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Beyoncé’s latest album Renaissance made international headlines last week when Australian disability advocate Hannah Divineycalled out one of the album’s songs, “Heated,” for using an ableist slur in the lyrics and Beyoncé subsequently agreed to re-record the song without that word and replace the track. Earlier this summer, the electronic music community was up in arms when an advance promotional video for that album made for British Vogue showed the pop icon scratching an LP with her fingernails. It turns out that it is a performance technique created by San Francisco-based experimental artist Victoria Shen, who performs under the moniker Evicshen, and she was not credited. But soon after the outcry, the appropriation was acknowledged and Shen was offered an apology. Both of these stories show that even if Beyoncé’s creative team is not always completely careful choosing all the details, they are paying very close attention to how people are reacting to her work on social media. And in Shen’s case, it actually gave her a new level of notoriety.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen) and her needle nails. (Photo by Caroline Rose Moore, courtesy Victoria Shen.)
“The fact that my work was able to reach a much broader audience than I would have been ever able to have, even if it wasn’t credited at first, I think, is kind of amazing,” Shen said when I spoke with her over Zoom a few weeks ago during her residency at Wave Farm. She also pointed out that the concept, while visually startling and aurally fascinating, is perhaps not the most radical idea. “It’s just kind of like a natural thing. I also used to do nails, so this is a kind of thing where you think somebody would have done this already. It’s sort of low hanging fruit. But of course it takes both someone who used to do nails professionally and does electronics that had to make the bridge.”
As I would soon learn upon digging deeper into Shen’s creative output after she was first mentioned to me by my New Music USA colleague Ami Dang, who also creates electronic music and is a huge fan of Shen’s work, the needle nails technique is just one of many new approaches to making sounds that Shen has used in her performances and sound installations. After hearing and watching a segment of her extraordinary Zero Player Piano, in which disembodied piano strings and hammers are positioned along an ascending staircase and triggered remotely, I knew I had to talk with her.
“That was the gateway into more physical, electro-acoustic things I’m interested in now,” Shen explained. “To me, it was definitely a Modernist strategy … Something that’s self-reflexive. Something that is medium-specific. Like: what is a piano? How far can you push it to its logical conclusion while still maintaining we’re still arguing that it is within the medium of piano?”
Although some of her work can sound quite austere at times, Shen is ultimately suspicious of Modernist aesthetics. “I do like the Modernist kind of mission,” she admits, “but I know that it ultimately fails because all value divides contextually, arbitrarily. It could go in one eye and go out another, or it could be worth something based on some arbitrary factor which is like some institution assigns value to it. Or some kind of cultural capital gets ascribed to it. That’s bullshit. And we all know that, so how can we use things that are hyper, or super full of meaning, I call it the landfill of meaning. I use that in some recognized tactical way. I think I try and create this interface between non-meaning, that which is noise, and that which is over filled with meaning, and then take that interface, that line, and mine that for different conclusions as to how we derive our sense of value.”
Shen is also ambivalent about whether or not she is a composer, even though all the sounds she makes are completely her own, often including all the devices she uses to make them.
“I’m not a composer, I think mainly due to the fact that I don’t work with other people. I think composers really shine when they’re able to provide a set of instructions for other people to execute their work. … I think I’m much more of an improviser than a composer. I think part of composition, at least traditionally, is all about having a pre-packaged work being shipped out and executed, realized anywhere. And so for that, you want to control expression of your piece. You want to control the space in which it takes place. And it’s all about control, control, control. To me, it’s sort of the McDonald’s of sound.”
As for Beyoncé, Shen remains a fan though she doesn’t imagine that the two of them will ever collaborate.
I really doubt that she even knows I exist. I think her PR person knows I exist, but that’s as high as it goes. … I would just love to play at her mansion, to play a pool party or something with needle nails, it would be great.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen) during a performance on February 23, 2022. (Photo by Matt Miramontes, courtesy Victoria Shen.)
I just like being able to put in different sounds together at the same time. So Chinese opera, ltalian opera, swing music.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
I’m a very technical person, but everything I do is by feel and not by the interest in pure math or manipulation in numbers or anything like that.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
My identity is something that is completely inescapable. I do like the Modernist kind of mission, but I know that it ultimately fails because all value divides contextually, arbitrarily. It could go in one eye and go out another, or it could be worth something based on some arbitrary factor which is like some institution assigns value to it. Or some kind of cultural capital gets ascribed to it. That’s bullshit. And we all know that.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
I think I try and create this interface between non-meaning, that which is noise, and that which is over filled with meaning, and then take that interface, that line, and mine that for different conclusions as to how we derive our sense of value.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
The rules of music are also arbitrary. So anything that exists outside of these rules is considered experimental or noise. But that’s the freeing thing; there are no rules here.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
In anything that I’ve released on vinyl, on tape, on Bandcamp, digital, I think I’m playing the role of composer with those pieces. But otherwise, I’m not a composer, I think mainly due to the fact that I don’t work with other people.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
Part of composition, at least traditionally, is all about having a pre-packaged work being shipped out and executed, realized anywhere. And so for that, you want to control expression of your piece. You want to control the space in which it takes place. And it’s all about control, control, control. To me, it’s sort of the McDonald’s of sound.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
I always loved experimental music. I was listening to a lot of noise rock and IDM and even psych-folk stuff in high school. But harsh noise was something that was cracked open for me by Jessica Rylan.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
I like to dance a lot. I don’t necessarily consider what I do in my performances as dance, but it could be considered movement.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
For me there has to be some kind of grounded-ness, some kind of gold standard. And the gold standard I think for us is always going to be the human body.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
This is why I think improvisation is so good. It’s because you’re risking it all. With composition you can feel really safe because you have an expectation and that expectation is met. If it’s not met, if it’s underwhelming, then oh well who cares, right? But risk and the position of possible failure I think is very important. ... Failure happens all the time! I’m like, oh I have an idea, it’s spur of the moment improvisation. Let me try this out. Uh, will it fail? Sometimes. Is it embarrassing? Maybe. Move on. You know, but I think that is a point that is compelling for people.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
I did not grow up with records. My earliest memory is listening to Peking Opera on a cassette tape with my mom and we were splitting the ear buds. I wasn’t around records. I had some records, but never really messed with them.
Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
I would just love to play at her [Beyoncé's] mansion, to play a pool party or something with needle nails, it would be great.
Composer/Bassoonist Joy Guidry shares how they protect their own mental health while exploring personally traumatic content in their art. We discuss their critically acclaimed debut album, Radical Acceptance (2022), which traces Joy’s personal experiences of Bipolar Disorder and PTSD. Joy differentiates between the harmful nature of forcing oneself to relive a traumatic personal memory in order to create art, and the act of reclaiming and transforming one’s experience through communal storytelling. Lastly, Joy shares what they wish others knew about Bipolar Disorder and how musical institutions can be more ADA compliant and accessible.
The only thing that is almost as exciting as watching and listening to a multimedia performance by Pamela Z is to hear her talk about it, which she does for almost an hour in a fascinating conversation that spans a wide range of topics including: creating and performing during the pandemic; her artistic beginnings as a singer-songwriter and how she transitioned into an experimental composer; a difficult encounter with TSA agents; dealing with constant changes in technology; and her obsession with old telephones.
Although Pamela is a composer who is mostly focused on creating new sounds by new means, it was extremely interesting to hear her describe her occasional frustration with the ephemerality of so many of the devices on which we all have become so dependent.
At one point she exclaims, “There are a lot of people in the world who all they care about is changing things. They don’t get attached to something. They really think everything is oh so yesterday, so six months ago. That is not compatible in a way with becoming virtuosic on anything. Building an instrument that you can become virtuosic on without having to pause every few minutes to update it and then change all of the things that no longer work with the update and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I always jokingly say: ‘Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a violinist or a cellist or something and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one. And by the way, we’ve made the fretboard a little narrower because you don’t need all that extra space?’”
And yet, those technological changes and sometimes the strange glitches and disconnects that result from them have informed so much of this San Francisco Bay Area-based maverick’s creative work. Attention, a work she created for the Del Sol String Quartet, will forever change your perception of telephones ringing. Baggage Allowance will make you rethink your next airplane trip when it is safe to take one again. She hopes Times3, her sonic installation created for the 2021 Prototype Festival to accompany a walk around Times Square that has now been extended through April 30, 2021, “cues people into the thought of expanding their imagination to past, present, and future of whatever place they’re in.”
The time we’re living through right now is turning us all into filmmakers.
One of my least favorite things is to see somebody making the awkward effort to make their performance visual just because they think that’s expected.
I’ve actually been telling people that if they do have the chance to go and listen to the piece in Times Square that I also encourage them to have another listen to it, not in Times Square.
I suddenly woke up one day and realized that the music I was playing for a living did not resemble what was on my turntable.
I spend just as much time going to visual art museums and galleries as I do going to concerts.
Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a cellist and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, “Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one.”
Nothing dies on the internet. Well, except Flash.
Pamela Z’s quest for new solutions which create problems that are also an integral part of the resultant work also informs her brand new Ink, a work which includes some surreal reflections on how musicians interact with notated scores which will be premiered by the San Francisco-based chorus Volti in an online performance on April 24.
Aside from learning more about all of these one-of-a-kind compositions, it’s a delight to hear all of her stories since, as anyone who has experienced her work already knows, she is an extremely engaging storyteller. Our time together over Zoom was a non-stop adventure except for, perhaps appropriately, the occasional internet connection hiccup which we mostly were able to fix in post-production editing.
One of the most exciting aspects of Imani Winds is their commitment to new music from a diverse repertoire of composers, which makes sense given that they were founded by a composer. But what about Valerie Coleman, the composer?
In our first conversation with Valerie, we barely scratched the surface of her compositional activities. Since then, these have become her primary artistic focus. Valerie has recently been chosen to participate in the Metropolitan Opera / Lincoln Center Theater New Works program, a perfect fit for her given her commitment to storytelling through her music, no matter the idiom.
I’m not somebody who writes based on the intellectual side of composition, but rather on the side of addressing what it is within all of us.
When I got into college... I started to recognize, whoa, maybe composers are supposed to be White male and not Black female.
It’s so important that educators encourage and not discourage in what they do.
I’m very excited about Amplifying Voices ... I envision working with young composers of color and helping them to find their voice.
It’s our responsibility to convey that story to the performer in such a way that is not cerebral.
A composer doesn’t necessarily have to choose any story to tell. That’s just how I identify and it’s because of what my ancestors have gone through.
The thing that we’ve always worked towards whenever we play music is the idea of playing together. Note for note. Beat by beat.
So the launch of Amplifying Voices seemed like a perfect opportunity to reconnect and have a conversation about her own music—her aesthetics, her inspiration, and what she hopes she can communicate to listeners.
“That’s just how I identify and it’s because of what my ancestors have gone through,” she explains. “I feel it necessary to tell their story, but also really just embrace this idea of how to walk in the world and inform people around me. … I recognize that there are stories that are yet untold that if they were told, they would transform all those who would hear them. So it’s my job to create music that allows that transformative power to happen.”
It’s hard to believe that our sit-down talk with composer, flutist, and vocalist Nathalie Joachim was a mere 23 days ago. So much has changed in the world for everyone. I imagine that many of us have now spent weeks sheltering in place—if we have been lucky—in our own homes with no foreseeable end in sight in order to protect ourselves and each other from the further spread of a deadly pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives around the globe.
But I have to remain confident and believe that Nathalie’s exuberant, forward-looking attitude about music-making and her inspiring comments about how she came to follow her creative path still represent our collective future. It’s something I believed about her music the first time I encountered the debut album of Flutronix, her duo with Allison Loggins-Hull, nearly a decade ago which I then described as “a strong case for a post-stylistic, post all-powerful-single-auteur-driven music, one that allows multiple voices to share in the shaping of a music that is equally indebted to and comfortable in several musical lineages.”
At that time, and in fact until our conversation on March 7, I had no idea how Nathalie and Allison met or how they decided to make music together. It was fascinating to find out that they actually discovered each other via MySpace and that when they finally met in person they immediately decided to collaborate.
“So that day Flutronix was born,” Nathalie remembered. “Our rapport with one another was super natural. Not supernatural, but it was very natural! We just sort of hit it off. Sometimes you just meet your people and you know. And Allison was that for me. We just shared that instinct. Immediately we were like, ‘Alright, well there’s no music for two flutes and electronics or two flutes and beats. Who’s writing that music?’ Right away, we were like: ‘Alright, we better get to work, because if we’re going to play some concerts, we need some music to play.’ We started writing music right away.”
It was a sea-change from Nathalie’s experience as a classical flutist studying at Juilliard.
“If you’re a performer, it becomes a little bit harder for you to engage as a composer at this school,” she explained. “That wasn’t something that I could do within the curriculum, because I would have had to formally audition to do that. And up to that point, it had never even occurred to me to call myself a composer, even though I was experimenting with writing music. I had a deep interest in exploring different styles. I was doing a lot of song writing with my grandmother, but unless I could formally present someone with a score of mine, I just wasn’t going to be studying composition at that school, at that level. Not to mention the fact that the people who claimed that title of composer did not look like me, did not live like me, and did not write the music that was coming into my brain.”
Still, she concedes that her time at Juilliard, which began in her childhood as a student in the Music Advancement Program through the Pre-Collegiate Program and progressed through her undergrad years, has provided her foundation as a musician. No matter what genre of music she finds herself involved with (or, more to the point, what genre other people might assign to her), she acknowledged that her in-depth study of classical music “informs my understanding of every other musical style that I engage in.”
In fact, she confessed that at one point in her career an internal “obligation … to the classical world” she was feeling led her to question whether the music she was engaged in was “serious” enough. At the same time these thoughts were tugging at her, she received an email out of the blue from Lisa Kaplan from Eighth Blackbird asking her if she’d be interested in auditioning to be a member of that celebrated contemporary music ensemble. Although she was just beginning to receive commissions to compose works for other musicians and Flutronix continued to be an important focus in her musical life, she auditioned, got the gig, and moved to Chicago.
“It was an incredible experience,” she said. “But for me it was very challenging. … I was the only one who came to the group with this kind of band identity with Flutronix, if we’ll call it that. My sort of alter ego. And I’ve got this composition work that’s starting to brew and I come with this different music education background, but I also was so challenged right away with touring; you kick up with what that schedule is. Everybody else in the group, when we weren’t on tour, they were home with their families, taking a rest. Not that anyone’s taking it easy in that group, but I was just fitting in these other parts of my career in the midst of that. So I was ridiculously busy. I almost was never at home when everyone else was at home. I was really working constantly around the clock to succeed in all of these other ways. I think I didn’t realize how much everything else would take off at the same time that I joined the group.”
During her last two years with 8bb, Nathalie began developing Famn d’Ayiti, her most significant musical undertaking to date. A celebration of her Haitian heritage, this song-cycle cum sonic documentary cum concept album ties together multiple strains of her composite musical identity, merging her classical training, her singing traditional folksongs with her grandmother, and even her early explorations of audio production and sound design. It received rave review from “classical” music critics and even managed to fetch a Grammy nomination in the “World Music” category.
“It was interesting to have ended up in a category that I think no one else saw me popping up in,” she admitted. “I’m committed at this point in my life to making music that is true to me. And so I’m happy for it fall into whatever box it needs to.”
Not to date myself, but I happened to be on MySpace when I was in my first year of grad school at the New School.
There’s no book that you’ve read and there’s no piece that gets printed in the newspaper that doesn’t also have an editorial eye that’s not the writer’s.
I was allowed go to Tower Records and to Ollie’s, which used to be an old Chinese restaurant, and Barnes and Noble.
When I first arrived at Juilliard, I knew very clearly in my mind that I did not want to be an orchestral musician.
The people who claimed that title of composer did not look like me, did not live like me, and did not write the music that was coming into my brain.
My family in Haiti was often like: It’s strange that anybody even pays you to make music. We all make music. Everybody makes music. That can’t actually be your job. It’s just who we are.
We felt it was important for us to lean into more of a commercial side or pop side of what we were doing, because at that time we were still getting this questioning eye from classical corners.
I had this piece of my brain tugging at me that’s like: Are you a serious musician still?... Right at that moment, in my inbox comes this email from Lisa Kaplan of Eighth Blackbird asking me to audition...
I gained a lot of respect for composers.... What piqued my interest most was this opportunity to engage with other artists in a different way.
It’s not really about the finished product. The premiere of the work is the beginning of the life of the work.
In America we seem to be absurdly attached to needing something to fit into a box.
So much of my career has been spent in classical music, so it was interesting to have ended up in a category that I think no one else saw me popping up in.
Towards the end of our hour with Nathalie, we talked about what was to be the next live performance of Famn d’Ayiti at the extraordinary Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she was also scheduled to appear on a panel about defying genre, organized and moderated by New Music USA’s own Vanessa Reed. Obviously neither of those events happened, since the 2020 Big Ears Festival was one of the many casualties of the waves of cancellations that hit the performing arts community in the past few weeks. Nevertheless, we decided to include that part of the conversation after a section break at the very end of this transcript to reflect on what might have been and what we must continue to hope will be again after we get past the current hiatus in all of our lives.
Bryce Dessner is the first person we have ever featured on NewMusicBox who glowingly talked about both Paul Simon and Helmut Lachenmann. Like many of the most inventive creative musical minds of the early 21st century, Dessner does not compartmentalize music into different genres. However, it is clear that he has learned different lessons from his immersion into different kinds of music-making and that these lessons have made him a stronger musician, whether he is writing songs and playing lead guitar in the indie rock band The National, co-scoring the soundtrack for the motion picture The Revenant, or composing a double piano concerto for the Labeque sisters.
“I find scores to be a very advanced form of technology,” he opined during our hour-long conversation with him at the Archives of the New York Philharmonic immediately after a rehearsal for his composition Wires (for which he joined the orchestra on electric guitar for three consecutive nights in between their performances of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius). “With digital music, or sequence music, whether it be using Pro Tools or GarageBand or Ableton, or whatever, everything is based on patterns and loops,” he elaborated. “With a score, you see very clearly how to defy that. You can write across the bar and the sense of form is much more fluid and asymmetrical. In that way, in fact, I use score a lot in the band to create some of those details. We’ll write a song that’s basically doing the same thing for four minutes, but then I’ll look at it in a score and I’ll create patterns and motion in it that maybe would have been hard to see if I was just playing an Ableton loop or something.”
But scores can also impose limitations, as he then acknowledged. “Right now I’m in a season of needing to liberate myself from … that kind of isolation of looking at music and manuscript, and to be closer to instruments and to this idea of sound and the physical relationship of when I’m hearing notes played, I’m also feeling the bodies playing them. This physicality of music obviously translates the most when I’m on stage with my instrument. … So the balance of those things, maybe to capture that kind of lightning or that physical energy and then put it into a composition, has been something that’s really evaded me but has also excited me at times.”
Bryce Dessner has never been content to rest on his laurels. He’s always eager to explore something different. When he was asked by Sō Percussion to create a companion piece for David Lang’s The So-Called Laws of Nature, he wound up creating a new instrument for the members of that quartet to perform his visceral Music for Wood and Strings. Similarly, The National’s song “Lemonworld,” from their breakthrough album High Violet, was a by-product of Dessner messing around in the studio and tuning his guitar “all the way down until the strings were almost flub.” While he was composing Wires, the piece he performed with the New York Phil, he literally wrote himself “emails every day with large caps saying, ‘NOT ALLOWED TO DO THIS’” in order to try to “break old habits.”
“Part of why I’m drawn to doing this is because I’m still learning,” he explained. “I’m trying to be humble about my art and to be open to trying new things and also to say, ‘I don’t think I know.’ I’m dialing in deeper to what my true voice is and not being scared to try things.”
Dessner’s fearlessness about taking risks coupled with his openness to and fluency in so many different kinds of music have made him an ideal ambassador, not just between musicians from different backgrounds, but also with audiences. This has made him an ideal music curator, a role he has had at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival in 2010, at the Cincinnati’s MusicNOW Festival, which he founded, since its inception in 2006, and most recently at a NY Phil Nightcap concert last month. Ultimately, the experiences that Bryce Dessner has acquired and now shares as a musician are valuable life lessons that can be applied to all human interactions.
“I’m happy to be a kind of diplomat if people need me to be,” he said. “I find when you come into a room with judgment towards someone who is different from you …, you automatically cancel out all kinds of exciting possibilities that can happen.”
I learned more about electric guitar from Steve Reich than I did from Jimmy Page.
We kept failing in trying to write a Nirvana-sounding song, so I just decided to just tune that guitar all the way down until the strings were almost flub.
In Europe we’re all just a bunch of Americans.
I love hearing the personality of a player and what they bring to it.
I do love American string band music, American folk music, even some early country stuff.
The 21st century is less about ideology, at least in music.
More and more I see people leaving cities, giving up living condensed in a pressured environment where you have crazy stress trying to pay your rent and nowhere to rehearse.
Having a conversation with Andy Akiho is a lot like listening to his music; it’s a high-energy adventure bursting with ideas and full of all sorts of serendipitous synchronicities. The first of these synchronicities is that Andy lives on Monroe Street in Lower Manhattan, which is where we met up with him. This is the same street where John Cage lived when he wrote many of his important compositions for prepared piano and percussion ensembles, idioms that have played a significant role in Andy’s output since Cage is one of his heroes. And perhaps an even more extraordinary coincidence is that Cage wrote those pieces at the same age that Andy is now and that Andy only discovered all of this after he moved to Monroe Street.
Of course, while Andy’s earliest compositions were scored for percussion ensemble and one of his most significant pieces to date is the solo prepared piano tour-de-force Vicki/y, the instrument that has figured in Andy’s music more than any other is the steel drum. As it turns out, around the same time that Cage was creating his landmark prepared piano and percussion ensemble works in the late 1930s and early 1940s, musicians in Trinidad started incorporating struck pieces of metal into their ensembles, eventually tuning discarded industrial oil containers and thus was born the steel drum.
But again, Andy becoming obsessed with steel drums also happened somewhat by accident. He was initially attracted to hip-hop and rock—his older sister played in various bands—when he was growing up in South Carolina. But at college, also in South Carolina, he got exposed to an extremely broad range of approaches to percussion including bebop and West African drumming, and then a couple of his teachers introduced him to steel drums. After he graduated, he went down to Trinidad to immerse himself further and was hooked for life.
Andy eventually found himself in New York City arranging music for weddings in the Caribbean-American community for large ensembles of steel drums. But he wanted to expand his timbral palette and find a way to combine steel drums with other instruments. Another chance encounter, a conversation with his former classmate Baljinder Sekhon, convinced him to audition for the Bang on a Can Summer Residency Program and to apply to Manhattan School of Music to pursue a master’s degree. He was accepted to both and found some formidable mentors in David Cossin and Julia Wolfe, with whom he eventually also studied composition privately.
The rest, as they say, is history. Though not completely. Andy’s story is still being written. He is still trying out new ideas and is open to discovering other approaches. He’s eager to write more vocal music, as well as score a film. But he still usually begins almost every composition he writes—whether it’s a string quartet or a concerto for two ping pong players and orchestra—by tinkering around with ideas on the steel pan. But not always, as he explained:
I’ll do other things, too, like I’ll go to an instrument I can’t play, like a piano, and come up with material and then apply that to the pan. I try to do it all different ways. But I do want to say it’s not weird to me; it’s weirder to me to think about a guitar, even though that seems like it’s more linear. If I try to pick up a guitar and try to think of melody, or learn it, or understand where the notes for the chords are, I’m a mess. At the same time, I accidentally discover some things that I wouldn’t do on the pan because I’ve been playing it for so many years. You go to certain comfortable places. Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.
May 10, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Andy Akiho in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Akiho’s apartment in Two Bridges, Manhattan
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: I was thrilled when I learned that you live on Monroe Street because this is where John Cage once lived.
Andy Akiho: A year after I was here I found that out doing a paper at Princeton about his Sonatas and Interludes that he’d lived here. He was the exact age I was when I was doing the paper. So I felt really connected somehow. He’s one of my heroes. I’ve always felt that way, but especially now. It was like “You’ve got to be kidding me, because [Monroe Street]’s only three blocks long.
FJO: But sadly, the building where he lived is no longer there.
AA: I walked over to see. It’s a school now, I believe.
FJO: He was forced to move when the building was torn down in 1953.
AA: Oh, I didn’t realize that.
FJO: But it’s interesting that you didn’t know about this until after you moved here. It’s quite a coincidence, since during the years he lived here he wrote most of his prepared piano pieces and many of his pieces for percussion ensemble—and both the prepared piano and percussion ensembles have figured very prominently in your own music.
AA: I’ve always been influenced by those pieces, even before I was a composer.
FJO: I’d like to learn more about the period before you were a composer. I know that you were trained as a percussionist, but how did you become interesting in being a musician in the first place?
AA: My older sister practically raised me; she’s almost exactly ten years older than me. And when she was a teenager, she was like kind of a rock star. She never took it too seriously, but she had a double bass and a drum set and she was playing in bands. I wanted to be like her, so she would teach me drums. And that’s kind of how I started. I think I was around nine or something, but then I got a little obsessed with it. So by the time I got in middle school and then high school, I drummed all the time. I couldn’t read music, but I was trying to drum, starting with drumlines and then I started learning to read notes more in college.
FJO: And you have a couple of performance degrees as a percussionist.
“I was kind of obsessed, so I just majored in percussion.”
AA: There was such a gap. I never thought I was going back to school. I went to University of South Carolina. That’s where I grew up and I just went to college where I grew up. I was very fortunate to even have an opportunity to go to college back then. I was kind of obsessed, so I just majored in percussion. But I got involved in a lot of different ensembles—everything that had to do with drumming: playing West African drums, steel pan, orchestra, band, a little bit of everything.
FJO: I was wondering about how you first got involved with steel pan because I wouldn’t necessarily associate steel pan with South Carolina.
AA: It was a really awesome time when I was in school there. It was just a lot of new opportunities and a lot of great influences. We had a Professor Chris Lee who was really into West African drumming and steel pan and going to Trinidad. And my professor down there, Jim Hall, was really into that, too. So they had a steel pan program. Around the time when my colleagues and I went to school, we were really into different things. I was the steel pan guy, one guy was the jazz guy, and another guy was more the composer-percussionist. We were all different, but while we were there, we were into everything. I was probably even more into West African drumming then; my goals and plans were to go to Guinea like a lot of my friends did. But for some reason, I really got into pans, and then I went to Trinidad a lot, especially right after undergrad.
FJO: So you studied with players in Trinidad.
AA: When I was finishing up, I also did a student exchange program. I went to North Texas for a year and I got really into bebop. I wanted to play steel pans with that. I think it was the combination of being really inspired by the jazz musicians out there and being inspired to bring something new to steel pan, then going to Trinidad and playing with large orchestras and feeling that energy. It was like a full orchestra of these things; it was symphonic. I played I guess the equivalent of a violin in the orchestra for the steel pans. Everything was taught by rote. I remember one year I learned my part from like basically the “cellist.” That’s how well they knew everybody’s parts. And these are like crazy, intricate things. It was almost easier to learn by rote than reading because you feel the rhythms different. It’s really internal.
FJO: So, perhaps a dumb question, is there a consistency from steel pan to steel pan about where the different notes are?
AA: No, that’s a really good question. There is, but there’s a lot of differences, too. There’s a tradition of so many changes. For example, my steel pan is called a tenor pan, but it’s actually soprano range. It starts from middle C, and it goes to about the F above the treble staff.
FJO: Is it fully chromatic?
AA: Fully chromatic. In Trinidad, they normally start on the D above that, because they can pierce through the orchestra more. So for range, and to play with 30 others—any of the altos, the “cellos,” the bass—it actually sounds better orchestrationally and acoustically in a different range. Mine’s called a Spiderweb fourth and fifth lead, so it’s a circle of fifths, upside down from the diagrams you see in schools. My C is right next to me, and then it goes in fourths and fifths. But that’s a newer invention. It’s probably 40-ish years old now, 40 or 50. Before that, there was an Invader’s lead, and on that the octaves aren’t even next to each other. It’s incredible how it’s set up. There’s like this random F-sharp right in the middle. But it actually sounds better, because of the way the overtones work. But it wasn’t as practical as a learning device, because it was just everywhere. And they have other pans. I wrote a steel pan concerto for Liam Teague, and his is completely different. So I took a picture of his, and wrote the notes and put it up on the wall to work out something idiomatic. His is a completely different pan and he’s the only one in the world that plays that one. But they’re all about the same range.
FJO: So no one else could play the piece you wrote for him.
AA: No, I’ve played it. I always had it in mind that I wanted it to work on both. So it was more like if I was doing something with four mallets, I just wanted to make sure he could reach it, that it was physically possible.
FJO: Another thing that’s really fascinating about the placement of the notes on all these steel pans is that they don’t go left to right from low to high like many instruments around the world or even from low in the middle to high on opposite ends like African koras or mbiras.
AA: Well, if you’re thinking in patterns or shapes or colors, it’s just another platform. Like with the human language, we might structure a sentence different: you put the verb first or you put the noun first. It’s the same kind of thing. I feel fortunate that when I was first learning how to read pitches, it was the same time I was learning how to play steel pan. I was quicker at learning pan than I was at marimba or piano, because it just came to me; it was all right there. With marimba, I got so worried about missing a note that’s a millimeter off. But with the pan, I just felt like it was all right there, and I just felt really comfortable. So it made sense to me more.
FJO: The tactile element of it is very interesting. The other thing I wonder about, too, is that because of the way it’s patterned, it probably gets you to think about different combinations of notes than you would if you were creating from a piano or a marimba. People always talk about how Chopin’s music is so pianistic; it’s really based on the tactile experience of him sitting at a piano and working through ideas. As a result, certain kinds of figurations emerge in that music which are directly based on how the instrument is designed. Same with like Paganini on the violin, Jimi Hendrix on the electric guitar, Ravi Shankar on the sitar, all the great virtuosos who created their own music. But because steel pan has this other way of setting things up, when you then take those ideas and work them out for other instruments, say, writing for a string quartet, since steel pan is in the DNA of how you think, it creates a different kind of music.
AA: Exactly. That’s why I feel very fortunate that I can come up with material on the pan for other instruments. I recently wrote a clarinet quartet piece for David Schifrin and there’s a whole movement that’s a clarinet solo. I wrote it all on pan. Then I worked out phrasing and slurs, but it was all on the pan first. Hand written, then I adapted it to clarinet. But I didn’t change the notes or anything. So it was really coming from that place. I wrote a saxophone quartet one time, and it was all written on the pan. All the parts. As was my first string quartet.
“You go to certain comfortable places. Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.”
I’ll do other things, too, like I’ll go to an instrument I can’t play, like a piano, and come up with material and then apply that to the pan. I try to do it all different ways. But I do want to say it’s not weird to me; it’s weirder to me to think about a guitar, even though that seems like it’s more linear. If I try to pick up a guitar and try to think of melody, or learn it, or understand where the notes for the chords are, I’m a mess. At the same time, I accidentally discover some things that I wouldn’t do on the pan because I’ve been playing it for so many years. You go to certain comfortable places. Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.
FJO: You mentioned earlier that when you were in school there was a composer-percussion guy and you were the steel pan guy, but you became a composer-percussion guy, too. When did that happen?
AA: I looked up my friend Baljinder Sekhon and he was going to Eastman after we were roommates in undergrad. After we finished, I moved to New York eventually, this was within a few years, and he moved to Rochester to study composition. He started taking that more seriously than percussion. And while he was up there, I was here playing on the streets and playing in weddings in the Caribbean community. I was also arranging for these steel orchestras in Brooklyn. I would arrange stuff for like a hundred players, but it was only steel pans. I loved it, but I felt like I wanted to experiment a little more with timbres. I’d love to write for a violin one day, or cello. But I didn’t know anybody. I remember calling him one day in January, and I was like, “Man, it would be kind of cool to write for other instruments.” And he was like: “You got to go back to school, because you don’t know one classical musician in New York.” I’m like: “No, I only know the Caribbean community.”
So he told me about the contemporary performance program they started in 2007 at Manhattan School [of Music]. I’d been out of school for over six years by then. I hadn’t read a sheet of music in six years. I was just playing gigs and trying to make it as a steel pan artist in the city. When he told me about that program, he also told me about [the] Bang on a Can [Summer Residency Program]. I found some old footage of me seven years ago in college playing and I submitted that. I had like two days to submit it and I didn’t know what I was submitting it to. I just knew it was cool because he did it. And I got lucky. I got to do that, and then I went and auditioned at Manhattan School. I had to relearn marimba and relearn percussion. I went and auditioned there and that’s where I met classical musicians. And I was really inspired because I was around a great group of really hungry and inspiring musicians. So I just started writing for them. It was just very organic. It wasn’t like I’m going to try to study composition. But at that same time, I was fortunate enough to be able to study with Julia Wolfe outside of school. So I was in school as the contemporary percussion guy, playing with all my friends in that program and then I was able to write for them in a very awesome experimental laboratory in school there.
FJO: Nice. The earliest piece you list on your website, Phatamachickenlick, predates all of that. I’ve looked at part of the score, but there’s no audio for it. Is that your first piece?
AA: I guess officially, yeah. I mean, that was my drumline days. I used to skip class in high school and just go in the woods with a snare drum and play for hours. That just came out of me playing with my friends, coming up with rudimentary solos. It’s not a good piece. I didn’t ever think of it as a composition or anything. It was just like: “Hey, play this.” I could write out the rhythms, because I knew rhythms, but I couldn’t read notes back then or anything.
FJO: But you’ve got a score of it on your website.
AA: Yes. It’s fun. I think literally everything I’ve ever written is available, unless it was like some random assignment like: “Hey, write for your friends in one hour for tomorrow.” Maybe I should take that down, but I’ve kept it up there.
FJO: So do people actually order it?
AA: Yeah, I got two orders yesterday. But that’s also a coincidence, because not many people do. I always feel bad. I’m like: “Man, I hope they don’t think this is like a real piece.” But it is what it is. It’s a duet; it’s a rudimentary snare drum duet that I wrote in my hard core drumline years.
FJO: And then there’s another really early piece for much bigger ensemble called Hip-Hopracy.
AA: I consider that my first composition. I definitely didn’t consider myself an aspiring composer or anything. I just wanted to write a piece for my senior recital at University of South Carolina. So I wrote it for all my friends I was telling you about. We were a really tight crew. And I was like: “I’d love for you all to play on my recital.” So I wrote for the whole percussion department and wrote each individual part based on them. It was more like Duke Ellington style. Like you’re the right guy, you’re the right gal. My girlfriend at the time was in a hip hop dance class. She was a dancer. So they choreographed it; it was a kind of collaborative thing. We were always working with dancers. It was just a way to end my recital and a fun way to be creative. What’s funny is that piece is like Cage or Lou Harrison, but I didn’t even know really what that was back then. I knew when I studied it, or when I played in percussion ensemble, getting those influences. It’s written for ceramic bowls. I’m still writing for these same bowls. I literally have like ten sets right here. I remember going into stores back then and picking out the right pitches, then I based the piece off of those. I just found sounds; it was just a natural way to do it. I could do that before I could write on a piano, for sure.
FJO: So that piece is more like Cage and Harrison than hip hop, even though you titled it Hip-Hopracy.
“I grew up on rock and hip hop, and probably everything else except classical music.”
AA: I just called it that because it was for a hip hop class. It wasn’t trying to do anything. But I grew up on rock and hip hop, and probably everything else except classical music. I never grew up listening to Beethoven or anything. I do now.
FJO: So you didn’t have a connection to so-called classical music. But what you wound up doing was finding a way to incorporate the ideas that you had into the medium of writing down music that other people play, which is kind of an odd way of doing music to most of the world. You said before that you wanted to write for violin. You thought it would be cool.
AA: I guess it’s not that straight forward, even though I said that. It was more that I wanted to experiment with pan, mixing with other timbres, whether it’s a ceramic bowl or a violin. I just wanted to have a bigger playground to work in and different timbres to explore. It wasn’t just for the sake of doing it or trying to write for strings. I really enjoy just working with any kind of new timbre combination, so it actually felt very natural and organic. It didn’t seem that odd to me because at first, it was to write pieces for myself to be able to play with friends. It was almost like being in a rock band when you’re a teenager: “Let’s come up with some material. I got these ideas. Hey, you play this on the bass.” That kind of thing. But I was old enough to know that I need to be pretty clear about it. I was pretty aware that the notation had to be pretty clear. So I learned as I was doing it. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I would meet with friends, and be like: “Hey, what’s the range of this? What’s possible? Can I write a few things down? Can I record a few things?” I would learn how the instruments worked based on having to do it.
FJO: So some practical things about making these instrument work together—two things immediately come to mind if you’re combining strings and pan. There’s finding the appropriate acoustical balance, getting the volumes right, so there are questions of where to position everyone. Are there things that work, things that don’t work? And then there’s the whole question of intonation. How closely do the pans match the pitches of the other players?
AA: With pan, there are so many overtones that I think it can blend with any family of instruments. And if it’s tuned really well, I think there’s a lot of potential for that. It’s funny because I think about these questions more now than I did then. Then I was just naïve and just going for it. And I think that was more exciting sometimes. I didn’t think about intonation. I didn’t think about balance, or any of that. I was just like: “Let’s just do this.” I didn’t have anything to lose, either. It wasn’t like I had a commission deadline. It was like: “Oh, we’re going to have a concert at school; let’s put something together.” It was a lot of experimentation without any pressure of it having to work. And for some reason, sometimes it worked better. It was not a fatal mistake if you do something wrong.
FJO: So what would be something wrong?
“I do things wrong all the time.”
AA: That’s all subjective. I don’t know. I do things wrong all the time. In the first piece I wrote at Manhattan, I just literally tried to do everything. There was a huge fan that a trumpet played through. There was a 16-foot pipe that the trumpet played through and it bounced off the walls. And a contrabass flute—the first time I wrote for flute, it was for contrabass flute, alto flute, and regular flute—plus trumpet, steel pan, percussion, piano, and bass clarinet.
FJO: Yeah, that sounds like a real practical piece.
AA: And we were also shattering glass everywhere.
FJO: I didn’t notice that piece on your website. That one’s not up there, is it?
AA: I’m not sure.
FJO: So you didn’t put everything up.
AA: I might have, if I had the parts, then it’s up somewhere. Or I have to find the parts maybe.
FJO: So the next step after writing these pieces to play with friends is that you started writing pieces that you were not playing in. How did that whole transition happen?
AA: This was all a very compact year. This is 2007 and it was all pieces that I played in. And in 2008, I got into the Bang on a Can [Summer] Festival, as a composer this time. My first year was as a performer. I somehow faked my way in. Got lucky. Then I wrote all year. And, I don’t know, for some reason they let me in as a composer in 2008, and the instrumentation they gave me didn’t have myself in it. It was for the performer fellows. The first time I didn’t write for myself was that piece. It’s called to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem. I don’t even think I started it on the pan. It was a really interesting exercise for me.
FJO: So you started composing it in your head.
AA: No, I played around the piano. I remember I experimented a lot with the vibraphone, and I was messing around with rubber bands a lot back then. I put these rubber bands on there. And I just kind of improvised for hours and hours, then I started to record myself.
FJO: But you eventually rearranged that piece for percussion ensemble.
AA: Yeah, that was for the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Dave Hall, who runs the percussion department there, asked me to write a new piece. But it was a very short timeline and I wouldn’t have had time to rewrite a brand new piece. He was really into harlem, so somehow we came up with the idea to just make a new arrangement of it. But I didn’t want it to be just an arrangement. So I was like, “Let’s take the same music, but I’m really going orchestrate it, not just make it work, not just take the clarinet part and put it here. Just rework the entire piece.” The piano part is pretty much exactly the same, though. That’s the one thing I kept. I spent a day with them working out some of the kinks, and then they performed it, and they did that video and I thought it came out really nice. It was really great.
FJO: I think so, too. What’s interesting is that it’s clearly the same piece, you can hear the melodies and harmonies, but it has a different flavor somehow.
AA: Yeah, definitely.
FJO: The timbres really shape what you’re hearing.
AA: Yeah, it’s so important. I mean timbre and rhythm are the world I live in.
FJO: That’s the mindset of a percussionist.
AA: Yeah, I guess so.
FJO: Another key ingredient is the tactile element. Of course playing any instrument is a tactile experience but there’s something about percussion that heightens that aspect, I think. And I would venture to say that your sensitivity to this tactile element informs how you write for other instruments. One example that is particularly striking to me is the two-harp piece you wrote for Duo Scorpio, Two Bridges. It’s totally unexpected, because it isn’t what harp music usually sounds like, because you approach the harps like percussion instruments, which is why I think it’s so cool.
AA: Oh, thanks. I met with them many times. The harp or the piano, anything I can touch and feel, even strings, they’re the closest thing to percussion to me. If I can start to understand it and wrap my head around it, I feel I can work with that instrumentation better, so I was lucky. I was up at Avaloch Music Institute up in New Hampshire and I was finishing up my piece for Duo Scorpio, and there was a harp duo there, a different harp duo. They went out to lunch one day, and I was like: “Can I mess around? I might use some credit cards and stuff. Is it cool?” And they were like: “It’s cool.” They knew I would respect the instruments, and I wrote the whole first movement in like an hour or two. I videotaped myself just playing on these techniques, messing around with a finger cymbal, a chopstick—I created that first movement just from this experimental place.
It’s also kind of parallel to bridges being built. We’re in [the] Two Bridges [neighborhood] right now, and that’s what the piece is about. So the Brooklyn Bridge is those kind of industrial sounds. But then the second movement is all harmonics. I met with them and learned all I could about how that technique worked—the best kind of range for it. And they taught me how the pedals work. And then in the third movement, I just tried to put everything together.
FJO: Now the titles for the first and third movements are numbers. Are those the years those bridges were built?
AA: I think the years that they were officially opened.
FJO: But that one in the middle that’s all harmonics you called “Audio Sun.”
AA: I just pictured being in the middle of the East River—it would be kind of gross. But if you were down there, playing these bridges as if they were harps, the reverberations you would hear underneath the water would be very echo-y. I had to try to capture that.
FJO: There’s a guy named Joseph Bertolozzi who makes music from playing on actual bridges.
AA: Oh, that’s cool.
FJO: But you’ve come up with this other idea, using the harps as a metaphor for the bridges. It’s also really effective and just beautiful.
AA: Aw, thank you.
FJO: But it’s interesting because I heard the piece way before I saw the video of the performance, so I didn’t know how a lot of those sounds were being made because I couldn’t see it. It still totally worked as abstract music thing. Another piece of yours along those lines is Vicki/y, the piece you did for Vicky Chow.
AA: It was inspired by Vicky Chow and Vicki Ray. When I was at Bang on a Can in 2007 as a performer, Vicki Ray did a masterclass on preparation, and it reminded me of learning about this in undergrad with Cage and stuff. So it brought all that back. She was showing us that you could bow the strings and you could pluck them. Then she showed us the dime and I was just blown away with the way the dime sounded woven in between the three strings in the piano. That stuck with me. After that, when I started school at Manhattan, I met Vicky Chow. She’s phenomenal. I was always inspired by her being able to play in an ensemble and I learned from her and a lot of the other musicians in that program. And then that next year, I wrote a piece based on those techniques.
FJO: So you didn’t come up with the dime thing.
AA: No, I didn’t. Though, what was crazy is I really couldn’t find examples of that. I was influenced by Vox Balaenae by George Crumb. That blew me away, too, but I was trying to find examples. I didn’t really see anything, so I really credit Vicki Ray for showing me that. And what I tried do is I experimented with exactly where it was. I found out if you pushed [the dime] all the way up the sound board, or whatever the end of where the strings are, it keeps the fundamental, but it has crazy overtones, so it’s basically like a gamelan or like a steel pan. It’s like a super-saturated steel pan. So I felt at home writing for that, and then I just based the whole piece on that. It’s only on eight pitches, but I didn’t want to create it all to be about that.
“A lot of people think I’m trying to do novelty things, but it’s really the world I live in where I feel I can create the most.”
A lot of people think I’m trying to do novelty things, but it’s really the world I live in where I feel I can create the most. It’s not just a cool effect. A lot of people will think it’s like trying to be some kind of gimmick, but it’s really just where I feel at home. So I did that and I experimented with it. I created this scale that was like a palindrome, and worked around with that. I remember finishing the last page—it was all hand written back then—and handing it to Vicky about two hours before the concert at the Stone. I think it was November 1st, 2008. I remember handing her that last page and she killed it.
FJO: Yeah, her performance of that piece is awesome. But before we leave the dime thing, dimes are so thin. I’m curious if you experimented with other coins: quarters, nickels.
AA: I think I did, but I realized really quickly that even a penny’s too big. It will touch the other strings. Even a dime sometimes can be too big. I did a piece for Anthony de Mare, an adaptation of the prologue of Into the Woods by Sondheim. There are two dimes and a poster tack. I remember we recorded up at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the dime was actually too big. It was touching the other strings. I remember going to a car shop when we went on lunch break and they were soldering stuff and welding. I found some washers and I was like, “Hey man, can you take a millimeter off this?” We just needed a little less than a dime. Zzzzzhh. I went back and it worked perfectly, because it was thin enough. It was as thin as a dime, and it worked, and it kept the fundamental without making the other pitches ring, too.
FJO: I thought you were going to say you went to a convenience store, got some change and tried other dimes, since they’re not all necessarily exactly the same.
AA: That’s true. Yeah. But I needed to take off more than just the little nuances. For some reason, the strings were thin in that model of piano. I never really had that problem with dimes before.
FJO: Interesting. Once again, this is another thing that no one would know if they only experienced it on an audio recording. Now, with Vicki/y, I heard Vicky Chow’s recording of it before I knew how any of those sounds were made and I hadn’t seen a score for it, but then I saw the video for it you posted online which lets everyone in on its secrets. It was really interesting to actually see how the sounds were being created, but the video is actually so much more than that; it’s almost like a pop music video.
AA: Oh, thank you. Gabriel Gomez did that video and did a really incredible job. He’s a friend of Vicky’s, and she really loved the work he did before. He works in all kinds of mediums. Definitely not just music. He did a really cool film with Robert Black, and we were just blown away, and we all kind of hit it off when we first were talking. We set up a Dropbox folder and put a bunch of videos in that inspired us, just random stuff, not necessarily music videos and photos, and a description of what I was thinking with the piece, and he just came up with this very beautiful narrative.
FJO: One of the details I love about this is that it’s clearly her performance, but it’s your piece, and the film weaves you into it as the composer; you’re like this like creepy bystander.
AA: I know. I’m such a creeper in that film. It’s hard to watch that, because it’s hard to see me on something like that. But Vicky’s an incredible artist. She came up with that transfer. It was just a really beautiful concept. We filmed some of it in New Haven, in East Rock Park, and we saw this blue heron. And then he incorporated that in the film, too.
The white piano we used in the end of that is the one I found on 131 and Broadway, when I lived in West Harlem. I lived on 133 and Broadway and found that piano outside of a church; I saw it there for like two days. So I went and asked. I was like: “What are you guys doing with this thing?” And they were like: “You can take it.” I never owned a piano in my life. I pushed it up the hill, right by the 1 train, on these really crappy wheels that were all rusted. Luckily my building had an elevator.
Every note had three notes because every string was so out of tune. A friend of mine was in town from West Virginia that tunes pans. He tuned the piano; it was the first time he was tuning a piano. So then I had that piano, that same white piano, and that’s how I wrote Vicki/y. I wrote it on that primarily. I was messing with it. It was a cool piano. And I would just put the dimes in and everything. So then we were like: “We got to use this in a video.” It was living in New Haven because I was there for two years and my landlord let me keep it up there in the house that she owned. I called her to say we’re going to do a video and we want to finish it up here. So we took that piano out of there, did the video at East Rock Park and then we left the piano there. We left it in the woods. I don’t know why. We just thought it would be cool. But then my friend Sam and his friend Molly wanted to get the piano, so it’s in Brooklyn now, I think. They got it the very next day. They got a U-Haul and got it. So that piano has seen a lot.
FJO: You don’t have a piano here, except for a Schoenhut toy piano.
AA: I write with that a lot.
FJO: And you also have a big digital keyboard.
AA: Yeah, there are like seven MIDIs all around. They just sample. They get the job done. I have to picture the orchestra sometimes, the range, like okay, I know the trumpet’s here, I know the trombone, I just kind of picture it and sometimes I work with scales. Like I have one up there, and it’s got a million stickers with Sharpie notes all over it. So I can’t even really use it right now. It’s got duct tape; it’s for me to know where I am. I was creating on that for one particular piece.
FJO: Interestingly the thing that those keyboards are probably least good at is working on stuff that’s for an actual piano because you can’t prepare them.
AA: Oh yeah.
FJO: You can’t stick dimes in them, or if you do it’ll sound like something else.
AA: I’ll sample it. But if I do that, I’ll work at a real piano, and sample each note, and then plug it in there.
FJO: I have two thoughts that grew out of what you were saying about being this creepy bystander in that video. Composers who write music that other people play usually just sit in the audience. You are kind of a bystander. You’re not part of the performance. But you came from this background of playing music, and all of a sudden you’re now this guy who like lurks in the back. You wrote the piece, but to a lot of people who aren’t knowledgeable about this stuff, it’s difficult to understand what that means. Who’s that guy? What did he do? Oh, he wrote the piece.
AA: Oh, right.
FJO: What does that mean? I thought that video really effectively captured that relationship. There’s this transference in the video of that tattoo, which seems like a really nice metaphor for what happens when someone interprets music you wrote down. The music is transferring to somebody else who realizes it and makes it into sound.
“I could write all day, but it takes a life of its own through the performers—the way they interpret it.”
AA: It’s also the importance of the performer bringing the piece to life. I could write all day, but it takes a life of its own through the performers—the way they interpret it. Even more so with pieces where they’re in charge of picking out the timbres. In that piece, with Vicky and the preparations, the subtlety of moving things a millimeter or two makes a big difference. There are so many parameters. I guess you could say that with every piece of music, but I felt that especially with that piece, and working with Vicky, like it was really written for her.
FJO: We talked about the video being really effective, but you’ve posted extremely well-done videography of performances of many of your compositions. The video of Duo Scorpio performing Two Bridges is also really tremendous. And then there’s even a fascinating video for to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem which is this really intense and disturbing silent film about human trafficking. Overall you’ve really set a high visual standard for how you present your music to the world online, which is unusual in our community I think.
“I can’t sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ without going off key.”
AA: Well, I grew up on MTV. I would stay up for anything from Yo! MTV Raps to Headbangers Ball, back when MTV was videos all day long. Most Wanted, I was so into that. I think I’m more visual than, than aural. I learn things visually more. Even when I’m writing music, it’s visual; it’s synesthetic. I think in shapes and colors way more than I do the actual pitches. I’m kind of tone deaf. I can’t sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without going off key. It’s pretty rough.
FJO: We might have to make you sing that now.
AA: You don’t want me to do that. That could be dangerous. This is like so masochistic, but I used to take singing lessons just to try to get develop my ear. I was always the worst in ear training classes and I was super self-conscious about it, so it made it even worse.
FJO: This might explain why there hasn’t been a ton of vocal music in your output. There’s that really cool piece for loadbang based on haikus. That’s such an oddball ensemble. And none of them play an instrument that’s necessarily tactile. Right? It’s brass and winds and then a singer. That’s totally taking you out of your comfort zone.
“I love being out of my comfort zone, so my comfort zone is being out of it.”
AA: Right, but I love being out of my comfort zone, so my comfort zone is being out of it. I also wrote a piece called NO one To kNOW one, in 2009-2010 and that was one of my only pieces with vocals. And the piece I was telling you about that I wrote at Manhattan School that had a soprano.
FJO: Right. And NO one To kNOW one is really interesting because at the end, she’s rapping.
AA: Yeah, I never thought of it as rap, but I guess maybe I grew up on that a little bit. I was just thinking of a rhythmic way to say these words, but I wasn’t like I was going to try to mimic rap music and then people started calling that a rap. I just wanted to mimic the rhythm that was going on, and when I wrote the lyrics, it just all fit together naturally. I messed with the lyrics, and then came up with the rhythm and how that would be set, and then came up with the music, and it just kind of morphed.
I want to write for voice a lot more. I got more of a taste for that doing an opera this past summer. Writing my first real aria was really great. It really grounded me. It was a nice roadmap and a relief to have some kind of structure to write with and to try to interpret words. The opera is the first time I wrote with somebody else’s words. For loadbang, I wrote the words because I felt uncomfortable writing to somebody else’s words. Same with NO one To kNOW one and the MSM piece. Even though I don’t know how to work with words really, I felt more comfortable doing that. I’m not misinterpreting somebody else’s words for them to be upset with me.
FJO: To take this back to the music videos of your music, it’s fascinating how detailed they are in the way they show how specific sounds are being made, whether it’s the close up of the dime in Vicki/y or the swipe of the credit card against the harp strings in Two Bridges.
“I enjoy seeing where these sounds come from.”
AA: If I go to a show, I enjoy seeing where these sounds come from, learning and being inspired by that, and not to say: “Hey, this is how to do it.” But just to share that experience, to get as close to a different experience from going to a live show, a different experience from listening to a record, and a different experience than watching a music video. What was interesting about the videos you brought up, especially the harlem video is that I was thinking it’s gonna show the rubber bands, but he went in a completely different direction.
That was Michael McQuilken. We’ve worked together a lot on a lot of videos, and I feel like we’re on the same wavelength on a lot of things. I’ve always been very inspired working with him. He’ll just take something and run with it. It looked like I wrote the music to his film, but it was completely backwards. He sent me a treatment for every second. I was living in Italy at the time. I remember reading this and I was just blown away. What’s funny about that piece is it’s my most programmatic piece. Usually it’s very abstract, and people try to ask me what it’s about, and I have no idea because they all think it sounds programmatic. But with that piece, literally every sound has a story behind it. I mean like: that was a siren; that was me running into a taxi; that was the door slamming; that was the emergency room beeps at the hospital. I even sent him a treatment of what every sound meant when you listen to this CD. And then he sent me one back, he’s like: “Man, I’ve been talking with my wife and we want to present this story.” And she starred in the film, Adina. It was incredible what they did with that.
FJO: It’s amazing. This is what music and film can be when there’s a real synchronicity. And it’s interesting that the music existed first. Because obviously most of the time in the film industry, the music gets written later. There are people who are masters at this. The music fits the film so well and feels completely seamless, but to make the film fit pre-existing music is a whole different process.
AA: I know. He deserves so much credit for doing that. He’s also a really amazing musician, just incredible artist all around. We’ve taken other pieces like Prospects of a Misplaced Year, The World Below, where you’re super hyper into it, or NO one To kNOW one, where you’re seeing every single technique. You’re seeing how the sounds are made on the exact opposite spectrum, even the Duo Scorpio piece, he directed that as well.
“The goal is to really feel like you’re in the instrument.”
The goal is to really feel like you’re in the instrument. That’s something you can’t even get at a live show, unless you invite an audience on stage while you’re playing. I’ve tried to do that before, too. I got a little bit of that from being in Trinidad where you have like 50 people right up on you. Some are judging you, but most are really into it. They’re two inches from you. They’re almost in your instrument while you’re playing. There’s just so much energy in that and I enjoy when you can get a little bit of that in a music video.
FJO: So in a way, is that the ideal way to experience the music? You have two CDs out. Obviously, no one can see anything when they hear the CD.
AA: No I just think it’s another experience. Most of the time if you’re listening to a record or CD, you’re just enjoying the sounds. I like having multiple ways to experience something, whether it’s a narrative or whether it’s just aurally, or a combination of both.
FJO: Well to get to this idea of narrative, I didn’t know that every sound has a specific story behind it in to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem. Music is so abstract. If you’re writing a film score or a score for a ballet, or you have words that someone’s singing or a narrator, you have this other element that gives you the story line. Music on its own is not going to really do that, most of the time. Or at least, you might have an idea of what the story is, but someone hearing it is going to come up with something totally different. Ironically that film about human trafficking, which was set to to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem, is really the only time so far that you’ve worked with a bonafide story board in film, even though it was created after the piece was. So have you thought of ever doing a more typical kind of film scoring project?
AA: I definitely want to do that, without a doubt. I don’t think I necessarily want to be a full-time music movie composer, but I would love to do film.
FJO: You were involved with a staged production which I only saw little snippets of, based on Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. There are multiple narrative layers to this, Brecht’s play obviously but also the actual life of Galileo, the historical figure, as well as the specifics of that particular production. I imagine that those were all layers that theoretically determined, at least to some extent, what direction your music went in.
AA: Definitely, and that felt a little bit like composing for film, too. [The director] Yuval Sharon had a lot of specific ideas; it was his baby. He really understood what each scene represented and he knew what he wanted for every part, which was a challenge for me, too, because I’m used to coming from a very abstract space, and I had to be disciplined and learn how to really work with somebody who kind of knew what they wanted. It felt like writing for a movie, but it also inspired me to want to do those kind of collaborations more, because they’re bringing a whole other angle that I would never have thought of. That piece was interesting because I found out about it while living in Rome, and was sitting in the exact spot where Galileo demonstrated the telescope to the Pope in 1611. I met Yuval on Skype who knows I was sitting in the spot in my studio. And he was telling me about the project, and I was like: “Wow, this is crazy.”
FJO: That’s like living on Monroe Street and finding Cage. It’s trippy.
AA: Yeah. I don’t know, man. Maybe we’re in The Matrix or something. It’s like too many coincidences right now. It’s just weird how the world works like that. Especially in New York. A friend, Freddie Harris, whom I used to play with down in Trinidad a lot—on the second day I moved to New York, in 2003, I run into him. And he lived in Miami. He didn’t even live here at that time. I run into him. I hadn’t seen him since Trinidad. Kendall Williams, do you know him? He’s an excellent composer. He’s at Princeton now, and he was at NYU. I hadn’t seen him in probably eight years or something. We played next to each other in Trinidad, for Phase II, in 2003. And then I run into him at LPR and he was studying with Julia Wolfe. Another steel pan composer starting to study with Julia. Neither one of us grew up in that path to either do classical music or become a composer. We both played pan next to each other in Trinidad. There’s like a 160 players in that band and we happened to be the ones.
The first time I tried playing a shakuhachi, it was an epic fail. It was the spring of 1979. I had just attended my first performance of traditional Japanese chamber music. I was quite taken with the incredible virtuosity and commanding technique of all the players but paid particular attention to the shakuhachi, the instrument that was closest to my own. There was an incredible richness to the sound of the bamboo and an unexpectedly wide range of color and dynamics, which I found captivating.
“As a classically trained flutist, surely it should not be so difficult to make a sound on an open tube of bamboo,” hrrumphed the arrogant 22-year-old that I was. I tried again, and again, repeatedly, until much to the delight of the three Japanese members of the ensemble, I handed the instrument back to its owner—frustrated but with quiet respect.
Record stores occasionally had a small section labeled “International.”
At the time, to me, the nascent term “world music” meant Ravi Shankar and Babatunde Olatunji. And record stores occasionally had a small section labeled “International.” It was only years later that I realized how incredibly rare it was to encounter a concert of Japanese instruments, and to attend a performance like the one I had just heard in of all places, an apartment in New York’s famed Dakota building. I related this story to the contemporary flutist Harvey Sollberger, with whom I was taking some lessons at the time, and he replied that he actually had a shakuhachi but had given up on it because he couldn’t make a sound. (I began to see a pattern.) Would I like to borrow it? Well, of course I would, and over several days, with concerted effort, I began to make a sound.
A local cliché is that you can find anything in New York. Well, true to form, I found a shakuhachi teacher in short order and began what was to become a lifetime obsession with learning, teaching, performing, and composing music for the Japanese bamboo flute. The late Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin was my first teacher. My initial approach to practicing was casual, to put it kindly, but over time (decade number one) I began to get better. And as I learned more and more about Japanese traditional music and musical culture, and made multiple trips to study in Japan, I became more and more fascinated. I observed that the rigor of the training, the complexity of the music, and variety of musical genres required a deep understanding of a highly sophisticated and complex tradition and that each had a parallel with that of classical music training for Western instruments. After years of study it became clear to me that while Japanese classical music bears no relationship whatsoever to European music, the rigor of technical mastery and knowledge of performance practices are remarkably on par.
Fast forwarding through the 39 years following my first, singular experience with the recalcitrant bamboo—countless lessons, performances, teaching, and three degrees of certification later—I have at last developed a decent technical ability on the instrument. I humbly lay claim to a fairly comprehensive understanding of both the traditional solo and chamber music repertoires, and I have moved beyond the traditional into the world of contemporary and new music for Japanese instruments.
As my composer courage grew, I thought, “Why not bring my professional training in Japanese and Western music together in my work?”
My latent composer genes began to surface in 1997. I began by writing original music for shakuhachi, and then ensembles of Japanese instruments with koto and shamisen. My personal influences of rock, the blues, and Western classical music seeped in and colored my explorations. As my composer courage grew, I thought, “Why not bring my professional training in Japanese and Western music together in my work?” I took the plunge in 2006 and wrote Quintet No. 1 for shakuhachi and string quartet. Three years later, my pursuit of this idea led me to brazenly complete and perform my first concerto and to found Kyo-Shin-An Arts, a contemporary music organization that commissions and presents new music combining Japanese and Western classical instruments. I wanted to play Western-style music again—this time on the shakuhachi—and the repertoire needed to be helped along. Through KSA, the last decade has brought the great joy of bringing some remarkable composers to the Japanese well, convincing them to attempt a work outside of all previous experience, and shepherding the premieres of quite the trove of fantastic music.
In homage to a daring and intrepid bunch of wonderful composers who have joined me in my journey this past decade, my gratitude goes out to Victoria Bond, Chad Cannon, Ciara Cornelius, Douglas Cuomo, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Daron Hagen, Matthew Harris, William Healy, Takuma Itoh, Kento Iwasaki, Mari Kimura, Angel Lam, Daniel Levitan, Gilda Lyons, James Matheson, Paul Moravec, Mark Nowakowski, Thomas Osborne, Charles Porter, Yoko Sato, Somei Satoh, Benjamin Verdery, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Donald Womack, and Randall Woolf.
Spell No. 8 composed by Aleksandra Vrebalov, a Kyo-Shin-An Arts commission, performed by Jennifer Aylmer (soprano), Jennifer Choi (violin), Wendy Law (cello), Kathleen Supové (piano), and James Nyoraku Schlefer (shakuhachi) on November 19, 2017, as part of the concert “Exploding Chrysanthemums” at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC.
The carillon is one of the most public of instruments. Situated in bell towers in the heart of public spaces, carillonneurs perform for entire communities. Though all who wander near the tower will hear the music, most will never know who it is playing the instrument. As performers hidden from view, carillonneurs strive to convince audiences that we are not machines playing the same tunes each day; we are real humans capable of expression and dynamic variation with lots of diverse repertoire.
Of approximately 600 carillons worldwide, North America is home to 185 such instruments distributed across universities, parks, churches, cities, and even mobile carillons on wheels. Though there are many kinds of bell instruments, a carillon consists of at least 23 tuned bells and is played from a keyboard that allows expression through variation of touch. The instrument is traditionally played solo, with the hands and feet, utilizing a keyboard and pedalboard that resemble a giant piano.
The carillon was born in the Low Countries of Europe about 500 years ago. The instrument emerged from medieval bell towers that originally functioned as signaling mechanisms to the local inhabitants. The bells would communicate not just the time of day, but civil and spiritual events: calls to prayer, the arrival of visitors, warnings such as the outbreak of a fire. In the early 20th century, as technical keyboard innovations began to allow for the expression of touch, the carillon began to develop as a concert instrument. Today carillonneurs perform all kinds of music on the bells: original compositions, classical arrangements, jazz standards, pop tunes, folk songs, film music—anything and everything that our public will enjoy.
Each Instrument is Unique
Carillons come in all shapes and sizes. From 23 bells to 77 bells, these instruments range from massive tower installations that house the largest tuned bells in the world to instruments that could fit in your living room. Bells cast at different foundries throughout history each have their own unique sound; some with richer overtones, some with more resonance, a longer sound, some brighter, some warmer.
Carillons come in all shapes and sizes.
Most carillons in North America are tuned to equal-temperament, but many older instruments in Europe employ the mean-tone tuning system. Though some instruments are concert pitch, keyboards will often transpose up or down to suit the height of the tower. With transposition ranging from up an octave to down a perfect fourth, the same repertoire played on two different instruments can sound vastly different.
Just as a particular concert hall will have certain characteristics, the bell tower itself and the surrounding listening space will play a key role in the sound of each instrument. While some instruments are found in the heart of bustling cities, others are in parks or suburban neighborhoods protected from traffic noise. When towers are more open and allow the bells to be visibly seen from the ground, the strike of each bell will be heard more clearly. Alternatively, sounds will blend more in closed towers where the bells are hidden from view.
Compositions for carillon are sometimes written specifically for one particular carillon, but composers can also write in a way that ensures pieces can be effective on multiple instruments.
Musical Considerations when Composing for Carillon
The unique partials, or overtones, of bells are an important consideration. Unlike traditional Western string or wind instruments, bells have a very prominent minor-third overtone. There is additionally a hum tone that sounds one octave below the strike tone. It can be helpful to compare typical bell partials to the natural harmonic series. The following graphic illustrates this comparison for a C3 bell (one octave below middle C).
Bass bells are much richer in overtones than high bells. The chord C-E-G played in the bass bells will not sound like a major chord at all, but played in the upper register this chord will sound more “in tune.” Thinning out or spacing out chords can be more effective on carillon (C-G-E), especially when writing major chords. Minor chords and diminished chords, on other hand, will sound more natural in the lower registers of the instrument.
Decay of Sound
As a bell is struck, the strike tone is heard in the foreground, but this pitch decays quickly, leaving the hum tone and overtones to emerge. Once a bell is rung, there is no way to dampen the sound or silence the bell. Each bell will continue to ring as the vibrations naturally dissipate. (Though there is an adjustment mechanism on each key that will allow the carillonneur to hold the clapper against the bell after striking, thus muting the sound, most players will advise against this as it creates a rather ugly sound and is perhaps not good for the instrument.)
A walking bass line on a fast be-bop jazz standard will not come across as intended.
Larger bells will ring longer, up to about 30 seconds, before fully coming to rest. Smaller bells will not ring as long, sometimes only for a few seconds. Rapid harmonic changes in the bass will create a blurred sound; a walking bass line on a fast be-bop jazz standard, for instance, will not come across as intended.
Depending on the bell foundry, the same bell on two different carillons can have a very different decay of sound. For instance, English bells (Taylor, Gillett & Johnston) cast in the early-to-mid 20th century have a rather short decay of sound in the trebles, whereas French bells (Paccard) cast in the later half of the 20th century are exceptionally long sounding. Some repertoire is better suited to short-sounding bells or long-sounding bells.
The carillon has an incredible dynamic range, arguably more so than a piano. Through variation of touch, carillonneurs are able to strike each bell so softly that nobody can hear it, or loud enough to startle somebody walking by. Bigger bass bells have more dynamic range than small high bells. Higher bells, with less bell mass, can only reach a fraction of the volume of the bass bells. Thus, crescendos moving down the keyboard are often more effective than up the keyboard.
Composers and arrangers for the carillon like to “think upside down”; rather than give the singing melody line to the soprano, placing the melody in the bass bells, with the higher bells playing harmonic and rhythmic accompaniments, can be very effective.
The carillon has an incredible dynamic range, arguably more so than a piano.
Playing loud is easy; playing soft is more difficult. Due to the large keyfall (1.6-2.2 inches), playing a note pp will require the carillonneur to take time to prepare the note by moving the key partway down before striking. It can be very challenging or impossible to play fast and soft at the same time. (Exception: When playing repeated notes, the carillonneur can keep notes prepared and play rapid trills, tremolos, or ostinatos very quietly.)
Keeping the bass bells in balance with the treble bells is a consideration for both composers and performers. Loud passages in the bass will drown out figures in the upper register, but a passage in the high register marked ff will not sound loud without accompanying bass notes to give the power. On larger carillons especially, the dynamics will come from the bass.
It might sound preposterous that a good balance could ever be achieved, with bass bells weighing tens of thousands of pounds, and high bells as small as 10 lbs. But towers are actually designed to improve balance—by placing the bass bells lower in the tower, the sound of treble bells will carry farther when high up in the tower. In some towers, louvers are positioned in the openings of the belfry to magnify this effect. Louvers are angled slats that deflect sound down to the ground. These louvers will rein in the sound of the bass bells, placed lower in the tower, by deflecting their sound more sharply towards the ground. At the same time, the louvers will keep the sound of the small high bells from drifting up into the sky.
Still, it is important for composers to consider the balance of bass and treble bells. Even the biggest bass bell can be played pp when the performer is given time to prepare each note.
Audiences are also capable of improving their listening experience. If one is standing too close to the tower, the bass bells will often be heard too loud and the instrument will sound out of balance. The best listening areas are usually found further away from the tower. Every tower is different, so a general rule of thumb: Imagine the tower falls over on its side. Standing just beyond the range of the impact will result in a decent listening place, in addition to protecting you in case the tower does fall over!
Of course there’s no worry about standing too close to a falling tower if you’re listening to a “Bronzen Piano,” a mobile carillon in the shape of a grand piano that was developed by Anna Maria Reverté and Koen Van Assche which can easily be transported and played anywhere.
Most compositions are written, or made playable, for four-octave carillon.
If writing for a particular carillon, it will be important to determine the exact range of the instrument, as well as to hear sound samples to determine the musical properties of the bells. Manuals typically span the full length of the keyboard, and pedals typically duplicate the bottom two octaves of the instrument. Here are several common ranges:
Most compositions are written, or made playable, for four-octave carillon, C3 to C7, omitting the lowest C#3. Writing for this range will allow the piece to be played on most concert carillons. When writing for four and a half octaves, composers will often include substitutions for notes outside of the four-octave range, to make the piece playable on four-octave instruments.
Traditional technique asks the carillonneur to play each key with a closed fist, one note for each hand. Rapid passages of broken arpeggios that alternate hands (L-R-L-R…) are very idiomatic.
A four-note chord is easily realized with two hands and two feet. As keyboards have evolved and been made lighter over the 20th century, it has become additionally possible to play with open hands and fingers. Two notes, no more than a fourth apart, are easily playable with one hand. Passages can be difficult, though, when two-note chords are played in quick succession with one hand, especially when changes in hand position are required between the natural and chromatic keys. Clusters of three or four notes in one hand are also possible if the keys are all natural, or all chromatic.
It is possible, though unusual, to play two neighboring pedals simultaneously with one foot, provided they are both natural, or both chromatic.
Fast repeated notes are possible in the upper range with hands, but not as much in the lower range or with the pedals, as the clappers are bigger and heavier.
The keys on a carillon are much farther apart than on a piano—14 inches per octave, compared to 6.5 inches per octave. This makes rapid jumps in one hand between registers quite difficult; even jumping an octave quickly requires a lot of concentration.
Rapid jumps in one hand between registers are quite difficult.
Additionally, maintaining a large gap between the left and right hands can be challenging. Rapid independent movement in the left and right hand is best kept within two octaves between the two hands, so that the performer can better visualize both hands on the keyboard.
On larger carillons with 4.5 or more octaves, it can be difficult or impossible to play both the high register with the hands, and the lowest bass notes with the feet, at the same time. Large diagonal stretches are best kept within 3 or 4 octaves.
Carillon music is written on two staves, with the top staff for the manuals and the bottom staff for the pedals. Carillonneurs generally prefer to read the top staff in treble clef and the bottom staff in bass clef, and read 8va or 8vb beyond the third ledger line, rather than changing clef.
Rolled chords are very idiomatic to the carillon and can be noted in one of two ways:
A roll with an arrow pointing up will indicate to play all the notes open-handed, sequentially from bottom to top (1-2-3…). These open-handed rolls are usually kept to three or four notes, but five or six notes are possible if the notes are all clustered together, as long as both open hands can prepare all notes simultaneously.
A “lighting bolt” will indicate to alternate both hands with closed fists and play a broken roll. For a four-note chord, this means playing the bottom note first, then the third note, then the second, and then the fourth (1-3-2-4). A three-note chord would be played 2-1-3. Broken rolls are very idiomatic to the carillon and more traditional than the open-handed roll.
Tremolando, or tremolo, is another common carillon technique. Tremolos are often noted in early 20th-century Flemish compositions, to allow melodies in the upper registers to sing out over the bass. Tremolos are still used, though less frequently, in modern compositions, either to bring out melodies or for other effects. Tremolo is possible between two notes with two hands, or more notes with each hand playing a cluster. Carillonneurs can be very expressive with tremolo, with both speed and dynamic.
Carillonneurs can be very expressive with tremolo.
1) The absolute best resource is to find a carillonneur that will demonstrate the keyboard and the instrument. As each carillon is unique, this is essential when writing for a particular keyboard. Most carillonneurs would be very excited to hear from composers who are interested in writing for them!
2) There are two main publishers of carillon music in North America:
3) The TowerBells website has an index of all carillons (and other bell instruments) in North America, and many instruments in Europe and the rest of the world. The site can be used to generate a list of instruments by location, size, pitch, year, bell foundry, etc. A particularly useful tool is the locator that displays all the instruments on a map.
4) John Gouwens has a carillon primer available here, with several musical examples.
5) Luc Rombouts published Singing Bronze in 2014, and the book is widely considered among carillonneurs as the most valuable account of carillon history. It is available on Amazon.
Despite his fascination with extremely dense structures, California-based composer Chris Brown is surprisingly tolerant about loosely interpreting them. Chalk it up to being realistic about expectations, or a musical career that has been equally devoted to composing and improvising, but to Brown “the loose comes with the tight.” That seemingly contradictory dichotomy informs everything he creates, whether it’s designing elaborate electronic feedback systems that respond to live performances and transform them in real time or—for his solo piano tour-de-force Six Primes—calculating a complete integration of pitch and meter involving 13-limit just intonation and a corresponding polyrhythm of, say, 13 against 7.
“I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer,” Brown admitted when we chatted with him in a Lower East Side hotel room at a break before a rehearsal during his week-long residency at The Stone. “It’s so exciting and fresh to be at that point where you have this experience that is new. It’s not easy to get there. It takes a lot of discipline, but actually to have the discipline is the virtue itself, to basically be following something, testing yourself, looking for something that’s new, until eventually you find it.”
Yet despite Brown’s dedication and deep commitment to uncharted musical relationships that are often extraordinarily difficult to perform, Brown is hardly a stickler for precision.
“If you played it perfectly, like a computer, it wouldn’t sound that good,” he explained. “I always say when I’m working with musicians, think of these as targets. … It’s not about getting more purity. There’s always this element that’s a little out of control. … If we’re playing a waltz, it’s not a strict one-two-three; there’s a little push-me pull-you in there.”
Brown firmly believes that the human element is central and that computers should never replace people. As he put it, “It’s really important that we don’t lose the distinction of what the model is rather than the thing it’s modeled on. I think it’s pretty dangerous to do that, actually.”
So for Brown, musical complexity is ultimately just a means to an end which is about giving listeners greater control of their own experiences with what they are hearing. In the program notes for a CD recording of his electro-acoustic sound installation Talking Drum, Brown claimed that he reason he is attracted to complex music is “because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a sound field.”
Brown’s aesthetics grew out of his decades of experience as an improviser—over the years he’s collaborated with an extremely wide range of musicians including Wayne Horvitz, Wadada Leo Smith, and Butch Morris—and from being one of the six composers who collectively create live networked computer music as The Hub. Long before he got involved in any of these projects, Brown was an aspiring concert pianist who was obsessed with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto which he performed with the Santa Cruz Symphony as an undergrad. Now he has come to realize that even standard classical works are not monoliths.
“Everybody in that Schumann Piano Concerto is hearing something slightly different, too, but there’s this idea somehow that this is an object that’s self-contained,” he pointed out. “It’s actually an instruction for a ritual that sounds different every time it’s done. Compositions are more or less instructions for what they should do, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.”
Chris Brown’s first album was released in 1989, ironically the same year as the birth of another musical artist who shares his name, a Grammy Award-winning and Billboard chart-topping R & B singer-songwriter and rapper. This situation has led to some funny anecdotes involving mistaken identity—calls to his Mills College office requesting he perform Sweet Sixteen parties—as well as glitches on search engines including the one on Amazon.
“These are basically search algorithm anomalies,” he conceded wryly. To me it’s yet another reason to heed his advice about machines and not to overly rely on them to solve all the world’s problems.
Chris Brown in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded at Off Soho Suites Hotel, New York, NY
June 22, 2017—3:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu.
Frank J. Oteri: Once I knew you were coming to New York City for a week-long residency at The Stone and that we’d have a chance to have a conversation, I started looking around to see if there were any recordings of your music that I hadn’t yet heard. When I did a search on Amazon, I kept getting an R & B singer-songwriter and rapper named Chris Brown, who was actually born the year that the first CD under your name was released.
Chris Brown: Say no more.
FJO: I brought it up because I think it raises some interesting issues about celebrity. There is now somebody so famous who has your name, and you’ve had a significant career as a composer for years before he was born. But maybe there’s a silver lining in it. Perhaps it’s brought other people to your music who might not otherwise have known about it—people who were looking for the other Chris Brown, especially on Amazon since both your recordings and his show up together.
CB: These are basically search algorithm anomalies, but the story behind that is that when the famous Chris Brown started to become famous, I started getting recorded messages on my office phone machine at Mills, because people would search for Chris Brown’s music and it would take them to the music department at Mills. They would basically be fan gushes for the most part. Sometimes they would involve vocalizing, because they were trying to get a chance to record. Sometimes they would ask if he could play their Sweet Sixteen party. There were tons of them. At the beginning, every day, there were long messages of crying and doing anything so that they could get close to Chris Brown in spite of the fact that my message was always a professorial greeting. It didn’t matter. So it was a hassle. Occasionally I would engage with the people by saying this is not the right Chris Brown and trying to send them somewhere else.
It’s a common name. When I was growing up, there weren’t that many Chrises, but somehow it got really popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Anyway, these days not much happens, except that what it’s really meant is kind of a blackout for me on internet searches. It’s hard to find me if somebody’s looking. Since I started working at Mills, the first thing that David Rosenboom said to me when I came in is there’s thing called the internet and you should get an email account. Everybody was making funny little handles for themselves as names. From that day, mine was cbmuse for Chris Brown Music. I still have that same email address at Mills.edu. So I go by cbmuse. That’s the best I can do. Sometimes some websites say Christopher Owen Brown, using the John Luther Adams approach to too many John Adamses. It’s kind of a drag, but on the other hand, it’s a little bit like living on the West Coast anyway, which is that you’re out of the main commercial aspect of your field, which is really in New York. On the West Coast, there’s not as much traffic so you have more time and space. To some extent, you’re not so much about your handle; you still get to be an individual and be yourself. I could have made a new identity for myself, but I sort of felt like I don’t want to do that. I’ve always gone by Chris Brown. I’ve never really attached to Christopher Brown. Maybe this is a longer answer than you were looking for.
FJO: It’s more than I thought I’d get. I thought it could have led to talking about your piece Rogue Wave, which features a DJ. Perhaps Rouge Wave could be a gateway piece for the fans of the other Chris Brown to discover your music.
CB: I don’t think that happens though. That was not an attempt to do something commercial. I could talk about that if you like, since we’re on it. Basically, the DJ on it, Eddie Def, was somebody I met through a gig where I was playing John Zorn’s music at a rock club in San Francisco and through Mike Patton, who knew about him. He invited Eddie to play in the session and he just blew me away. I was playing samples and he was playing samples. I was playing mine off my Mac IIci, with a little keyboard, and he was playing off records. He was cutting faster than I was some of the time. Usually you think, “Okay, I’ve a got a sample in every key. I can go from one to the other very quickly.” He just matched me with every change. So we got to be friends and really liked each other. We did a number of projects together. That was just one of them. He’s a total virtuoso, so that’s why I did a piece with him.
FJO: You’ve worked with so many different kinds of musicians over the years. From a stylistic perspective, it’s been very open-ended. The very first recording I ever heard you on, which was around the time it came out, was Wayne Horvitz’s This New Generation, which is a fascinating record because it mixes these really out there sounds with really accessible grooves and tunes.
CB: I knew Wayne from college at UC Santa Cruz. He was kind of the ringmaster of the improv scene in the early ‘70s in Santa Cruz. I wasn’t quite in that group, but I would join it and I picked up a lot about what was going on in improvised music through participating with them in some of their jam sessions. Wayne and I were friends, so when he moved to New York, I’d sometimes come to visit him. Eventually, he moved out of New York to San Francisco. I had an apartment available in my building, so he lived in it. He was basically living above us. He was continuing to do studio projects, and this was one of them. He had his little studio setup upstairs and one day he said, “Would you come upstairs and record a couple of tracks for me?” He played his stuff and he asked me to play one of the electro-acoustic instruments that I built, so I did. I didn’t think too much more of it than that, but then it appeared on this Electra-Nonesuch record and there was a little check for it. It was my little taste of that part of the new music scene that was going on in New York. Eventually Wayne moved out and now he lives in Seattle. We still see each other occasionally. It’s an old friendship.
FJO: You’ve actually done quite a bit of work with people who have been associated with the jazz community, even though I know that word is a limiting word, just like classical is a limiting word. You’ve worked with many pioneers of improvisational music, including Wadada Leo Smith and Butch Morris, and you were also a member of the Glenn Spearman Double Trio, which was a very interesting group. It’s very sad. He died very young.
FJO: So how did you become involved with improvised music?
CB: Well, I was a classically trained pianist and I eventually wound up winning a scholarship and played the [Robert] Schumann Piano Concerto with the Santa Cruz Symphony. But I was starting to realize that that was not going to be my future because I was interested in humanities and the new wave of philosophy—Norman O. Brown. I got to study with him when I was there, and he told me I should really check out John Cage because he was a friend of Cage’s: “If you’re doing music, you should know what this is.” So I went out and got the books, and I was completely beguiled and entranced by them. It was a whole new way of listening to sound as well as music, or music as sound, erasing the boundary. So I was very influenced by that, but almost at the same time I was getting to know these other friends in the department who were coming more out of rock backgrounds. They were influenced by people like Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the free jazz improvisers. These jam sessions that Wayne would run were in some way related. There were a lot of influences on that musical strain, but that’s where I started improvising.
To me, improvisation seems like the most natural thing in the world.
I was also studying with Gordon Mumma and with a composer named William Brooks, who was a Cage scholar as well as a great vocalist and somebody who’d studied with Kenneth Gaburo. With Brooks, I took a course that was an improvisation workshop where the starting point was no instruments, just movement and words—that part was from the Gaburo influence. That was a semester of every night getting together and improvising with an ensemble. I think it was eight people. I’d love if that had been documented. I have never seen or heard it since then, but it influenced me quite a bit. To me, improvisation seems like the most natural thing in the world. Why wouldn’t a musician want to do it? Then, on the other side of this, people from the New York school were coming by and were really trying to distinguish what they did from improvisation. I think there was a bit of an uptown/downtown split there. They were trying to say this is more like classical music and not like improvisation. It’s a discipline of a different nature. Ultimately I think it’s a class difference that was being asserted. And I think Cage had something to do with that, trying to distinguish what he did from jazz. He was trying to get away from jazz.
I didn’t have much of a jazz background, but I had an appreciation for it growing up in Chicago. I had some records. At the beginning I’d say my taste in jazz was a little more Herbie Hancock influenced than Cecil Taylor. But once I discovered Cecil Taylor, when I put that next to Karlheinz Stockhausen, I started to see that this is really kind of the same. This is music of the same time. It may have been made in totally different ways, and it results from a different energy and feeling from those things, but it’s not that different. And it seems to me that there’s more in common than there is not. So I really never felt there was that boundary. So I participated in sessions with musicians who were improvising with or without pre-designed structures. It was just something I did.
Once I discovered Cecil Taylor, when I put that next to Karlheinz Stockhausen, I started to see that this is really kind of the same.
The first serious professional group I got involved with was a group called Confluence. This came about in the late 1970s with some of my older friends from Santa Cruz, who’d gone down and gotten master’s degrees at UC San Diego. It was another interesting convergence of these two sides of the world. They worked with David Tudor on Rainforest, the piece where you attach transducers to an object, pick up the sound after it’s gone through the object, and then amplify it again. Sometimes there’s enough sound out of the object itself that it has an acoustic manifestation. Anyway, it’s a fantastic piece and they were basically bringing that practice into an improvisation setting. The rule of the group was no pre-set compositional design and no non-homemade instruments. You must start with an instrument you made yourself and usually those instruments were electro-acoustic, so they had pickups on them, somewhat more or less like Rainforest instruments. The other people in that group were Tom Nunn and David Poyourow. When David got out of school he wanted to move up to the Bay Area and continue this group. One of the members of it then had been another designer, a very interesting instrument maker named Prent Rodgers. And he bailed. He didn’t want to be a part of it. So they needed a new member. So David asked me if I’d be interested, and I was. I always had wanted to get more involved with electronic music, but being pretty much a classical nerd, I didn’t really have the chops for the technology. David, on the other hand, came from that background. His father was a master auto mechanic, from the electrical side all the way to the mechanical side. David really put that skill into his instrument building practice and then he taught it to me, basically. He showed me how to solder, and I learned from Tom how to weld, because some of these instruments were made out of sheet metal with bronze brazing rods. I started building those instruments in a sort of tradition they’d begun, searching for my own path with it, which eventually came about when I started taking pianos apart and making electric percussion instruments from it.
So, long story short, I was an improviser before I was a notes-on-paper composer. That’s how I got into composing. I started making music directly with instruments and with sound. It was only as that developed further that I started wanting to structure them more.
FJO: So you composed no original music before you started improvising?
CB: There were a few attempts, but they were always fairly close to either Cageian influence or a minimalist influence. I was trying out these different styles. Early on, I was a follower and appreciator of Steve Reich’s music. Another thing I did while I was at Santa Cruz was play the hell out of Piano Phase. We’d go into a practice room and play for hours, trying to perfect those phase transitions with two upright pianos. I was also aware of Steve’s interest in music from Bali and from Africa. These were things that I appreciated also.
FJO: I know that you spent some time in your childhood in the Philippines.
CB: I grew up between the years of five and nine in the Philippines. It wasn’t a long time, as life goes, but it was also where I started playing the piano. I was five years old in the Philippines and taking piano lessons there. I was quite taken with the culture, or with the cultural experience I had let’s say, while I was there. I went to school with Filipino kids, and it was not isolated in some kind of American compound. I grew up on the campus of the University of the Philippines, which is a beautiful area outside of the main city, Manila.
FJO: Did you get to hear any traditional music?
Being an improviser is a great way to get into a cultural interaction.
CB: Very little because the Philippines had their music colonized. It exists though, and later I reconnected with musicians at that school, particularly José Maceda, which is another long story in my history. I’ve made music with Filipino instruments and Filipino composers. One of the nice things about being an improviser is that collaboration comes much easier than if you’re trying to control everything about the design of the piece of music, so I’ve collaborated with a lot of people all over the place, including performances before we really knew what we were doing. It’s an exploratory thing you do with people, and it’s a great way to get into a cultural interaction.
Chris Brown in performance with Vietnamese-American multi-instrumentalist Vanessa Vân-Ánh Võ at San Francisco Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum on April 13, 2017
FJO: I want to get back to your comment about your first pieces being either Cageian or influenced by minimalism. I found an early piano piece of yours called Sparks on your website, which is definitely a minimalist piece, but it’s a hell of a lot more dissonant than anything Reich would have written at that time. It’s based on creating gradual variance through repetition, but you’re fleshing out pitch relations in ways that those composers wouldn’t necessarily have done.
CB: I’m very glad you brought that up. I think that was probably the first piece that I still like and that has a quality to it that was original to me. From Reich I was used to the idea of a piece of music as a continuous flow of repetitive action. But it really came out of tuning pianos, basically banging on those top notes of the piano as you’re trying to get them into tune. I started to hear the timbre up there as being something that splits into different levels. You can actually hear the pitch if you care to attend to it. A lot of times the pitch is hard to get into tune there, especially with pianos that have three strings [per note]. They’re never perfectly in tune. They’re also basically really tight, so their harmonic overtones are stretched. They’re wider than they should be. They’re inharmonic, rather than harmonic, so it’s a kind of a timbral event. So what I was doing was kind of droning on a particular timbre that exists at the top of the piano, trying to move into a kind of trance state while I was moving as fast as I can repeating these notes. The piece starts at the very top two notes, and then it starts widening its scope, until it goes down an octave, and then it moves back up. It was a process-oriented piece. There wasn’t a defined harmonic spectrum to it except that which is created when you make that shape over a chromatically tuned top octave of the piano. It didn’t have the score. It was something that was in my brain. It would be a little different every time, but basically it was a process, like a Steve Reich process piece, one of the earliest ones.
FJO: So when did you create the notated score for it?
CB: Well, I tried a couple of times, but it wasn’t very satisfactory. I made the first version for a pianist who lives in Germany named Jennifer Hymer. She played it first probably around 2000. Then 15 years later, another pianist at Mills—Julie Moon—played it, and she played the heck out of it. So now there is a score, but I still feel like I need to fix that score.
FJO: I think it’s really cool, and I was thrilled that there was a score for it online that I could see. You also included a recording of it.
CB: I just don’t think the score reflects as well as it could what the piece is about. I always intended for there to be a little bit of freedom in it that isn’t apparent when you just write one set of notes going to the next set of notes. There has to be a certain sensibility that needs to be described better.
FJO: Bouncing off of this, though it might seem like a strange connection to make, when I heard that piece and thought about how it’s taking this idea of really hardcore early minimalist process music, but adding more layers of dissonance to it, it seemed in keeping with a quote that you have in your notes for the published recording of Talking Drum, which I thought was very interesting: “I favor densely complex music, because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a sound field.” I found that quote very inspiring because it focuses on the listener and giving the listener more choices about what to focus on.
CB: I think I still agree with that. I’m not always quite going for the most complex thing I can find, but I do have an attraction to it. Most of the pieces that I do wind up being pretty complicated in terms of how I get to the result I’m after, even though those results may require more or less active listening. I was kind of struck last night by the performance I did of Six Primes with Zeena Parkins and Nate Wooley. The harmonic aspect of the music is much more prominent and much more beauty-oriented than the piano version is. When I play the piano version, it’s more about the intensity of the rhythms and of the dissonance of the piano, as opposed to the more harmonious timbre of the harp or the continuous and purer sound of the trumpet; the timbre makes the way that you play the notes different.
An excerpt from Chris Brown, Zeena Parkins and Nate Wooley’s trio performance of Structures from Six Primes at The Stone on June 21, 2017.
FJO: But I think also that this strikes to the heart of the difference between composition and improvisation. I find it very interesting that you’ve gravitated toward these really completely free and open structures as an improviser, but your notated compositions are so highly structured. There’s so much going on, and in a piece like Six Primes, you’re reflecting these ratios not just in the pitch relations, but also in the rhythmic relationships. Such complicated polyrhythms are much harder to do in the moment.
CB: Of course. But that’s why I’m doing it. I’m interested in doing things that haven’t been done before. I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer. Sometimes that motivation is going to get warped by the marketing of the music or by the necessity to make a career, but that was always what I was attracted to about it. From the first moment that I heard Cage’s music, I said, “This is an inventor. This is somebody who’s inventing something new.” It’s so exciting and fresh to be at that point where you have this experience that is new. It’s not easy to get there. It takes a lot of discipline, but actually to have the discipline is the virtue itself, to basically be following something, testing yourself, looking for something that’s new, until eventually you find it.
I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer.
This is the third cycle of me learning to play these pieces. At first, I just wanted to know it was possible. And next, I wanted to record it. This time, I’m looking to do a tour where I can perform it more than once. Each time I do it, it gets easier. At this point, I’m finally getting to what I want, for example with 13 against 7, I know perfectly how it sounds, but I don’t have to play it mechanically. It can breathe like any other rhythm does, but it has an identity that I can recognize because I’ve been doing it long enough. It seems strange to me that music is almost entirely dominated by divisions of two and three. We have five every once in a while, but most people can’t really do a five against four, except for percussionists. There are a lot of complex groupings of notes in Chopin, but those are gestures, almost improvisational gestures I think, rather than actual overlays of divisions of a beat. Some of this is influenced by my love and interest for African-based musics that have this complexity of rhythm that is simply beyond the capability of a standard European-trained musician, actually getting into the divisions of the time and executing them perfectly and doing them so much that they become second nature so that they can be alive in performance, rather than just reproduced. It’s a big challenge, but I’m looking for a challenge and I’m looking for a new experience that way.
An excerpt from Chris Brown’s premiere solo piano performance of Six Primes in San Francisco in 2014.
FJO: So do you think you will eventually be able to improvise those polyrhythms?
CB: Maybe, eventually, but I think you have to learn it first. The improvising part is after you’ve learned to do the thing already. Yesterday I was improvising some of the time. What you do is you start playing one of the layers of the music. In Six Primes part of the idea is you have this 13 against 7, but 13 kind of exists as a faster tempo of the music, and 7 is a slower one. They’re just geared and connected at certain places, but at any one time in your brain, while you’re playing that rhythm, it might be a little bit more involved in inflecting the 13 than the 7. Sometimes, when things are really pure, you get a feeling for both of them and they’re kind of talking to each other. As a performer, I would say that that’s the goal. It’s probably rarer than I wish at this point. But the only way you can get there is by lots of practice and eventually it starts happening by itself. I think it’s the same as if you’re playing the Schumann Piano Concerto. You’re not aware of every gesture you’re making to make that music. You’ve put it into your body, and it kind of comes out by rote. You know you’re experiencing the flow of the music, and your body knows how to do it because you trained it. So it’s the same with Six Primes, but it’s just the materials are different and the focus is different.
FJO: And similarly to listen to it, you might not necessarily hear that’s what’s going on. But maybe that’s okay.
CB: Yes, that goes to the quote that there’s a multi-focal way of listening that I’m promoting; the music isn’t designed to have one focal point. It’s designed to have many layers and that basically means that listeners are encouraged to explore themselves. It’s an active listening rather than that you should be listening primarily to this part and not aware of that part.
The music isn’t designed to have one focal point.
FJO: In a way, this idea of having such an integral relationship between pitches and rhythms is almost a kind of serialism, but the results are completely different. I also think your aesthetics, and what you’re saying about how one listens to it, is totally different.
CB: I wouldn’t say it’s modeled on that, but I do like the heavy use of structure. It’s a sculptural aspect of making music. I do a lot of pre-composition. This stuff isn’t just springing out of nowhere. Six Primes actually has a very methodical formal design that’s explained in the notes to the CD. The basic idea is that you have these six prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13. Those are the first six prime numbers. They’re related to intervals that are tuned by relationships that include that number as their highest prime factor. I know that sounds mathematical, but I’m trying to say it as efficiently as possible. For example, the interval of a perfect fifth is made of a relationship of a frequency that’s in the ratio of 3 to 2. So the highest prime of that ratio is a 3. Similarly, a major third is defined by the ratio of 5 to 4. So 5 is the highest prime. There’s also the 2 in there, but the 5 is the higher prime and that defines the major third. There are other intervals that are related to it, such as a 6 to 5, which is a minor third, where the 5 is also the highest prime. And 5 to 3, the major sixth, etc. Basically Western music is based around using 2, 3, and 5 and intervals that are related to that. Intervals that use 7 as the highest prime are recognizable to most western music listeners, but they’re also out of tune by as much as a third of a semi-tone. Usually people start saying, “Oh, I like the sound of that. I can hear it. It’s a harmony, but it sounds a little weird.” Particularly the 7 to 6 interval, which is a minor third that’s smaller than any of the standard ones that Western people are used to, is very attractive to most people but also kind of curious and possibly scary. When you take it to 11, you get into things that are halfway between the semitones of the equal tempered chromatic scale. And 13 is somewhere even beyond that. Okay, so there are all these intervals. The tuning for Six Primes is a twelve-note scale that contains at least two pitches from each of these first six prime factors, which results in a total of 75 unique intervals between each note and every other one in the set.
Last year, New World Records released a CD of Chris Brown performing Six Primes. .
FJO: Cellists and violinists tune their instruments all the time and since their instruments have an open neck, any pitch is equally possible. The same is true for singers. But pianists play keyboards that are restricted to 12 pitches per octave and that are tuned to 12-tone equal temperament. And since pianists rarely tune their own instruments, 12-tone equal temperament is basically a pre-condition for making music and it’s really hard to think beyond it. As a classically-trained pianist, how were you able to open your ears to other possibilities?
CB: It was hard. It was very frustrating. It took me a long time, and it started by learning to tune my instrument myself. The first thing was what are these pitches? Why do I not understand what everybody’s talking about when they’re talking about in tune and out of tune? I’m just not listening to it, because I’m playing on an instrument that’s usually somewhat out of tune. Basically pianists don’t develop the same kind of ear that violinists have to because they don’t have to tune the pitch with every note. So I was frustrated by my being walled off from that. But I guess not frustrated enough to pick up the violin and change instruments.
While I was an undergraduate and started getting interested through Cage in 20th-century American music, I discovered Henry Cowell’s piano music, the tone cluster pieces, and I loved them. I just took to them like a duck to water, and I got to be good at it. I had a beautiful experience playing some of his toughest tone cluster pieces at the bicentennial celebration of him in Menlo Park in 1976. I really bonded with that music and played it like I owned it. I could play it on the spot. I had it memorized. The roar of a tone cluster coming out of the piano was like liberation to me.
FJO: And you recorded some of those for New Albion at some point.
CB: That came out of a concert Sarah Cahill put together of different pianists playing; it was nice that that came out.
FJO: It’s interesting that you mention Cowell because he was another one of these people like Wayne Horvitz who could take really totally whacked out ideas and find a way to make them sound very immediate and very accessible. It’s never off-putting, it’s more like “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” It might consist of banging all over the piano, but it’s also got a tune that you can walk away humming.
CB: I like that a lot about Cowell. He’s kind of unaffected in the way that something attracted him. He wrote these tunes when he was a teenager, for one thing. But he wrote tunes for the rest of his life, too. Sometimes he wrote pieces that have no tune at all. The piece Antimony, for example, is amazingly harsh. There’s definitely some proto-Stockhausen there, but it’s not serial. I think that the ability to not feel like you need to restrict yourself to any particular part of the language that you happen to be employing at the moment is something that is really an admirable achievement. There’s something so tight about the Western tradition that once you start developing this personal language, you must not waver, that this is the thing that you have to offer and it’s the projection of your personality, how will you be recognized otherwise? I think that’s ultimately a straightjacket, so I’ve always admired people like Cowell and Anthony Braxton. Yesterday I was talking to Nate Wooley about the latest pieces that Braxton is putting out where he’s entirely abandoned the pulse; it’s all become just pure melody. He’s changing. Why do we think that’s a bad idea? Eclecticism—if you can do it well and can do it without feeling like you’re just making a collage with stuff you don’t understand—is the highest form, to be able to integrate more than one kind of musical experience into your work.
FJO: It’s interesting that you started veered into a discussion about discovering Cowell’s piano music after I asked you about how you got away from 12-tone equal temperament. Most of Cowell’s music was firmly rooted in 12-tone equal, but he did understand the world beyond it and even tried to explore synchronizing pitch and rhythmic ratios in his experiments with the rhythmicon that Leon Theremin had developed right before he was kidnapped him and brought back to the Soviet Union.
CB: I was definitely influenced by [Cowell’s book] New Musical Resources. As I read about the higher harmonics and integrating them into chords, I would reflect back on what it sounds like when you play it on the piano. It is very dissonant because of the tuning. And I realized that. So I thought, “Well, okay, he just never got there. He didn’t learn to tune his own piano, maybe I should do that, you know.” I get that some in Six Primes, I think, because there’s an integral relationship between all the notes. Even though the strings are inharmonic, there’s more fusion in the upper harmonics that can happen. So these very dissonant chords also sound connected to me. They’re not dissonant in the same way that an equal tempered version of it is. They have a different quality.
I’m also noticing from the other piece we played the night you attended that was using the Partch scale, if you build tone cluster chords within the Partch scale, you get things that sound practically like triads, only they buzz with a kind of fusion that you can only have when the integral version of major seconds is applied carefully. You get all kinds of different chords out of that. It’s wonderful.
FJO: Now when you say Partch scale, we’re basically talking about 11-limit just intonation, in terms of the highest primes, since the highest prime in his scale is 11.
CB: Right, but it’s more than that. He did restrict himself to the 11-limit, but he didn’t include everything that’s available within that. He made careful, judicious selections so that he could have symmetrical possibilities inside of the scale. It’s actually more carefully and interestingly foundationally selected than I knew before I really studied it closely.
FJO: But he worked with his own instruments which were designed specifically to play his 43-note scale whereas you are playing this score on a standard 7-white, 5-black keyed keyboard.
CB: I took an 88-key MIDI controller and I was using it to trigger two octaves of 43 notes. So I’ve mapped two octaves to the 88 keys. It winds up being 86, but it is possible to do that. I’m thinking in the future of figuring out a way to be able to shift those octaves so I’m not stuck in the same two-octave range, which I haven’t done yet, but that’s kind of trivial programming-wise.
FJO: Of course, the other problem with that is the associations the standard keyboard has with specific intervals.
CB: You have to forget that part, and that’s why I didn’t do it in Six Primes. And also, if I’d done it on an acoustic piano, it really messes up the string tension on the piano.
FJO: Julian Carrillo re-tuned a piano to 96 equal and that piano still exists somewhere.
CB: Yeah, but you can’t re-tune it easily, let’s put it that way. And it loses its character throughout the range because the character of the piano is set up by the variable tension of the different ranges of its strings.
FJO: But aside even from that, it changes the basic dexterity of what it means to play an octave and what it means to play a fifth. Once you throw all those relationships out the window, your fingers are not that big, even if you have the hands of Rachmaninoff.
CB: It becomes a different technique for sure. I’m not trying to extend the technique. What I’m doing with this is essentially I’m making another chromelodeon, which was Partch’s instrument that he used to accompany his ensemble and to also give them the pitch references that they needed, especially the singers, to be able to execute the intervals that he was writing.
FJO: Well that’s one of the things I’m curious about. When you’re working with other musicians obviously you can re-tune the keyboard. You can re-tune a piano, you can work with an electronic keyboard where all these things are pre-set. But the other night, you were working with a cellist who sang as well and an oboist. To get these intervals on an oboe requires special fingerings, but most players don’t know them. With a cello there’s no fretboard, so anything’s possible but you really have to hear the intervals in order to reproduce them. That’s even truer for a singer. So how do those things translate when you work with other musicians, and how accurate do those intervals need to be for you?
CB: Those are two questions really. But I think the key is that you’ve got to have musicians who are interested in being able to hear and to play them. You can’t expect to write them and then just get exactly what you want from any musician. Until we wake up 150 years from now and maybe everybody will be playing in the Partch scale so you could write it and everybody can do it! That’s a fantasy, but I think we’re moving more in that direction. There are more and more musicians who are interested in learning to play these intervals and all I’m doing is exploiting what’s there. I’m interested in it. I talk to my friends who are, and they want to learn how to play like that and that’s what’s happening. It’s a great thing to be able to have that experience, but it’s not something you can create by yourself. You have to work with the people who can play the instruments. For example, you mentioned the oboe. I asked Kyle [Bruckmann] what fingerings he’s using. “Shouldn’t I put this in the score?” And he said, “Most of the time what I’m doing is really more about embouchure. And it’s maybe something that’s not so easily described.” So it comes down to he’s getting used to what he needs to do with his mouth to make this pitch come out; he’s basically looking at a cents deviation. So I’ll write the note, and I’ll put how many cents from the pitch that he’s fingering, or the pitch that he knows needs to be sounded. He’s playing it out of tune with what the horn is actually designed to create and he’s limited in the way that notes sound. He can’t do fortissimo on each of these notes. He’s working with an instrument that’s designed for a tuning that he’s trying to play outside of. It’s crazy. But so far, I would say it’s challenging, but not frustrating so much if I’m translating his experience correctly. He seems to be very eager to be able to do it, and he’s nailing the pitches. Sometimes I test him against my electronic chromelodeon and he’s almost always right on the pitch. He’s looking at a meter while he’s playing. It’s something that a musician couldn’t have done 10 or 15 years ago before those pitch meters became so cheap and readily available.
More and more musicians are interested in learning to play these intervals.
FJO: James Tenney had this theory that people heard within certain bands of deviations. If you study historical tunings like Werckmeister III, the key of C has a major third that’s 390 cents. In equal temperament, it’s 400 cents which is way too sharp since a pure major third is 386. You can clearly hear the difference, but a third of 390 is close enough to 386 for most people.
CB: I always say when I’m working with musicians, think of these as targets. If you played it perfectly, like a computer, it wouldn’t sound that good. For example, last night, we had to re-tune the harp to play in the Six Primes tuning. Anybody who knows about harp tuning realizes there’s seven strings in the octave and you get all the other notes by altering one semitone sharp or flat on one of those strings. So it was a very awkward translation. Basically we had a total of 10 of the 12 Six Primes pitches represented. Two of them we couldn’t get. And the ones that we had were sometimes as much as 10 cents out, which is definitely more than it should be to be an accurate representation. But again, this is where the loose comes in with the tight.
In certain cases that wouldn’t work, but in a lot of cases it does. A slight out-of-tuneness can result in a chorus effect as part of the music, and I like that; it gives a shimmer. It’s like Balinese tuning. If that’s what we have to accept on this note, well then so be it you know. It actually richens the music in a way. It’s not about getting more purity. That’s what I feel like. There’s a thing I never quite agreed with Lou Harrison about, because he was always saying these are the real pure sounds. These are the only right ones. But they can get kind of sterile by themselves. He didn’t like the way the Balinese mistuned things. But from all those years of tuning pianos, I love the sound of a string coming into tune, the changes that happen, it makes the music alive on a micro-level. It’s important to be able to hear where the in-tune place is, but to play around that place is part of what I like. I don’t expect it to be perfectly in tune. Maybe it’s because I play a piano and on the extreme ranges of the piano, you can’t help that the harmonics are out of tune. They just are. There’s always this element that’s a little out of control, as well as the part that we can master and make truly evoke harmonic relationships.
FJO: Now in terms of those relationships, is that sense of flexibility and looseness true for these rhythms as well? Could there be rubatos in 17?
I don’t expect it to be perfectly in tune.
CB: Yeah, I think that’s what I was saying about being able to play the rhythm in a lively way. They can shift. They can talk to each other. Little micro-adjustments to inflect the rhythm. If we’re playing a waltz, it’s not a strict one-two-three; there’s a little push-me pull-you in there. That’s how you give energy to the piece. I think that it’s hard to get there with these complex relationships, but it’s definitely possible.
FJO: So is your microtonal music always based on just intonation? Have you ever explored other equal temperaments?
CB: I’ve looked at them, but they don’t interest me as much because I’m more attracted to the uneven divisions than to the even ones. Within symmetrical divisions, you can represent all kinds of things and you can even make unevenness out of the evenness if you like. But it seems like composers get drawn to the kind of symmetrical kinds of structures, rather than asymmetrical ones. Symmetry is fine, but somehow it reminds me of the Leonardo figure inside the triangle and the circle. It’s ultimately confining. I like the roughness and the unevenness of harmonic relationships.
FJO: We only briefly touched on electronics when you said that you had a rough start with it as a classical music nerd. But I was very intrigued the other night by how Kyle Bruckmann’s oboe performance was enhanced and transformed by real-time electronic manipulations the other night in Snakecharmer, and was very curious after you mentioned that you had figured out how to make this old piece work again. I know the recording that Willie Winant made of that piece that was released in 1989, but to my ears it sounds like a completely different piece. I think I like the new piece even more because it sounds more like a snake charmer to me this time; I didn’t quite understand the title before.
CB: There are three recorded versions of that old piece.
FJO: That was the only one I’ve heard.
CB: They’re on the Room record.
FJO: I don’t know that record.
CB: Okay, that was rare. It was a Swiss release. But that’s kind of an important one for me in my development with electro-acoustic and interactive music. I should get it to you. Anyway, the basic idea is any soloist can be the snake charmer, the person who’s instigating the feedback network to go through its paces and sort of guiding it. Probably the strangest was when Willie did it because he can’t sustain. He’s basically playing percussion, and he’s just basically playing whatever he hears and interacting with it intuitively. But another version of it was with Larry Ochs playing sopranino saxophone so that’s probably closer; you might hear the relationship there. It’s more the traditional image of the snake charmer. It sounds an awful lot like a high oboe; that was a good version. There’s also the version that I performed, singing and whistling as the input. Those were three different tracks, but they all start out in a similar way. Basically the programming aspect is that it goes through a sequence of voices. And each of those voices transposes the input that it’s receiving from the player in different intervals as the piece goes on. So there’s a shape of starting with a high transposition going down to where it’s no transposition and below and up again. It’s a simple sinusoid-type shape. The next voice comes in and does the same thing with a slightly different rhythmic inflection, then two voices come in together and fill out the field. That’s the beginning of Snakecharmer in every version so far. There are about six different voicing changes which are in addition to transposing in slightly different ways to provide rhythmic inflections. They only respond on the beat. Whatever sound is coming in when it’s time for them to play, that’s the sound that gets transposed. There are four of these processes going on at once. Once again, it’s that complexity going on in the chaos created by these different orderings, transpositions of the source. The other thing is the reason it’s a feedback network is that there comes a point where the player is playing, the sound responds to it, and then the sound that it responds with is louder than what the player’s doing, and that follows itself. So you start getting a kind of data encoded feedback network that I think of as the snake, an ouroboros snake that’s eating its own tail.
FJO: How much improvisation is involved?
CB: Quite a bit. I’ve never provided a score. I just tell the person what’s going on and ask them to explore the responsiveness of the network. Usually I’m tweaking different values in response to what they’re doing, so it’s a bit of a duet.
FJO: Taking it back to Talking Drum, you have these notes explaining how people are walking around in this environment. There are these field recordings, and then there are musicians who are responding to them. I can partially hear that, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m hearing. Maybe that’s the point of it to some extent.
CB: That’s not quite right. We have the recording called Talking Drum. That is a post-performance production piece that uses things that were recorded at different Talking Drum performances. That uses field recordings. In a performance of Talking Drum, there are no field recordings. Basically, the idea is that there are four stations that are connected with one MIDI cable. That cable allows them to share the same tempo. At each of the stations is a laptop computer, and a pitch follower, and somebody who’s playing into the microphone. So, the software that’s running is a rhythmic program I designed that I can give a basic tempo and beat structure to that can change automatically at different points in time, but that also responds to input from the performer, the basic idea being that if the player plays on a beat that’s a downbeat, that beat will be strengthened in the next iteration of the cycle. It basically adjusts to what it hears in relationship to its own beat cycle. The idea of the multiplicity of those stations where that’s happening, is that they are integrated by staying on the same pulse through the cable. The idea is that the audience is moving around the space that this installation is in and the mix they hear is different in each location. As they move, it shifts. It’s as if they were in a big mixing console, turning up one station and then turning down the other. What I was trying to do was to create a big environment that an audience can actively explore in the same way that I’ve talked about creating this dense listening environment and asking people to listen to different parts on their own. That actually came about from the experience of going to Cuba in the early ’90s, and being at some rumba parties where there were a lot of musicians spread out in different places. I wandered around with a binaural recorder and I recorded the sound as I was moving. Then when I listened to the recording, I was getting this shifting, tumbling sound field and I thought: “There’s no way you could ever reproduce this in a studio. It’s a much richer immersive way of listening. Why can’t I use this as a way to model some experience for live performance or for live audiences?”
In 2005, Pogus Productions issued a CD realization of Chris Brown’s Talking Drum .
FJO: It actually reminds me of when I first heard Inuksuit, the John Luther Adams piece for all the percussionists. It was impossible to hear everything that was going on at any one moment as a listener. That’s part of the point of it which, in a way, frustrates the whole Western notion of a composition being a totality that a composer conceives, interpreters perform, and listeners are intended to experience in full like, say, the Robert Schumann Piano Concerto. Interpretations of the Schumann might differ and listeners might focus on different things at different times, but it is intended to be experienced as a graspable totality, and a closed system. Whereas creating a musical paradigm where you can never experience it all is more open-ended, it’s more like life itself since we can never fully experience everything that’s going on around us. But I have to confess that as a listener I’m very omnivorous and voracious so it’s kind of frustrating, because I do want to hear it all!
Compositions are more or less instructions, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.
CB: Sorry! I think that’s part of the Cage legacy, too. You don’t expect to have it all and what you have is a lot. Everybody in that Schumann Piano Concerto is hearing something slightly different, too, but there’s this idea somehow that this is an object that’s self-contained. It’s actually an instruction for a ritual that sounds different every time it’s done. But I think the ritual aspect of making music is something that really interests me and I would hate to be without it. Compositions are more or less instructions for what they should do, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time. Maybe some of them think they do, but I don’t think performing artists do that really. It’s mostly about making something that’s appropriate to the moment even if it’s coming from something that’s entirely determined in its tonal and rhythmic structure. That to me is what makes live music always more interesting than fixed media music. It’s actually not an object. It’s not something that doesn’t change as a result of being performed. Of course, fixed media depends on how it’s projected.
FJO: Perhaps an extreme example of that would be the kinds of work that you do as part of the Hub—electronic music created in real time by a group of people who are physically separated from each other yet all networked together but it’s really there’s no centralized control and that’s kind of part of the point of it.
CB: That’s right. The idea is to set up the composition process, if you can call it that. It’s not really the same as composing, but it’s a designing. You’re designing a system that you believe will be an interesting one for these automated instruments to interact inside of. What we do is usually a specification; each piece has verbal instructions about how to design a system to interact with the other systems. Then we get it together and get them working and they start making the sound of that piece which is never the same exactly, but it’s always recognizable to us as the piece that it is, because it’s a behavior. I would say within our group we get used to the kinds of sounds that everybody chooses to use to play their role in the piece, so it starts to get an ad hoc like personality from those personal choices that each person makes.
An excerpt of a networked computer performance by John Bischoff, Chris Brown and Tim Perkis (co-founders of the legendary computer network band The Hub) from the Active Music Series in Oakland’s Duende, February 2014.
FJO: In terms of focusing listening, and perhaps you’ll debate this with me, it seems that, as listeners, we’re trained to focus on a text when a piece has a text. If someone’s singing words, those words become the focal point. I hadn’t heard much music of yours featuring a text, but I did hear your new Jackson Mac Low song cycle the other night.
CB: I don’t write a lot of songs, but when I do I find it’s usually a pleasure to work with a pre-set structure that you admire; it’s like you’re dressing up what’s already there rather than having to decide where it goes next. Of course, you’re making decisions—like what is this going to be, is it going to be different, how is going to be different, how is it going to be the same?—but it’s nice to have that kind of foundation to build on. It’s like collaboration.
FJO: I thought it was beautiful, and I thought Theresa Wong’s voice was gorgeous. It was exquisite to hear those intervals sung in a pure tone and her diction was perfect, which was even more amazing since she was simultaneously playing the cello. But, at the same time, the Stone has weird acoustics. It’s a great place, but it’s a hole in the wall that isn’t really thought out in terms of sound design so it was obviously beyond your control. I was sitting in the second row and I know Jackson Mac Low’s poems. So when I focused in, I could hear every word she was pronouncing. But I still couldn’t quite hear the words clearly, as opposed to the vocals on Music of the Lost Cities where I heard every word, since obviously, in post-production, you can change the levels. But it made me wonder, especially since you have this idea of a listener getting lost in the maze of what’s going on, how important is it for you that the words are comprehensible?
CB: Maybe it’s just me, but even in the best of circumstances, I have trouble getting all the words in songs that are staged. Maybe it’s because I’m listening as a composer, so I’m always more drawn to the totality than I am just to the words. Most regular people who are into music mostly through song are very wrapped up in the words. But I’m not sure Mac Low’s words work that way anyway. I think they are musical and they are kind of ephemeral in the way that they glow at different points. And if you don’t get every one of them, in terms of what its meaning is, it’s not surprising. It’s kind of a musical and sonorous object of its own. So I guess I’m not exceptionally worried about that, although in the recording, I probably do want a better projection of that part of the music than what happened at the Stone. I was sitting behind her and I was not hearing exactly what the balance is. In the Stone, there are two speakers that are not ideally set up for the audience, so it’s not always there the way exactly you want it to be.
FJO: So is this song cycle going to be on the next recording you do?
Most regular people who are into music mostly through song are very wrapped up in the words.
CB: I hope we’re going to record it this summer, actually. It’ll be a chance to get everything exactly right. I’m very pleased that people are recognizing the purity of these chords that are being generated through the group, but there hasn’t been a perfect performance yet. Maybe there never will be. But the recording will get closer than any other one will, and that’ll be nice to hear, too.
FJO: It’s like the recording project of all the Ben Johnston string quartets that finally got done. For the 7th quartet, which was over a thousand different intervals, they were tuning to intervals they heard on headphones and using click tracks in order to be able to do it. And they recorded sections at a time and then patched it all together. Who knows if any group will ever be able to perform this piece live, but at least there’s finally an audio document of what Ben Johnston was hearing in his head.
CB: I think that’s really a monumental release. Ben Johnston’s the one who has forged the path for those of us trying to make Western instruments play Harry Partch and other kinds of just intonation relationships. It’s fantastic. But I think the other thing that seems to be true is that if you make a record of it, people will learn to play it. For example, Zeena and Nate the other night, in preparation for that performance, I was sending them music-minus-one practice MP3 files so that they could basically hear the relationships that they should be playing. It helps a lot. Recordings also definitely help to get these rhythmic relationships. I often listen to Finale play them back, just to check myself to see if I’m doing them correctly. A lot of times, I’m not. It drifts a little bit.
FJO: But you said before that that’s okay.
CB: But I want to know where it’s drifting. I want to know where the center is as part of my learning process. I use a metronome a lot, and I use the score a lot to check myself, and get better at it.
FJO: You’ve put several scores of yours on your website. Sparks is on there. Six Primes is on there. And there’s another piece that you have on there that’s a trio in 7-limit just intonation—Chiaroscuro. Theoretically anybody could download these scores, work out the tunings for their instruments and play them.
CB: Sure. Go for it. But they’re published by Frog Peak, so they can get the official copy there. I would like to support my publisher. Because of the way that my compositional practice has developed, a lot of my scores are kind of a mess. I had a lot of scores, but I haven’t released them because they’re kind of incomplete. They often involve electronic components that are difficult to notate, and I haven’t really figured out the proper way to do that. Where there are interactive components, how do you notate that? I’m not that interested in making pieces for electronics where the electronics is fixed and the performer just synchs to it. There’s only one piece I’ve played where I really like doing that and that’s the Luc Ferrari piece Cellule 75 that I recorded where the tape is so much like a landscape that you can just vary your synchronization with it.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that because back in 1989, you said…
CB: Okay. Here it comes.
FJO: “I want electronics to enhance our experience of acoustics and of playing instruments. Extending what we already do, instead of trying to imitate, improve upon, or replace it.”
A model is never a complete reading of the world.
CB: Yeah, that was important. That came out at a time when the industry was definitely moving towards more and more electronic versions of all the instruments, usually cheap imitations. Eventually those become personalities of their own, but it seems to me they always start like much lesser versions of the thing they’re modeled on. Maybe it has something to do with this idea of models. We’re moving more and more into a virtual reality kind of world and I think it’s really important that we don’t lose the distinction of what the model is rather than the thing it’s modeled on. I think it’s pretty dangerous to do that, actually. The more people live in exclusively modeled environments, the more out of touch they’re going to get and probably the sicker they’re going to get because a model is never a complete reading of the world. It’s a way to try to understand something about that world. If you’re a programmer, you’re always creating models. In a sense, a synthesizer is modeled on an acoustic reality. But once it comes out of the box into the world, it’s its own thing. It’s that distinction I’m trying to get at. I think we’re often seduced by the idea that the synthesized thing will replace the real thing rather than the synthesized thing just becoming another reality. That’s why I’m interested in mixing these things: singing with the synthesis. Becoming part of a feedback system with a synthetic instrument embraces that into a space and into a physical interaction. That seems to be more of a holistic way of expanding our ability to play music with ourselves, with our models of ourselves, with each other through models, or just seeing the models execute music of its own. The danger comes when you try to make them somehow perfect an idea of what reality is and it becomes the new reality instead of becoming just a new part of the real world.
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Aug 1, 2017
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