Sky Macklay: Why I Love Weird Contemporary Music
Sky Macklay is a highly conceptual composer who typically gets a flash of inspiration for a concept before she writes a single note. Sometimes it’s politically charged, like her Black Lives Matter-inspired choral work Sing Their Names or her provocative chamber opera whose three characters are two spermatozoa and a uterus. But other times it can be an investigation of a purely musical process–like a duo that’s simultaneously fast and slow or a relentless chain of cadences.
Sky Macklay has been receiving a great deal of attention for her string quartet Many Many Cadences which, as per its title, involves a relentless chain of cadences—some of which are completed and some of which listeners who are acculturated to the canon of Western classical music perceive as such by being able to infer the missing sonic links. This piece fetched Macklay a 2016 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and its premiere recording, by the Spektral Quartet, was nominated for a 2017 Grammy. In September, it will be performed by the Utrecht String Quartet during the Gaudeamus Muziekweek in Utrecht, where it’s in the running for the 2017 Gaudeamus Prize, and in November it will be performed by the Bozzini Quartet during the 2017 ISCM World New Music Days in Vancouver.
Macklay first came to my attention five years ago after receiving New Music USA funding for a quirky orchestral piece she wrote to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Lexington, Massachusetts called Dissolving Bands, a work which earned her the 2013 Leo Kaplan Award, the top honor in the Morton Gould Awards. When I read the then 24-year-old composer’s description of it as a musical rendering of the “tension, instability, and unpredictability of life in colonial America on the cusp of revolution,” I knew I needed to hear it. The music she wrote is sometimes reminiscent of the sound world of the maverick New England composer Charles Ives, but Macklay is a maverick in her own right as I kept discovering the more familiar I became with the rest of her compositional output.
She’s made it very easy to discover her music on her own website, which offers audio recordings—and sometimes video recordings and musical scores—for 17 different compositions which range from a wacky sound installation comprised of industrial fans channeling air into either large heavy duty garbage bags or air mattresses stuffed full of deconstructed harmonicas to a provocative chamber opera whose three characters are two spermatozoa and a uterus. As she acknowledged when we visited her New York City apartment just weeks before her move to Chicago, she usually comes up with a generative concept prior to creating a note of music:
Oftentimes it comes to me like a flash of inspiration. I then figure out the details of how that will work and can bring it to life. That’s the excitement of composing for me. I am a very conceptual composer. I like structuralist ideas that I can flesh out formally; that’s really how I work. It could be a combination of a sonic concept and a formal concept usually. Maybe sometimes also an extra-musical concept.
Macklay’s extra-musical concepts are often highly charged politically. In Lessina, Levlin, Levlite, Levora, a speaking violinist (whom she requires to be male) simultaneous bows various figurations while reciting a list of FDA-approved female contraceptive devices and drugs, pharmaceutical companies’ advertising slogans for them, side effects from taking them, and user reviews.
“I think that’s a really common and traumatic experience in a lot of women’s lives,” she explained. “So making that into music was a way to share that experience mostly with men who don’t understand that experience on a deep level.”
Another work, Sing Their Names for unaccompanied chorus, was created in response to the recent police killings of black people. Its text is simply a list of victims’ names.
“I saw a poster that had a list of just pictures and names of people who had been killed by police, and I thought that I could make a memorial out of it,” Macklay said. “I wanted to be abstract in that most of the time you can’t really understand the names in the piece, but maybe a few of them emerge in the end that you can hear. … The abstracted syllables of the people’s names is a metaphor for erasure and the lack of visibility of the humans involved, and then in the end it’s maybe a little more visible. I think of it as a sacred piece that is supposed to be a requiem-like meditation on the people’s lives.”
Sometimes, however, the concept is purely musical, as in her stunning violin and piano duo FastLowHighSlow, in which fast and slow music are presented simultaneously as are the extreme registers of both instruments. She got so excited by the idea of exploring every possible permutation of those two binaries that after the work’s initial performance she added an additional optional movement which presents every possibility at the same time, although to do so ultimately required a second violinist and a second pianist.
“It’s definitely not the most practical movement, which is why it’s optional,” she acknowledged.
But despite Macklay’s love for esoteric concepts (read on to find out why she subdivided an ensemble into two groups tuned approximately a quarter tone apart), it all stems from a desire to communicate visceral experiences that can engage listeners. She is particularly excited by introducing younger people to the rich resources of contemporary music, which she does through teaching at The Walden School as well as creating music for student ensembles.
“I love weird contemporary music and sharing it with the next generation,” she explained. “I think a lot of it is sharing my own personal perspective on it—just show how much a particular sound excites me and how beautiful I think it is. I think that’s sort of contagious, or at least let’s people perceive it as a beautiful thing, or something that some person thinks is a beautiful thing. I also think that exposure, experience, experiential education, and experiential pieces are really a great way to do outreach. … That’s something I think more composers should do: write music that has a participatory role for amateur musicians, or for just audience members.”
Frank J. Oteri: Thank you for including so much information about your music on your website, not just recordings but even scores for most of the pieces. It really helped me get to know your work and, because of that, there are so many details I want to talk about with you.
Sky Macklay: I like to share all the information and be transparent. Sometimes you can make great connections through that. So I like to put the scores up there, at least for the pieces that I’m done with. But sometimes I have a performance and I think I’ll probably make revisions, so I don’t put up the score. In November, I was part of the NEM Forum with Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne in Montreal, and I wrote a large ensemble piece for them called Microvariations. It uses a lot of the same ideas as Many Many Cadences, but with two groups tuned microtonally apart from each other. I wasn’t very satisfied with it compositionally. I thought I missed some opportunities to orchestrate in a way that made those microtonal harmonies more audible. It was not as vivid as I wanted. But somebody from the Society of Contemporary Music in Montreal heard it, and they’re going to do it again in Montreal. So now I have a chance to totally revise it and perfect it. That’s a really great opportunity. How I love to work the most is to have a performance, have a chance to perfect it, and then that’ll be the real final version.
FJO: So that’s why the score for Microvariations is not online. I really wanted to see that score. Since you said it draws on an idea from Many Many Cadences, I’d like to find out more about that. In both pieces it sounds like you’ve taken a bunch of brief, disjunct musical phrases and stitched them together by implying relationships between them that people immersed in listening to common practice tonality would perceive. In a very extensive interview that Brendon Howe did with you for VAN magazine last year, you said that you were annoyed because a lot of people were so focused on the fast succession of tonal cadences in the opening of Many Many Cadences that they missed what you think is the most significant aspect of that piece. Of course, a composer can’t ultimately control what listeners are going to think a piece is about, and you did call it Many Many Cadences, so people are going to focus on that.
SM: I don’t think that people in general misunderstood what it was about. I’m happy with how audiences received it. I think most people definitely took in the whole picture. I was just ranting about the way it was portrayed in “the media,” the publicity that that particular album got, how in so many reviews of the album the reviewers only described the beginning and didn’t describe the trajectory of the piece, what happens to that opening material. I definitely feel for the reviewers, because I know they are trying to keep their word count down so they just describe it real quick in a way that people would relate to.
FJO: Both Many Many Cadences and Microvariations wind up not sounding at all like pointillistic music because the missing links between the musical phrases are implied and we’re somehow able to perceive them.
SM: Our brain fills them in. I’m fascinated with perception and tapping into the habits that our brains have. But I don’t really think of them as disjunct moments in time. They are connected by their staccato attacks, and they’re connected by our brain by their proximity and the historical idea of cadences.
FJO: In terms of how Microvariations expands on this idea, it sounds like there are actual references to standard repertoire pieces in it, but I can’t identify any of them.
SM: The timpani is referencing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with all the rhythmic octaves, so there are definitely references, but not any direct quotes. If you took any common practice period piece and did a Schenkerian analysis of it and reduced it to its most foundational, tonal elements, that’s sort of what you would get. Like Many Many Cadences, it would just sound like those chords.
FJO: I’m curious about the way you used microtonality in Microvariations. By dividing the ensemble into two groups that are not in tune with each other, you’re playing around with the notion of absolute pitch not being absolute. Nowadays musicians are trained to play the A above middle C at 440 Hz, but it wasn’t always that way. Pitch was lower. In certain places it has even gone higher. But how does that play out in terms of what you’re doing?
SM: First of all, it creates clashes of approximately a quarter tone among them. Sometimes I have one person from the higher group and one person from the lower group playing in unison. It sounds like a de-tuned unison, and I think that’s a really great sound. I want to definitely take advantage of that more. But then, the way it coalesces in this piece is we have a motive in a pitch level, and then something in this other pitch level. It goes back and forth, and then when they come together, they sound so spicy together. It also uses a lot of chords that are in just intonation, spectral chords that I orchestrated thinking, “Okay, this group is about a quarter tone flatter, so members of this group could play the seventh partial of the harmonic series.” Of course there are lots of adjustments, but it’s finding the overlap where their pitch levels would be in tune in the harmonic series.
FJO: Classically trained musicians have a real resistance to being “out of tune.” How did you navigate that?
SM: In my experience in Montreal, the musicians were down for it. It definitely has a precedent. I had all of the winds tune their instruments down a quarter tone. The brass players had no problems with it. The clarinets and oboes maybe had the most trouble because their instruments are more affected by the extreme tuning. It’s definitely a little wonky with wind instruments. If you pull out the tube, not everything is perfectly in tune all along the instrument. It messes up the perfect adjustments that the players are used to making. I play oboe, so I’m aware of that. I embrace it and say, “If your timbre is a little wilder than usual, just go with it. Don’t worry about a super refined tone.” They definitely just went with it and adapted. I think the tendency was they would get a little higher as the piece went on. They would start creeping up to the strings, but I had the conductor remind them to relax and keep the pitch down. It was a conscious thing they had to keep thinking about, but then they did a great job.
FJO: But a lot of classical players dread that people are going to think they’re out of tune. How do you navigate that—being out of tune is actually being in tune for this piece?
SM: I try to make it a clear rhetorical reason in my music, something that’s obvious enough. The differently tuned pitches will play enough of a role that people listening to it will know this is obviously the way it’s supposed to be. In this day and age, so many people are doing microtonality, I think that attitude is definitely fading. Pretty much every musician that I work with is very open to alternative tunings.
FJO: But when you get a commission from the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic after your Gaudeamus and ISCM performances, you might encounter some resistance if you ask the players to veer outside 12-tone equal temperament.
SM: Well, I don’t really work with orchestras that much at this point in my life. I’m sure orchestras are generally more conservative than chamber music people who specialize in contemporary music.
FJO: The first piece of yours I ever heard, Dissolving Bands, is an orchestral piece and it is not microtonal. So was microtonality not part of your musical language at that point, or did you figure that it wouldn’t work in the context of writing for orchestra?
SM: I was definitely interested in microtonality at that point, but it didn’t seem important for what I was working with for that particular piece. I was trying to write a successful piece for orchestra that would fit with the Lexington Symphony. I don’t remember being held back by anything that came to mind, but I suppose with an orchestra, I’d definitely be more conservative with microtones.
FJO: As far as I can tell, Dissolving Bands is the earliest piece that you still put out there.
SM: Well, if you go back through my SoundCloud account, you can find some earlier pieces. But that one is my first mature piece.
FJO: So that’s Opus 1?
FJO: It’s interesting that you begin your catalog with that, especially since it received a lot of recognition; it got the top honors, the Leo Kaplan Award, in the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards competition. Of course that makes listeners curious to know what came before it, how you got to that point as a composer, but they can’t if you don’t want those earlier pieces to be done at this point.
SM: Oh, I would consider some of them maybe. There’s actually one piece before that that’s on my website—Döppelganger. It’s for two oboes and—
FJO: —and organ.
SM: I actually made the version for two oboes and organ in 2014, I think. But the original version, for two oboes and chamber ensemble, is from 2012 or 2011. Then I kept working with that idea in different instrumentations.
FJO: But only Döppelganger III, the one for two oboes and organ, is on your website. I was going to ask about one and two.
SM: Well, Döppelganger I is on my SoundCloud. An oldie, but goodie.
FJO: So that piece you’d still encourage people to play.
FJO: The Döppelganger pieces all involve oboe, so they’re very personal. You’re an oboist.
FJO: What came first, playing oboe or composing?
SM: Oboe came first. I always really loved music, and when I was a kid I was in choir. I started playing oboe when I was ten, and I was really into it. Then I started getting serious about piano at 12 and studied pretty seriously in my teens. I started composing when I was 17 or 18, not that early. One of my creative outlets before that was that my friends and I had sort of a movie-making collective called AnimeSpoof.com; we did spoofs of anime, but also other funny movies. I sometimes did music for that and then late in high school, I started writing songs. I became serious about composing my sophomore year of college and became a composition major. But I always kept playing oboe and was serious about that, too, and kept studying it through my master’s degree.
FJO: And you still play oboe.
FJO: So did you start out writing pieces for you to play yourself and then it gradually morphed into writing music for others?
SM: Well, my earliest pieces were songs for voice and piano, but they weren’t always for me. I remember in my first composition class that my first piece was for oboe and accessories. My next piece was for marimba and voice. Then I branched out writing for all kinds of instrumentations. My final project for that class was for trombone choir. That was a disastrous piece because it’s not very idiomatic for trombone. It was very high and contrapuntal, so it totally fell apart in the performance.
FJO: How many trombones?
SM: I think there were maybe ten parts, but I honestly don’t remember. That’s definitely in the trash bin.
FJO: But you went on to write a piece for multiple oboes called Inner Life of Song which I think is pretty incredible. There’s no date on the score or in your notes, so I don’t know when that piece happened.
SM: I think I wrote that in 2015.
FJO: I love how open-ended it is. It can be for any number of oboists, and it’s a graphic, indeterminate, conceptual score. It is instruction-based, rather than something with a lot of complex notation, so it seems like it could be put together relatively easily.
SM: Definitely. That’s the idea. It’s a communal experience. It’s very experiential. Of course an audience can listen to it, but it’s more about the experience of the performers and their listening because it’s a deep listening piece where I want them to really feel the collective multiphonics and get deep into the inner life of the sounds. It’s very approachable for students who’ve never played multiphonics before. They can just try them out, and if they mess up in the performance, or they don’t speak in the performance, it’s okay, because there are usually other people playing at the same time. I hope that wherever there’s a large group of oboists, like at a double reed festival or in studio class, they could play that piece. It’s my offering to groups of oboe players who want to have a collective experience playing multiphonics. There’s an International Double Reed Society Conference. And then there are also regional double reed days that a lot of universities have.
FJO: I imagine it’s much harder to put together a performance of one of the Döppelganger pieces. I studied the score for the third one, and it looks pretty hard. That’s not something that could be done by a pick-up group.
SM: That is a virtuosic piece for sure. But I personally like to play that piece a lot, so I’ve played it with my teacher from Memphis and with lots of different oboe friends. It’s a nice bonding experience with other oboists.
FJO: Most of your other pieces don’t really involve the oboe, so you don’t really perform in them. Even though you still play oboe, composing became your main activity. So when did that happen?
SM: I really started identifying as a composer in my sophomore year of college. I’ve definitely liked writing for myself, but I saw that as a small part of my work as a composer. I have written one more piece that’s oboe-centric called Sixty Degree Mirrors. I don’t have that on my website, but I’m going to be making a recording of it with Ghost Ensemble in June, so I’ll definitely put that up when I have the nice new recording.
FJO: What’s the story with that piece?
SM: It’s for flute, oboe, accordion, harp, bass, and viola. It’s called Sixty Degree Mirrors because that’s the angle of the mirrors in a kaleidoscope. All these little sound objects are played and repeated with slight variations. It’s a very fractured form. Imagine different things in mirrors. Then, at the end, a lot of it is based around multiphonic harmonies in the oboe and flute together.
FJO: Your titles frequently seem to reflect a core structural element in the music. It seems there’s often a really intense concept which generates the music, so I’m wondering what generates those concepts. Does a title come to you before the music or perhaps a concept that you flesh out sonically and then title?
SM: Maybe not exactly the title, but a little kernel of an idea. Oftentimes it comes to me like a flash of inspiration. I then figure out the details of how that will work and can bring it to life. That’s the excitement of composing for me. I am a very conceptual composer. I like structuralist ideas that I can flesh out formally; that’s really how I work. It could be a combination of a sonic concept and a formal concept. Maybe sometimes also an extra-musical concept.
FJO: When I was looking at your score for The Braid, I spotted something that really seemed like a musical parallel to the concept of braiding, which is the really detailed undulations of the dynamics. Each of the musicians start out playing super quiet, getting slightly louder but still quiet, then going back to being super quiet, but at different times. It’s like contrapuntal dynamic levels. It’s a very strange idea, but I imagine it came from having an idea about braiding and then trying to figure out how to make it work musically.
SM: I have to give credit where credit is due and say that I got that idea from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet. She has little dynamic fluctuations and intertwining voices. I also wanted to use different timbres that can really blend together. It’s a piece for cello, percussion, and clarinet. I wanted to hear the beating between those instruments and play with the subtle threshold of being able to distinguish them as different instruments. I think I thought of the concept of the braid, but not the term braid, then I did it and I thought of the actual word for it.
FJO: I should have recognized the connection with Ruth Crawford Seeger, but I didn’t. Although, to get back to Dissolving Bands, at times it sounds quite reminiscent of Charles Ives.
SM: Definitely. It’s a very New England-y piece, because it was for the celebration of the town of Lexington, Massachusetts. So I definitely channeled some Ivesian ideas.
FJO: And in FastLowHighSlow, I feel like you’re channeling Elliott Carter.
SM: I wasn’t thinking of that at all, but I think that’s a perfectly valid connection to make. What do you see as the connection?
FJO: The superimposition of fast and slow music simultaneously, which is something Carter explored a lot in his string quartets.
FJO: Each of the movements is a different permutation of these fast/slow/high/low possibilities. So did the idea come first or did the music come first?
SM: I knew I was writing the piece for violin and piano, but definitely the concept came first, trying to have very obviously slow music cohabitate with very obviously fast music. I’m really into binaries and trying to explore extremes of musical axes like pitch and speed. So I thought I could have this boundary of duration: in two minutes, I’ll have as much fast music and slow music as possible within the bounds of these two instruments. Then I knew I would name it something like FastLowHighSlow because, like you said, that describes the concept and the whole persona of the piece.
FJO: Hearing music that’s simultaneously fast and slow is very disorienting.
SM: Well usually the fast dominates, I think. We hear that as the foreground because it’s very active. One of the reasons why I wanted to repeat the exact same material in the different movements is then I think it dawns on the audience that there’s this slow thing that was in the first movement but now it’s in the totally slow movement. They can trace that and have a deeper understanding of the form after hearing multiple movements.
FJO: And then you have an optional fifth movement that requires two violinists and two pianists.
SM: At the premier performance, my friend Susanna realized that there are these musical motives that are repeated, four musical things together in different permutations, but only with two instruments. And she said, “You could have all four of them together if you had two violinists and two pianists.” I totally agreed. That really makes sense formally to kick it to the logical extreme. It would also be very climactic and exciting to have four people for the last movement—piano four hands and two violinists. There actually has been a performance with the optional fifth movement at my concert at Spectrum in October. It was really awesome.
FJO: So are these two additional people hidden somewhere? How does that work?
SM: The second pianist, Mila [Henry], was turning pages for Jacob [Greenberg], so the page turner became the second pianist. And then Erica [Dicker] came up from the front row [and joined Josh Modney]. It probably wasn’t a surprise because it said their names in the program, but it could have been a total surprise.
FJO: Yeah, I think it would be better if it was a surprise. Maybe wait to give people a program after the concert’s over.
SM: I like that idea.
FJO: Or perhaps it could be done with pre-recorded tracks.
SM: I don’t think that would be as good. I think it would be kind of weird to add an electronic element. It’s better live.
FJO: It’s just harder to have two more people. Violin and piano duos are very common, but there aren’t a lot of ensembles made up of two violinists and two pianists.
SM: Yeah. It’s definitely not the most practical movement, which is why it’s optional. Maybe not with an established violin and piano duo who do a lot of recitals everywhere, but any time it’s possible with piano and violin friends it could happen.
FJO: So even if you weren’t consciously channeling Carter in FastLowHighSlow, you’ve also channeled Alice Coltrane in a piece you wrote for youth orchestra which you called—quite directly—Ode to Alice, and in White/Waves you very indirectly channeled Beyoncé.
FJO: When the electronic component first appears [in White/Waves] it sounds a lot like a theremin, but then all of a sudden there’s a giant full-range sound. I thought it was really cool, so I looked at the score to see how you notated it and you simply have this phrase “convolved Beyoncé sound” which is something I don’t completely understand and never would have associated with that sound.
SM: I’m actually glad that it’s not too obvious sonically, but the way I achieved many of those sounds in the electronics part is that I took a chord from “Pretty Hurts” by Beyoncé and used convolution to combine it with ocean wave sounds. The Beyoncé chord is the impulse response. It’s like hacking the impulse response reverb to harmonize the noisy sound through the tone-filled sound. Convolution is a reverb hack that you can do in a convolution reverb module like, for example, in Logic. The space designer is a convolution reverb, meaning that the reverb takes a replica of a space by using an impulse response—taking a loud sound in a space that can algorithmically be applied to the sound to make it sound like it’s in that space. For an impulse response, you usually use a really short one-sample loud sound, but you can use convolution in a different, more creative way by instead of using just a one-sample loud sound for the impulse response, you can use any sound for the impulse response, like a chord from Beyoncé. Or you could convolve Michael Jackson and bees. Anytime you take a noisy sound and mix it with a sonorous sound, it sort of imbues the noisy sound with the tone of the harmonious sound.
FJO: So you sampled a Beyoncé recording, but it’s almost the opposite of the way a sample is used in pop music. Those samples are usually about being audibly recognizable reference points, which is why rights need to be cleared in order to use them. But I can’t imagine that anyone would be able to hear that what you’ve done is based on a sample.
SM: I hope not. I hope Beyoncé doesn’t get mad. My justification for why it’s okay is hopefully that it’s not very noticeable. People can’t tell that it’s Beyoncé. It’s more like using her beautiful B-major chord as a harmonic tool.
FJO: But if you’re going to sample something and people can’t tell, then what’s the point of sampling it? Isn’t part of the point of sampling to reference something in order to make a commentary on it and turn it into something else?
SM: But I’m actually not referencing Beyoncé in this piece. It just happened that I wanted to use it sonically. I could have used a chord from many other possible places, which is why Beyoncé is not in the program notes or anything. It’s just a sound that I made that happened to come from that place. I don’t know if it’s that important that it is that chord in a way. I just was experimenting with different convolution ingredients and that one sounded great, so I went with it. I knew I wanted a big sonorous pop chord. That was the qualification that I was looking for and I found a good example of that in “Pretty Hurts,” so I tried it. It worked great and I went with it.
FJO: It’s funny because when I heard that chord it reminded me of the sounds that R. Luke DuBois got from collapsing the full pitch and timbral ranges of pop songs and distilling them into single chords in his piece Billboard. There as well, if you didn’t read his program notes, you’d probably have no idea where those chords came from even though they matter to him and also matter to the structure of his piece, which is derived from how long each No. 1 hit song stayed on the Billboard chart.
SM: I’m very into the catalogue and big data-style pieces that Luke is doing. I think that’s really fascinating. But in this case it is just all about the sound and I wasn’t trying to be referential at all.
FJO: Pop music seems utterly removed from your own sound world as a composer. Do you actively listen to Beyoncé or anyone else in pop music?
SM: I definitely love Beyoncé, and I’m really into that album. It’s part of my life for sure.
FJO: But in a way, your use of that chord is an aberration. It’s not your usual method of working. It’s less about the sound following from a concept. The sound is its own thing. You put it in as an ingredient, but there’s no larger metaphor for why it’s there.
FJO: But still, you’d never sit around playing the oboe or the piano and come up with something and think, “Oh, I want to turn this into a piece.”
SM: Usually not, although that’s somewhat what happened with Döppelganger. I was playing a really high G to A-flat trill. I found a cool fingering that made it really easy to do. But that was more of an outlier.
FJO: Now the only other thing that I have heard in your music thus far that’s anywhere close to the lushness of that full-range convolved Beyoncé sample is what you’ve done in your sound installations with all the harmonicas, which you first did at the Waseca Art Center in Minnesota and then at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.
SM: I consider Harmonibots and MEGA-ORGAN two different pieces. They have the same sonic and production concept, so they’re a part of the same series. The concept is I create inflatable sculptures and I then affix deconstructed harmonicas to holes in the sculpture. You take off the outside case and the inhale reeds and just leave the exhale reeds, so the comb channels the air through the reeds properly. I use heavy duty fans. I have a bunch of them in my room. I’m trying to get rid of them now, or find a place to store them. I’m very attached to them, but for logistical reasons, I think I have to get rid of them.
All you have to do is fill the sculpture with a lot of air pressure. Then the harmonicas will play all ten notes at the same time. Pitchwise it’s just three octaves of a major triad and then one extra tonic note on the top. I organize the harmonicas into different keys, basically. In Harmonibots there’s a big section of C harmonicas, a big section of G harmonicas, a big section of A, and then a dissonant corner where there is a mixture of B-flat, D, and E-flat harmonicas. Then I used a home automation system that I repurposed for the motion sensors. When people trigger them, basically then it turns on certain sections of the harmonibots. It’s a very simple machine. The air turns on. They fill up. They make a beautiful sonorous chord. Then, when there’s no motion, they deflate and make a sagging decrescendo. Because of the different tonal centers, you can create different harmonies by exciting different sections. So for Harmonibots, which I did in Minnesota, the sculptures were made of garbage bags and they were kind of tall. Part of the piece was watching them unfurl and grow upwards. I thought of them like a fungus or like an animal, but they’re very fragile.
For MEGA-ORGAN, I wanted to make it more interactive. I wanted to encourage people to change the articulation by physically laying on, squishing, and touching the bots—in MEGA-ORGAN, I call them the bellow beds because it’s drawing from this metaphor of the organ. People can play the beds like bellows. And the timbre really sounds like an organ, so that really connected well with the idea at Judson. At Judson Memorial Church, their organ doesn’t work anymore. This piece was up next to the shell of the organ, and I visually integrated the mega-organ into the space and see it as a sort of revitalization and re-sonification of their organ.
FJO: Since these pieces are installations, they have no precise beginning or end. People can stay there for as short or as long a time as they want. But I feel like it would have a lot more impact the longer you’re listening and the more details you hear, like the clashes of these different tonal centers overlapping. Did people spend a lot of time wandering around the sounds, or just pass by?
SM: I think it totally varied. Some people would just stay for a few minutes, but some people stayed for hours. The most audiophile nerdy people stayed for hours and hours; it was very self-selecting. The nice thing about an installation is you can make it however long you’re into it. And, of course, I agree that I think it’s more fun the longer you stay there.
Two of the sculptures in MEGA-ORGAN were like little tents that have a bunch of harmonicas inside. That was the most intense listening space, because if you put your head inside, they were blowing right at your ears. It was really loud in there, and it would be a really big D-major chord. Then, when you’d step out, all of a sudden you were able to hear the rest of the chords, so you could sort of just design your own tonal adventure in a way.
My original concept was I was going to precisely tune them in some way to make it more microtonal, but then once I stared working with them I realized that I didn’t need to do that. They’re so unstable that it wouldn’t really stick anyway; the tuning of mass-produced harmonicas is not very precise. Then I realized that because it’s not precise, it’s really complex and microtonal the way that I wanted it anyway, like, right out of the box. If you have 20 harmonicas in the same key, they’re not going to produce a perfectly in-tune triad. It’s a very detailed dis-chorus-y microtonal sound, which is perfect because then when you move your head around, you just hear totally different pitches popping out. That worked out really well without me changing the tuning of the harmonicas.
FJO: How many harmonicas do you need to build one of these installations?
SM: Well, Harmonibots had I think about 80, and MEGA-ORGAN has like 110.
FJO: Where’d you get the harmonicas?
SM: From Amazon.
FJO: Harmonicas are cheap, but once you start adding them up it can get pretty expensive.
SM: Yeah, it is definitely expensive. I had a commission from the International Alliance for Women in Music for Harmonibots, and I went over budget. And then for MEGA-ORGAN, I had a project grant from New Music USA, and I went over budget again. But it’s okay. It’s worth it to me.
FJO: You need to get rid of all the industrial fans because you’re about to move to Chicago, but are you keeping all the harmonicas? They’re smaller, but over a hundred is a lot and since you’ve deconstructed them you really can’t use them as harmonicas again. They could only be used in another incarnation of this series of installations.
SM: Well, all the harmonicas that I used in Harmonibots, I used again in MEGA-ORGAN, and now I’m planning to save them and use them again for the next installation. I don’t know when that’ll be, but I do plan to do another one, so I’ll definitely repurpose them for the next installation. I don’t really want to think about that yet. Doing an installation is so much work, and it’s such a headache moving all the stuff everywhere. I just need a break from that for a while, but I’ll definitely do it in the future again.
FJO: Even though in these cases you don’t have to deal with the whole rehearsal process with musicians for really hard music, the amount of planning is massive and it’s laborious production work.
SM: To build the mega-organ I made the sculptures out of a composite bunch of air mattresses that need to be connected together, so I cut them apart and re-melted them together using a technique where you have two strips of tin foil and you put them around the two pieces of plastic and use an iron to melt them together. And then you only get a little bit of it melted together. You have to be very precise, so it’s a very long and laborious process. I became like a craftsperson melting these giant sculptures together. It’s really fun, but it’s something that I can’t and don’t want to do all the time.
FJO: And it’s another one of these things where you can’t completely know what it’s going to sound like until you’ve got them all there. It’s very different than hearing, say, a string quartet in your brain and then fleshing it out on paper. Instead these installations are very much in the spirit of Cageian experimental music. We’re going to set all these things up and then we’re going to find out what it sounds like.
SM: Well, before I did Harmonibots, I had the original idea and I just started making prototypes. So I sort of knew what it would sound like just from my experience making them in the past. But definitely—the whole composite piece, the space, and how people would play with it, was definitely going into the unknown.
FJO: We haven’t talked about pieces involving texts yet, but you’ve done a lot of very unusual things with text. When you have a text, it’s a lot easier for an audience to perceive the concept of the work because the words are something people can latch onto. Take something as abstract and yet as direct as your choral piece Sing Their Names. By just having the chorus sing just names of people who were killed, without any additional commentary, you’ve made a very powerful statement that’s also emotional without in any way being sentimental, which is very difficult to do especially when dealing with such a sensitive subject.
SM: I knew that I had to be very careful if I was going to write a piece relating to Black Lives Matter. I saw a poster that had a list of just pictures and names of people who had been killed by police, and I thought that I could make a memorial out of it. I know that a lot of other artists and composers are making music relating to Black Lives Matter, and so I saw this as a contribution to a genre that already exists and is growing. I wanted to be abstract in that most of the time you can’t really understand the names in the piece, but maybe a few of them emerge in the end that you can hear. Basically my musical material was octave leaps that go up chromatically and a melody in parallel fifths. The process of the piece is that slowly, over time, the micro-polyphonic octave leap-y part morphs into the parallel fifth chorale part. The reason I picked those musical materials is octave leaps are very energetic yet static. So I saw it as a metaphor for the pace of progress, basically, the kind of almost futile feeling whenever you hear of another person being killed by the police feels like the octave leaps—no progress, basically. Similarly the parallel fifth melody is static, but it’s a much calmer sound, maybe a bit of hope. The abstracted syllables of the people’s names are a metaphor for erasure and the lack of visibility of the humans involved, and then in the end it’s maybe a little more visible. Those are the ideas I was dealing with. I think of it as a sacred piece that is supposed to be a requiem-like meditation on the people’s lives.
FJO: I recently thought of your choral piece in the context of this huge controversy over the display at this year’s Whitney Biennial of Open Casket, Dana Schutz’s painting that was inspired by a photograph from the funeral of Emmett Till, a black man who was beaten to death and whose face was disfigured beyond recognition in the process.
SM: I haven’t gone to it, but I know about the controversy.
FJO: I find it troubling that many people believe Schutz had no right to make such a painting because she’s a white person and this is not her story to tell. I think we all should be outraged that this man was killed this way. This story belongs to everyone and everyone should pay attention to it. I think a lot of people don’t know who Emmett Till was, certainly younger people who weren’t around when he was brutally murdered in the 1950s. If this painting raises the public consciousness that this thing happened and that we should all be outraged about it, I think it’s making an important statement.
SM: I agree that we should all be outraged about it. I guess I’m inclined to listen to the people who are saying this is exploitive use of the black experience, because we should listen to black people if they say to white artists that that’s exploitive. When I started reading about this particular issue, I started self-reflecting and thinking, “Did I do that?” I hope not. I hope it’s a little less appropriative. Sorry, but I don’t really have a great answer to that.
FJO: But as artists, we have to be able to tell the stories of what’s going on in our society. I don’t think any one group of people owns that narrative. If anything, we need to embrace all of these narratives. I think both Schutz’s painting and your choral piece call attention to deep wrongs by abstracting them in ways which allows space for people to reflect and feel the weight of these tragedies.
SM: Of course. I totally get what you’re saying about everybody chiming in on important issues of our time. But I think the problem that activists have pinpointed with the painting is that maybe this artist is profiting as an artist from using this highly charged image in a way that’s yuckily commodified. I guess that’s one way it could be seen as appropriation.
FJO: But the artist made it a point to state that this painting is not for sale. I don’t mean to put you on the spot with this, but there could be parallel scenarios for your choral piece. Let’s say it gets done all over the place. You sell the sheet music and you also get performance royalties. Someone could turn around and say you’re profiting from this thing.
SM: I would say that I see this particular work in the context of other works in a similar genre that other artists are contributing to this body of music about Black Lives Matter. If I actually did profit off this piece, which I haven’t so far, I would donate the profits to Black Lives Matter.
FJO: To take this in another direction, it’s very clear that the text is very important even though for most of the time it’s not audible. In Fly’s Eyes, you created your own language, which raises some interesting issues vis-à-vis text setting. In both pieces, you’ve gone against the grain. For Singing Their Names, your music captures the spirit of the text by not making it clear. In Fly’s Eyes, the text setting is clear, but it’s complete gibberish. The music marries the text, but the text actually has no meaning.
SM: The way that I actually made the text is I made a mixture of Latin, English, and animal sounds to give voice to different animals. The meaning of the text didn’t really matter; it was more the emotive quality that a voice can give. Babies can portray a huge range of emotions with their voices; it’s not about the semantic detail.
FJO: With Glossolalia, you were working with a pre-existing text. But once again, it’s not really clear from the setting what the text is about. And, in a way, the setting is about it not being clear. Even the title, Glossolalia, means speaking in tongues, so it’s about obfuscation to some extent.
SM: With that piece, the poem itself is very surreal and abstract. It’s just sort of a list of words and a list of malapropisms. It makes sense as a glossolalia, but maybe not as a narrative.
FJO: With an opera, of course, there is a much greater expectation regarding narrative. You wrote an opera this past year and so you really had to foreground a text in a way that you had never done before. But the story you foregrounded in your opera Why We Bleed is a very peculiar one. There have been a lot of very overtly sexual operas in the last decade, but I don’t think there’s ever been one where the three singers are two spermatozoa and a uterus.
SM: The idea originally came from an article by an evolutionary biologist named Suzanne Sadedin called “How The Woman Got Her Period.” In that, she dramatizes the evolutionary reason why women menstruate—this concept of the zygote being an adversarial creature. The woman’s body has to vet and decide is this particular zygote is genetically a good investment. Considering all the risk and work that goes into pregnancy, is this particular zygote worth it? The way that Suzanne Sadedin wrote this article was extremely evocative and character-driven. So I thought wow, this is very dramatic. There’s a lot of deep possibility for symbolically dealing with reproductive rights’ issues, so I just decided to go with that story. My friend Emily Roller wrote the libretto, so she and I worked together on that.
FJO: So it was your idea but you chose not to write your own libretto, even though you’ve created your own texts for other pieces.
SM: With something like an opera, I would prefer to work with a librettist. I really like Emily’s work and value her ideas. I like to write a little bit, but I don’t think I want to write my own libretto. That’s a whole different craft.
FJO: The opera is relatively easy to put together—three singers and a piano—but I imagine if it had a full production, you’d want to maybe flesh it out more, orchestrate it and stage it. What would it look like on stage? How could you represent it?
SM: I definitely have plans for a fully-staged version of it. I’m not sure how much it’ll stay the same and how much it’ll change, but I am doing an opera with the University of Illinois Opera next year that will have a full sinfonietta and be more staged. The main costume/set piece is the uterus’ costume. Imagine a dress that’s so long that it flows across the whole stage and becomes this giant tapestry and curtain that engulfs the whole space. That’s how I’m imagining her costume will be, her costume and the entire curtain-y tapestry thing that creates the whole set.
FJO: So there’s going to be a staged production of Why We Bleed in Chicago next year?
SM: Well, I’m not exactly sure if I will define it as the same opera. It might be so different that it becomes a different piece. We might have another character. But I will be doing some opera that deals with the same themes in Urbana-Champaign.
FJO: Another piece you did, Lessina, Levlin, Levlite, Levora for speaking violinist, is also super provocative in terms of dealing with sexual politics. But for that you used a found text.
SM: I went through a process with the text first. I looked up all the FDA-approved devices and drugs for contraception. The first text was just saying the names of them. The second layer was adding advertising slogans for those particular devices and drugs. Then the third layer was adding the side effects, like at the end of the ad, you know, they have “heart attack, cramps, nipple discharge, high blood pressure“ in a quiet voice. For the fourth layer of text, I looked at reviews online of these devices and drugs, and added the users’ reports of their personal reactions and side effects. The whole piece was inspired by personal experience and my own struggle dealing with the medical, industrial, pharmaceutical complex and the way that that intersects with or intersected with my own body. I think that’s a really common and traumatic experience in a lot of women’s lives, so making that into music was a way to share that experience mostly with men who don’t understand that experience on a deep level.
FJO: I thought it was really interesting that it wasn’t a piece, say, for women’s chorus. It was a piece for a guy who’s playing the violin and sort of stating all of this at the same time. I imagine it’s pretty hard to do.
SM: Yeah. I think Josh [Modney] definitely rose to the challenge, and he likes doing it. The hard thing was nailing the text expression. The easy part was the violin part because the violin part’s very easy.
FJO: Do you want it to always be performed by a man? Is that the point?
SM: Yeah, that’s part of it.
FJO: You’ve pretty much written every piece we’ve been talking about in only a few years, which is a lot considering everything else you’ve been doing—completing your degree at Columbia, teaching at The Walden School, and now you’re in the midst of a move to Chicago.
SM: In the last five years I’ve pretty much written all those pieces. I do have a really busy life. I’m stressed a lot. I’m always behind on my deadlines. I’m always scrambling to get the next thing done. I have to just say no to some more things in the next few years and focus my time a little more intentionally on projects that I really love, that are really are good for my career and artistically satisfying.
FJO: We’ve been talking about pieces emanating from getting an idea and then fleshing it out musically, but sometimes I imagine what happens even before that is that somebody wants a piece and there’s a commission involved. We didn’t talk about Density Dancity, which I think is extraordinary—it’s nothing but chains of multiphonics. It’s a crazy, crazy piece. But I don’t imagine that you said, “Oh gee, I want to write a piece for tenor sax and piano.” I imagine that the player came to you and said, “Could you write me a piece?”
SM: Yeah, that’s what happened. Jim [Fusik] and Karl [Larson]’s duo commissioned me to write that piece and I was very happy about it. I play oboe with a lot of chained together multiphonics. I wanted to work out a similar thing with tenor sax. That happens a lot. I love collaborating with people. Each new opportunity that comes with a musical relationship is amazing. I think that’s weaved into the whole process of getting an idea and fleshing it out which is usually before, “Will you write a piece for me? Here’s the instrumentation.”
FJO: Sometimes saying yes to something maybe doesn’t get you a performance in Carnegie Hall, but it could lead to other things that might ultimately be more rewarding. For example, Ode to Alice, which is very different from most of your pieces, was written for a student group and perhaps because of that—correct me if I’m wrong—maybe you can’t do all the wild, crazy, extended techniques and microtones and things that you might want to do, but it allowed you to focus in another way. Based on the performance you have up online, the students who did it put tons of work into making it happen and, looking at the score, it is not at all basic music by any stretch of the imagination.
SM: I am very open to and excited about writing for student ensembles or amateur ensembles, because I think these are great opportunities for building community through contemporary music and just having great social experiences. This is why I love weird contemporary music and sharing it with the next generation. So with Ode to Alice, definitely I felt like this was a piece that’s my music. Maybe it’s a little technically easier than other pieces, but it’s not an easy piece. Totally, like you said, they puts lots of work into it. The students sometimes have these wild noisy solos and they really did a great job; they weren’t fazed by the extended techniques. I definitely thank their teacher, Dan Shaud, for being a great advocate of contemporary music. They’re going to play it in Niagara Falls next week. So it’s going to go to Canada.
FJO: I’d love to follow up on what you just said about liking weird contemporary music. I grew up in an environment where contemporary music was perceived of as this weird, off-putting thing, but I think there’s an attitude today that it’s not this weird, off-putting thing; it’s actually kind of cool and fascinating and actually more interesting than the stuff that isn’t weird. So how do you convey that enthusiasm to somebody who hasn’t heard it and doesn’t know what it is? How do you present yourself as a citizen of the world to turn people on to all these crazy ideas—like two sections of an ensemble being a quarter tone out of tune with each other, which is a pretty kooky idea?
SM: I think a lot of it is sharing my own personal perspective on it—just show how much a particular sound excites me and how beautiful I think it is. I think that’s sort of contagious, or at least let’s people perceive it as a beautiful thing, or something that some person thinks is a beautiful thing. I also think that exposure, experience, experiential education, and experiential pieces are really a great way to do outreach. I participated in a workshop version of this new piece Pan by Marcos Balter that has audience participation with tons of people, and that’s something I think more composers should do: write music that has a participatory role for amateur musicians or for just audience members. Doing Harmonibots and MEGA-ORGAN are really important parts of my outreach because people can engage with them on all kinds of different levels. They can be the nerdy audiophile who likes to hear the different tones for three hours, or they can be the person who likes to just fall onto the mattress and hear the sound change, and that will maybe hook them to try other pieces of mine or other composers. The ideal listener for me is just somebody who is willing to go there with me, to listen deeply, to try to follow my trajectory for the piece, and who is willing to be surprised or be actively listening and making predictions or making inferences. That’s all I ask.