sometimes we get close to it and sometimes we fall short, but we’re all looking for this idealized version of what this music could be.”

Part of that ideal for Wohl is in that mix of acoustic and electronic sounds, which he feels reflects a broader cultural conversation. “We’re looking for something that’s interfacing with technology but just stays human—doesn’t lose the flaws and what makes us interesting.

“That’s an ideal we’re looking for in our computers, but also in the music we’re making.”

Kate Soper: Real Communication

Armed with a serious supply of Post-it notes, Kate Soper is working her way through Aristotle’s Metaphysics—not for the first time—with the aim of turning selections drawn from the classic into chamber music. It’s an exercise familiar to this composer/performer, who has made the setting of challenging or ambiguous text, spanning ancient philosophy to contemporary poetry, something of a calling card.

The space to study new ideas outside her area of expertise is one of the things she loves most about being a musician working in this way. “It gives you an excuse to deeply investigate anything,” Soper explains. “I’m always just trying to read and keep my mind and eyes open for something that I really want to explore further, and then I get to do that because I’m a composer.”

That commitment to open-minded study has led to the creation of illuminating works such as Voices from the Killing Jar, a song cycle inspired by fictional characters that resonated with Soper, and the theatrical work Here Be Sirens, which mixes original text penned by the composer and a range of other sources to explore the very human story of these mythological creatures.

Most recently, Soper has begun collating works that were originally created independently along with new settings under the heading of Ipsa Dixit (“she, herself, said it…”). The six-movement piece, of which Metaphysics will eventually be a part, plays explicitly with ideas about language. While the use of words in a piece of music adds a layer of meaning, that may not necessarily translate into clarity of communication and Soper is fascinated by that ambiguity—”the complexities of language and meaning and vocalizing and speech and how we can connect those, the interesting ways we can play with those intersections.”

Extended techniques in her vocal and instrumental writing, as well as integrated choreography and other dramatic elements, further work to memorably illuminate these ideas. But they can also push a musician beyond her comfort zone, which Soper sees as just par for the course as a performing artist. She recalls coming face to face with this reality in her late 20s. “I was feeling the need to follow this instinct to communicate and realizing that the risk was essentially that I was going to embarrass myself. I had to let go of that fear and take that risk or it wasn’t worth continuing to do what I was doing, which is writing music.”

Even with her anxieties set aside, she acknowledges that the conversation she can have with an audience is quite different from one-on-one communication. Still, she strives to foster meaningful shared human activity between herself and the people in the hall through her work, a connection that can feel quite direct due to her position as a vocalist using words and not standing behind an external instrument.

There’s also a compelling logistical advantage to writing work she can perform herself. Though she’s excited to have other artists present her pieces, she finds great benefit to writing for her own instrument and being able to monitor how things are going as the piece develops in rehearsal and performance firsthand.

Plus, as a composer, it’s a good way to push the performer into new territory with confidence. “I will do anything as a performer that I as a composer ask me to do.”