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One of the hallmarks of many different kinds of music performance—whether it’s a classical piano recital, a jazz combo in a club, or an arena rock show—is the demonstration of extraordinary physical feats on musical instruments. A cult of virtuosity has perpetuated the belief that the harder something is to play, and hence the fewer people who are able to play it, the better the music, and that the rare specimens of humanity who are able to play such music have special superhuman powers. At the same time, embedded in the word virtuoso is the word virtuous, implying that the rest of us who can’t scale these heights are somehow lacking in moral goodness.
Composer/performer Molly Joyce explained to us when we visited her in Washington, D.C. at the Halcyon Arts Lab, where she’s in residence this year, why perpetuating the notion that only a small select few are physically worthy enough excludes most people from the experience of making and ultimately enjoying art:
I think it’s problematic when one type of body or one type of being is reinforced through new music that still seeks a physically virtuosic connection. And I think that’s why, at least for myself, I always try, in my own passive way, to hopefully suggest other types of physicality.
Although she eschewed pyrotechnics in her own music long before she publicly identified as disabled (which was only about two years ago), Joyce has found many alternatives to virtuosity since embarking on exploring disability aesthetics as an artistic pursuit. For her, vulnerability is the new virtuosity. As she explains, “It’s not like you have to necessarily get rid of virtuosity all together, but you can reimagine it through other forms.”
She realizes, however, that music lags behind other artistic disciplines in embracing disability, and because of that she has been drawn to working with video artists and choreographers. One of the most fascinating projects she has been involved with is Breaking and Entering, a collaboration with the disabled interdisplinary artist Jerron Herman, which was awarded a 2019 New Music USA Project Grant. During the course of the piece, she and Herman swap roles—she dances and he sings:
My dance is definitely not super on point, and he’s not super in tune all the time, but the whole point for us is, through the disability aesthetic, we’re coming together. It’s not perfect. There are enough mistakes and we’re showing this, and also showing our vulnerability through that, a breaking and entering through, hopefully, to something else. That’s just as interesting as a very virtuosic piece.
[Ed. Note: This month, guitarist Jiji will perform Molly Joyce’s Plus and Minus at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ (February 1). The South Carolina Intercollegiate Band, conducted by Jack Stamp, will perform her All or Nothing in Columbia, S.C. (February 8). NakedEye Ensemble will perform Less is More at The Cell in New York City (February 16). Cellist Alistair Sung will perform Tunnelvision at Batavierhuis in Rotterdam, Netherlands (February 20), and the Harvard Glee Club, conducted by Andrew Clark, will premiere a new Molly Joyce work with text by Marco Grosse at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA (February 21). On March 31, Joyce will moderate a Disability and Creativity Panel at the Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington, D.C., and on May 15, New Amsterdam Records will release her first full-length album Breaking and Entering which features her voice, vintage toy organ, and electronic layering of both sources “in an act to reimagine disability within the human body.”]
Vulnerability is a new virtuosity.
Music and the arts in general should be more a place of personal expression.
There are adaptive instruments, but you don’t see those at concerts.
The first contemporary composers introduced to me by my high school composition teacher were Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
Not everything has to be perfect all the time.
I don’t really care about crediting too much.
What does weakness mean for me? I don’t know if I have the answers yet.
Joshua Fried begins each of his RADIO WONDERLAND shows with a spin of a boombox radio dial, snippets of caught commercials and DJ chatter popping out of the static and drawing his audience’s ears in on a raft of mainstream culture before he starts cutting it apart.
There is also a boombox in nearly every room of Fried’s apartment, which after a few hours in his company chatting about processing sound, seems to be not just a fun decorating choice but also an illustration of how connected he is to his music-making tools.
More than sharing space, however, it’s time that Fried has invested deeply in his music, labor-intensive processes becoming something of a hallmark. As a result, his projects have a tendency to spiral out across years of his professional life. Splicing elaborate tape loops and coding his own software have been just par for this artistic course—intimacy with the tools and materials an essential part of the work.
Yet whether in a dive for self-preservation or simply a yin-yang bit of balance, Fried sets up his musical game boards with elaborate care, but then prefers to play out the final aspects of his creative process live in front of an audience. In the ’90s that meant feeding his performers their material in real time over headphones. Since 2007, it most often finds him alone on stage, a couple pairs of men’s dress shoes concealing gate-triggering microphones and a Buick steering wheel drawing the audience’s eyes as he grabs bits of radio chatter from which he builds each RADIO WONDERLAND concert.
His creative path has led him from The Pyramid Club to more esoteric new music circles, but he hasn’t abandoned his pursuit of great grooves, and it’s a prime driver of RADIO WONDERLAND. “I had this metric, which is that I wanted it to be actually danceable,” he explains. “As a creator, as a composer, to have that metric and believe in it, to me, it’s not a cheap thing in the least. It’s so helpful. Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on.” In live performance and in track after track on his just-released album SEiZE THE MEANS, the drive of the pulse, the transparency of the process, and common commercial radio core prove to amplify rather than dilute the music’s broader unique aspects.
Fried anticipated that his lack of interest in “high-end signal processing of very theoretical stuff that you do your Ph.D. thesis about” might result in his work being dismissed in certain circles, but while that has happened, he has actually felt accepted and free to pursue the work he wants even if it comes attached to a beat that encourages serious toe tapping. It’s not something he’s looking to transcend. “I love dancing. I sometimes find myself bopping my head in music concerts when it’s not really thought of as head-bopping music, but I’m hearing a pulse. Okay, maybe in that situation, maybe you could argue that I’m missing something. But there are many cases where I feel like no, I’m not. I am moved and I’m moving, and I’m immersed and involved. And I just love it.”
Joshua Fried in conversation with Molly Sheridan
November 10, 2016—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Joshua Fried: I think I have long had this idea that I’m going to be the thorn in the side of some establishment that isn’t going to like me, and it turns out they do.
Molly Sheridan: But you don’t trust that?
JF: I have a little bit of imposter’s syndrome, but I’m on much more solid ground than I was when I started. It’s funny because “new music” is awash in people doing sophisticated things in funny meters and odd things with tonality and pitch, and whether I do or don’t, I tend to be accepted and no one has a problem with 4/4. It’s kind of amazing to me. I’m sort of waiting to be dismissed—and that’s happened to me—but I feel very accepted and able to pursue what I want. It just so happens that what I want is rather clubby, especially with RADIO WONDERLAND.
MS: I actually wanted to start by just talking about the evolution of RADIO WONDERLAND, especially for readers who may not be familiar with this project. It seems to me there’s a sort of ritual to these performances and to the pieces you create, including the equipment that you use and have used for a number of years now.
JF: Oh, yeah.
MS: So I want to trace the evolution of that visually and sonically, whether you have to go back to 1987 to do that, or just 2007.
JF: I have been cutting up sound and processing sound since I first started composing, and I started using radio really early on. I did one piece where I would start with FM radio playing the easy listening station—cascading strings and completely mellow “beautiful music”—and then cut to this underlying tape loop that was cut up very precisely. I would do it several times and it was random what I got from the cascading strings station. Then I was performing in clubs in New York with multi-channel tape-loop processing. Basically I was taking the technical structure of dub reggae, only instead of remixing an existing reggae song, I would remix a multi-channel tape loop that I had constructed laboriously and do that live.
I also had a thing where I would use something to trigger a gate. Like I would speak into the microphone, but it would be opening up a gate on a tape loop. It was theatrical. As a performative schtick, I started hiding the mic inside various objects. I put the mic inside a shoe and took it to the Pyramid Club where I was performing live, and I was whacking the shoe with a drumstick so the tape loop could be in time with my underlying groove. Then as I evolved as a composer, I wanted to do more with gates, so I said, let’s have four shoes. And this is 1988 at the La MaMa New Music Festival. I had the shoes and a radio—two channels of shoe-controlled gates from radio and two pre-recorded ongoing sounds.
Fried’s stage set-up with shoes (Yes, that’s Todd Reynolds in the background!)
Then a few years later, I realized I could do something that’s all radio. What I had to do next was the club-oriented funky tape loops that I had done in the ‘80s, only make those collages in real time in front of an audience and all out of commercial radio. I could do that with technology. I didn’t know what technology, but I knew I could do it with technology. I could trigger the radio with the shoes, but I wanted to do more. What I was doing in the ‘80s in clubs, these tape loops that I mentioned where I did things based on dub reggae, got increasingly intricate and I would do very high-precision tape splicing. As digital sampling was taking off, I would kind of say to myself, oh, I can do that with splicing and I would end up with something that was like those samplers, only more hi-fi because I had a quarter-inch tape deck, which was giving me better quality than the 8-bit or 12-bit samplers at the time. So there was this kind of odd period where, because I felt that I would live forever and it didn’t matter how long a project took, I would just do even more labor intensive, high-precision tape splicing.
But I slowly transitioned to MIDI and sampling, and so getting back to the beginnings of RADIO WONDERLAND, I realized that I could use technology to precisely cut up the found sound that I got off the radio and turn that into a groove. I have notebooks full of notes about what I could do and the more I thought about it, the more I got serious about it. I went through a period where I thought: how far am I willing to really elaborately process? Because what I love most in processing is the cutting up, running backwards, playing at different speeds, collaging as opposed to the high-end signal processing of very theoretical stuff that you do your Ph.D. thesis about. The simple processing that has a big musical payoff is more fascinating to me. What’s the least I can do, the most transparent processing I can do, and have it give me my musical result?
Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on. And sometimes I think it doesn’t matter so much what that framework is.
And I had this metric, which is that I wanted it to be actually danceable. As a creator, as a composer, to have that metric and believe in it, to me, it’s not a cheap thing in the least. It’s so helpful. Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on. And sometimes I think it doesn’t matter so much what that framework is. You need it. Especially when it comes to structuring things over time.
I was doing the tape loop stuff in clubs, and that was more or the less the ‘80s, and in the ‘90s it was the headphone-driven performance, [concert work that requires performers to try and imitate vocal sounds that are played over headphones]. Then halfway through that, I realized the next thing I wanted to do was club-oriented again, but by that time, I was so steeped in sort of the new music scene, it was no longer the Pyramid Club, it was the Bang on a Can Festival. And so when I first started doing RADIO WONDERLAND, it was music festivals and electronic nights, the Juilliard Electronic Music Festival and Boston Cyberarts. It didn’t really steer back to the clubs until I went through this long, long period of software development and then started channeling it to the clubs, and that’s a transition I’m sort of still making because I had so many years with the—if you want to call it—new music audience. The NewMusicBox audience! I still sort of feel like I’m steering back. In the late’80s, I was known if you read Billboard and not if you read the American Composers Forum newsletter. And then that switched. I still sort of feel I’m switching back.
MS: Was that all self-selected or did you feel pushed?
JF: It’s funny because I’ve sort of been following my nose the whole time as far as what I do. I was so involved with the clubs in the ‘80s, and to me it was equivalent with innovation. No, that’s not right. It’s not that simple. I was doing experimental stuff, and I was working a lot with Linda Fisher who’s a composer who worked with Cunningham and David Tudor and Douglas Dunn, who was a Cunningham dancer. But I was focused on the clubs; I was working in clubs. I could go on stage in any open-minded nightclub if I had my tape-loop act—I say open-minded, because at the time there was a certain population of people who enjoyed popular music but had to see a drum kit and/or a guitar on stage. There was one guy who said to me at the end of a gig, “If you had just had someone with a guitar on stage, even if they were just standing there, it would have made me feel more comfortable with what you did.” I was amazed at that. And I also really appreciated his honesty. He knew how absurd it was, and he was being completely real about it.
And then I got a record deal with a big record label. It went nowhere and it’s a long story, but it was a great thing that happened to me. I think I was kind of blown away emotionally, because I had this major label deal and I sort of didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t have the skill to adapt. I tried to write some conventional pop songs for the occasion, but I didn’t do very many. They didn’t really fit. I needed to be like Howard Jones or M, the guy who did the song “Pop Muzik,” but I wasn’t versatile enough to do that. So I was just the tape loop guy doing my innovative stuff—which certain people really loved—marketed the wrong way.
It took me a long time to sort of get over it and decide what to do next. I didn’t have a next step for the record label, or I guess for the clubs. And then the headphone-driven stuff kind of took off, although it’s a slow motion take off. Over a few years, I did a lot of that stuff, and then the Bang on a Can All-Stars said, “Well, can we perform it?” And I said okay and I worked with them. I basically won’t let people perform this work unless I feel that they can do it—because it’s so awful if people don’t have the proper training. It’s hideously boring and uncomfortable, and it gives me and it gives the music a bad name. But if performers can handle it and they have worked with me or someone that I’ve worked with to know what I want from it, it can be this compelling, rigorous, worthy stuff. So anyway yes. The Bang on a Can All-Stars did it and then other people said they wanted to do it, and it had this life, including a 16-week series at HERE Arts Center in 2001.
It was so enormously labor intensive. It was amazing to be able to do it, but each performer can do each headphone role only once, so I rotate through performers. We had a total of 64 people over the course of this run. I would have to get more and more performers. How could I tour with this? I decided that this piece, if it can’t walk on its own, is going to have to be set by the side of road where if it wants to walk, it can walk, but I can no longer be pushing it along. I need something more practical, and that was going to be this radio, found sound, groove-based thing.
That’s also solo, so it makes so much more sense. Then all that was left was the years of doing the software programming. I did it myself in Max/MSP and it was a wonderful adventure, but it took years. It was absurd. By fall of 2007 I realized I have not utterly, thoroughly 100% debugged my own code. However, the state of performing this is hampered more by my lack of knowing how to do it and lack of rehearsal than by the bugs. I could put this on stage, work around the bugs, and six months of being on stage is going to put this out in the world. And it’s going to get that much better. Better than six more months of programming to iron out the last few bugs or add the last few features that I want. So all of sudden, I realized, oh, it’s not a matter of being done and then going on stage. I’m going on stage now. Let’s start gigging!
I decided that for a year I would just perform any and all performances—paid, unpaid, bring my own PA, what have you. This adventure started and I was going to do this for a year and then record. So that was fall of 2007. And then 2011—that’s a year after, right?—I realized I was doing more and more gigs. I started going out of town. I performed at this big sort of techno/rave-y complex in Venice, Italy. It was so great, but it was also crazy. I didn’t have a record to sell at the gigs. It seemed almost counterproductive. And also I didn’t mention, I made a deal with myself: not only was I going to stop coding—only since it’s Max/MSP, it’s drag another line with the mouse—but I was declaring a technology freeze. I wasn’t going to upgrade any piece of hardware or software until I had that record out. So I figured I’d gig for a year, do the record, upgrade the software. Instead it was a few years of gigging. Now, it’s antique software and a G3 Powerbook. It’s the same thing with my tape-loop stuff. When I started doing tape loops, it was high tech, but then I did it for so many years. Same thing kind of happened with RADIO WONDERLAND where I had a Powerbook that was state of the art and I just kept it. And I was so glad that I did.
Now my case might be extreme, but there are musicians and composers who are upgrading so fast, I feel like they’re not going into depth. On the other hand, they don’t need to go into depth the way I do. I get really involved with materials, the tools, and that is a big part of what I’m doing. Other composers are different. They’re pursuing other things, and they can have a—not a derogatory use of the term—more shallow connection with the nuts and bolts of their technology and it’s not such a wrenching big deal to upgrade. If they throw out their old software and have new software, great. They take advantage of that.
For me, it just couldn’t be that way. I wrote this software myself. I’m very intimate with it. It’s just not the same deal. I love that kind of intimacy with tools and materials. I guess for some composers, the intimacy is on the level of the score, or the concept, and the technology is secondary.
MS: Okay, that was a lot of answers to a lot of questions.
JF: Whew. So we’re done?
MS: We’re done! No, we’re not done. You were talking about intimacy, which makes me think about your use of commercial radio as your raw material. I’m curious, of all the things you could pick, what is your attraction to that specifically as your primary source?
JF: Well, there are a couple things that really dovetail nicely. Since I was kid, I’ve had this attraction to the commercial stuff and just reframing it as something that’s funny. When I was in fourth grade, we had a field trip to the L.A. airport and we got to walk inside an airplane. Then the next day, or maybe that afternoon, we were back in our homeroom in my elementary school, and we were asked to write about it. I wrote some spiel and at the end of it I wrote, “Welcome to the friendly skies of United.” It was a laugh line that has a certain needling twist to it.
Maybe that’s the whole sort of appropriative, ironic shtick that we’re all so tired of now, but I think I am of a generation where that is compelling to me. It’s a way of talking and of negotiating the world by quoting the mainstream stuff in this kind of snarky way. I feel in many ways, culturally we’re past that, but that kind of appropriation is like a language. And maybe this is a loaded word, but it is subversive. It is knocking, needling, and when I am cutting it up, it is cutting up the mainstream culture. It may be very basic, but great—be basic. Also, it’s ubiquitous, so it’s something that’s familiar and when I process the familiar, the process is that much more transparent. Just like when you do a cover tune, if you have an odd musical bent, your odd musical bent can be revealed by performing someone else’s work.
That’s why Devo’s version of “Satisfaction” is so satisfying, because we know this song and you get what Devo is. FM radio is dynamically compressed and has a decent frequency range. It is made to be grabbed and sampled. It’s so technically easy to grab the pre-compressed feed from FM radio. I know exactly where I have to put the volume control on my boombox. I don’t change the input level on my rig. I haven’t had to. And that’s great. It is perfectly pre-processed for the stuff that I’m doing.
MS: Is your choice of controllers born out of that same instinct—the steering wheel, the shoes? I mean, is that a joke? Is that a commentary? Is that playing off familiarity?
JF: It’s not the subversive appropriation kind of thing. I’m not knocking the industrial age because the steering wheel is a symbol of something evil. Arguably, it is. But I am doing it because of the transparency of the process when the controller is so large. I don’t want a tiny little knob that no one can see, so I want this object that’s the wheel.
Instead of the shoes, I could use electronic drum pads, but they have this sort of added message to me that you have to have something that looks like fancy high tech music hardware in order to whack something. But this is a completely un-acoustic instrument. The sound that you’re triggering has nothing to do with the physical makeup of the thing that you’re hitting. There’s this disconnect between the controller and the sound that results, and I want to underscore that disconnect. It’s a funny thing, and I’d rather have it be that funny thing than have it be like the cool drum pad. If you had the money to buy this in the music store, you could have this cool drum pad. I don’t like that.
Fried takes the wheel
Once I had the shoes, I knew that I wanted to have not just a large knob, but an ordinary object taken from life and give it that surreal feeling. I was really taken by surrealism when I was kid. It’s that kind of twist I was talking about before with appropriation. There’s a different, maybe related sort of twist when there’s something absurd. I just love it so much.
Another thing about the wheel is that, technically, it’s no different from the little knob you can get in the portable controller, which is a lot easier to pack on an airplane than a steering wheel, but you would never play a melody on that little knob. With the steering wheel, I can, and so now I practice the wheel, and it’s become this whole other level of instrument that I didn’t even realize. The quantitative difference of size is a real qualitative difference, and it’s so much fun.
MS: You’ve been working with commercial radio for a long time now. I’m curious if you’ve noted any changes to that particular stream of media and how that’s impacted your work.
JF: Well, part of it’s a little sad because when I started doing this, radio was more monolithic. Everybody knew half the songs on any of the pop stations. I don’t feel that’s the same thing now. Radio, even mainstream commercial radio, is in its niches. There was a sort of lingua franca of pop in the heyday of Michael Jackson and Madonna and Culture Club. They were so ubiquitous and corporate and massively popular. I was dismantling this common mainstream.
I have developed my aesthetic, but I haven’t really adapted. That’s just the way it goes.
I have developed my aesthetic, but I haven’t really adapted. That’s just the way it goes. My projects take absurd numbers of years to fully play out, and that’s more acceptable in the movie business than it is in the music business. But I’m here, and so part of what RADIO WONDERLAND signifies has evolved out from under me. I’m using vintage technology now in a way that I wasn’t back then by virtue of not changing the technology. Very recently, I decided to use AM radio because I need more topical stuff because of what’s happening in the world. That’s one thing that I decided only in the last few months. It’s not enough for me to know that crazy stuff is happening in the world. They’re kind of talking about it on NPR, but I want to be dealing with more commercial culture and they’re not talking about global warming on the rock station.
MS: Not just RADIO WONDERLAND but also your work with headphone-driven performance leads me to thoughts of how it pushes and pulls on the ideas of Cage, which is something you address specifically on your website:
It celebrates randomness in a way that’s utterly different from Cage. Chance choices can be simply better—in the right context.
What are the elements of that “right context”?
JF: Well, there’s no one right context. But if you can create a context in which the best choice is going to be by the roll of the dice, you’ve created a beautiful situation.
I guess what I’m talking about is hey, we’re stochastic instead of completely random. I like the negotiation of what’s chance and what’s not chance, and also the extremes of how much I prepare, how much I work on my algorithms, and then how much I’m dependent on what happens to be on the radio or, with headphone-driven performance, how rigorous my input is and how it interacts with the complete lack of control of the performers. The chance choice can be the right choice, if in the right context. Building the kind of context that can do that gives me something that to my ears is just better than any other way. And it’s such a beautiful thing. You feel like you’re tapping into something, instead of sort of cheating it. Well, there’s my chord progression and if I avoid all the leading tones in the first half of the phrase, and then I hit octaves in the second half, then it will kind of cover up the fact that this is a lame chord progression. No, no, no! I want this. I want the dappled sunlight to fall on my fabric and it just has to be good enough fabric so that it looks good, however the sunlight falls on it. Something like that.
MS: I want to dig further into the process of the headphone-driven performance and learn more about what is really happening in those headphones—the audio score, if you will—that is generating the performance you want. Can you pull the curtain back? I’m sure that there’s a lot of thinking that went on with why you’re even doing that in the first place.
JF: You want to understand the mechanics.
MS: Yes, but you can be philosophical too.
JF: What the performers are hearing is mostly spoken word and some singing, and a lot of the spoken word is taken from very expressive, emotional parts of old movies. Like Richard Burton bellowing.
Just to be clear, I have six different channels of headphone material, all independent. So they can be unison or not, and they can have conversations and such. But it’s completely, rigorously timed because they’re not separate tape decks that are running out of synch; they’re all coming from the same multi-track sound source. The synch is maintained, and the accompanying music is on two additional tracks for left and right playback over a PA system. So the musical accompaniment and all six headphone tracks are audio scores—or audio parts, you could say—sent out via a headphone feed to the performers.
My instruction to them is not to repeat immediately after the input, which would be a sensible thing to do, but my instruction is to talk along with the input, which is not sensible. It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. I’m asking them to be listening and talking at the same time, which kind of ruins their chances of hearing most of it, because they’re talking over it. But the headphones are fairly loud. They’re listening, they’re picking up stuff, and they’re vocalizing and catching stuff as they can, and as the headphone material repeats—and it repeats a lot—they get more of it and their proportion of gibberish to regular language gets more towards the regular language. I work with performers, one-on-one or in a group of two or three people, I demonstrate, I have them try this. It takes some understanding and most people don’t really believe until they try it that this really means doing this ridiculous thing of talking over. Now, sometimes your cue to start talking is the input itself. So obviously at that moment, the performer will enter late. I know that. That’s just the laws of physics. But I tell them, don’t think about that. You are there the whole time; just imagine that and keep on jumping ahead to the present moment. Try this for about a minute, and then you’ll kind of find a place where you can just go.
Headphone Driven Performance (demo)
Practice track for two performers (stereo)
One thing I say to them is you are doing this with utter confidence, believing that you’re absolutely getting it. That input, as you are saying it to yourself, is you. You are that accurate and you have that much confidence. At the same time, I’m not saying just pretend everything’s perfect because I told you to. I want the performers to really be trying. It takes effort. It takes a lot of concentration. You’re tuned into what’s happening. You’re picking up stuff, so you’re keeping these two things going. You’re working, but you also are constantly outputting with complete gusto. This kind of conversation over a couple of hours of demonstrating gets good performers in a place where I need them to be to do this, and so it comes out this sort of proto-language—half gibberish, half non-gibberish.
This evolved from a party game with these performance artists that I was collaborating with, and they called this party game the Nancy Sinatra game, because they were using a cassette tape of Nancy Sinatra’s greatest hits. I kind of took the idea for my own compositions and started making my own source tapes with the musical accompaniment. That covers a lot of it, doesn’t it?
MS: That does cover a lot of it, and it leads me very neatly to my next question, because even before knowing that bit of backstory, I was already struck by how big a role the aspect of game play or a puzzle to solve in the moment figures into both in the headphone-driven performance and RADIO WONDERLAND. Because you have a structure and there are rules, but then you’re getting things that are chance-y that are being thrown into the mix, and then you’re having to do something with that for an audience.
JF: The game is how I handle the input. That makes it exciting for me. One thing I sometimes say is that I feel like I come from a planet where it’s not live music unless it’s completely unexpected. If it comes from a score and you’ve rehearsed it, what’s that? You can’t do that. That’s just cheating. That’s not anything. Where we come from, live is where you deal with life as it comes, or something like that.
I feel like I come from a planet where it’s not live music unless it’s completely unexpected. If it comes from a score and you’ve rehearsed it? That’s just cheating.
I don’t actually come from that planet, but this sort of thing is compelling to me. It is such a great discipline, and it also puts the emphasis on things that I think should be emphasized. In this case, when it comes to RADIO WONDERLAND, it’s the process. It’s the juxtaposition. It’s what I do with it, as opposed to choosing the perfect sample—which would be, I think, just an awful way for me to compose. I’m kind of a perfectionist. So, given that, what would I do? I’d go over what’s in the commercial media and decide what’s best to dismantle because it’s sonically good, but more importantly, the content is what I think is just the thing that needs to be interrogated and subverted. I’m exhausted just thinking about that. I don’t want that. It’s not a good compositional challenge for me. It might be sort of a moneymaker, if I can grab something that’s so telling and it’s so hysterically funny. Then maybe I have to bargain to get the rights to it. Then I cut it up, and I make it into a dance track that could be fun and maybe get a lot of attention, but that’s so not the discipline that I want. To me, if I can develop the algorithms and train myself as a performer to deal with it as it comes in, those are good musical processes. That’s good performance training. It’s going to be a good performance.
It’s amazing how well things fit together, how the synchronicity seems to come up again and again. I remember one time when Will Smith, the movie star, was in the headlines a lot. I got the name Will Smith off the radio, and someone said to me, “Unbelievable! How did you get that? It’s so amazing that you got that because he’s iconic, and it’s such a coup.” Well, but that’s how this thing works because the stuff that’s the most popular comes up the most. And I love that. I find I’ve really learned a lesson that you can take two different pop songs from two different times—let’s say a commercial or a station ID and a pop song—cut them up, try to juxtapose them tonally, and your odds are better than even that they will somehow work.
Inside Fried’s home studio
Now maybe I’ve had this sort of brilliance at improvising and choosing things that I don’t give myself credit for, but I think a big part of it is that there’s more sense in the stuff that we would grab by chance than we ever imagined. When I first made RADIO WONDERLAND, I made sure that there would be a means to take any of the individual bits and suck away the pitch—the De-Pitcher, I called it. Turns out what I used was ring modulation. Boom! Computationally, it’s incredibly cheap and easy, but I found after a while—it took me a long time to even believe it—I almost never have to use it! The pop song that I get 15 minutes after I grab the other pop song is gonna work. Or I can transpose with the wheel, so I have these five different bits from a pop song or a commercial from 15 minutes ago. Here’s a new slab of audio. I take a couple of different bits, juxtapose them, they’re in rhythm and maybe two thirds of the time I need to transpose with the wheel. And that’s it. I never suspected it would be that easy. I was kind of terrified. I figured you take two random songs, even if they’re both based on A-440, then we have like 24 different choices of different modes and stuff, different keys. They’re not going to match. They’re going to be badly dissonant in that way that’s just not fun musically, especially when I’m trying to be funky and groovy and melodic in a more-or-less conventional sense. It’s just not going to work out, and I’m going to need the De-Pitcher. I’m going to have to transpose like mad, that’s just how it is. That’s going to be part of the game of RADIO WONDERLAND. And it turns out that it wasn’t. It just tends to work.
MS: Does this process ever feel like it “fails”? Or maybe just that you couldn’t easily see how you were going to make it work in a way that was going to satisfy you and you had to sweat through that on stage? It sounds like that hasn’t happened.
JF: Oh, it happens and of course I blame myself. To the extent that I take credit when it works well, I also blame myself when I think it isn’t funky. I’m highly self-critical and I also have this absurd metric where I want it to be as danceable as my favorite dance track, even though that was worked over in a studio for three weeks and I have five minutes in front of people. I do have to scramble, and a lot of it has to do with timing. It’s also a question of how well I can hear, because it’s a most unforgiving set up in terms of monitoring.
If you’re in a rock band, or even if you’re playing from a score in a formal concert setting, you know your instrument is tuned. You know where the underlying beat is. You know what the conductor’s doing. You know where your hands are. You’re okay, even if you can’t hear that great. In a rock band, things are loud and chaotic, but your guitar has frets and you have your tuner. You feel the kick drum. You’re good to go. But with me, I don’t know what my instrument is until I’m on stage with it. I’m taking a piece of radio, usually around one second, and I cut it into eight bits and deploy them. I need to get a sense of how they differ from each other and what they sound like, and then decide how I want to further deploy them and transpose them. I have to hear them really well. I can’t decide that since my finger’s on the right fret and I know my telecaster and it’s in tune, that I’m okay. I’m kind of sunk. So it really depends on them.
MS: Why is the dancing so core to you?
JF: It’s a metric that I can believe in, and it’s so great to have that metric as a composer. I almost feel a little embarrassed because it’s so basic. A lot of my favorite music has never been assessed on the basis of whether or not people dance, and it’s successful on the basis of much more subtle things, but I’m in this situation.
But in addition to that metric, I love dancing. I sometimes find myself bopping my head in music concerts when it’s not really thought of as head-bopping music, but I’m hearing a pulse. Okay, maybe in that situation, maybe you could argue that I’m missing something. But there are many cases where I feel like no, I’m not. I am moved and I’m moving, and I’m immersed and involved. And I just love it.
And when the emotion isn’t completely positive, when it’s not just catharsis or love, when it’s sad, angry, difficult, and it’s danceable, oh that’s so powerful. It’s dark, but there’s this cathartic dancing. It can work so, so well. And I go out dancing; I’m still going to clubs. I feel a connection to that culture or cultures. I am also looking forward to going back to other stuff. There are areas I want to go with it that aren’t quite so dance-y, but the initial concept is so focused on that, mostly because of this idea of a metric.
And what a great guide it is. Because otherwise, if I was going to do a sound collage with radio and sophisticated algorithms, it doesn’t matter where you go with it. To put RADIO WONDERLAND through this almost absurd metric of having to be done in real time, without choice of material, and have it be danceable, to sort of make it through to the other side gives me these incredibly powerful tools, software which I intend to finally further develop now that I have the album out. I think I’ll be able to do longer-scale things and different time scales. It won’t be as much about dancing, which is a little bit like the dance music artists that branch out.
I kind of imagine that trajectory. This first album is basically a bunch of dance tracks with kind of a slower one at the end, but even the slower one at the end has this boom-boom bass drum. I like that trajectory, not because it matches to some sort of commercial flight pattern, but artistically, that discipline and those rules are putting me in a great position for the next step.
It’s a little bit like my performance technology which, believe it or not, does not allow me to loop anything that I have just played. It allows me to loop what was just on the radio, but when I process the radio with the shoe or the wheel, that doesn’t loop. It’s crazy if you think of the current state of Ableton Live and live processing technology, which is all about the live looping. You’re a soloist with your instrument and a bunch of pedals and software. You play your thing, you loop your thing, you play over the thing you looped. I don’t do that with RADIO WONDERLAND. If I’m not hitting the shoe, that sound doesn’t come out, and it has been such a discipline over the past few years to perform that way.
Now I’m ready to revise my software and say okay I’m going to include the ability to retain that pattern. When I transpose on the wheel, I’ll make a riff, and here’s this piece of radio, it’s deployed over one bar. It’s got some nice syncopation, but it’s all taken from one second of radio. Then I transpose it with the wheel, so all of sudden we have a four-bar phrase, and it’s fun, it’s tonal, and there’s something cool about the transition because it’s transposing a whole chord, which is a little bit like classic house music where there’s a sample and the musician just has one finger on the keyboard and they’re transposing the sample of that. That’s part of the house music sound that I really like. I do that with the wheel, right now, but if I have that four-bar pattern, it stops being a four-bar pattern when I turn away from the wheel and go back to the shoes, or what have you. But it’s been I think a more interesting, at least for now, that I got to this point without these various crutches or enhancements.
MS: So you’ve mentioned a few times since we’ve started the milestone position this record has in your mind. Let’s talk about the fact you have a new record out.
JF: That’s right.
JF: Thank you very much.
MS: Why did this record become so important for you? Every bit of the philosophy you’re underlining here is how exciting it is that it’s live. It’s live radio. You’re doing all the processing live. Why the hell did you want to make a record?
JF: You know, it’s funny, the turntablist Maria Chavez has talked about how she does not release recordings. And boy, I respect that. I’m a good candidate for not releasing recordings, but I wanted to. For one thing, and I’m glad you reminded me of this, one of the motivations of RADIO WONDERLAND was to become prolific because my process became slower and slower. I had this thing that became Headset Sextet. I finished it—or so I thought—in ’94, and then about three days before the opening night at La MaMa, I realized no, this is too good not to make it right. So I renamed it Work In Progress, and then I spent about another five years revising it, but the time scale is indefensible. It’s just absurd, but I’m proud I finally finished it.
But with RADIO WONDERLAND, I thought okay, let this be a ticket to being prolific. The album is part of that process. Can I be prolific in that I generate this new material and can have it out on recordings, which do this great job of representing you when you’re not there playing it? I never had a full album out, which seems crazy because in the ‘80s I had a record deal on a major label. I worked on remixes for famous recording artists. I work with recording technology, and yet I didn’t have my own album.
So the emotional stakes became kind of high, and it’s too bad because I’m older now, and maybe I’m less resilient as far as the sheer emotional strain of getting it all done. Part of the test of RADIO WONDERLAND is: Are these algorithms, or the algorithms plus me manipulating them, are they so robust that this can be a dance groove even without the loud PA and me up there in the excitement and electricity of live radio? I love that electricity. I live for it, and it is still fundamentally a live show. But I wanted to put it to that test.
Given that I wanted this album to sound good to my ears, I knew there was going to be some post-production. Well, how much? That is something I had to answer by doing it. One thing I’m happy about—and this had a lot to do with my co-producer Marcelo Anez—is that each track really is taken from a single concert without any non-radio overdubs. Some of it is highly processed—more processed by a long shot than anything I was able to do on stage. But a lot of this extra processing I can do on stage in the future. So it’s somewhat of a prospectus for new projects.
MS: What about that fact that you’re going back and revisiting the work for this, because you’ve avoided that in the live version quite explicitly. It was all about the new, the first brush, and now you’re going back and not just looking at them once, but looking at them many times as you crafted them into an album.
JF: Well, I did resist that. I did a sort of test album—it was just three songs—a few years ago, where I chose three different concerts that I edited, not very carefully. I have hundreds of concert recordings, so isn’t it the perfect test of RADIO WONDERLAND to pick concerts at random and see how well they work as recordings? That was really dumb. What I want to do is choose the best concerts, and for me, a lot of that was the best grooves. It makes it a heck of a lot easier to go through hundreds of hours of concerts when you’re looking for good grooves, as opposed to simply looking for the best music. In order to favorably represent RADIO WONDERLAND, I realized what I had to do was listen more and edit less. So I went through and listened and listened and listened, and chose the best shows, the ones which needed the least amount of editing. And that felt fine. I’m very focused on live and real time and all the ephemeral stuff that we talked about, but I also like to geek out in a studio. I’ve long used recording technology and I love making records. This was a good reason to go and get into that headspace.
Some of the issues that I had to address on the album were almost purely technical having to do with the low end, and I can address that with the next iteration of the software, and that’s a really exciting prospect. So maybe instead of working on a track for three weeks before it’s really ready for a final mix, I can work on a track for a day before it’s ready for a final mix. My fantasy is that I will be able to put out as a live recording whatever I did that night without any post-production.
MS: But weren’t you distilling to a larger degree, because these tracks are like seven minutes, and it does seem like there’s a ritual to RADIO WONDERLAND performance. I don’t know if they’re always 30 minutes, but it has that kind of scope. And then you’re condensing it in some way.
JF: Oh, absolutely. Part of the process is to distill a 30-minute concert into a four- to eight-minute album track and not to pretend that they’re mini RADIO WONDERLAND concerts. The idea is to take a half hour to create a great groove, and that’s going to create a monster five-minute radio mix and twelve-minute remix of a dance track. It is perhaps an easy adjunct to the RADIO WONDERLAND concert format, but that is the needle I seem to be trying to thread. And it’s worked out okay. But you’re absolutely right. That’s a crucial part of it. Yes, I’m condensing them.
Oh, you brought that up because I was talking about releasing a live concert as is. Yeah, that would have to be a different thing. But that’s not what the album was. The album was to see, if I throw you right into the middle of the groove, is this going to make sense without the construction of the groove and without me jumping around and spinning wheels and stuff?
This week marks the Disquiet Junto’s 134th composition challenge. We’ve covered the activities of this SoundCloud group and their intriguing creative homework assignments before, but the current project to compose music to accompany a dance video by choreographer Cori Marquis seemed particularly intriguing. The visual movement is complete, but its sound has yet to be crafted in response.
Those who choose to participate in this week’s challenge will select a one-minute section to score and then will share it with the group as per usual. In addition, Marquis may use some of the created music in her final cut of the video. If you’re reading this post and would like to find out more and/or join in yourself, you can get all the necessary details here. Deadline is Monday, July 28, 2014, at 11:59 p.m. (wherever you are).
I was intrigued by the idea of a dance piece that was presented as an edited video rather than delivered as a live performance, and I wanted to learn more about how Marquis made use of sound in her creative process. She invited me to quiz her on her work and methods.
Molly Sheridan: The clip above is actually my first encounter with a dance piece that is specifically designed so that an edited video presentation is the performance, not just a documentation method. Can you educate me a little bit on the development of this in the dance field? How it evolved and how it’s being used by yourself and others?
Cori Marquis: Film and camera technology has played a progressively greater and greater role in dance since the start of their relationship. (Maybe surprisingly, dance and film have actually had a really long history together.) Simple documentation of dance work actually began in the late 1800s, then Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly really popularized dance specifically for film in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. It was many of the modern greats like Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham who started to play around with film technology when it became available to them somewhere in the ‘70s or so. So dance has been documented by film, film has been a part of live dance performances, and dance films have inhabited a completely separate form altogether.
I think the film/dance relationship is attractive to choreographers for so many reasons. Even just documentation of dance work is significant; unlike music or theater, there is no universal way to score or script dance work to be used in future generations. My choreography notes are pretty useless and nonsensical to anyone but me, which I think is more often the case than not. While film as documentation never quite does a live performance justice–it loses the immediacy; the possibility of new mistakes; the community, energy, and ephemeral nature of live performance–it does preserve work that otherwise might be completely lost without it being a living kinesthetic history on current bodies. Even casually, I use it in rehearsal often.
Then looking at film as the mode and medium for dance work opens up an entirely new form altogether, and in its own right. You can get the intimacy of film with the physicality of motion; you can alter the viewer’s visual perspective as well as the timing and pacing of the work. The editing becomes part of–or maybe most of–the choreography. You can bring site-specific work beyond the location. You can create physically unfeasible images. And logistically, it can be presented an infinite number of times, with the possibility of a huge geographical reach and scope in audience without the financial obstacles of touring a cast around the world.
All of this is to say that dance and film, and dance films, are nothing new. I think what is new is the ability to make that kind of work without an enormous budget, in this YouTube generation sort of way. But I don’t think that makes dance films reductionist, as that might seem in their ability to become ubiquitous. It somehow seems related to the explosion of other media in our generation, how TV shows have gone from often being “reductionist” sitcoms to fully fleshed-out stories that cover far more ground (with incredible production values) than a two-hour play or movie could (think Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective, etc.). I think the relationship between dance and film has moved from a better-than-nothing way to document (reducing the work’s full impact) to a form that opens up entirely new vocabularies and possibilities, adding and deepening the way we can communicate and tell stories (even if in abstraction!).
MS: Can you give me a little of the program note for the piece you’re asking the Disquiet Junto Project participants to score?
CM: The idea for this dance film is rooted in the ephemeral nature of live performance, and specifically the transient way dancers trace and use space. I wanted to investigate what it is to record these floor patterns and points of contact so that they do not disappear the moment they occur. A clear vehicle for this became paint on bodies, with dance on film. The work uses multiple colors of paint to track two dancers: their points of contact with the floor, themselves, and each other; in athletic phrase work; partnering; and nuanced improvisation. The film primarily utilizes semi-aerial and intimate close-up shots.
Screen capture from Marquis’s to-be-scored dance piece.
MS: Did you have a sound in mind for this piece as you choreographed it?
CM: I didn’t have any specific sound ideas for this piece–I still don’t. I obviously have different sounds and types of music that I like, and I can imagine some types of sound that would work well for the film, but I was excited to see what tones and pacing would emerge from the phrase work and the editing itself. I’m not a musician, so I’m excited to hear what far more musically creative people will develop using this film as source material. I had different music playing during the choreography process, during filming, and even while I was editing, but nothing that I became tied to or tried to marry to the material.
MS: How do you typicality work with music when you choreograph?
CM: My starting point for a piece is usually conceptual in nature, some idea that I’m interested in investigating. This quickly becomes movement, and only later becomes scored. I usually just have a current playlist that I’m interested in playing during rehearsal, so I do like dancing to music. But set music for specific sections of a larger work tends to come much later in my process. We often try sections with many types of songs to see how it changes the movement. Sometimes I stumble upon it while I’m working–where everyone in the room feels the “aha…that’s what this section sounds like!” when a section fits really well with a song. But while the music certainly informs the shape, time, and structure of a section, I usually end up altering or editing the music in some way to fit the choreography (which I just do in GarageBand). I like using melodic stuff, often electronic, sometimes experimental, sometimes pop, but almost never music that’s hard to listen to. I like music that makes the audience–and the dancers–want to dance.
MS: How did you come to decide to collaborate with the Junto project to score the film? What was interesting to you about that idea and how does it interact with your artistic motivation on the dance side?
CM: Marc [Weidenbaum, moderator of the Disquiet Junto] and I met during an interview for his book on Aphex Twin. (I used an Aphex Twin song for a quartet I choreographed a number of years ago, and Marc stumbled across the video online and contacted me.) He was really interested in the idea that music is often secondary for me, and it’s usually a stressful process trying to find music to fit a work. I’ve definitely been interested in collaborating with a musician for a long time, and this project seemed like an excellent way to explore that for both me and the Junto Project. Historically, social and performance dances were developed based on music. I like this idea that came with modernism that we can reverse that direction if we want–that dance can be the foundation, the source material, the thing that comes first, and music can stem from that. I think it only deepens and enriches the possibilities of performance if the relationship between music and dance can be reciprocal–more like a feedback loop than unidirectional with music always first.
The conversation has begun! Here are the tracks submitted so far:
At the moment we at The Nouveau Classical Project are working on our largest undertaking thus far: Potential Energies, which will premiere in Brooklyn at BAM Fisher on May 29. It’s a modern ballet where the musicians and dancers share an equal role on stage. Each player is paired together with a dancer in order to demonstrate two sides of a single identity which, in the subject matter of the ballet, is an attempt to reconcile ambitions with reality.
This project has involved intense collaboration between musicians and dancers and was unlike anything most of the musicians of NCP and I had experienced. Through the process of directing Potential Energies and creating it with my ensemble, choreographer Barbie Diewald, and her company TrioDance Collective, I had the chance to immerse myself in the world of dance and learned a great deal about collaboration.
We’ve had workshops and rehearsals twice each week since October, totaling four-six hours a week. For the most part, dancers were required to be at all six hours of rehearsal. (I went to all rehearsals, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing my job.) There were times when it was absolutely grueling.
To begin with, the piece involves ten performers: five musicians (myself included) and five dancers. And this isn’t a piece where musicians are simply learning a score and accompanying dancers; in fact, for much of the ballet, memorizing the music (composed by Trevor Gureckis) is required.
It was clear from the start that musicians would need to contribute movement ideas because the musicians knew what their bodies were capable of doing while playing their instruments, and our goal was to create movement that was as natural and uncontrived as possible. When I started attending the workshops that involved only dancers, what struck me was the way Barbie asked her dancers to generate choreographic material. Sometimes Barbie would have ideas right off the bat, but oftentimes we would discuss the idea behind whatever section of the ballet we happened to be working on that day, and the dancers would create phrases that we would possibly use, discard, or save for later. (As far as the music goes, it is through-composed and that collaboration primarily existed between the exchange of ideas between Barbie, Trevor, and myself.)
While there are opportunities for musicians to have a sense of compositional decision-making in aleatoric pieces or in improv-based music, such as jazz, I am particularly curious about how a classical composer and musician can build a piece together from the ground up. Co-creation is something not often explored in the classical genre, and after working on Potential Energies, I’ve been thinking about how the choreographer-dancer process could be applied in creating new compositions. I know that composers and performers often collaborate, but it often seems limited to commissioning and/or sharing ideas about performance execution rather than the creation of material.
Potential Energies, rehearsal shot Photo by Mickey Hoelscher
During the creation of Potential Energies, Barbie mentioned to me that she needs the bodies present (choreography software exists but she said it’s not that great) so that is probably a factor in her highly collaborative process, but she also depends on the creative minds of her dancers and their improvisations, and in the case of Potential Energies, input from the musicians as well. In depth composer-performer collaborations would allow musicians the chance to have a stronger creative voice beyond the artistry of performance, especially for those of us who do not compose. Just like the choreographer in the dance process, the composer would form the final composition, but in this case there would be a significant amount of input from the musicians, and it seems improvisation would be essential to the process as well.
I would love to hear about any unique composer-performer collaborations that have taken place or are in the works! Please share in the comments below.
In the fall of 1996, I joined teachers, parents, students, and alumni at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium for a high school football game. The stadium hummed with an expectancy that indicated this was no ordinary match-up; this was the Bruce-Mahoney game. Played between two cross-town rival high schools since the 1940s, for a trophy named in memory of two alumni who lost their lives in World War II, the Bruce-Mahoney binds generations of San Franciscans together in history and community.
For many years, the two schools played their basketball games in the adjacent Kezar Pavilion, and I could easily recall the din of squeaky sneakers, referees’ whistles, and screaming spectators as I took my seat on the cold, hard bleachers for the West Coast premiere of David Lang’s battle hymns. Presented by Volti and the San Francisco Choral Society on April 26, 27, and 28, battle hymns benefited from its setting in ways that no one who created the production likely imagined. During the performance, I felt connected to all the San Franciscans who had cheered and lamented the wins and losses played by the city’s youth in that very building. It’s an old gymnasium, no stranger to passion and commitment, and the 75-minute, soul-baring performance of battle hymns seemed right at home there.
Volti, the San Francisco Choral Society, and the Leah Stein Dance Company joined forces to present David Lang’s battle hymns. Photo by Mike Morelli.
Lang’s large-scale reflection on war comprises five sections, or songs, three of which use Stephen Foster lyrics as their basis. The production in San Francisco began with a foreshadowing of the third section of the work. A sole member of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir emerged from underneath the empty section of bleachers where she had been hiding and sang in pure tone: “I’ll be a soldier.” She was then joined in overlapping succession by other young choristers scattered around the gymnasium. The children’s voices bloomed in the austere space, the unisons and perfect intervals creating a layered bed of diatonic harmonies.
The acoustics of the room worked in favor of Lang’s post-minimalist harmonic language; occasionally, though, the blended sound obscured the text. Volti and the San Francisco Choral Society combined to form a darkly uniformed corps of more than 100 singers, and as they sang—relentlessly, in precise homophony—a litany of alphabetized fragments from a Civil War soldier’s letter to his wife, I was grateful for the lone tenor (David Kurtenbach) walking the perimeter of the space and singing the same text fragments out of sync with his cohorts. His enunciation was crisp and clear. Interweaving repetitions, used throughout battle hymns, allowed me to catch snippets of texts, even when they disappeared into the hypnotic musical fabric.
Attired in uniform, the massed choir consisted of singers from the San Francisco Choral Society and Volti, the Bay Area’s premiere new music vocal ensemble. Both groups are directed by Robert Geary. Photo by Mike Morelli.
The second section of battle hymns is a setting of the lyrics to Stephen Foster’s “Was My Brother in the Battle?” (Lang’s version is titled “tell me.”) In the San Francisco production, the adult choir asserted its role as it often would, physically, forming two impenetrable rows diagonally across the performance space. Over an insistent ground bass phrase, “tell me,” the choir asked questions about a soldier’s fate, “did he struggle? did he fall?” The response was cruel consolation. Leah Stein’s dancers crossed their hands over their mouths in shades of mute grief, awful uncertainty, and the refusal to reply. At the end of “tell me,” the children’s choir assembled downstage, singing with their hands over their mouths in the same choreographic gesture as Stein’s dancers. Their vocalizations swelled into an ethereal sound reminiscent of crickets on a summer evening. This was one of battle hymns’ most powerful moments.
One of Leah Stein’s dancers (right) places her hand on the shoulder of a singer from the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. Photo by Mike Morelli.
As a choral work, battle hymns could stand on its own as a concert piece (and at far less expense than the production I saw). Yet the choreography created by Leah Stein, who co-commissioned battle hymns for its premiere in 2009 in Philadelphia, helped extend the emotional pitch of the piece beyond the formality of concert music. As a dancer flexed and straightened her arm and wrist in semaphore-like movements, I felt compelled to try to understand her cryptic signals. Life and death seemed to depend on it. Moments later, the dancers crumpled randomly to the floor as if knocked from above by a great unseen hand. The choreographed activities—whether scrappy, contact-driven, or rhythmic—responded to the thematic content in ways that supercharged my own response to the work as a whole.
The Leah Stein Dance Company, dressed in rugged khakis and wearing boots, played counterpoint to the singers’ orderly formations. Photo by Mike Morelli.
In “I’ll be a soldier,” battle hymns’ third section and a reprise of the opening, a portion of the audience was led to the center of the performance space. The stern-faced adult chorus members surrounded the “active audience” on three sides. Downstage, essentially sandwiched by two audiences, the children’s chorus seemed to play at lining themselves up in formation, while the dancers punctuated the spaces in between. The simplicity of Lang’s compositional language—warm, open choral harmonies, melodies descending the natural minor scale—was totally immersive; I felt myself becoming the “I” of the refrain, “I’ll be a soldier.” Who was a participant and who was an onlooker? Seeing the active audience in their contemporary street clothes through the scrim of dancers and children did not clarify matters. When the children collapsed to the floor, miming death, we all seemed equally responsible and helpless.
At the end of battle hymns, Lang’s setting of Stephan Foster’s “beautiful dreamer” renders the adult choir—the once-formidable corps—helpless. The chorus sang as if in slow motion, drawing vowels out to a point that distorted the syntax, erasing any similarity to Foster’s tune. The pure vocal tones were freely punctuated by whispers, gasps, and muttered repetitions of “beautiful dreamer, beautiful, beautiful.” Significantly, the performers wandered the entire space, no longer in any kind of regimented formation. They appeared shell-shocked, or transfigured, unified only in sound, not in body. The piece drew to a close as one member of the children’s chorus walked solemnly forward. Reluctant to break the spell, the audience sat in silence for several long minutes, a rare admission of their engagement in the shared experience.
I was bewildered and astonished sixteen years ago when that football game I attended ended in a tie. What, no overtime? But a draw it was, and with the other stunned teachers, parents, and students, I bundled myself against the chill fog and climbed the stadium steps in silence. Everyone was subdued, some quietly murmuring as they drifted across the parking lot. Our dispersion mirrored the final scene of battle hymns. The kids had fought a good fight, in honor of young men who had done the same before them, but no one had won. Resigned, all we could do was wander home. Mine is a provincial perspective, perhaps, but battle hymns in San Francisco was all the more poignant and powerful because of its site-specific echo of local history. I am hard-pressed to imagine it performed as successfully, in the Bay Area, anywhere else.
The back side of Kezar Pavilion, viewed from Kezar Stadium. The stadium was the original home of the San Francisco 49ers, and it continues to host high school games. Kezar Pavilion was an atypical but fitting venue for the West Coast premiere of David Lang’s battle hymns.
Many years ago, before I had even begun to compose, I had the opportunity to improvise the music for a piece on a dance recital. One of the dance faculty at Northern Illinois University needed some accompaniment reminiscent of Native American music, so I brought in a tenor recorder and a drum, and worked with her over a few weeks until I had come up with material with which she could perform. At that point I had no idea what was going on dance-wise on stage, but it was enjoyable enough and we collaborated several more times after that. These projects culminated in a series of full-length concerts where I would improvise on a wide assortment of woodwind instruments along with a percussionist colleague; nothing was written down, but everybody had come to an agreement about what the basic ideas were going to be, and for all intents and purposes the series was successful.
Fast-forward six years to when I was just finishing up my film music studies at USC and I got a call from my alma mater asking me to write a short work for chamber orchestra that would be performed as a ballet for their centennial celebration at Navy Pier. I was still a novice at composing during this time, but who would give up such an opportunity? So I wrote an elegy for a friend who had passed away suddenly a year before and sent off a MIDI recording (on cassette, if memory serves) to the choreographer (with whom I had never worked before, and had only discussed the project once). I had 30 minutes to rehearse with the orchestra before we got onstage, and about 20-30 min. to run the piece a couple of times with the dancers. It was then that I realized that the orchestra was not in a pit, but on stage behind the dancers and I would be conducting with my back to them.
I remember the rehearsal seemed to go well, but during the performance I guess I got a little emotive, because soon the faculty choreographer was gesticulating wildly just offstage attempting to speed up the tempo. I had no idea what the dancers were doing behind me and was clueless to the concept that a deviation in tempo would have massive ramifications for their performance. We all survived, but that experience got seared into my consciousness. Of course, at that point, I was planning on having a long, fruitful career as a film composer, so I doubted I’d get another chance to work in the world of dance.
Seven years after I had decided to forgo that long, fruitful career as a film composer and pursue my graduate studies in composition, I was on cloud nine—I had written a 40-minute ballet for my doctoral dissertation and had just finished a successful three-performance run of the work. I had worked several times before with my choreographer, University of Texas faculty member David Justin, and as I created the work and brought it to fruition, I realized that this was even more satisfying than film scoring. In film I was beholden to the pacing and emotions on the screen, but in dance it was like I got to write the score and the visuals were interpretations of my music. As that project concluded, Justin asked if I would consider joining him on a new dance project that he was forming. It wasn’t long before our scheming produced a rather unique concept—a hybrid ensemble called the American Repertory Ensemble that combined local Austin musicians with ballet dancers from around country. For the next two years I had many valuable opportunities to have dance made to my music and to collaborate with a top-notch choreographer.
American Repertory Ensemble performing Deemer’s “Epitaphs” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Photo by Lori Deemer.
Through all of those previous opportunities, I discovered that working with choreographers and dancers was challenging not only from a technical standpoint, but also that the various limitations forced me into artistic directions that I would have never explored otherwise. Now that I’m working with “emerging” composers, I try to ensure that they get those same opportunities during their studies. Just this past weekend we presented the fourth collaborative concert between Prof. Helen Myers’s Choreography II class and my composition studio. More than one audience member mentioned to me afterwards that these choreography concerts are consistently the best student composition concerts of the year, and I’d have to agree with them. Whether it was the collaborative nature of the project, the idea of imagining one’s own music with dance, or having a longer timeline in which to compose a work, the result was a noticeably high level of composition throughout the concert.
Student dancer and musicians at SUNY Fredonia. Photo by Lori Deemer.
We start planning the concert several months beforehand, pairing up choreographers and composers and allowing them to choose from a collection of visual art works that Myers and I pick ahead of time. This serves to give both collaborators a non-dance and non-musical focal point to interpret. Composers have several deadlines over the course of January and February so that the choreographers can see what they’re getting into—the student choreographers, of course, had never worked with anything but pre-recorded music before, and putting them at ease is always a top priority in these projects. Six weeks out, the composers deliver their final scores and mock-ups to the choreographers, and the choreographers begin their creative process. Dance and music are finally put together in our run-through rehearsal hours before Sunday’s performance with dancers and musicians on the same stage, and while these rehearsals tend to be more than a little stressful (getting through 14 works in three hours is tricky at best), the result is a concert that really transcends what each student might have invented on their own.
I’ve met many professional composers who enjoy working with dancers and that type of collaboration seems to be one that won’t go away any time soon. Being forced to compromise and to understand one’s own work from the interpretive eyes of another artist is a process that composers—especially ones currently in school—should get a taste of, if not a seven-course meal. I hope more composition programs look toward this type of collaboration project as a valuable tool for composers to discover things about themselves as well as to prepare them for potential opportunities outside of the classroom.
Would I have been able to smell the sea salt in the air quite so powerfully while listening to a recording of Mary Ellen Childs’s Wreck if I hadn’t already seen the image of a man face down in the water that graces its cover? Possibly not, but knowing that at the outset, I swear I could feel the waves crashing against the boat and a brisk ocean breeze hitting my face as the small ensemble of clarinet, violin, cellos, and percussion cut a sonic path forward through the piece’s opening measures.
That’s not to say that the work, originally commissioned to accompany an evening-length piece by Carl Flink’s Black Label Movement dance company, paints a strictly narrative portrait. While a recording of waves and instrumental lines that mimic gull cries quite evocatively accents the nearly hour-long score, its overall character extends well beyond these nautical touches.
Set inside the last watertight compartment of a recently sunk ore boat resting at the bottom of Lake Superior, Wreck explores the depths of physical and psychological endurance and human fortitude in the face of impending and inevitable loss. Wreck expresses cooperation and violence, compassion and obsession, and the ultimate question of how we face death. —Wreck liner notes
Based on the photos and teaser video alone, I wish I had had the opportunity to see the full production. With the music now available as a stand-alone recording, I can at least appreciate Childs’s contribution: an original score for which she was recognized with a 2008 Minnesota SAGE Dance Award.
Childs is no stranger to the integration of movement and images within the frame of her music. The percussion ensemble she founded—CRASH—is a poster child for this approach (further examples here) and the work she wrote for the string quartet ETHEL incorporates the drama of a visual element—video projections in this case, rather than the more directly physical player interaction that CRASH involves. As a glance down her projects page confirms, what the eye consumes plays a significant roll in her artistic outlook.
When all that is taken away, however, I found it fascinating to hear how much of that sense of movement and visual character is carried strictly within the notes and rhythms of her musical language. Divorced from the dancers on the stage, the music captured on the recording still knits its own gripping connections though its movement-conjuring phrases—from moments of graceful swaying to heart-pounding drive and shrieking terror. According to information provided by Innova, Childs wrote the score after much of the choreography was complete, fitting her work to the movement like a film score. On the disc, it is presented as 18 aural “scenes” featuring excellent performances by Pat O’Keefe (clarinets), Laura Harada (violin), Michelle Kinney (cello), Jacqueline Ultan (cello), and Peter O’Gorman (percussion). I would be hard-pressed to point out any one portion that stands above the rest, as the real power of the work is in the overarching sum of the parts. Still, sections such as the brightly ringing clamor of the percussion-driven “Spirit Duet” definitely make a lasting impression.
Knowing the fictional setting of the dance piece, I felt a clear connection to the depth of emotion—the fear, the anger, the questioning, the resignation—that a group of people facing death together might experience. Of course this was my own listener’s fiction, but especially as the work proceeds through later moments of suffocating delirium only to conclude in a space of haunting emptiness, Childs’s presentation of these ideas in sound became an ever more powerful listening experience.
Marc Riordan (piano), Jeff Kimmel (bass clarinet), and Lilianna Zofia Wosko (cello)
Dance is a medium that inherently deals with space—the spatial relationships between dancers and the physical movement of bodies on stage. The Chicago-based contemporary dance company known as the Seldoms took the parameter of space to a higher level in their first performance at the Harris Theater in Chicago. The venue itself took on a starring role as the audience moved through the space. Tim Daisy composed the original score for this exploration of site-specific dance with music tightly customized for the wide variations in the vignettes and environments. The audience became participants by mere virtue of sharing tight spaces with performers. And ushers became tour guides charged with keeping people in the right places at the right times.
The printed program for the Seldoms’ performance was broken into multiple cards that were gradually dealt out one at a time before each vignette. The first card set an appropriate tone:
This is not a dance concert. This is an anniversary dance party. This is a promenade. This is a backstage pass. This is a mile marker. This is a reflection. This is a record of actual comments. This is a subversive act. This is our debut at the Harris Theater. This is an endurance event. This is a thank you to our Chicago audience. This is a nod to all the moving parts of live performance. This is the starting block for our second decade of art-making. Runners to your mark.
As part of this debut performance, they offered a tour-as-performance of the structural layout of a unique theater design that places the balconies and performance stage at the same level as the underground parking. Even the balconies are located a couple of floors below the main entrance.
At the beginning of the evening the audience was broken up into smaller groups and instructed to line up at different doors. This allowed for relatively small groups of people to move quickly between different stations. It also meant that each team experienced a different sequence of vignettes leading up to the finale during which the full contingent of musicians, dancers, and audience occupied the main stage itself. The choreography of funneling attendees into lines for the anticipated spectacle ahead gave the early part of the performance the feeling of a crowded theme park with long lines leading toward the roller coaster. The act of moving between different acts gave a sense of active participation to an audience that spent much of the evening standing, walking, and coming into close contact with a different combination of dancers and musicians at each station. It was a thrill ride along aesthetic dimensions.
Paul Giallorenzo (piano) and Jeb Bishop (trombone)
The spatial variation was noteworthy on multiple levels. The quality of the dance performances varied a great deal between stations; it was the consistent qualities of the music compositions that gave the experience its cohesion and cut through the substantial differences in acoustics found throughout the building. Tim Daisy’s music was closely matched to the location and sense of playfulness found in each vignette. The echo-rich environments of the lobbies were accentuated by drums and pianos to match the range of motion explored along the stairs and benches, while the less reverberant areas around and behind the main stage featured wind instruments to match the story telling that marked the dances in those areas. Finding a fresh, new combination of so many of Chicago’s great improvisers at each station added to the sense of discovery.
The most satisfying vignette of the evening was performed in the back stage area. A duo of male dancers put on costumes while elevating themselves on a pair of aerial work platforms before settling into a whimsical story of professional jealousy and one-upmanship. This was accompanied by the inspired instrumental combination of Jaimie Branch on trumpet, Katherine Young on bassoon, and Anton Hatwich on bass. The rhythmic contours of the music brilliantly suited both the slapstick elements of the dance and the acoustics of the concrete-enclosed setting.
Jaimie Branch (trumpet), Anton Hatwich (bass), and Katherine Young (bassoon)
The vignette performed in the seating area of the main stage offered another dose of whimsy as a trio of dancers emulated the jostling and struggle to settle into one’s seat typical of audience members attending a formal performance. The exaggerated rustling of programs, coughs, and constant standing and sitting to allow people to pass through narrow rows played upon the movements of a typical audience. The accompaniment for this action was another strong trio featuring Tim Daisy on marimba and percussion, James Falzone on clarinet, and Jennifer Clare Paulson on viola. The physical coexistence of dancers and musicians was further emphasized with Daisy stepping onto the stage while playing percussion as a deliberate element of movement among the dance troupe. Another creative layer that spoke to the careful timing and choreography of having multiple vignettes running simultaneously in different locations was the appearance of a dancer on the catwalk who had just stepped away from his active role in one of the lobby performances.
The lobby of the Harris Theater exists on multiple levels connected by stairs. Two vignettes performed on two of those levels simultaneously posed particular issues for the music, as there was considerable sonic bleed through between the two ensembles playing within such an acoustically live space. With the dancers moving metal benches around, dancing along the stairways, and quoting various Yelp reviews of the Harris Theater, the music and action occasionally drowned out their verbal contributions. While the music wasn’t as clear as one would hope, the visuals were striking.. They even danced their way into the bathrooms as they quoted reviews of the bathrooms themselves. The relatively small spaces of the lobbies did allow for close observation of the musicians and dancers and did feature some of the strongest ensemble interactions and costumes of the evening. It was also a space enhanced by the unique lighting of the Harris Theater lobbies, as each vertical level of the lobby is illuminated by contrasting hues of florescent lights.
The Seldoms performing in one of the lobbies of the Harris Theater.
The finale on the main stage brought the full contingent of dancers and musicians together. Hearing the complete ensemble playing together provided a great punctuation mark to the musical side of this event. Tim Daisy wisely composed a score with this specific set of improvising musicians in mind and his music hit an excellent balance of compositional structure and improvised detail. The dance itself didn’t quite hit that same sense of full ensemble as the Seldoms continued to muse upon earlier themes that maintained the small ensemble feel even with the extra bodies on stage.
But the true exhilaration of the experience was rooted in the audience’s participation through movement—passing through areas of the back stage and break rooms once shielded from audience view and discovering the previously unknown connections between cat walks and lobby exits all while anticipating unexpected usage of space, not knowing if one was standing in a place that would shortly become the center of the action. In this respect, the layering of music and movement into an experience that shatters the fourth wall made for a well thought out dance party that appealed to many senses.
To the uninitiated, free improvisation can often seem formless and confusing. Unlike theater or comedy, the lack of text to provide a narrative can leave an audience member lost in a world of sounds, rhythms, and gestures that may be difficult to reconcile as a whole. The “free” in free improvisation can give the impression that anything goes, and while there may be a kernel of truth in that, those for whom improvisation is a regular and important part (or the whole) of their musical experience know that the real freedom in improvisation is working within the initial constraints that often come in the opening moments of a performance. Listening, communicating, and moving towards a cohesive realization is no less than real-time composition, and to do it well requires experience, patience, and perhaps most importantly, restraint.
The No Idea Festival recently celebrated its ninth year with seven days of concerts in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. An international roster of artists participated in workshops and performances in spaces large and small and, as a run up to the festival, the No Idea Sunday Series featured four performances from local and regional improvisers. Each performance was preceded by screenings of Derek Bailey’s documentary On The Edge: Improvisation In Music, a series of four 55-minute films broadcast in the UK in early 1992. The Austin NIF shows took place at The Broken Neck, a venue in east Austin that has not forgotten that a warehouse is supposed to be a huge unrefined space. Nods to acoustics were evident, but by and large this was a space that could in no time return to its storage or manufacturing roots. AV equipment was ubiquitous, not just for use by the performers but in service of archiving the event and at times the two sets of equipment seemed to overlap. NIF was sponsored by some of the usual suspects, including the Texas Commission on the Arts and Meet The Composer (its logo now amended to reflect the New Music USA transformation), as well as a few local heroes like Ruby’s Barbecue (Austin) and St. Arnold’s Brewery (Houston) which supplied a great spread (gratis!) and a keg respectively, with beers available for a modest donation.
Andrea Neumann and Bonnie Jones
The first set featured Andrea Neumann from Berlin and Bonnie Jones from Baltimore. Both artists were set up behind large custom-made electronic kits attached to boards approximately three feet square, replete with hard and soft-wired elements. Neumann’s board also featured the miniaturized guts of a piano which she was able to manipulate both physically and electronically during the performance. As Neumann began generating a low frequency, Jones slowly played bells that recalled the sound of an analog phone. Neumann’s frequencies slowly opened up, though still remaining in the low range, while Jones began to create light static in a rhythmic pattern, the pulsing beats panning across the stereo field. Jones used her fingers to create and break connections on the board, causing small, pointed moments to occur slowly and without pattern, like rain dripping from a tree long after a storm. Neumann began to work with the “piano,” physically playing a few notes while the electronics transformed the sound, the last note of which became the only controlled and sustained feedback of the set. While the feedback echoed in the space, Jones manipulated a number of stompboxes and other custom equipment, at one point dragging one piece around the board, using the sounds of the analog contacts connecting and disconnecting within the device to create a counterpoint to the feedback and a reimagining of the previous patternless rain music.
Maggie Bennett’s dance set began as the audience returned to their seats following a brief set change. Attached to the wall was a tremendous paper construction, like a waterfall pouring from the wall and flowing ten feet across the floor. Bennett’s performance was an exercise in control, her movements mostly small and subtle, at one moment seeming to fall asleep and the next moment waking up on the large paper wave. It was a compelling and direct translation of movement into sound, so much so that late in the set when she moved away from the paper, I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance in that it was odd to see her move without hearing the sound of the paper. It struck me that in conventional dance the sound of the dancer’s feet slamming into the marley flooring is always distracting. It’s a sound that I’d rather not hear if possible, but here the secondary sound was developed, celebrated, and made a strong follower to Bennett’s lead.
Bhob Rainey, Greg Kelley, and Jason Lescalleet
Sound artist Jason Lescalleet was joined by his nmperign collaborators Bhob Rainey (saxophone) and Greg Kelley (trumpet) for the third set of the evening. Lescalleet used a variety of reel-to-reel and hand-held tape machines to create organic textures. He began by placing a reel-to-reel unit at the front of the performance space and setting in motion a length of analog tape which went through and then out of the machine, made a circular trip several feet around a microphone, and returned to its origin. A broken ostinato slowly formed from this circuit and remained for the first few minutes, establishing itself as a static framework. Rainey joined the ostinato, his sax sounding long tones like a sine wave mixed with breathing through the instrument that recalled the broken static of the original signal. Lescalleet moved almost constantly around the stage and behind his own electronic setup at the back, manipulating various pieces of equipment including smaller tape decks that were placed on the side of the stage. Kelley removed the mouthpiece from his muted trumpet while he and Rainey complimented the spare tape textures with long, quiet, subtle quarter-tone lines and more breathing and blowing through the instruments. As the piece developed, Lescalleet removed tape from one machine, spliced and taped it on the fly, and fed it into the main machine at the front of the stage. While he held the tape, minute changes in the timbres could be heard as the tape machine motors worked to keep the mail moving through the system. Low aquatic sounds shared space with more breath effects from Rainey and Kelley, leading to pops and crackles from the reassembled tape. Finally, Lescalleet disconnected each of the machines, bringing the performance to a close.
Bryan Eubanks, Chris Cogburn, and Vic Rawlings performing as LUCRE
The fourth set featured Chris Cogburn, Bryan Eubanks, and Vic Rawlings on percussion, electronics, and cello respectively, performing as LUCRE. Though Eubanks’s contribution was primarily electronic, both Cogburn and Rawlings had their own electronic setups as well which they used during the set. The performance began with Cogburn creating resonance on a snare drum (snares off) by dragging rubber beaters and other materials across the head of the drum. With cymbals placed on a tom tom, Cogburn used a long thin dowel and did his best fire-starter impression, using both hands to create vibrations in the stick that drove both cymbal and drum. Eubanks created a slight white noise texture that extended for several minutes while Rawlings drew clicking sweeps from the cello, the sound further altered electronically to sound a bit like the ocean from very far away. Most of the performance (and this was true of all the performances) utilized primarily old school analog electronics, with instruments and sounds largely derived from older hardware, but this section also featured the odd contemporary digital moment, adding a welcome trace of “reverse anachronism” to an otherwise earthy and visceral show.
It was impressive that in these chamber performances the members of the ensembles spent as much time (or more) listening as they did playing. Thoughtful, well-paced conversations and occasionally conventional forms with fairly clear beginnings, middles, and ends (as opposed to more open-ended jams in which less formally connected smaller moments and motives might play a larger role) were evident in each set. Among Cogburn’s goals for this yearly festival is to provide a forum for performers to improvise together multiple times, not just within a given festival but over the course of several meetings over many festivals. These relationships change and grow over time, and it’s a treat for performers and audience members alike to experience the results of that growth.
Feb 10, 2012
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