Dan Trueman: Man Out of Time
What could a Hardanger fiddle player and a computer programmer possibly have in common? For Dan Trueman, an expert in both areas, it’s all just technology. And whether the eventual expression of his ideas requires old instruments or the invention of new ones, he is more concerned that the tools employed offer musicians the most engaging musical experience possible.
Trueman’s office on the campus of Princeton University
November 4, 2013—2 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation and text condensed and edited by Molly Sheridan
I readily confess that I lifted the title for this piece directly from a poetic description of Dan Trueman that appeared in Electronic Musician just a few weeks before I interviewed the composer myself. “Trueman is a man out of time,” noted Ken Micallef, “one foot in tomorrow’s software, the other in yesterday’s folk music.”
I scribbled this seeming contradiction across the top of my notes, but quickly began to wonder if these musical worlds were so very far apart after all. Trueman’s beloved Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, after all, is its own kind of remarkable technology. And the work he does with programming, particularly when building his own invented instruments or working with the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), often takes metal, plastic, and code into areas of incredibly organic and tactile creation. That they implied to me a type of contradiction felt narrow minded on reflection. If there is any line to cross, Trueman certainly doesn’t trip on it.
What he does notice are some other tensions, which then influence his work from project to project. Coming from a family of musicians who regularly played chamber music together, Trueman is extremely conscious of how much we privilege professional performance over communal music making. As a result, he works to make sure those playing his music—whether on stage or in the classroom together—feel a meaningful engagement with the notes and instruments in their hands. He’s much less concerned with the preservation of his catalog for posterity and instead focused on making sure that the new technologies he develops for it function correctly from year to year so that he can keep building and developing creatively. When time concerns him at all, it’s not in how the past meets the present, but in how a human sense of rhythm meets a metronome’s tick.
His innate intellectual curiosity keeps him exploring topics within music and beyond, but whether the eventual expression of his ideas requires old instruments or the invention of new ones, at its root is something basic and strong.
“I guess what I’m saying is that I always feel like I have to make sure I’m coming back to playing music with my body and with other people, and trying to keep myself honest about how I think I understand things,” Trueman acknowledges at one point in our conversation. Later, he hits this same lesson from a slightly different angle. “It’s funny how we get these inherited bits of wisdom about what it means to write music. In the end, we all have to find our own way.”
Molly Sheridan: On your website there’s a neat juxtaposition that crops up among resume bullet points where your work with the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America butts right up against other work produced for the Computer Music Journal. Anyone familiar with your career knows you are certainly not just dabbling on either side of this aisle, and ultimately it’s all just technology in a way, but I think there are still clear dividing lines for most people. Have you always just been pulling things that interested you into your toolbox or were these separate strands that eventually braided themselves together?
Dan Trueman: What you say about them both being technologies is totally true and has been something that I argue all the time. It’s really not that different. That said, I actually think that the reason I have done both over the years is that I just like them both. I’ve played the fiddle forever; my fiddles hang on the wall, always waiting to be played. So if what I’m doing is not as interesting as playing the fiddle, then I usually go play. But with the newer technologies, I like something about the process of programming, in particular. I actually like programming—writing lines of code and having it work. It’s very satisfying. It’s funny: composing is hard and it’s hard to get a sense of closure writing a piece of music. When I finish a piece of music, there’s still a sense of things to work on and trying to come to terms with what it all means. Writing code, you just write it, and it works or it doesn’t. I like that. You take the fiddle and try to imagine things you could do with it that you can’t really do right now. For example, I play in a lot of different tunings, but once you’re in one you’re sort of stuck. I remember years ago wishing that the strings could be retuned on the fly, so that while I was playing, I could go to a different scordatura. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could hit a pedal or something and then it would just change? I suppose you could do that mechanically, but building instruments in the digital realm allows you to try things like that. So in a way I’m inspired by the limitations of these real physical things, but trying to come up with new ways of just being musical.
MS: In a way, is it fair to say that straddling this roof point, this man and machine, acoustic and electronic, often encapsulates what your music is “about” or at least hints at some of its creative impulse?
DT: A lot of times I think that’s true. Certainly in this So Percussion piece [neither Anvil nor Pulley], I was specifically interested in exploring this space between moving and training as musicians do, and seeing what machines can do, and putting them against one another. I also embrace certain elements of computer stuff that I think are native to it and are sometimes avoided. For instance, the glitchy stuff which now is sort of common in a lot of music—for a long time, we always avoided things like that. But I like things that are native to the electronic or the digital realm, and I like to foreground those and pit them against more carbon-based things. Paul Lansky always used categories—I think it comes from Star Trek, actually—like “this is carbon-based music” and “this is silicon-based music.” There are identifiable features of both, which I like to have present all together at once. I don’t feel like it needs to be one or the other. But even more to the point of your question, I really like to see how new instruments that we might build engage with how we like to make music. So you take, for instance, So Percussion—these people who have years and years of experience playing in a certain way, with very virtuoso approaches to engaging with rhythm and time. Then you find that it really doesn’t even line up with how we represent time on paper or with a metronome or on a piece of software. To see what happens when we push those against each other is definitely something that’s really been at the center of my work for the last seven or eight years.
MS: I was wondering about that issue of notation, because both from your folk side and also the technology side, it seems like there must be a certain tension between what’s in your ear and what’s on the page.
DT: Yeah, and the fiddle music is particularly interesting in that regard. Actually, some of it relates to the very specific fiddle music that I play. For years, I’ve been playing this Norwegian fiddle—the Hardanger fiddle—and a particular kind of dance music from a part of Norway called Telemark. Any type of musician or music lover who isn’t familiar with that music is always scratching their head because you can’t count it the way we know how to count. You have to feel it in your body in a certain way. Swing may be the closest thing that we all know about in terms of it not really being quantifiable in a clear way. But in the case of this Norwegian dance music, it’s that times ten. So to represent it on a page is really difficult. And if you forget that it’s just a really rough approximation, and you start doing what the page tells you, you actually lose all the magic—this kind of warped sense of time that you get from this dance music.
So even apart from dealing with new technologies, just the issue of representing what’s happening when we’re making music with our bodies in a certain way, trying to represent that on a page with notation, is one challenge. Then when you think about building a new instrument, say with software, you always have to work with some kind of representation because computers are dumb. We need to tell them exactly what to do. So we write these lines of code, and they have to be totally explicit. In some ways, when you write a program, more than any other way it reflects the limitations of our understanding of how that music actually works. You write it down, and the computer does something exactly the way you told it—so it reflects how you understand that music—and you listen it and go, “Huh, that’s not really quite right.” I love that, and I find that really super interesting. I think we can sometimes get too comfortable with how we think we understand things. For instance, when we talk about meter and rhythm, we assume that we build everything up from small subdivisions. This is basically accepted wisdom, and that’s how we teach people. But if you do that, and you apply it to this Norwegian dance music, it’s just wrong. You actually do violence to that music. So there’s something that we think we understand, but it’s not lining up with this kind of music that we actually make.
I guess what I’m saying is that I always feel like I have to make sure I’m coming back to playing music with my body and with other people, and trying to keep myself honest about how I think I understand things—so that I don’t let my representation of things sort of swallow or overly constrain the thing that actually drew me to it in the first place.
MS: This discussion of time and perception leads nicely to my next question, which is how you ended up with such a fixation on messing with your metronome. Twisted references to this little timekeeper crop up in a number of your pieces. Did you have a traumatizing experience as a student or something? What happened with the metronome?!
DT: I had an amazing experience with a metronome! This was with a digital metronome back when I was in college studying violin. I love practicing with metronomes—there’s something almost spiritual about it—and there’s a practice that I can get into where I’ll set the metronome for a certain tempo, I’ll work on something, then I’ll increment it up a little bit, and then I’ll come back down. This experience that I had, I was playing these sixteenth notes with spiccato with the metronome and gradually increasing the tempo. And I was really trying to make my sixteenth notes as even as possible, so I was attending really closely to the details. As the tempo went up, I noticed at a certain point that every time I stopped playing, the metronome would speed up. I’m like, something’s wrong with this metronome. It would happen every time I would stop. Then I asked someone to come in and said, “What’s going on? Is there something weird going on? Have we entered the Twilight Zone with this metronome?” At the time, I hadn’t really thought about it very much, but of course it makes sense. As we attend to things, our sense of how time passes changes. So I literally slowed down my experience of time.
I’ve met a few other people who have had this same experience, you know. So I’m confident I’m not just weird here. But ever since then, I’ve just been really curious about the power of mechanical time: how we measure it, and how we represent it. Nowadays we think, well, the metronome is right. I need to practice and get very good. A lot of our contemporary music these days I think reflects that. We play with very regimented types of pulses and beats. I think it’s in part a reflection of our acceptance of the metronome and, more generally, the idea of calculated pulse that we get from sequencers and so on. So we write pulse-based music, and it doesn’t have the same kind of flow and rubato that, say, 19th-century music has, where they were very skeptical about the metronome. So yes, I had a semi-traumatic experience with a metronome.
MS: So you’re taking very precise machines, and then you’re interested, well, not in imprecision, but in non-perfection I guess.
DT: That’s right. I’m very much interested in the dirty, crunchy areas around this mechanical sense of time. If I may say, one of my favorite places in this piece that I wrote for So Percussion comes right at the interface between the first and second movements. The first movement is this sort of jaunty fiddle tune, and the So guys, they’re grooving it, feeling it the way fiddlers feel it, at 120 beats per minutes. Then the very last note, Eric hits this wood block that starts the metronome for the second movement, which is also 120 bpm. There’s this moment where it’s like, wow, they’re really playing at 120 bpm, but there’s a quality in the way this changes from this sort of, you know, it’s grooving, it’s tight, but it’s not this crrrk, crrrk, crrrk type of calculated pulse that we get from metronomes. There’s this twist that I feel every time we get to that moment where two ways of articulating that pulse come right up against each other.
MS: There does seem to be a remarkable naturalness between how you integrate acoustic and electronic instruments. Do you have a personal stash of rules or guidelines for how you go about doing that at this point?
DT: That’s a really great question. I make a lot of things, and then I play with them. I think my instincts have gotten better over the years, but I still feel like maybe instead of nine out of ten things that I make, that eight out of ten things that I make are really boring. I’ve gotten a little better at anticipating, but basically I’ll have an idea: Wouldn’t it be cool to do this? Wouldn’t it be cool to play with an instrument that can do this? And then most of the time, I’ll code it up in some way, or maybe it will involve some hardware, and I’ll make it and literally, within seconds often, say, “Aw, geez. That’s boring.” Or, “I really need it to be able to do this.” And then I’ll go back and code some more.
That was actually the thing about this So Percussion piece. The second movement, this 120 bpm movement, is the first one that I wrote. I spent about three months banging my head against the wall, trying to find the thing that I thought would work for this because I wanted something that really engaged their incredible musical training and something indigenous to the computer which was pushing against them. And that’s not an easy task, but still—three months in! This is terrible. Then finally, I built this one thing I wanted to try and it was maybe three days later that I came up for air because I started playing with it and—wow—this is so fun. I wish that I were better at predicting. Maybe if I were more analytical I could come up with some principles that I could write about, but I still pretty much follow my nose on these things. Basically, I’m aiming to make something that is physically engaging in some way and that’s going to be interesting for the player to do.
Actually this does get to a fairly big thing for me. Ninety percent of my musical life is spent by myself playing fiddle or maybe trying to hack through some Bach at the piano. You know, not performing. And my enjoyment of music really is primarily there [off stage]. I think we forget that sometimes. There’s such an emphasis on performance and making things that are always going to be presented that the role of the players and their experience can really get lost. They’re executing something, as opposed to engaging with something. So one of my first principles in designing these types of instruments is really, well, what’s this going to be like for the player—is this going to be super engaging in some way to play? Again, that comes back to my fiddles hanging on the wall. I can just pick one up and play some tunes, and that’s really great. So anything else that I do, I want it to be at least similarly engaging—making me feel like I’m actually, and with some urgency, involved in the music-making process. That’s hard, but I try to develop an instinct for making things that will accomplish that. Most of the time I miss, but occasionally, I get something that, wow, three days later I’m still doing this. So there must be something right here.
MS: Do you trace that pretty directly to the fact that you’re an active performer, so you’re especially sympathetic to those considerations?
DT: I suppose that may be true. I grew up playing music, but I came to composing fairly late. My older sister is a composer and so I thought, well, that’s what she does. I can’t possibly tread on her turf. So it really wasn’t until I was almost 22 that I started writing music. Being a fiddler, I always loved playing chamber music, and I actually mean in sort of the old-fashioned sense, sitting in somebody’s living room and making music together. I grew up sight-reading music with my parents. They built a harpsichord and a clavichord and so we had these instruments in the house. My older sister was a terrific musician and so she’d play piano or harpsichord, my parents would play recorders, and I’d play violin. So there was something about that—it was something that we’d do, not something that we were rehearsing to perform to impress people. That’s what makes me tick and that is so marginalized now. In the new music world and in the electronic music world, it’s like the presumption is that, well, we’re aiming for performance. And people don’t even talk about it! I hope I’m not saying something too obnoxious here, but I just feel like maybe we’ve sort of lost hope that music making is something that people do—a vital and continuing thing. But then, I hang out with these fiddlers. The fiddle world is this incredibly vibrant place, and they’re always putting on shows and performing, but I still think they live for being in somebody’s kitchen playing tunes together. That to me is the most incredible thing, and if I’m going to do this with new technologies, well, it better at least have a chance of succeeding there.
MS: I think this kind of musical engagement happens so often among musicians behind closed doors, maybe especially among players who don’t end up pursuing professional careers, but it’s not something we often talk about.
DT: And when we get to a certain level, the assumption is, well, we’re putting on performances. I feel like our performances would be better if this part of it were well tended to. I mean, I love putting on shows and rehearsing a piece and really trying to have it be as awesome as possible. But I also like when I hear fiddlers who get up and play tunes every day, and I’m just with them in their living room.
MS: It seems to me that this attitude was perhaps further ingrained through your somewhat unconventional string training, right? Your violin teacher early on seems to have had a rather long-term influence on your own sense of ambition and career and the deeper artistic goals you developed.
DT: Oh, boy. Yeah, so this is Irene Lawton back in Stony Brook, on Long Island where I grew up. I remember her telling me once, “You know, I don’t care if you become a professional musician. In fact, I’d rather you not become a professional musician. But if you play for five minutes a day, and you go for that sound, and you do that for the rest of your life, I’ll be very happy.” Which was kind of an incredible bottom line in a way because on the one hand, you say, I’m not trying to be a professional musician. But on the other hand, I’m trying to stay awake in a certain way. She was always talking about being awake to the moment. She also had this incredible way of undermining one’s ego. I had a very healthy ego when I started studying violin with her, and in really good ways I think she wanted to make sure that I was making music for music reasons, and not just because it fed my ego.
I think she actually did some damage to me as a performer in the sense that I became very insecure. I had to reinvent myself and start playing other kinds of music because the notion of standing up and demanding attention and impressing people—basically it was equivalent to feeding my ego. I’m actually very appreciative of that, but I still wrestle with it. It’s funny, these lessons that we get from an early age. They leave a mark. My wife is a guitarist and she teaches. She has students for eight, nine, ten years. I think for a lot of them, she makes an incredible mark on them. Whether they become professional musicians or not, just from my own memories and my own experiences, it’s amazing how long that lasts.
MS: Seriously. We like to hold up the fact that music lessons might improve a kid’s math scores, but there’s so much more beyond that in those intimate mentorship moments—deep life lesson that come out of that period and stick around.
DT: Totally. As my years went on with Irene Lawton, we had these long lessons and I’m not kidding you, we’d do yoga. This relates to everything we’ve just been talking about. She was very aware and interested in our bodies and the relationship of the body to the instrument. Doing some yoga to wake up your body before sitting down and doing this is really a natural thing with the violin. It’s really important. The next thing we would do would be sight-reading. We would sight-read duos. So again, it was this very in the moment, almost trying to survive type of thing. A little bit like improvisation, but from another angle. That was where the priority was.
The stuff with the body I’m still really interested in with new technologies—the music really lives in our bodies in certain ways. I think of particular fiddlers, for instance, and the way they do ornaments—two fiddlers in particular, Brittany Hass and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. Both of them have this beautiful way of making ornaments, and it’s in their hands in a way. You can write it down—you can analyze it however you want—but in some way, it’s about the whole thing and how it’s put together. I developed an appreciation for that from Irene Lawton early on, because she really was all about the bow arm, thinking about the sound you were conjuring from this instrument and how it related to your breath, your shoulders, the weight of your arm, the joints in your fingers, and so on. It was all tied together.
MS: So how did composing finally get on this palette of interests for you?
DT: I started composing little bits of things when I was 12 or 13. I remember having sheets of paper with big notes on it. Actually, maybe I was even younger than that. But like I said, my sister was a composer—super talented—and also writing lots of music very early on. I also had all of these inherited notions about what it means to be a composer. You have to play piano, of course. I took some piano, but I eventually quit because I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to play violin, and there are only so many hours in the day, so now I can’t be a composer. But I tried little things here and there. I was really active as a chamber musician in college, and in my last term at Carleton College in Minnesota I needed a couple of extra credits. So I took a composition class with the same composer that my sister had taken composition with, actually: Phillip Rhodes, a wonderful composer and incredible teacher.
I remember him, sort of a stern guy; I still call him Mr. Rhodes. After the first or second class he took me aside and said, “Well, I’m not sure you should be in here. You know, everybody else has got a lot more experience.” “Just give me a couple of weeks,” I said. “Let me try.” And so he let me stay in. It was a revelation. Just to give you an idea of where I was: I was 22, just learning how to compose. I brought him one of my many things that were 15-seconds long. I couldn’t get any further. So I brought this string quartet to him—absolute beginner stuff. Stuck at 15 seconds. He looks at it, and he’s got this furrowed brow, and he says after a few minutes, “Well, you know, Dan, you don’t have to have all the instruments play all the time.” Ohhh! So all of a sudden, I can write, you know, a minute of music. After that lesson, I went home and made a whole list of things like that—just a list of ideas to remember when you’re stuck. All of the sudden, the floodgates opened, and I started writing a lot of music.
I started getting over all these hang-ups. I remember one young composer saying, “Oh, well, every good piece of music should have all of its key elements in the opening moment.” I was very impressed by that for a while, to a debilitating extent. All my pieces had to have this. I realized eventually, of course, that’s not true. That is just baloney. It’s funny how we get these inherited bits of wisdom about what it means to write music. In the end, we all have to find our own way.
MS: Do you feel that you had a musical home then? Considering all your different interests, and then coming to composition late, you could have easily felt somewhat isolated in a sense, or deeply divided at least.
DT: Well, my whole family is musical. My parents are both amateurs, but both very accomplished. Then my sister, she’s one of these annoying people who can do anything. You hand her an instrument, she’d be able to figure it out and play well on it in short order—something I’ve never been able to do. So I was surrounded by it. My dad’s a physicist and my mom’s a painter, but they were building harpsichords. I mean, I thought that was normal. They were building harpsichords, and then I eventually inherited the task of tuning these instruments. So having music around all the time, but also having the notion that these things are things we can mess with. It all kind of makes sense to me now that I say it, because I feel like that’s sort of what I’m doing now. I’m getting under the hood, but also just wanting to make music all the time. And that was there from the beginning.
MS: You’re often an active participant in your pieces or, when you’re taking a slightly more traditional composer role, you are at least very close to the performers bringing the works to life. Has there been or will there ever be much music by Dan Trueman that does not include this particular type of intimacy?
DT: Yes. Well, maybe. We’ll see. I do find it most compelling to write for people whom I know or whom I feel like I’ve got some connection with. With So Percussion, I was so engaged by how they make music. And when I met them, I liked them as people, and so I knew I wanted to make music with them. So there’s that element of it. I remember Bill Frisell telling a story like this about meeting this pedal steel player at a party once. He didn’t know anything about him—didn’t even know what he played—and within ten minutes he said, “I know I’m going to play with this guy.” I was really impressed by that. I think it’s true. There are people you just want to make music with. The notion of me just making a score and sending it off, I don’t do it very much.
The other question is me being in it, and I’ve been wrestling with that for a long time. For many years, I mostly only did that, in part because I was making pieces where I would be playing either electric violin and laptop, or I’d be playing Hardanger fiddle. I was very adamant at times—I don’t care that this isn’t practical. I’m going to make these pieces because these are really interesting, idiosyncratic places that I want to go—so I know that these pieces are going to be really hard for anybody else to do. Maybe impossible, because they require a Hardanger fiddle—how many people have one of those?—or some weird software that, at least at the time, would have been sort of impossible to share with anybody. But I did it anyway, because I didn’t want to be governed by some lowest common denominator. I still feel that way.
There’s an accepted wisdom that we want to maximize the number of performances we get. We make things that as many people can do with as few complications as possible. That’s fine, but I feel like, wow, there are really some interesting musical places that we rule out by insisting on that. So I go down my little rabbit holes and make these things that only I can play, or that require six-string violin and sensors in the bow and some weird custom software, and sure, nobody else does them. They’re not even really necessarily a model for somebody for writing further pieces. Some of that bothers me now, but it changes from month to month. I have this sort of idealistic belief sometimes that if I make something, it may be really hard to do and personal and idiosyncratic, but if it’s really great, then at some point, somebody else is going to want to do it, and they’ll figure it out. NewMusicBox had this thing recently about software, in particular. And that’s related to this in a sense. How do you make things that you can share, that can at least be useable for another year, or five years, or ten? If you are in it yourself, you can tend to it. If you want other people to do it, then almost by definition you have to make things less adventurous.
So there’s a tension there between wanting things that can go far and stay around, and wanting to just simply go for it and see what it is that you can find in this weird place. Then there’s the other fact that I really like playing music. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve started to have experiences as the composer where I sit in the hall and actually enjoy myself. For many years, I basically hated that more than almost any other musical experience. Now, like when So Percussion plays my piece, I love being there. They’re just so great and it always turns into something that I can’t actually believe exists.
MS: Has that shift required you to make any of those composerly concessions you’ve mentioned?
DT: I’m just finishing some pieces now that Adam Sliwinski from So is playing. They are these pieces for what I’m calling prepared digital piano, and these actually go at this whole thing from a lot of ways. I’m really excited about it because they’re for laptop and 88-key MIDI controller. That’s it. Sets up in about 30 seconds. Software—you open it up, it just works. It’s notated in traditional notation. Any pianist can sit down and play this. I actually can’t play these pieces. I actually feel like for the first time, I’ve got something here that is idiosyncratic and lets me explore these things in a way that I like to, but also it’s totally easy for other people to do. I’ll be able to distribute that software and I think that lots of people could play it.
MS: I want to focus in a little further on that idea of sharing and software expiration. I was listening back to some of your decade-old work, the Interface recordings in particular. Considering that the hardware and software used to create some of this music may have a much shorter shelf life than the violin, are you anxious about compositions in your catalog that even you can’t really play anymore?
DT: I have one like that in part because I made it for six-string electric violin, and I don’t play six-string electric violin anymore—and I don’t really want to—but I don’t know how to do that piece without it. That’s funny because that’s actually not even a question of software. The Interface record you mentioned with Curt Bahn, there’s even all these old sensor bows that I made for that that are in various states of disrepair. I could never get back to that place where I made music with Curtis in that way. I have a couple of thoughts about that. One is that in that case, that was all improvisational. We were building these rich software instruments that we’d improvise with, and we really felt like the instrument building was part of the whole process. So the thought that we needed to be able to do this again really didn’t matter. We didn’t care about reproducing things.
In fact, we’d rather the next gig have the next version of our software and have our sensors take us to a new place. I really like that about working improvisationally with software and viewing instrument building as part of the compositional and performance process. It’s like Coltrane working on his licks in the bathroom during intermission. He was actively building things into his hands that he could then use in the second set. So we would try to do the same thing with software—the next set is not going to be the same as the last one.
Regarding old software, it’s not even just that there might be objects in the Max patch that need to be updated or something like that. Back in the day, I was building things where the composition was really in the specific presets of how things were wired and the parameter values, so that over the course of a piece I might change a hundred numbers 20 times to slightly different values because it would basically create a different type of texture or a different type of response. They’re actually really hard to reproduce. I don’t do it anymore. Now I make the instruments I make, and whether consciously or unconsciously, I sort of avoid things that I think are just so fragile that I’m going to lose them in a year or two.
MS: So considering what you’ve just said, ultimately how concerned are you about issues of preservation and protecting your catalog?
DT: Okay, now you’re provoking me here because I’ve been known to rant about this. I sometimes talk to student composers about notating their music. So much of the time it’s about longevity—how are people going to play this music when I’m gone? I really don’t care! I mean, to me, it’s actually kind of bizarre to worry about whether people are going to play our music when we’re dead. I understand this hope for immortality and so on, so in some way, yeah, of course I want my kids to understand what I’ve done and ideally to appreciate it in some way. But the notion of prioritizing that in the creative process really does seem problematic.
The history of the new technology is that sometimes it’s actually a question of, well, this doesn’t work next week, and I do care about that. I want to be able to make things that I can build on, and that I can revisit. So for instance, this even comes down to languages that we can use. A lot of people use Max/MSP, which I use a lot. Then there’s another language called Chuck that I use a lot. These days, I mostly work in Chuck because it’s a text-based language, and I find that I can revisit my work there more easily. I can read it. I can understand what I did. I can reuse it. It basically comes forward in time with me in way that I struggle with Max. In Max, I’ll look at a patch that I made yesterday—how does this work again? Let alone a patch that I made five years ago. So it’s not so much caring about the longevity of the catalog, because I really do think that’s sort of preposterous, but I do want to feel like I can build on my own ideas in productive ways.
MS: Somehow, we’ve gotten all this way and haven’t even referenced the Princeton Laptop Orchestra or the hemispherical speakers you designed. Though the ensemble has been around for a while and is even imitated elsewhere, I suspect for many people that the name still might conjure images of a bunch of students gazing blankly into the blue light.
MS: So would you mind taking us behind the curtain a bit there, as far as how the laptop orchestra really functions and what kinds of music it is able to create and perform?
DT: The whole thing with the Laptop Orchestra for me was to build a context for experimenting with making music together with more than one or two people—trying to find new ways of making music with new technologies. I’d been teaching computer music here [at Princeton] for a couple years, and teaching it the way it generally has been taught—and still is taught, to a certain extent: You work in isolation in a studio, you make your track, and you share it with somebody. That’s all fine and good, but to me as a fiddler, it felt very dead, in a way. I would make something and then put it on a concert, sit in the dark and listen to it. It’s hard for me to get excited about that. I wanted to get this stuff out of the studio, but how do you do that? I had done a lot of laptop improv over the years, where you get a bunch of people, you plug into a mixer, and you all come out of a couple speakers. Nobody knows what anybody’s doing.
I’m kind of conservative, I guess. I wanted it to feel old fashioned so I could be making music with somebody else, attending to what I’m doing and aware of it, while hearing what somebody else is doing. That’s hard to do with conventional speaker technology. That was a project Perry Cook—who’s this great computer music researcher and musician—and I worked on together and ultimately it resulted in building these spherical and hemi-spherical speakers that radiate sound in a room roughly the way acoustic instruments do. So you can put one right near you, even on you. I’ve got one that I sit in my lap—I have sensors on it and I bow the thing—and the sound comes right out, so it’s like a cello in some ways.
The idea of the Laptop Orchestra [takes that further]. What happens if we’ve got four people, or six, or 40? With the show we did with Matmos, we had 30 or more laptop people on stage with these speakers, Matmos, and So Percussion all going at it. It has been great to do it with students because I still feel like we’ve only explored some of the corners of what we can do with this. The students come in, and they don’t have a whole lot of preconceptions about what it is we need to do, so we can try all sorts of things.
So that’s it in sum: a group of people each with a laptop, a hemispherical speaker near them for their own sound source, and maybe some kind of interface device that they’ll be using to physically engage with the sound. It has evolved and spread, and we even have a pro level one that we started here called Sideband that is made up of former and some current graduate students and faculty and staff—between eight to twelve people at any particular performance, sometimes as few as six. We started that five or six years into the whole process of doing laptop orchestras, because you can only get so far when you’ve got new people every year. You can’t really accumulate expertise. With Sideband, we really want to see how far can we push this. That for me is where the laptop orchestra is now, really trying to develop small communities—bands, basically—where we’re trying to accumulate experience and repertoire that we can get better at and see where it takes us.
MS: It strikes me every time you relate one of these anecdotes that while a lot of composers talk about constraints being creatively fulfilling, you’re inventing your own instruments to make a piece. It seems like that would introduce some inherent challenges. I get how that would be incredibly inspiring, but it also means that on your palette, anything is possible.
DT: Right. That’s why composing for laptop orchestra, or laptops in general, is so hard. I think one of the reasons I like working with percussion so much is that some of the questions are similar. If you’re writing for string quartet, you know what you’re writing for. If you’re writing for percussion ensemble, well, you’ve got to make a bunch of decisions about things, right? Percussionists in general are really adventurous. You can give them anything, and they’ll do something with it. Laptop orchestra is one step beyond that. Not only do we have to write the piece, we’ve got to build instruments and learn how to play them. We’ve got to teach people how to play them. We have to invent notation that makes sense for those instruments. It’s totally daunting. I mean, I love it, but I’m only up for one every year or two because it’s just so hard to do.
Though there’s a sort of myth about computer music and computers, that they can make any sound you can imagine. I actually think computers have a really limited vocabulary. Of course, you can record something and then you can do stuff with your recordings. That’s great. But basically it’s a very small palette, and a lot of times the palette is just not very interesting or you might have an allergy to it. For instance, a lot of people won’t do anything with FM synthesis, because ‘80s popular music is just marked by FM synthesis and it sounds dated. That’s a problem with a lot of computer music stuff. The vocabulary is really small, so either you embrace it or you try to find something that works for you in some way. But it’s just stupid hard.
MS: Until I read the interview you did with Cycling 74 on your programming work, I don’t think I truly grasped the depth of your knowledge on the programming side; as a string player myself, I had perhaps just been more focused on your violin side. Though for a man with your background, this diversity of intellectual curiosities is perhaps not terribly surprising.
DT: Like I was saying earlier, I like programming partly because it scratches an itch. I loved studying physics—my dad is a theoretical physicist. I think it gave me a little bit of fearlessness—I never thought I couldn’t because, well, I’ve majored in physics!
MS: And maybe it even helps explain how you ended up becoming a fiddle player interested in seriously complex folk music and a computer programmer who wants to make sure the music preserves clear human interaction.
DT: That’s why I’ve been so pleased with this So Percussion piece [neither Anvil nor Pulley], because I feel that’s come across. It’s got all these things in it, and I’m really happy about that. But yeah, I guess I’m kind of a nerd. I’m drawn to the weird parts of it—probably more than most.