Michael J. Schumacher: Composing is Listening
Although Michael J. Schumacher has stated that he is interested in “defining boundaries and not crossing them,” he does not let that limit his own extremely wide range of musical activities—from the immersive Room Pieces and other sound installations to dance collaborations with choreographer Liz Gerring, to his indie “dance pop” band diNMachine. “I love lots of kinds of music; I’m just aware of the differences,” he explains.
Michael J. Schumacher’s 2002 artist statement on the website of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts is a very succinct summary of his aesthetics:
I am interested in context, in defining boundaries and not crossing them. A piano piece is one thing, a sound installation another. The forms are different, the audience is different. The time, the place, it all has to be taken into account. Ultimately, we’re all collaborating with whomever’s participating.
Nevertheless, Schumacher engages in an extremely wide range of music-making—from immersive Room Pieces and other sound installations to collaborations with choreographer Liz Gerring to composing and performing all the “songs” for his indie “dance pop” (for lack of a better term) band diNMachine. In Schumacher’s home in Sunset Park, where we visited him to have an extensive conversation about his musical activities, there are tons of speakers everywhere and a great collection of vintage synthesizers, but also a grand piano in the middle of his living room as well as a small bust of the composer Franz Schubert that’s just hanging out near a window in his dining room.
“I love lots of kinds of music; I’m just aware of the differences,” Schumacher explained when I asked him about the wide variety of his musical endeavors. “I don’t think that leads to only liking one particular kind of approach. I happen to have really fallen in love with computer algorithms. I have to say that. It opened up a way of listening for me that was really fantastic, and it stays fantastic now. But I was in rock bands as a kid. I played in some bands up until I was in my 30s. And I improvised a lot. I like having that outlet for that part of my musical being.”
Although Schumacher is deeply interested and involved with a wide range of musical styles, he firmly believes that certain kinds of music-making work better in certain kinds of spaces and that doing the wrong music in the wrong space is unfair to audiences and musicians alike, since it sets up unfulfillable expectations.
“A concert hall is a place for storytelling, but it’s a place where you know the story,” he asserted. “You know it’s going to be an arc form. You know there’s going to be a climax and a resolution. And you’re enjoying that in a place of comfort, in a place of audition, a place watching a storyteller—whether it’s a conductor or an actual person telling the story—and this unfolds in a very predictable way. Your body’s relationship to that is key: being in a seat and looking forward orients you towards a certain way of perceiving time.”
Schumacher’s deep concern for how sound installations and other primarily electronic music creations—both his own and those created by others—were perceived led him to establish several performance spaces designed specifically for such work, most notably Diapason in New York City.
“The first one was Studio 5 Beekman,” Schumacher remembered. “It was a little office space. You entered, and there was a small foyer. This kind of gave you a little bit of a buffer between the world and then the gallery, which was behind a door, beyond the foyer. That little buffer was very nice, because it let people kind of take a breath. For me it was also for limiting vision. Turn the lights down. It doesn’t have to be dark, but just make the visual less explicit. I used to use a red light bulb, which got misinterpreted as a kind of gesture of some sort, but I just felt it was a dark color that allowed you to see without making the visual too much of a thing. I think personally in those situations, it’s not good to have a lot of sound coming from outside. If people want that, I suppose you can have a space like that, but for the most part I feel people want to be able to control the environment and not have to deal with sirens and things like that.”
Unfortunately after more than a decade, Diapason proved unsustainable and now Schumacher is contemplating hosting sound installations for a small invited audience in his own home. It’s a far more intimate environment than the theaters which present the Liz Gerring dances he scores or the clubs where his band diNMachine might typically perform. And he is well aware that those spaces result in different ways of perceiving which are best served by different approaches to making music. But, he’s also aware that not everyone listens to music the same way, regardless of the space, and is eager to create things that have an impact for anyone who hears them.
“If we’re talking about the ideal listener-viewer, I think that’s one thing. If we’re talking about a typical audience, that’s another. Both are obviously important.”
Frank J. Oteri: The homepage of your website has a sequence of photos of all these objects: a teapot with an audio speaker in it; two circuit boards interconnected; and, perhaps the most striking one, a Philadelphia Cream Cheese container. It’s tantalizing, but none of those things have audio links on them, so I suppose that’s just to whet people’s appetites.
Michael J. Schumacher: I think at some point I did have audio where each object would be a separate channel, and as you clicked on more [of them], you’d get more of the piece. I don’t know what happened to that. I don’t really manage my own website; I don’t know how. My girlfriend does that. Sometimes things get disconnected or something changes, and it takes us a while to figure out that it happened and to fix it.
FJO: Wow, that’s a pity. I would have loved to have clicked on all of those images to hear all those sounds together. So they’re all one piece?
MJS: Well, the way I work in general is I’m basically writing one piece all the time. I’m just adding things to it, and then whenever I present it, it’s a part of that piece. That’s how I look at that realm of the multi-channel stuff; [those sounds] would have been a particular group of things that would belong to this larger concept.
FJO: So all those things make different sounds, but what were those sounds?
MJS: Well, they’re all just speakers; they’re not instruments. I use these objects—the cream cheese container or the teapot—to create a resonant body. I travel with these little drivers and can improvise a resonator on the spot. I can go to Lisbon and put the speakers in beer glasses or garbage cans or things like that. But I sometimes get attached to certain resonators, like the Philadelphia Cream Cheese container.
FJO: I can imagine that a teapot could have some effective acoustic properties based on its shape, but what’s so special about a Philadelphia Cream Cheese container?
MJS: Well, I think when they designed the container, they were clearly thinking acoustically: something works. It came from Costco.
FJO: Even though the audio links on those images are currently not working, you’ve made so much of your music available through your amazingly generous and seemingly limitless SoundCloud page. However, about a week ago I started embarking on a plan to listen to every one of the files you uploaded to that page in order—I failed because there’s so much material there. But I also failed because as I was scrolling through the files, I came across one called Middl which had a waveform that immediately made me want to hear it. Most waveforms are somewhat random looking and nondescript, at least to me, but this one had a striking regularity to it. It was unlike any kind of SoundCloud waveform I’d ever seen. So I jumped ahead. I cheated on my own listening plan, because I had to hear what that thing sounded like. And it was a really transformative hour of my life. It sounds to me like it starts with a telephone dial tone. Is that what it is?
FJO: What is it?
MJS: It’s a synthesizer oscillator, and it’s being played by a computer. The oscillator is a kind of additive synthesizer with eight partials, and these partials are being manipulated by the computer. So it’s pretty simple.
FJO: It sounded so much like a telephone dial tone to me—so much so that since hearing it, I can’t interface with an actual telephone in the same way. I’m now giving it all these musical associations.
MJS: That’s really good. I’ve actually tapped into something.
FJO: But apparently not intentionally.
MJS: No. Or maybe it was. Maybe that was my La Monte Young moment of listening to the wires and having it inspire me.
FJO: Another sound file I listened to had a similar effect on me. It was a sound file for the Riga 2014 Room Piece, which also lasted a bit more than an hour. After the file ended, I took off my headphones and walked down the hall. I was washing my hands in the bathroom sink, and when I turned off the water I was suddenly transfixed by another sound I couldn’t immediately place. The room was completely empty, but there was this steady sound. Maybe it was a heat pipe. But it didn’t matter. I just wanted to listen to it, and it was because I had just listened to your Room Piece. Of course, there’s a whole history of pieces that make us more attuned to the sounds around us that most of us take for granted, starting with John Cage’s 4’33”. All of Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening projects were also part of this tradition. But whereas Cage and Oliveros’s reasons for pursuing a more expansive way to listen seem almost political and even spiritual, the relationship to the larger sonic environment that your music opened me up to has been purely aesthetic; it just made me focus on some interesting sounds.
MJS: I think a lot about listening; for me, composing is listening and so it’s how you listen and how you respond to the potential meaning in a sound. I think that what’s become really interesting since Cage is how much you can do in that regard: how and where you can find meaning; how you can juxtapose meanings; how you can suggest resonances beyond sonic resonances to real life associations. This explosion of meaning also includes pre-Cage sound—the relationship between a D and an A, or a D and B-flat. That also has meaning. What’s so exciting about making music now is you’re really—I don’t want to say manipulating, because I don’t try to manipulate meaning. I try to suggest ways that listeners can explore meaning.
FJO: When you talk about certain sounds being pre-Cage, people listening to that D and that A in the era before Cage and Oliveros were generally listening unquestioningly to a disembodied, abstract, and perhaps idealized relationship between certain sounds typically through the filter of somebody playing an instrument or somebody singing, either themselves or someone else in their home or in a concert hall. But obviously when any musician makes these intentional sounds there’s all this other sound that’s happening, too, much of which is unintentional but just as present. And I guess in the world we live in now, what we could call the post-deep listening moment, we are at least aware that every sound that’s around us is something that obviously we can hear, even if we’re not consciously listening to it. So how does that change the relationship of what a composer does—for you?
MJS: These sounds that are outside the specific performance that are accompanying it in some way can be invited in or in some way interact with the performance. I think it can work both ways. You can be in a situation and somebody making a sound or some sound coming from the environment can affect your reception of the “musical” sounds. Let’s just call them musical sounds. On the other hand, the musical sounds can affect your reception of these other sounds. So what I like to work with are short, suggestive sounds that can expose meanings in sounds outside the performance. A simple example would be if I play a short note on the piano and by coincidence—and it’s amazing how often this happens—you might hear a car horn in the distance, and that car horn might be the same pitch. And so the mind relates the two. In an abstract way, not in a way that it’s saying that’s a car horn, but in a way that it’s saying that’s a B. That’s the same pitch. That’s a musical thing, an abstract or musical way of perceiving that car horn. I really like that, and so I like to put out there enough information that the whole sonic environment can participate in that reception of sound. Not just a level of concrete associations, but also in these abstract associations like rhythm and pitch. The other reason to have short events is because they articulate a time-space kind of situation, as do most of the sounds we hear in the environment. Very few sounds in the environment are steady and non-stop. If they are, after a while we tend to ignore them. Most of the sounds we perceive are perceived momentarily, and we’re jumping from one to another.
FJO: That’s sort of the opposite of the drone aesthetic.
MJS: Not really, because drones—like La Monte Young’s drones—are incredibly active. When you’re listening deeply to them, you’re listening to lots of things inside the drone. For me, a drone is actually exactly that. It’s just maybe a different way of approaching it. I think, in both cases, we’re talking about really heightening the moment and trying for a kind of perceptual present.
FJO: I grew up in New York City amidst 24/7 loud Midtown Manhattan traffic; I had to train myself to be able to fall asleep with the noises of sirens and everything else. I remember the first time I ever took a trip to the countryside and there were crickets. I could not fall asleep because it was a constant sound, and it was too close to a musical experience for me. But of course, a musical experience could also be a completely random assortment of sounds, but I was able to disassociate that. I guess that speaks to what you were saying about how, if you’re not really paying attention, a drone might seem like this constant thing, but there’s lots of other stuff in it.
MJS: I think that at the beginning, the point of the drone is that superficially it seems like nothing is going on. But what it’s doing is it’s giving you this time dimension of really saying, “Okay, now I’ve been listening to this for five minutes, and suddenly I’m hearing things that I didn’t hear before. And then the more I do that, the more I hear in this apparently monolithic sound.” There are all these details that can only be only accessed through it—first of all—being so-called unchanging, but also giving the listener the time to contemplate.
FJO: There’s a piece of yours that sort of does that in a weird way. But maybe, once again, what I thought I was hearing is not quite what you were doing, like how Middl isn’t a dial tone. The piece is called Chiu.
MJS: That’s a piece Tom Chiu and I performed together.
FJO: Aha! Okay. That’s why it’s called that. And I hear his violin, but what it sounds like you’ve done to it is created some kind of artificial simulacrum of a Doppler effect. At least that’s what it sounded like to me.
MJS: Well, that was a jam. I played my synthesizer. It’s the same synthesizer that I use in Middl. It’s made by Mark Verbos, who used to be here in Brooklyn and now has moved to Berlin. It’s a fantastic Buchla-inspired approach to synthesizer making. It was an improv, but we rehearsed a bit. It was really kind of Tom’s composition. And he has this way of playing—I guess that’s what you hear as the Doppler, this kind of slow pitch bend, kind of this constant, constantly shifting, almost glissing pitch world.
FJO: So that was all him and was just a product of the improvisation?
FJO: So once again, I made all these incorrect inferences about what I was hearing. This is the weird thing about disembodied sound, whether you’re hearing something on a recording and there aren’t a lot of program notes for it or you’re listening on your headphones on a website with no additional information. These experiences are very different from being in a space and watching a performance or a sound installation and seeing how it works as you’re listening to it. There’s only so much your ears can tell you about what’s going on; the eyes give away the secrets.
MJS: They can, but sometimes with synthesizers you don’t; sometimes the player doesn’t know what’s going on. At least I don’t. I mean, I have no idea.
FJO: In the very beginning of our talk you were saying the images on the homepage of your website originally linked to sound files, and someone presumably could turn one of them on, but when you turned a second one on, the first one would still be on and then you’d have this cumulative effect of all that sound. In essence, the Room Pieces also work this way because you have these different sonic modules that all exist separately but the piece is about the cumulative effect of hearing them all spatially in a particular space. It isn’t necessarily duration-based, which makes it something you wouldn’t listen to for causality in the same way as other musical compositions.
MJS: What do you mean by “in the same way”?
FJO: Well, like the D and the A you mentioned before. Let’s say there’s a car that’s suddenly on B-flat, and that’s totally random, but you might—because of how your mind perceives time-based musical relationships—think you’re hearing a flat six if you hear it after the D and the A. There’s a perception of a developmental relationship, a relationship between the third sound and those other two sounds because of the order they are in.
MJS: That is what I’ve been trying to do with the Room Pieces. These are algorithmic, generative compositions, and they’re modular. But the approach was to create coincidental occurrences of that sort. The range of sounds and the exploration of pitch and rhythm was intended to raise the question: are these intentional events? Was this composed? I didn’t want a sense of utter randomness, just the sense that none of it has any relationship. That’s where I really don’t agree with Cage; I guess you could say it in that way. I think he was pretty adamant about wanting to completely cancel out this idea of relationships between sounds. What it’s all about for me is creating these relationships, but it’s not about necessarily creating a progression or any structure that is really only interpretable in one way. It’s really about creating the possibilities for these relationships, like a kind of drawing where you connect the dots—each listener would come up with his or her own drawing.
FJO: So you want those relationships to be there, but you don’t necessarily want to determine what they are. It’s for the listener to determine.
FJO: There’s a wonderful comment that Julian Cawley made in one of the program essays published in the CD booklet for the XI collection of the Room Pieces: “His music changes, but it doesn’t progress.” Is that a fair assessment of all the work that you’re doing?
MJS: Well, definitely the Room Pieces, but lately I’ve been getting away from that approach. For 20 years I was just determined never to edit what happened, just to let it happen and not to get involved in that post-production level of saying, “Okay, I like this, but it’s not really working here, so I’m going to change it up and I’m going to add this.” I really tried to keep it very strictly algorithmic and generative. But lately, in the last I would say ten years, I’ve been interested in getting into the details, especially spatialization and really exploring outside of that algorithmic process how I can really look at those details of how the sounds exist in space and how they relate to each other, moving on to more deterministic pieces.
FJO: So would it be toward things that have literally more of a beginning, middle, and end, that actually develop, that actually have a start point and end point?
MJS: Yeah. I think some of the new pieces on Contour Editions are definitely that way.
FJO: Disagree with me if you think I’m off the mark on this, but it seems there’s a distinction that’s key to all of this: the difference between musical composition or musical performance on the one hand and sound installation, sound art, or even instrument design on the other. A performance or a composition is fixed in its duration. The order of the sounds that an audience hears and how long they are listening to these sounds is determined for them. There’s a clear beginning, middle, and end. Whereas with a sound installation, people can theoretically walk into it whenever they want and can stay however long they want. So the message it’s trying to convey has to be different than a progression of events over time.
MJS: Right. It’s a big issue in terms of making sure that listeners perceive what you think they should be perceiving, and in the right timeframe. So 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or 5 minutes, what’s a minimum amount of time to be able to understand the piece? Is it a problem then if you leave out things? Is it really necessary for the person to wait ten minutes for something important to happen? Is that something you want to avoid? Those are obviously key questions. I was lucky to have my own space, but if you’re presenting these works in museums or other settings where people are constantly moving through, and they’re really encouraged to move through and not to sit down necessarily for an hour—although obviously with video art people do that—that’s an added layer of things you need to account for.
FJO: It’s interesting that you’re concerned about whether people will get it if they’re only there for five or ten minutes. Of course you can never assume someone is going to get your piece, even if it’s in a concert hall, on a program, and it’s a functionally tonal string quartet. You can’t really control how people perceive anything.
MJS: My feeling is that this whole trend toward sound art and sound installation is coming out of the concert hall’s dominance as a listening space. For me, it starts with Schoenberg. Schoenberg and his 12-tone technique is the beginning of process composition. Even in his case, it’s taking the ego out of the process in a sense, obviously.
MJS: It’s a stretch with Schoenberg, but there’s still that hint of: “Okay, here’s this process, 12 notes. I’ve used 11, doesn’t matter. I have to use the twelfth. It doesn’t matter what I think. I’ve decided that the twelfth note is going to be one I didn’t use.” So that’s process that overcomes his taste—in a sense—and his ego. For me, it starts there. And Cage is essentially the same thing. It’s chance, but this was proven in the ‘50s, basically you get the same thing. It’s a process and the result is going to be a surprise, both to the composer and, in a sense, to the audience. Unlike classical composition where as soon as you hear a bar or two of Mozart, your brain knows what the next six bars are going to be in a sense. That’s the beauty; that’s why it’s so relaxing to listen to because you sit there and you hear eight bars in advance. It’s kind of like knowing the future. You’ve been given a little bit of a peek into the future and that relaxes you. That makes you feel kind of secure.
This idea of every next step being a little bit of a mystery is a fundamentally different way of perceiving the world and perceiving music, and I think it’s completely wrong to do that in a concert hall. And I think that people sense this. A concert hall is a place for storytelling, but it’s a place where you know the story. You know it’s going to be an arc form. You know there’s going to be a climax and a resolution. And you’re enjoying that in a place of comfort, in a place of audition, a place watching a storyteller—whether it’s a conductor or an actual person telling the story—and this unfolds in a very predictable way. Your body’s relationship to that is key: being in a seat and looking forward orients you towards a certain way of perceiving time.
So my feeling is that composers started to sense this disconnect between where they were required to show their work and the kind of work they were interested in making, which was based on these processes that everybody was inventing from about 1945 on. Basically the job of every composer was to invent the process, invent their own methodology, so I feel like the intuitive response to that was to invent new spaces. Part of that is radio space. In Germany and [other parts of] Europe, you get more of the experimentation in radio-based listening spaces, either the radio itself or maybe these sort of black box spaces that they would perform in. In more extreme cases, like Stockhausen, he would go into caves and what not. They were searching for these places where the space placed the body in an orientation towards the sound that allowed it to really be perceived in a way that connected to the process of composing it. My focus has been to try to understand the very many ways of listening, of apprehending sound, and how they relate to architecture and to the body and to try to create situations where we can help listeners understand what it is that they’re perceiving.
FJO: I was thinking along similar lines over the weekend. I went to the sound installation exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan in Columbus Circle.
MJS: Did Charlie Morrow have something to do with it?
FJO: Not as far as I know. I didn’t know most of the people who were involved with this except for Benton Bainbridge, but there was some very interesting work there. What I found even more interesting than the work, however, were how many people there were interacting with what were, in several cases, some really whacked out sounds, perhaps sounds that they might not have heard before or might not have had a context for. And they were really enjoying it. People of all ages—young children, teenagers, even some elderly people. There was an interactive piece called Polyphonic Playground that was created by the London-based collective Studio PSK where people made sounds by climbing bars or sitting on swings. That was cool. There was also this incredible contraption on a wall with all these disembodied guitar strings attached to pickups. It was done by an Israeli-born artist who now lives here named Naama Tsabar; she used to play in punk bands but now more of her work is installation-based.
Anyway, some of these guitar strings were tuned to really resonant low tones, but you hear them all together from various people plucking them all at once and it creates some incredibly dissonant chords. Yet everybody was enjoying it. If people were to hear the same thing in a concert hall, would they appreciate it as much? If it was a New York Philharmonic subscription series concert, there probably would have been loads of people walking out.
FJO: Why is that?
MJS: I think these are really very old habits—and not in a bad way, just human habits. I once made a list of listening paradigms. I’m not a scientist; I’m not a researcher in this way. This is just kind of stuff that comes off the top of my head. So I’m not claiming this to be true or anything. I’m just thinking about it. Think of sitting by the camp fire and listening to somebody telling a story—somebody with a gift for telling a story, but understanding that that camp fire offers both security but also danger because just beyond the darkness there could be anything, an animal or a gangster, something. So there is that sense of “What’s behind me? What could potentially encroach on our sense of comfort?” A storyteller is going to take advantage of that, a person who’s got a sensitivity to that is going to maybe then tell a scary story or something, that will bring in the darkness, bring in the rear, so to speak. You oppose that with the concert hall where that does not exist. In the concert hall we’re enclosed. We’re completely safe. We are perhaps a little bit impinged on by our neighbors, so that we feel a little bit self-conscious. So that’s something. All of these things contribute. Think of a political meeting in a town square where there’s a speaker, but there’s also a lot of participation from the audience. People acknowledge their neighbors and encourage each other to talk back to the speaker, so it becomes a back and forth kind of thing. Or a rock concert—that’s a different kind of thing. All of these are paradigms, and they become models for listening that you can carry over into other situations. You can listen to your stereo, but you can pretend it’s the concert hall. Do you remember the way people used to listen to records? They would bring the record home, put it on, and sit in a comfortable chair with their speakers there, as if they were in the concert hall—my dad used to do that—and they would listen to the whole record. It was 20 minutes of sitting there listening. They wouldn’t put it on and go do the dishes like people do now because they know they can just keep playing the stack of CDs that is never ending, or the MP3s or whatever.
Another aspect of this is musical structure. Take a look at Philip Glass’s music. At the beginning, he was very much in the art world. He was doing a lot of his performances in art galleries. The take away form of one of the early pieces, if you put it in a sound editor or something, is like a bar. It’s a flat sound. As soon as he got commissioned to do the Violin Concerto—and that’s in a concert hall—then suddenly you’ve got that arc form. Suddenly, it’s a standard concerto. It’s in his language, but you’ve got that climax. He was clearly intuitively responding, “Okay, now I’m in a concert hall. I can’t do this thing that I do in the gallery where people are walking around.” Physically, they were in a completely different orientation; they didn’t feel hemmed in like at a concert hall. So they didn’t have those same expectations of structure. But as soon as he was doing the concert hall piece, then it was like, “Now I have to rethink this.”
FJO: In terms of your own background and how you got into all of this stuff—you studied the piano growing up. Later you went the typical composer-training route. You went to Indiana University, then on to Juilliard to study with Vincent Persichetti, one of the great—albeit largely unsung—masters of the sonata form: 12 great piano sonatas, 9 symphonies; it’s all very much about the concert hall.
FJO: You even wrote a symphony and a string quartet. I was desperately trying to find places I could hear them.
MJS: You won’t. They were student pieces.
FJO: At what point did you have this aha moment of wanting to do something else?
MJS: At Indiana, they had a great studio. I was always into electronic music. I even had synthesizers when I was in high school. I would go to sleep with my headphones playing drones essentially. I had no idea of any of that, but that’s just what came out of the synthesizer. I just turned it on and held a note down, then played with the filters and the LFOs and stuff. So I was always into that. Then at IU, Xenakis had left the year before I got there, but I think he might have developed the studio a little bit and so I was working and I made a piece called Nature and Static. This was a piece that had two parts. One was what I called “Nature,” which had basically five or seven parts that were just playing the same minimal melody, but with different timbres. And they just kind of intersected in a very minimal way, not unlike that Middl piece you know, but the idea was completely intuitive. It was that you’d listen into it and you would hear this multiplicity of sounds in this very simple texture—and that I associated with nature, because nature to me was simple, but complex. Then the other half was “Static,” which was a loop—much more of an electronic music or man-made kind of a loop. And I processed it, so it got kind of big and loud. For my recital, I performed a piano piece with string quartet, and this piece Nature and Static, and I turned the lights off for the electronic piece.
At that point, it occurred to me that I had to do something because it isn’t right to have people sitting in these chairs listening to this. They should be closing their eyes and listening as if immersed in the sound. It felt wrong to be doing it in the concert hall, but you know, you do what you can. You turn the lights off, or whatever. Then at Juilliard, I organized some electronic concerts at Paul Hall. But when I set the speakers up, I was also struck by the inappropriateness of that space for what we were doing. It was just people looking around. My teacher Bernard Heiden said, “The thing I like about electronic music is when something goes wrong.” He liked when the tape recorder broke, something dramatic. I think it struck everybody; it’s nice good music and whatever, but regardless, it just doesn’t work in this space.
FJO: So even as a student you were envisioning a venue like Diapason.
MJS: Yeah. Obviously the Dream House was a big inspiration and to see that people were already doing this to a large extent. Still, New York didn’t have a dedicated sound space. Even though Paula Cooper and other places would occasionally do sound works, we didn’t have a dedicated gallery or space for experimenting with sound.
FJO: So ideally what was in your mind, in terms of how you put this thing together? What were the attributes that made that a more ideal space for hearing this kind of music?
MJS: Well, the first one was Studio 5 Beekman. That was down near City Hall. It was a little office space. You entered, and there was a small foyer. This kind of gave you a little bit of a buffer between the world and then the gallery, which was behind a door, beyond the foyer. That little buffer was very nice, because it let people kind of take a breath. For me it was also for limiting vision. Turn the lights down. It doesn’t have to be dark, but just make the visual less explicit. I used to use a red light bulb, which got misinterpreted as a kind of gesture of some sort, but I just felt it was a dark color that allowed you to see without making the visual too much of a thing. I think personally in those situations, it’s not good to have a lot of sound coming from outside. If people want that, I suppose you can have a space like that, but for the most part I feel people want to be able to control the environment and not have to deal with sirens and things like that.
FJO: So Diapason eventually became a really significant venue for this stuff, but it is no more.
MJS: Well, it was supported by my friends Kirk and Liz [Gerring] Radke. Liz is a choreographer who I’ve been working with since the ‘80s and her husband Kirk is a really generous supporter of the arts and funded this space. We continued in that way and were also getting funding from New York State and from the city and from private foundations. This went on for about 15 years. But at some point, Kirk pulled out. So I lost that funding, and that really was paying the rent; everything else was paying the artists. So that really hurt, and for a while I tried to continue with my own money, but I couldn’t sustain it.
What I had tried to do, in the years when it was clear that Kirk was going to pull out, was I wanted to get somebody to be a real business director, a kind of executive director who would fundraise and get that part of it together because I wasn’t really good at it. I felt if I could find that person, then they could really get the whole thing on its feet financially, be able to pay themselves a salary, be able to pay the artists, and keep the rent paid. We were over at Industry City the last few years. We were before our time there because people had a really hard time coming out there. The subway was not cooperating. People would complain—especially coming from North Brooklyn: Williamsburg and Greenpoint—that it would take them two hours to get there. So the audience went way down. So that was bad, too. Now it’s a bustling place where people come on the weekends. If we were there now, we would actually get a walk-in audience. It would have been fantastic. But we were basically five years too early for that.
FJO: There really is still no place that is quite like the space that you had for this kind of work. So do you envision it ever reopening or doing something else like it?
MJS: The last two or three incarnations were really quite great spaces. We had the two listening rooms and pretty good sound isolation. I had a really great group of people helping me, like Daniel Neumann and Wolfgang Gil. But I don’t know. I could see doing it again. I’m very interested in this question of bringing sound environments or installations into people’s homes, and that’s kind of the way I would try to do it if I did it again. I was thinking even of having events here [in my home]—inviting an artist to give a presentation here, with a house multi-channel system, and then inviting a small audience and basically trying to use that to help that artist get the work out, to present the work to people who might help in then getting it out to a bigger audience.
FJO: Given that that’s been such a focus of your work—the directionality of sounds and such a sensitivity to how and where sounds are experienced—it’s fascinating to me that you also perform in and create all the music for what, for better or worse, I’ll call a rock band. It’s a somewhat inaccurate shorthand for what diNMachine is, but in terms of its performance situation, it operates like a rock band. There is a group of musicians performing in real time and there’s an audience. Or there’s a recording. In all cases, it’s a group doing somewhat fixed things that have a beginning, middle, and end. The band doesn’t perform in concert spaces like the comfort zones we were talking about earlier; they’re performing in louder, club-type environments in which there’s often no sound insolation either from the world outside or from the audience members themselves, which raises all sorts of other listening issues.
MJS: Well, I love pop music. And I love classical music and going to concerts. I love lots of kinds of music. I’m just aware of the differences. I don’t think that leads to only liking one particular kind of approach. I happen to have really fallen in love with computer algorithms. I have to say that. It opened up a way of listening for me that was really fantastic, and it stays fantastic now. But I was in rock bands as a kid. I played in some bands up until I was in my 30s. And I improvised a lot. I like having that outlet for that part of my musical being.
FJO: The title for last year’s diNMachine album, The Opposites of Unity, is a very apt one given your openness to all these different styles and listening paradigms. It isn’t necessarily about just one thing.
FJO: But there’s one track, “Jabbr Wawky,” that’s basically hip hop and another one, “Brisé,” which could well have been one of your Room Pieces to some extent.
MJS: Yeah, it probably was derived from one. But even in “Jabbr Wawky,” there are a lot of environmental sounds.
FJO: So the lines do get blurry even in the context of what you’re doing within the framework of the band. I noticed that diNMachine has a new album coming out in early 2018. Will it be following a similar path?
MJS: Well, the band has been reduced. It’s now a duo, which makes it a lot easier. It was kind of expensive. I try to pay people if they’re going to play my music for me. So now, as a duo, I feel like this can go on and I don’t have to stress about it. We can play when we get gigs. We can rehearse pretty easily. We live pretty close to each other and so I’m a weekend rock musician rather than trying to do this professionally. Although, of course, I’m trying to do this professionally, but it just makes it more manageable. Anyway, the music took a little bit of a turn towards what I’m calling synth and drums—not bass and drums, or drum and bass. Drums and synth. Those are really the two featured things—a lot of these songs are analog synthesizers and drums. They don’t have guitar or saxophone; the first record had lots of various instrumentation.
FJO: You say they’re songs, but there are still no vocals.
MJS: It’s mostly instrumental.
FJO: Do you perceive of this as dance music to some extent?
MJS: I think you can dance to it for sure, definitely. It’s got a very strong beat. You can also listen to it. That’s another interesting issue, because dance music shouldn’t be too complicated. When the head gets too involved, the hips have a problem.
FJO: The material for diNMachine consists of concrete pieces, even though elements of your other work come in. Obviously when someone’s listening in a club, they’re not listening in the same way as they would in a concert hall, but listeners would still assume more causality than they would in, say, a sound installation, because of its mode of presentation.
MJS: Well, the way that I write them usually is I improvise on my synthesizer and I just keep the tape running, so to speak, and then I’ll find some riff that I like or some section or some sound, and that will become the basis of one of these songs. Generally, I’ll figure out the tempo and add a drum track, and then I’ll write a bass line. Sometimes I’ll throw that synthesizer sound into Melodyne, which is a pitch-detection software used mostly to correct singers or instruments that are out of tune. It’s not monophonic; it can read multiple notes at once. When it first came out, the way they advertised it was they’d have a guitar, and they’d show how the Melodyne could see each note in the guitar chord and correct individually. It was a breakthrough software when it came out. Now, other software does that.
FJO: It’s like a fancier Autotune, basically.
MJS: Exactly. But what I’ll do is I’ll throw the synthesizer in Melodyne, and it will score it. It’ll figure out what the pitches are, but it will be wrong most of the time because the synthesizer’s very complex. Even if you’re doing a bass line, the overtone structure is very complicated and Melodyne has a lot of trouble with that. So I’ll take that score that Melodyne has derived from the synthesizer, then I’ll throw it into a string pad, or something like that, or a piano. And it will come out with this piano version of what the synthesizer did, which can be really cool because it kind of comments on what the synthesizer did and doesn’t quite get it right, but you can tell that it’s trying to get it right. Then sometimes I’ll play that live. What I really like to do is have my basis of the song and then I’ll just kind of blindfold it: drag sounds into the session and just see what happens—see what gets layered on top of it and come up with sometimes very bizarre, unpredictable things. I won’t keep it if it’s too strange, but it’s incredible how many times something will just work in that situation.
FJO: So in a way, it is designed so that people listen in to it rather than simply listen to it, as you were describing earlier.
MJS: Yeah, and I’m very interested in structure. I call it free composition rather than free improvisation. It’s like the idea of transition. Wagner said that composition is the art of transition, and I take that really seriously. La Monte Young said transition is for bad composers. I’m siding with Wagner there. I think transitions are what it’s all about. And especially in these diNMachine songs, I’m really interested in—well, I’ve got this section of the song, what’s this next section going to be? How different can I make it from the first section? But where it still makes sense.
FJO: There’s a statement that you have on your website that’s almost like your compositional manifesto, I think. You aim to draw the listener’s attention to sounds that you’ve created by presenting it “at the rate of every half second or less, which is the same tempo as a typical melody line.” I thought that was interesting because the way most of us hear a melody is one dimensional; it’s a single line that’s moving over time. But your idea of manipulating sonic elements, which could be a two-dimensional plane or more likely, given your interest in directionality, a three-dimensional field, is basically to grab listeners in the same way that they’d be grabbed by a melody by controlling the durations of the various components they are hearing over that time.
MJS: Right. Exactly.
FJO: And the way you do that is by the speed of change of the sound.
FJO: Your most recent recording, Variations, which came out on Contour Editions earlier this year, definitely sounds much more developmentally oriented to me, so maybe that gets to what you were saying earlier about getting away from a strictly algorithmic approach.
MJS: I’ve definitely been moving on. I still use it in the process, but it’s a step in the process more and more, rather than the end. I’ve learned a lot from the diNMachine thing in terms of working with sound because in a sense, with multi-speakers, you’re never really mixing like you do in stereo. It’s actually a lot easier to just throw sounds around and you don’t have to worry about their balance in the stereo field. Working exclusively in stereo for a number of years now has taught me enormous amounts about this, and I’ve been trying to apply it to the multi-channel stuff. It’s really opened my ears, too, and opened up a lot of new possibilities.
FJO: You talked about creating home environments. This is very different from recordings people listen to in their homes, including all of yours, which are mixed down to stereo. I would think that really misses the spatialization which is a key element in so much of your work. Maybe your recordings should ideally be issued in 5.1 surround sound.
MJS: That’s why Richard [Garet] released the tracks in an 8-channel version. It’s not surround. I opted not to do that because I’m not such a fan of 5.1. And I don’t really believe that people are setting it up correctly. It’s just like stereo, only not as developed in a way.
FJO: Interesting. So, it’s okay to listen to something you’ve created to be experienced spatially on a computer with headphones?
MJS: Not so much. I put a lot of time into the stereo version.
FJO: So listening to these tracks on a computer is sort of like looking at photographs of paintings.
MJS: Yeah, like a reference or something. I had the eight tracks, and I created eight spaces in the stereo field with different characteristics. Then I put the tracks into those eight spaces. So it’s not just panning them around; it’s really trying to get depth and a sense that there are these eight separate spaces in it. That’s another thing I really would like to continue working with. And actually working with people who understand it a lot more than I do and who have software chops and can maybe design specific things that I can use.
FJO: Getting back to dance music, albeit of a very different sort, for years you’ve collaborated with the choreographer Liz Gerring. You had mentioned needing to keep things simpler if it’s being danced to, in a pop/club context. Clearly in these pieces, they’re all professional dancers and there’s a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk that happens between the choreography and music. However, once again, this is something that exists in time and in a space where people are sitting in seats observing the work. Ideally they’re listening to the music and it is a key element, but a dance audience is primarily there to see the dance and so the music has a somewhat subordinate role to it. I imagine that some of these considerations might make you create sound in a different way.
MJS: I have to say Liz is amazing to work with. She’s an amazing collaborator. She regards the music as absolutely equal to the dance. Maybe not absolutely equal, but there’s no point in debating whether it’s 60/ 40 or whatever; they’re the two elements that are paramount in the work. So the music is an important element, and it’s what we’ve been grappling with all these years in this relationship.
We started from the Cage-Cunningham aesthetic of doing dance installations, where Liz would dance for three to four hours and I would improvise on my laptop at the same time, but not necessarily in any way interacting with what she was doing. But over the years we’ve talked a lot about what we want to do. How do we want to work on this relationship? Do we want the music to reflect what’s going on in the dance? To what extent? In what ways? We’re lucky that we’re very much on the same page aesthetically. We have a similar kind of feeling about art and work, and at this point each piece is approached in a determined way to do it better than we did the last time—to be more collaborative, to think more about that relationship and to do something innovative or interesting in that relationship. Sometimes there are constraints based on the practicality of doing a theater piece, but it’s a completely different way of working. It’s not a defined or set way of working; it’s changing all the time. There are elements both of what I do in the band as well as the installation approach. You can’t really pin it down. We’re always exploring, so it’s always different but it’s got elements of other things that I do as well.
FJO: We talked about the concert hall and Schoenberg and Cage and all that stuff, and it sort of being anathema to an audience that is used to hearing pieces by Mozart for which they can reasonably predict what the next eight measures are going to be. Yet, if you’re in a space for a dance performance, I think as a composer writing for dance you can get away with doing a lot more. Audiences for dance performance will listen to a Cage score; Cunningham had huge audiences. Is it the visual element? Does being able to look at something besides the musicians playing their instruments—or, in the case of more experimental electronic music, twisting knobs or sitting in front of a laptop—help bring audiences into those sounds more? I don’t know.
MJS: I don’t know. If we’re talking about the ideal listener-viewer, I think that’s one thing. If we’re talking about a typical audience, that’s another. Both are obviously important. Not everybody can be an ideal, educated listener-viewer, but I think that regardless of what the audience is going to think or perceive, it’s really up to us to be very sensitive to the relationship of the sound and the dance. And not to use the distraction—so to speak—of the dance, or of the visuals as a way to get away with things that don’t really work with the dance.
If we’re going to be really sensitive to what’s going on, one thing is surround sound. I like to use surround. But it’s problematic because the viewers are looking at a stage most of the time and to start throwing things in the back is going to compete with that. Not that that’s a bad thing, but you have to be careful and you have to acknowledge that that creates a dissonance with the typical attitude of the viewer. That’s why in movies they’re very careful about how they use surround sound. It’s actually mandated in the spec for a surround sound that only effects like bombs exploding and things like that are going to be used on the rear channel. Everything else is in the front: dialogue, music, diegetic sound—what’s called Foley.
FJO: I guess the way around that would be to have a dance performance that is not on a proscenium stage where you have people moving all around in a space.
MJS: Exactly. We’re actually actively looking to do that. It’s hard to play with a proscenium stage. That’s the thing. That’s what Liz really grapples with because she’s not particularly a theater person that wants that perspective on the movement. She wants to go beyond what is typical in the theater. I haven’t thought about it that much, but I would imagine that it parallels the development of music where you had ballet in the theater and that established a certain way of presenting movement and the relationship with the dancers and what not.
FJO: Once again with classical ballet, viewers probably would know what the next eight moves are going to be. This brings us full circle.