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Dear Members of the Disquiet Junto, This week’s project focuses on the spatial aspect of sound. The instructions are as follows…
It is Franklin’s own Junto Society that provided the name for this association. Image courtesy Disquiet.com
On Thursday night, I get an email from the Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud. It’s a homework assignment I know I will not complete by its Monday deadline, but one that fascinates me nonetheless. It’s also one I know will result in the creation of many tracks of new music built by others.
If this sounds intriguing to you, you can join in at any time—anyone can participate, no application necessary. There are just a few rules and simple guidelines to ease everyone into the party.
Even for those who don’t want to wade in and create music themselves, with 88 projects already completed, the curious listener has a cavernous library to select from (and ample shared process notes from each track creator to get lost in). More files are being added each week.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to select for you any kind of “best of” representative mix from this project, but for anyone intrigued by the sonic ideas this type of exercise can generate, your spelunking down the Disquiet Junto rabbit hole is sure to be rewarded. When you stumble on something special, please share it in the comments!
Drowning in options, I decided to start with some personally intriguing assignments and work from there. We begin at the beginning, a very good—if chilly—place to start. Access the full assignment details and track notes by clicking through to each file’s SoundCloud page. Assignment #1: Ice Cubes
Quick Questions with Junto founder Marc Weidenbaum
Molly Sheridan: You win the gold star for the most creatively stimulating homework assignments I have ever encountered. What took the Disquiet Junto from neat idea to actually happening project?
Marc Weidenbaum: Thanks! That’s super generous of you. The enthusiasm of the participants, who come back week after week, is what has made the Disquiet Junto happen: their music, their ideas, their energy, their generosity. I’m afraid to say that had the first project not been so warmly received—40-plus participants joined in, if memory serves—I might not have had the nerve to do a second. Instead, we hit the ground running, and we haven’t stopped since, one week after the next.
MS: Let’s quantify this image. Can you throw some fun numbers at me—number of participants since the project started, number of tracks, hours of music created, number of plays and comments gathered—that sort of thing? How many people does it take to run this machine or does the machine provide the tools on its own?
MW: Sure thing. Here are some numerical accountings of our goings-on, as of September 4, 2013:
2,533: number of tracks currently live in the Disquiet Junto group page
372: number of musicians responsible for those 2,533 tracks
87: number of weekly projects
71: number of tracks submitted to the most active weekly project
18: seconds in length of shortest project (a mini-suite based on the Vine app)
4: number of days from project announcement (Thursday) to deadline (Monday)
4: number of live concerts thus far (one each in Chicago, Denver, Manhattan, and San Francisco)
1: number of moderators (that is, it’s just me)
0: number of weeks we’ve taken off
MS: You’re the Junto founder/moderator, but are you also an active participant?
MW: I believe I’ve only participated in the Disquiet Junto once, for a project called “audiobiography,” the 60th, back in March 2013. I don’t really make much music, myself, in the direct sense, though I think the projects themselves count as a kind of music-making, in a meta sense. I do fiddle with music at home. I play with iOS and Android apps—at some point I may even upload some super minimal rhythmic work I’ve been up to. I used to make pause tapes in my teens. I had two turntables and a mixer until my kid was born. I do a lot of push-button, straightforward reworking of existing material—like, I enjoy running instrumental hip-hop through the Automaton plug-in from Audio Damage. But I think of much of that as “active listening” more than as music-making. And with only a few exceptions, the Junto projects have been way, way beyond my meager ability level. This whole thing comes out of my experience as an editor of arts/culture journalism and of comics, both of which I have done a lot of: I assign work I could not myself accomplish.
MS: While I haven’t participated myself, it’s been my impression that the restriction provided by the assignment is key but that discussion of the employed method(s), a sort of “show your work,” is also central. There’s an outsider input and public process to the music making. Even though we often talk about the digital cocooning that new technologies allow, this is a reversal of that in some ways through technology—bringing others into what is often normally a private creative space for just one artist. MW: Yeah, I agree entirely. I think three key things are essential to the Junto’s success. The restraints and the deadline are big, but so too is the knowledge that not just an audience but an audience of peers is at the ready: to listen, give feedback, befriend, collaborate with. As for the “through technology,” as you put it, absolutely: this project exists specifically as a means of utilizing the SoundCloud interface. I’m not saying it would not have existed otherwise, but it exists as it does to make the best use of that virtual public space as SoundCloud both intentionally and unintentionally happened to have designed it.
MS: Where does the Junto project, both the structure of it and the work coming out of it, stand in relation to other music in the 2013 landscape? It strikes me that it touches so many current anxieties and obsessions: remix culture, social media, transparency, collective action, crowd sourcing.
MW: One person’s anxieties are another’s enthusiasms. The Disquiet Junto is the most “fluid” and “immediate” work I have ever done, and I think fluidity and immediacy are common factors in the various phenomena you list. A key distinction I’d add is that the Junto is often as much about sound as it is about music, or about music as a subset and/or adversary of sound, and about both sound and music being a means to explore ideas non-verbally. MS: The concept has since moved offline through some concert organizing and such. I haven’t heard a live event, but I can see how that might generate some conceptual tensions. Is the Disquiet Junto bigger, or at least about more, than the sum of its online parts? MW: I like to think that the SoundCloud Disquiet Junto presence is a home, not a family. The Junto members can go other places from time to time and be a family there, too. Those can be virtual places, like YouTube and Vine, and they can be physical places, like concert halls and art galleries.
MS: No one is making any money here, correct? No albums made and sold, created content shared to varying degrees (depending on the assignments and the participants). Considering its collaborative nature, can things like ownership and revenue generation co-exist here or is this space not for those end goals.
MW: Some small amount of money has been made here and there, though making money is at best a quaternary aspect of the Disquiet Junto. We charged a small ticket price at some of the concerts, though others were free admission. Some people have released some of their tracks commercially. SoundCloud gets money from those who elect for a higher grade of account. More likely the projects have refined and expanded the skills of the participants, myself as moderator included, and that experience perhaps has helped people economically elsewhere. As for the Creative Commons matter, we have not engaged with some projects because of financial concerns—for example, there was a cool band that did an open remix project, but the band stipulated that it retain the full, rather than shared, copyright of the remix, and that seems unfair, so I didn’t proceed with it. Though I’m still thinking about it. Did I mention this is all fluid? See, while making money is not a focus of the Disquiet Junto, commerce—the exchange of ideas, culture, technology—is.
One of the very first significant pieces of electronic music I ever heard was a performance recording of David Tudor’s Rainforest. Although I can’t recall which version it was (this was in my first electronic music class during my freshman year of college), I have never forgotten how blown away I was by that chirping, squeaking, clanging, banging, blooping wall of sound that did indeed give the impression of a living, breathing, electronic jungle.
Tudor was one of the pioneers of “DIY electronics”—the plugging in of things to other things (often constructed from scratch by the plugger in-er) to the point where the beastly tangle of gizmos, cables, and wires leaves control of the instigator’s hands, creating an independently generated sonic world. He started out as a gifted pianist, who premiered important works (many of them indeterminate) by John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown, but eventually changed his focus from interpreting acoustic music to creating his own live electronic works. However, he continued to work with these artists in a collaborative role, on pieces such as the 1972 Mesostics re Merce Cunningham/Untitled. He also spent many years touring with and composing for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which proved to be an ideal vehicle for his work. The recently released boxed set of Tudor’s work, The Art of David Tudor (1963—1992) on New World Records, charts his transformation from interpreter and co-composer to composer/performer, presenting a selection of full performance recordings of many of his groundbreaking works.
One of Tudor’s specialties was working with feedback within a live performance context. This method later became known as “no input” electronic instruments, in which all sound is generated via internal electronic feedback scenarios. Because of the nature of his electronic setups—picture tabletops overflowing with electronic devices, both commercial and homemade, which would be arranged in varying configurations from performance to performance—every performance was a one-of-a-kind event. So the recordings presented on this seven-disc set are single performances of works that resulted in many, many realizations. While a number of the compositions have been presented on other albums in excerpted form, this set is special in that the works are featured in their entirety as much as possible—a bit of a feat, given that Tudor’s music tended towards long-form statements and developed slowly over lengthy time spans. According to friends and colleagues, he always had more that he wanted to say.
Volume 1 opens with Tudor as interpreter, with Cage’s Variations II, Wolff’s For 1, 2, or 3 People, and Tudor’s own Bandoneon ! (A Combine). Volume 2 documents three works that Tudor performed at the 1970 Pepsi Pavilion Expo in Osaka, Japan, charmingly titled Anima Pepsi, Pepsibird, and Pepscillator. As the big, hearty book of liner notes describes, “These are ‘remix’ works, exploring distribution of prerecorded material sent through the Pavilion’s network of 37 speakers, moving along programmable pathways.” Volume 3 is a performance by Tudor and Cage together of Mesostics re Merce Cunningham/Untitled. Volume 4 contains the works Weatherings and Phonemes, which, according to Tudor’s sound engineer in the Cunningham Company, represented a creative shift in which Tudor’s mastery of the medium started to allow for increasing control over the elements of performance. Indeed, in these recordings (which are also of higher quality than those on the earlier discs) there is a great deal of movement and frenetic sonic activity, such as sounds bouncing around the stereo field or shifting from foreground to background.
In addition to Webwork and Virtual Focus, featuring Tudor on live electronics, Volumes 5 and 6 include two different performances of Rainforest IV, performed by Tudor and the group Composers Inside Electronics. This large-scale “performed installation” began as a workshop led by Tudor for New Music New Hampshire in 1973; several young musicians showed up to partake in this event, including John Driscoll, Phil Edelstein, Linda Fisher, Ralph Jones, Martin Kalve, and Bill Viola. Together they accepted Tudor’s challenge to create a piece without the use of oscillators or pre-recorded material, instead finding objects to be used as acoustic filters. As they got enthused and found ever larger objects with which to experiment, they ended up “super-sizing” the project and creating an enormous, immersive sound environment presented in an almost sculptural format, with oil drums suspended from rafters and mobiles made of bedsprings (for example), all sporting contact microphones and emitting unbelievable chirps, squawks, and ringing tones. The performances here, from Stockholm and Berlin respectively, are recorded in a binaural format that, when experienced with headphones gives an impression of the immersive environment they created.
Tudor’s final works marked a return to his explorations with field recordings and “no input” feedback instruments. Volume 7 of this set features an hour-long 1992 performance of Neural Network Plus, performed by the composer with Takehisa Kosugi, both on live electronics. This time the tools were slightly different though—this work was one of his first forays into computer music, commissioned especially for Merce Cunningham’s first computer-assisted choreographic effort Enter.
By the end of the seven discs, it seems that it would be quite possible to identify the characteristic field recording-oriented chirp-and-bleep style of Tudor’s musical language in any listening situation, and yet each work creates its own special sound world. This is an important set of historical recordings in that Tudor was always so focused on the experience of live performance; most of all, he wanted “…that the audience senses the presence of a live musician.” With that thought in mind, I would highly recommend purchasing the physical box, as it is beautifully presented, with each disc in its own photo-laden sleeve, packaged with a substantial book of liner notes (including some sketches and diagrams of Tudor’s various setups) written by electronic musician/performer/educator Matt Rogalsky. Despite the fact that most of these works cannot be recreated, they are nevertheless of great importance to the development of electronic music and its performance history. Here’s to hoping that colleges and universities, as well as musicians involved in electronic music around the world, will add this set to their recording collections.
A conversation at Rolnick’s home in New York City
March 11, 2013–2:30 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan
Neil Rolnick is extremely soft-spoken and self-effacing, but for over 30 years he has helped to create a much changed musical landscape in the United States in terms of musical aesthetics and the application of technology in concert performance. Next month he will retire from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, where he has taught since 1981, founding the institute’s influential iEAR Studios shortly after his arrival. Yet Rolnick’s attitude about musical composition is the antithesis of an academic approach. While he deeply respects and loves a lot of modernist 20th-century music, he realized relatively early on that his own mind didn’t work that way.
Studies with Darius Milhaud at Aspen and Fritz Kramer, a musicologist based at the Manhattan School of Music, gave him his initial grounding in the fundamentals, but as a Harvard undergrad he chose not to study music and took literature classes instead, playing in rock and folk bands in his spare time. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, his earliest jobs after getting an undergraduate college degree were as a community organizer and counselor for teenagers in Vermont and as a hospital worker in Wyoming, where he got fired after attempting to unionize his co-workers. This was around the same time that commercial synthesizers first appeared on the market, and Rolnick was totally entranced by the possibilities of electronic music. So he went back to school, first studying with John Chowning, the legendary pioneer of FM synthesis, at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), and then later at IRCAM working alongside Pierre Boulez, whose musical worldview was less than simpatico. According to Rolnick:
It was like dropping into a history book. . . . Then I got there and realized that they’re all real people, just like you and me, doing things that they feel are right, and I’m actually capable of saying, “Well no, that’s not the right thing for me. No, I think some of those ideas are not O.K.” . . . They had designed the first digital synthesizer at IRCAM, and [Boulez] called me in to ask what I thought should happen with it. And I said, “Oh, well, it’s obvious. You should make this available to 15-year-olds.”—I was 30 at the time—“They will do things that you can’t imagine, and things that I can’t. This will be what they learn to make music on, and it’s going to change everything.” And he said, “No, no, no. It should go to Luciano [Berio]. It should go to Hans Werner Henze. It should go to Karlheinz [Stockhausen] and to Jean-Claude [Risset].” Those were the people who were going to make real music on it. And it didn’t matter really what anyone else did. And I said, “Wrong,” and he said, “You’re just too American.” And of course what I suggested is what Yamaha did. And I think it did change everything. . . . In fact, the stuff that I built at RPI was in direct reaction to what I saw at IRCAM.
Despite his deep immersion in technology, the human element has always been central to Rolnick’s music. He emphatically claims that he has never composed a piece of music that did not involve a live interpreter in its performance. (He acknowledged that he has done a few studio compositions to accompany live dancers.) And, as soon as it was possible to do so, the electronic components of his pieces were realized in real time as well. The way Rolnick has handled this aspect of the music has evolved along with the technologies he uses—ensembles featuring electronic instruments alongside acoustic ones, processing acoustic instruments electronically in real time, using laptops in a performance. But whereas there are detailed instructions for other musicians to perform whatever he asks them to play—whether precisely notated musical phrases or improvisation—the electronic component to his music has proven to be elusive to convey to others.
Perhaps an even more important human element to Rolnick’s music is the fact that many of his compositions have been a direct by-product of his life experiences—whether mowing the lawn for the legendary architect Walter Gropius, being overjoyed when his grandchildren moved into his neighborhood, losing the hearing in his left ear, or his extensive travels to places ranging from the People’s Republic of China to the Former Yugoslavia. Now that he is retiring from teaching, he’s hoping to have more time to spend with his grandchildren as well as to travel, but above all, to keep making music. Given his track record thus far, it will be very exciting to hear what he comes up with next.
Frank J. Oteri: In the booklet notes for one of your CDs, you made a statement that really resonated with me: you claimed that music, for you, was ultimately about communication. I thought that would be a great place to begin our conversation, because I’m curious to learn precisely what that means to you. How can you ensure that your music is communicating? Is some music more communicative than other types? What qualities make the music communicative?
Neil Rolnick at work.
Neil Rolnick: It has to do with putting things that really stick in people’s minds and that they can identify with into the music. The big jump for me had to do with having studied lots of 20th-century music and feeling like it was very important to be deep and difficult, but then realizing that my mind doesn’t really work that way. I seem to have a knack for writing melodies that stick in people’s ears, and after lots of studying that made me very embarrassed. But I figured that if I can express what I really hear, get it down on paper, and have it be played, that’s really the best that I can do. So communicating is really about being honest about what my feelings are, honest about what my ears hear, honest about what comes out musically, directly from heart and mind.
FJO: What’s interesting about you describing writing what you’re hearing in your head is that a few years ago you lost most of your hearing in one ear and it has changed the way you think about how other people perceive things. As somebody who is so sensitive about sound and hearing, that experience has fundamentally changed the way you hear. But you’re still writing music, and I personally don’t hear a before and after.
NR: I don’t think that there is, except there are some noisier processing things that I tend to do now that I didn’t do so much before. But that’s such a teeny-tiny change. I think the interesting thing is that it didn’t change the way that I hear in my head; it changed the way that I hear what’s outside my head.
FJO: There’s a wonderful passage in your piece Gardening at Gropius House where all of a sudden there’s this cluster that comes in. That sounded to me like the din you have described that you now hear all the time in your left ear.
NR: Yes, more or less. It’s partially what I hear in my left ear. It’s the din, but it’s also sort of symbolic for me—a distilling of this kind of modernistic reliance on texture without really having a melodic and harmonic content that compels me, this counterweight, which I don’t entirely discount because I really love some of that music.
FJO: I’d like to talk more with you about your relationship to modernism, but before we do, I’d like to know more about these recent pieces, which are essentially about the perceptual idiosyncrasies that distinguish experiences for people. You created a piece about your own experience of hearing loss and how you’ve dealt with it, MONO Prelude, but then you took it further in Anosmia, which is about other people’s sensory irregularities. To bring it back to wanting your music to communicate, how is it ever possible to know if something is communicating when, as you have explored in these recent pieces, everybody hears, sees, smells, tastes, feels differently from each other? What you are trying to communicate to others might not necessarily be the way they receive it.
NR: What I’m trying to communicate is what it is. What they receive in terms of how they hear, how they smell, how they see, is going to necessarily be different and that’s actually what’s so fascinating to me. The thing that I came away from this experience with is this realization that all of our perceptions are really different. MONO Prelude, the piece in which I tell the story of losing my hearing on my left side, is kind of the beginning of the frame. A project which includes scenes from the MONO pieces and Anosmia will hopefully be a whole evening with lots of emphasis on seeing as well as listening, framing how our different perceptions work and how our senses are never the same. I’m kind of picturing it as a staged oratorio or a non-linear opera. I’m talking to a director, Caden Manson, who has a group called Big Art Group, about working together.
FJO: What about the other three senses?
NR: Well, they’re in there. I haven’t figured out how to make them work in a performance situation, but I’m interested. FJO: There are things that have certainly been done with wafting scents.
NR: I’m not sure that they really work. Taste and touch are things that I could imagine figuring out a way to do online where you’re not dealing with a proscenium situation, but rather where you come into peoples’ homes. People take their computers to bed to read; you know, you get very intimate with people. At that point, I can easily imagine really thinking about involving senses.
FJO: That’s so interesting because with a computer you can see any image and hear all music, but there’s no such thing as digital wine. And there’s no such thing as digital perfume, either. And then touch—
NR: —There are people working with haptic interfaces where you can have something that is a surface which is a lot of little points that can tell how strongly you press against them. I’ve seen some demonstrations of things like that. But at the same time, I don’t think that the digital-ness is really so important. The fact that we get these cool little pictures on our phones is as important as the fact that they’re ubiquitous and that they really do reach into the intimate parts of your life. So that’s much more interesting than this sort of high-tech aspect of the sound or of the sight. It’s more the fact that it comes into your life and your life is where you touch, where you smell, and where you drink stuff. It’s a connector. That to me is much more interesting than that you deliver it all through the screen.
FJO: So you’re willing to let other people have their own experiences rather than trying to control what experience they’re having?
NR: I don’t know that you have much choice. People have their own experiences. You may try to control everyone’s experience, but that’s ultimately not very successful.
FJO: So to take it back to that Gropius piece—I love the essay you wrote about it that’s online. What a phenomenal story! There was a whole generation of people who felt that they could and perhaps should change the natural order—whether it’s a wildly growing lawn, or how pitches are organized, or how sentences are constructed, or how colors combine on a canvas.
NR: And I think for anyone who’s going to be a musician, or a composer, or a poet or writer, or an artist of any sort, some of that is there. Right? Because otherwise you’re not doing anything. Even John Cage finding chance procedures. Although he said he’s not really controlling anything, he’s doing something; there is some result. There is some control—some arrangement for something to control something. At the same time, what Gropius was interested in doing was taking this field behind his house and really making it into a formal garden. And I, as a 19-year-old student who was his gardener, thought that the field was much more beautiful than the gardens he had around his house, or the dorms he had built at Harvard, or anything else. So why would I take this natural harmony and beauty and mess it up?
Neil Rolnick in Paris, 1977
I had a similar musical experience when I was a graduate student. I spent a year and a half working at IRCAM. I was working with Boulez closely, and also with Berio, Jean-Claude Risset, and Vinko Globocar; it was like the heart of European modernism. When I left, it was partially because UC Berkeley said if I wanted to get my degree, I better come back because they weren’t going to give it to me from Paris. But it was also partially because Boulez finally said, “You’re too American. You should go back to America.” At first I took offense, and then I thought, “He’s right!” They had designed the first digital synthesizer at IRCAM, and he called me in to ask what I thought should happen with it. And I said, “Oh, well, it’s obvious. You should make this available to 15-year-olds.”—I was 30 at the time—“They will do things that you can’t imagine, and things that I can’t. This will be what they learn to make music on, and it’s going to change everything.” And he said, “No, no, no. It should go to Luciano. It should go to Hans Werner Henze. It should go to Karlheinz and to Jean-Claude.” Those were the people who were going to make real music on it. And it didn’t matter really what anyone else did. And I said, “Wrong,” and he said, “You’re just too American.” And of course what I suggested is what Yamaha did. And I think it did change everything.
FJO: What’s interesting is at that point in the development of electronic music, there really were two electronic musics. There were these laboratories at universities, research centers like IRCAM and Stanford where John Chowning, whom you also had worked with, has discovered the FM synthesis algorithm—really high-level scientific inquiry. And then there were pop musicians who played on synthesizers, like the Moog and the Buchla, which had recently become available on the commercial market. And for them, it was gear that enhanced their sound world. They created some weird, odd sounds that weren’t heard before, but it wasn’t really about scientific inquiry; it was about making something really cool.
Rolnick with his gear in the mid 1980s
NR: It actually started out as scientific inquiry with Moog and Buchla because they were working with analog machines and they were trying to figure out how to do it. The work I did when I was a student working at Stanford, with Chowning and Andy Moore and other people there, was with computers; you had to run the math to figure out what really happens when you do FM synthesis in terms of being able to put out the equations. But when I finished that and finished IRCAM and got a job in 1981—the one I’m just leaving at RPI—the first thing I did was go out and buy a synthesizer. And I bought some analog stuff. I think I bought a Prophet-5 and some things. Then someone told me about the Synclavier. So I sold my analog gear and got a Synclavier for about ten thousand dollars; I convinced the bank that it was like investing in a violin. It was going to gain value, and boy was I wrong. But I got the loan and I had a job. Some of the people that I had worked with at Stanford came out to visit me and they saw this Synclavier, and they said, “Well, this is just a toy. You can’t do everything on it.” Because on the mainframe computer at Stanford, we could do everything. And my response was, “What I can do is practice on this. I can use it every day. I can spend hours practicing, just as though it were a violin or a piano or anything else. And so even though it can’t do everything, I can do a whole lot more with it, because I can really get to know it.” Again it’s that it sort of has an intimacy because it’s in my life on a daily basis.
FJO: You had this interest in communicating that goes all the way back, and you had this desire to get to know an instrument intimately, but you also had a fascination with studio electronic music which doesn’t exactly seem simpatico with those other things.
NR: I have two memories. One is when I was in college or shortly after college, playing in rock and roll bands, and listening to a recording and the tape being stretched. We’re all sitting around listening and then, all of a sudden, it gets really strange. And I was fascinated. I thought, “What’s going on here?” What I had played was interesting, but then what I heard back was completely different. I didn’t major in music in college—I was a literature major—but I played in rock bands and folk dance bands all the way through. Then I worked at different things, including being a rock musician for about four years, and then went back to school and was formally introduced to electronic music, and it was just the easiest thing I could ever imagine doing. I completely got how to do it, and I could immediately go in and make things happen that seemed fascinating and interesting. I was always a pretty bad piano player; I can play a bunch of instruments pretty badly. But as soon as I started working, first with analog electronics and then computers, it was just like, oh right, this is what I’m supposed to do.
FJO: You mentioned playing rock and folk. I also remember reading somewhere that your earliest musical memory was hearing Western swing—after all, you were born in Texas. So there was all this music going on in your life. But you weren’t really immersed in classical music. Then, all of a sudden, you were in an academic environment doing really heavy, experimental music. Now, many years later, you’re writing for orchestra and writing for string quartet, sometimes even without electronics. So you’re coming at it from having done these other things, rather than returning to it.
NR: Well, there’s a little place in the middle there, when I was—I don’t know—14 to 17. I studied with a music teacher who lived right around the corner from here, up on 187th Street and Fort Washington. His name was Fritz Kramer. He was a musicologist at the Manhattan School; he gave lectures for the Philharmonic on Wednesday afternoons. We lived in Connecticut, and I would come in and spend all Saturday with Mr. Kramer. We would do a piano lesson, 16th-century counterpoint, 18th-century counterpoint and chorale harmonizations, listen to Hindemith. I would do exercises in Hindemith-like counterpoint. And I would have to do imitations of whatever I was playing in the piano lessons—Bach fugues, Mozart sonatas, and what not. Then I would have to do 12-tone exercises. And my grandfather got me a small subscription to the Philharmonic, so I had to do an analysis of whatever I was going to hear at the Philharmonic.
The last year I did that, that summer I went and studied with Darius Milhaud at Aspen. So I had done some folk music before that, but I got really immersed in this heavy-duty music theory that sort of took over my life for about three or four years, then went to college and had an extended case of adolescence and played in rock bands a bunch. I had to learn to play simply, which really was the difficult thing. And then when I went back, it was sort of like “Which world am I in?” I remember when I played in rock bands thinking, “Well, that stuff I did with Milhaud and with Mr. Kramer—no one listens to that, no cares about it. It’s just all this heady, high-brow stuff. Being able to play in clubs and festivals where people bounce up and down and really obviously dig what you’re doing—that’s what it’s all about!”
But then I said, “Well, O.K., what do I really hear?” I was much more interested in something that was more intellectual and more challenging and more interesting to me than what I was doing with rock bands or with jazz groups. But I feel like I don’t really fit in the classical music world either, in some ways, because I think a lot of people listen to my stuff and say, “Oh, well that’s just like jazz, you know.” There’s improvisation sometimes, and there’s beats, constant rhythmic things. I guess that’s what I think about when I am communicating, it’s just a matter of saying what I really hear. Forget about the ear that doesn’t hear.
FJO: Yeah, we’ll get back to that later, but let’s stay with your earlier experiences a bit longer. You had these role models. Milhaud was a really solid composer who had a firm grounding in the Western classical tradition—counterpoint, sonata form—and he wrote tons of string quartets and symphonies. And the guy who did these composition exercises with you was also completely entrenched within old-school classical music.
FJO: But you abandoned that path. Instead, you do the rock and jazz thing and don’t even major in music as an undergrad. But then you decide to go back into music and so you work with John Chowning and then Boulez. That seems to me like the other extreme.
NR: I’d been living in Vermont. I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and I started out working in a hospital in Wyoming, where I got canned for organizing hospital workers. Then I moved to Vermont, and got a kind of community organizing/counseling job with teenagers there. I was playing in rock bands this whole time. Then I met a guy who was the local music teacher; he organized the school chorus, and they did plays and musicals. And I thought, “Gee, that’s what I want to do.” I tried to be a counselor. I tried to be a mechanic, or a taxi driver, or a carpenter. With all of these things, I discovered that if I really particularly wanted to do something crafty, like being a carpenter, it’s going to take me five or six years to really learn how do any of that really well, anyway. And, if I was going to take all that time, I might as well do what I really wanted to do, which was to be a musician. So I thought, “O.K., well, if I go back to school and I get a degree in music, then I can move out in the country and you know, teach at a high school or something, and that would be great. That would be wonderful.” So then I went to Berkeley and got swept up into all the interesting new music things that were happening in the Bay area.
Then I got this opportunity to go to Paris and work at IRCAM, and it was like I was dropped right in the middle of all these things I had been reading about from the time I was in high school. It was like dropping into a history book. I remember reading Boulez articles when I was in high school and studying Stockhausen. It never dawned on me that since they were the people that I read about in books that I could actually reject things that they did. Because that just wasn’t an option, you know. Then I got there and realized that they’re all real people, just like you and me, doing things that they feel are right, and I’m actually capable of saying, “Well no, that’s not the right thing for me. No, I think some of those ideas are not O.K.”
Neil Rolnick in the late ’80s, photo by Gisela Gamper
In fact, the stuff that I built at RPI was in direct reaction to what I saw at IRCAM. IRCAM was really based on the idea that there is this great musical tradition. Someone once asked if I was going to hear Boulez here because he was probably the last musician who saw himself as directly descended from Wagner, through Debussy off into the great future of contemporary music. But I really feel like music is about communication. It’s about doing something. It’s not about making great masterpieces. It’s about making music for people. I’m much less concerned about the great masterpiece problem, and much more concerned about making events happen, where people listen to music, and making music that people want to listen to.
FJO: At the same time, I wouldn’t sell you short; you’ve written some really terrific, formidable pieces that deserve to be widely appreciated.
NR: Well, I hope so, and that’s actually one of the things that I really am hoping that I can do now that I’m getting rid of academic life for myself—to really focus. I have a lot of pieces that I really like and that I feel should have much bigger audiences. And I have a lot of pieces that I’m intending to write, that I think should have bigger audiences. Even though I’ve been very productive all the time I’ve been a teacher, now that I don’t have to be a teacher, I think that I can maybe be productive on a level of getting the music out more.
FJO: To take it back one place before we bring it more into the present, one of the things that I found so striking about your earliest pieces—I’m thinking about Wondrous Love (the trombone piece for George Lewis) and Ever-Livin’ Rhythm—is that even though you were writing pieces with tape, there was always a live performer as a part of it. You didn’t do these tape pieces where you go to a concert and you’re sitting in the audience looking at just the two loudspeakers.
NR: I’ve never done that. At the very beginning, I wrote a couple of pieces like that, but they were for dance—one for Margaret Jenkins and one for a friend when I was in graduate school. It’s never made sense to me, that idea of acousmatic music where there’s no connection to what’s making the sound. It just isn’t interesting because it seems to me that when you play something and you make something, you want to have someone say, “Here is my gift. Here is what I can give you. And it’s beautiful, I believe it’s beautiful, and I hope you’ll think it’s beautiful also.” That requires a person, and so every time someone has tried to get me to do something like that, it’s not interesting to me. And I thought that from the very beginning. The first piece that I wrote with the computer was a percussion piece, Ever-Livin’ Rhythm, and it was about making a virtuoso. It was kind of thinking in terms of what would Zyklus be if Stockhausen could hum a melody? So there was all this sense of how to really make a virtuoso percussion piece that had one person playing–there were 42 instruments—and yet make it work. A lot of the early pieces took melodic material from other things and this actually used material from a recording of Ba-Benzele Pygmies from Central Africa that had an interesting nose flute hocketing rhythm. I used that as the basis for it. But it was something where you hear the rhythms, and you hear the melodies, and there’s the spectacle of the person playing it and making it work. I always think of electronics and technology as being a little gloss of magic on the sound. We all know that you can get anything out of loudspeakers, right? You can make any sound that you want. But if you have a live player, and the speakers are doing something that just makes it so what the player’s doing isn’t really possible, then that’s really kind of exciting for an audience.
FJO: I think there have been several important moments of transition for you. As I said to you before, I don’t really hear a before and after in your music as a result of your hearing loss, but I do hear a before and after between those early pieces and the pieces Real Time and À la Mode that were released on LP by CRI in the 1980s. I want to talk about that LP a bit because the cover is so striking.
NR: It was one of the very last CRI LPs.
FJO: CRI was a label that tended to have pretty staid covers. Sometimes, there wouldn’t even be a picture on the cover, just the names of the composers—usually three different composers. And maybe if you knew one of them, you bought the record for the one you knew. But here was a record of just your music with a picture of you on the cover in a suit, wieldng an AX-Synth and sitting on top of a fake, oversized piece of cake. NR: Yeah. Cheesecake. I’ve always felt humor is important, not taking yourself so seriously. One of the wonderful things that I’ve always loved about John Cage is that he was always smiling in his pictures. You know, you had Schoenberg, who was always frowning and looking very serious. And then you had Cage, who always had this big, silly grin on his face. You don’t have Shakespeare plays without Falstaff. If you’re going to really reflect life, you’ve got to have some humor. It’s too much to have without humor. That’s why we have it. So there’s that. And then it’s also using graphics and colors to frame what I’m trying to do. Real Time and À la Mode are an interesting pair of pieces because they’re where I got away from using samples of other people’s melodies and said, “I can just make my own up, and it’s O.K.” I started doing that with these ensemble pieces and then actually moved into doing that with electronic pieces and pieces with all sorts of different kinds of groups.
FJO: There’s another aspect to these pieces which is different as well. In the earlier pieces with electronics you had an acoustic player performing in real time with a pre-recorded tape of electronically generated sounds. But in these pieces, the electronic sounds are happening live alongside the non-electronic ones. Eventually you would find ways to integrate what the performers on the non-electronic instruments play with the electronics by having those performers trigger the electronics or having the electronics alter those acoustic sounds in real time. That’s a very different way of thinking about electronic music.
NR: Well, it all comes from the idea of performance and communication. I can play electronics as well as anyone. I can get on a stage and play things now using a computer or whatever, and feel like I can give as a good a performance as anyone can. And so it puts me in the place to communicate. One of the things that I learned when I was playing rock and roll and jazz was that it was great to be able to sit in with the band and have your role that you played. But at some point, if you really were trying to communicate your own ideas, you had to be able to get up and do it yourself without all the support. There was a point, I guess around the time that I did À la Mode and thereafter, when I did a bunch of solo pieces, some of which I still play now—things like Balkanization and Robert Johnson Sampler—and a bunch of others that I don’t play so much anymore. I could just go give a concert where I get up and play. Doing that really helped me define what my musical ideas are. Because if I can get up and do it, that’s what it is. I’m actually making it happen.
Neil Rolnick: A Robert Johnson Sampler performed at EMPAC (Troy, NY) on Feb 27, 2013.
FJO: Another part of it that I think speaks to how performers/interpreters of this music have evolved over time is that in the really early days of this stuff, you’d have the ensemble or the soloist who would do his or her thing—they didn’t touch any of the electronics—and you’d have the tape that’s playing those sounds. The next step is having players who are doing their thing, and you’re doing the electronics live with them. Then the next step is you’ve got the group and then you’re manipulating their sounds in real time. You’re affecting their sounds as well. But then the final part of that is working with players who are comfortable doing the electronics as per your intentions. They can do it without you.
NR: Well, there’s a before-ness in terms of setting it up for them. I have to make the stuff that processes them. But in the iFiddle Concerto that I did with Todd Reynolds, we actually set it up so that he controlled it. That was great. He’s going to play Gardening in Gropius House for the recording of it we’re doing in June. We haven’t really talked yet about whether I’m going to control things or he’s going to control things. So that’s a discussion that we have to have. The trade off is that while I actually love to give all the control over to him and let him play and switch things using foot pedals that I can set up, I also want him to be able to put his full focus on playing the violin. So I don’t know what the answer will be to that. But that’s always a sort of an interesting question to me.
The other thing I think about is how all of what I do is really about live performance. So when I croak, no one gets to perform this anymore. What happens? I’ve taught a lot of people, but I’ve really never taught anyone how to do what I do. So, I don’t know the answer to that one.
FJO: How much of the details of the electronic components in these pieces—which I imagine can’t really be conveyed via noteheads on staves—is actually notated? Is there a system?
NR: There is nothing notated. Well, not quite nothing. There are notes to myself—move to this preset, that set up—but what the things actually are is stuff that I do and I’ve never figured out how to notate it. So for all the big ensemble pieces and large pieces with single instruments or small groups, everyone else’s part is completely notated in great detail, but my part is just little numbers. I know how to do it, so I’ll do it. But I have no idea how to notate it; I’ve never figured it out.
FJO: Well, that’s not completely true because you sometimes include improvisation in your pieces.
NR: But it’s notated as it needs to be. Things go from places where I give some sort of parameters and just say, “Go!” to things being minutely notated. I’m very comfortable notating them as much as I need to. But I’ve never figured out how I notate what I do, so I don’t know what happens with that.
FJO: In terms of control versus lack of control versus improvisation: when you do the electronics for a piece versus somebody like Todd manipulating it himself, how much leeway does the performer have to manipulate sounds in a way that’s different from what you had originally envisioned? Because it’s not precisely notated.
NR: It’s pretty much the same kind of difference you would have in a completely notated piece. There’s phrasing and how you shape the gesture—I’m usually pretty clear about what I want the sound to be, or the overall gesture to be. Todd is the only person I’ve worked with who can do the manipulation all by himself. I’m pretty directive, but there’s some flexibility. Overall I kind of think my job as the composer is to tell everyone what to play, even if that means improvise some here.
FJO: There’s still something of a leap of faith involved in how performers will interpret what you tell them to play, as you point out in the program notes for the piece you wrote for Bob Gluck. You actually called it Faith, riffing on the double entendre since he used to be a rabbi. When you give a piece to somebody else, especially one that is somewhat open-ended, you’re kind of hoping they do something that’s in the spirit of your intentions.
NR: Well, that’s an interesting piece. There are two different kinds of processing that go on in it. One is that he plays and I process the sound; I do it all live on my computer. Then there are some sections where I give him a little controller which I’ve set up so that he can bring different synthetic sounds up and down, and he can trigger and play different loops and fade them in and out of each other. Then he’s supposed to be playing some on the keyboard, too. When we worked on that, it was a matter of me giving him directorial advice in terms of thinking about it as phrases and gestures; don’t think about going three or four minutes without stopping, make a phrase, explore one of the particular things I’ve got in there. You can select different ones each time. So he developed a way that he plays it. I’ve also done the piece with Kathy Supové and with Vicky Chow. They all play it really differently. Kathy really gets into the improvisational parts with the controller, completely different from Bob’s approach. And I like them both. I don’t have favorite children. But they’re really dramatically different. It’s partly because Bob is very enmeshed in the world of jazz; he plays a lot of jazz stuff and just did this book on the Mwandishi period of Herbie Hancock. Kathy is sort of more in the new music and free improvisation world. I don’t think any of it makes it any less of my piece as long as I’m comfortable with where they’re going with it.
Neil Rolnick: Faith, performed by Bob Gluck (piano) and Neil Rolnick (laptop computer) at EMPAC 2/16/2010.
FJO: But you said that you feel it’s your job as a composer to tell them what they’re doing, whether that means play these precise notes and rhythms or improvise here for a designated length of time. But you’ve also played alongside other improvisers in a more open-form type setting; I’m thinking of the group Fish Love That, which sounds very different from everything else I’ve heard that you’ve done, because it is a collective thing rather than just you.
Neil Rolnick’s Fish Love That: “Calypso” featuring Neil Rolnick, Todd Reynolds, Steve Rust, Andrew Sterman, Ron Horton, and Dean Sharp performing during a 1998 recording session for the Deep Listening CD. Video by John Jannone.
NR: That was a really interesting period. I initially got the group together that became Fish Love That to do a project called Home Game in the early ‘90s. Then I went away and spent about six months in Japan and got involved in playing with some traditional musicians there, and was suddenly feeling this lack of improvisation in my life. When I came back, I got the group together again with the idea that we would just meet once a month on stage and play. And that’s what we did. We started out doing monthly things at the old Knitting Factory, and then we moved to HERE and we kept it up pretty regularly for about, I don’t know, four or five years. Everyone brought pieces in. I brought pieces. Todd [Reynolds] brought pieces. And Andy Sterman would bring pieces in. So it was this slightly amorphous thing, but it wasn’t the main thing for any of us. It was just something that we all enjoyed doing. I really wanted it to be everyone’s, but then Todd and Andrew at several points said, “You should just be doing stuff of your own. You should be putting together this group to do your own work, instead of whoever’s work. Actually that would make more sense.”
The other thing that was happening is that I was working on a music theater piece for that whole five years with a group in midtown that supposedly produces things that go off-Broadway and Broadway. So at the same time I was writing this very tonal, directed stuff for people, many of whom couldn’t read music because a lot of Broadway people can’t. They just learn it all [by ear]. It was about the discovery of a drug that makes you feel like you’re in love and want to act on it. And how much money you could make on that, putting street drug dealers in competition with big pharma. The book and the lyrics were written by a friend of mine, Larry Beinhart, who wrote the book that the movie Wag the Dog was based on. He’s a quirky, wonderful writer.
Neil Rolnick’s desk in his New York City apartment which looks out toward the George Washington Bridge.
I was also doing stuff at RPI. But that kind of all came to an end when I moved to New York City in 2002 and took very seriously the idea that what I want to do is just forget about this group that I’ve been trying to maintain and forget about the theater thing, just take a deep breath and say, “What do I want to write?” I had some money from a grant and I actually contacted a bunch of people that I had wanted to write for—Kathy Supové, Joan La Barbara, Tom Buckner, ETHEL—and said, “O.K., I got this money. You want a piece? If I write a piece, will you play it?” That’s kind of where I took the direction to what I’ve been doing ever since.
FJO: So the theater piece never happened.
NR: No. It had a lot of staged readings. It was a wonderful experience. I would love to see it happen. I think it’s a really cool piece. FJO: Did you finish the music?
NR: Not only did I finish the music, I finished two or three times the music. I probably wrote about 50 songs for it, and it maybe has 20 in it. I keep trying to figure out places where I can get that done. But I also don’t know that I ever want to get into a situation where I’m not in control of the music, as was the case of developing this thing where there were group meetings. Does this piece work? Does that piece work? As we worked through it, I felt like the music got dumber and dumber, and less and less interesting. But it would be interesting to me to go back and try to make that really happen.
FJO: On your own terms.
NR: On my own terms.
FJO: So it was all straight-up musical theatre songs with a pit orchestra. No electronics?
NR: No electronics.
FJO: We keep coming to these places in your career where there’s a before and an after. This might sound utterly ridiculous, but I was aware of a before and after in 2002 because up until then you were Neil B. Rolnick and since 2002 you’re just Neil Rolnick. I’m particularly attentive to this kind of detail since I obsess over my own middle initial, so I have to ask you about it.
NR: That’s right. That’s because you don’t call me Neil B. Everyone calls me Neil. I got the feeling that I was just being pretentious. Again, it’s this feeling that what’s important is really directly communicating. At that point I also started referring to what’s going on in my life in my notes about the music: my grandkids being born, my feeling about being in New York City. That’s what’s important; that’s what I’m spending my time thinking about. I think that whatever you spend your life in comes out in what you write; at least for me it does. When I first moved to the city, I wrote a piece called Uptown Jump, and it was about the fact that my daughter and her family, including one grandson at that point, had moved from Brooklyn up to Washington Heights. So they made an uptown jump, and it changed my life in terms of interacting with a new generation in my family.
Rolnick’s grandchildren are always present at his workstation.
But that’s why the “B” got dropped. At a certain point, when I moved here, I said, “O.K., from here on, it’s real. No one calls me Neil B. Everyone calls me Neil.” I’m 65 now. I was 55 then. The move here was a lot about saying I wanted to start pulling away from academia. If I don’t put my full energy into making music, when the hell am I going to do it? This is my time. I think what I’m doing now is making another step in that same direction, saying, “O.K., I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to keep eating and keep putting a roof over my head.” Assuming that I can make that work, I should be able to spend the next however many years I’ve got making as much music happen and writing as much music as I can imagine. And at least at this point, I feel like I can imagine a lot.
FJO: A big challenge that could have gotten in the way of this, but actually hasn’t gotten in the way, was what happened with your hearing.
NR: I don’t think it’s in the way. You know, I would love it if I had my hearing back in my left ear, but everyone has things that challenge them, whether it’s physical or perceptual things, relationship things, or money things. There’s no prize for having problems. We all have problems. There’s only what you can do to react to them and grow out of them and make them into something positive in your life. I’d rather it didn’t happen, but stuff happens. I feel like it expanded things. I feel like the loss of hearing made me really have a whole new perspective on how we perceive the world. I never really thought about how different our perceptions were. I’ve built this whole piece that I hope will actually get produced in the full way that I imagine it. I keep feeling like the music I’m writing out of each of the changes that I go through is getting better, and more interesting, and deeper, and funnier, and more joyful, so that’s O.K.
FJO: After the hearing loss, you also finally wrote a string quartet with no electronics, Extended Family, which is an extraordinary piece but also a very extraordinarily traditional piece. It harkens back to centuries-old traditions in ways that a lot of your other music doesn’t. It’s multi-movement and the last movement is even a fugue.
NR: I love fugues. I love the way that they sound and the idea of them coming out of these other textures that I’m working in. But it’s something that I learned how to do when I was in high school. It’s just like playing with electronics. I can just do it.
FJO: I was wondering if hearing in mono has somehow realigned your musical priorities. Electronic music is all about exploring a very detailed level of distinctions with textures, timbres, and directionality. Perhaps other musical parameters are now rising to the forefront in your music. We all know what the sound of a string quartet is. You can’t necessarily make a new timbre with a string quartet, but you can do wonderful things within that timbre and emphasize other aspects of the music making. I’m wondering if there’s something to hearing the world a different way that now gives you the opportunity to say, “I appreciate this just for what it is.”
NR: When I started the piece, I thought it was going to be about my extended family, meaning my daughter’s family that lived here in Washington Heights with me, and the kids I saw all the time, and the community that I have around me here. Then it became about my actual extended family, as I spent a lot of time with my brothers and my sister, and my mother dying. Actually the previous string quartet that I wrote was about my father dying. I hope I don’t have to write too many more quartets about those sorts of things. But they were both very strong experiences for me. I was with both of them when they died. My hands were on them. Life and death are so much more interesting than thinking about electronics or not—the details of how the piece is going to come together. Often, when someone approaches me about writing something, they say, “And of course there’s a computer part.” And I say, “Yeah. There’s a computer part.” I was really interested in the idea of not working with electronics, because I’ve done so much.
With Extended Family, ETHEL wanted a multi-movement piece, so the five movements were the way it worked. Besides the fugue, which I think of as sort of bringing all the parts of the family together, the part of that piece that I really love the most is the central movement which is slow and basically has one chord that just hangs there. We get a very halting little melody that traces its way through it. That’s not a texture that I really think about. I’m sure that there are lots of string quartets that do that, but I wasn’t even thinking about texture. I was just thinking, “How do I capture this in sound?”
FJO: I imagine another factor that might have led to your writing a piece for ETHEL that doesn’t involve electronics is that a non-electronic piece is probably much easier to tour.
NR: Absolutely. The first string quartet that I wrote for ETHEL is Shadow Quartet. In cleaning out some stuff at school, I found a quartet I wrote when I was teenager, so it’s not quite the first, but it’s the first one that I would want anyone to listen to. When we put that together, it was at a weeklong residency up at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, and I had it all set up, so they were all controlling everything. I had them all with pedals, and they were bringing things in and out, controlling how much everything was happening, and switching between things. Then when it was done, they said, “Great, we would love to take this piece on tour, but we can’t take you on tour. So you have to figure out a way that we can do it without you.” And I said, “I can’t do that because it’s got to be interactive and I’ve got to do all this stuff,” and they said, “Then we don’t have to tour with it.” And I said, “But, but, but…” So since we were going to do a recording of the piece anyway for CD, we recorded it. We used a click track and we multi-tracked everything. Then I extracted their parts from the recording, and left only the effects. So if they played with that click track, it sounds exactly like I’m processing them live. And I had these wonderful discussions, particularly with some more doctrinaire electronic music people, about cheating. You really can’t do that. On the other hand, they probably did a hundred performances of Shadow Quartet. No one had a clue that it was not being processed live. And, in fact, it was processed live, because if I hadn’t processed it live, we wouldn’t have had the recording to put the click track on. So ultimately it doesn’t really make any difference to me; what I’m interested in is the music coming out.
Neil Rolnick: Shadow Quartet, First Movement: “Western Swing” performed by ETHEL (Cornelius Dufallo & Mary Rowell, violins, Ralph Ferris, viola, Dorothy Lawson, cello) at EMPAC (Troy, NY) on Feb. 16, 2010.
FJO: So you actually turned it back into one of those old school pieces for ensemble and tape.
NR: Yes, exactly. But it’s very different from the old school ones, because it’s got the impression that it’s all being generated by the instruments.
FJO: It’s sort of a Milli Vanilli approach to electronic music.
NR: Well, maybe. But if we go back to the idea that I can’t notate the things that I do when I’m playing and then what happens to this music, it is so important. The communication doesn’t happen because I’m sitting on stage mixing what’s going on with the electronics; it has to do with the instrumental performers up there playing for the audience and then these magical things coming up around them. I can make that happen so that they can take the piece out and tour with it.
FJO: You’ve traveled around the world a great deal over the years. You mentioned Japan during our discussion, but you also travelled extensively through former Yugoslavia as well as China and these travels have inspired quite a few of your pieces. Some of the remoter parts of the world that you’ve visited don’t have the same level of access to electricity that we have.
NR: When I was in China, one of the places that I played The Economic Engine was in this art area in Beijing called Qī Jiŭ Bā [“798”] which is in an area of old munitions factories. Artists moved into it, then the government decided it should become the official art area, so there are now lots of high end galleries from all over the world there. These people produced this thing and it was in one of the old buildings there. There was thick dust on everything. It was just this abandoned place that hadn’t been renovated. We had the whole top floor of this building, but there was no electricity. There was electricity in the plaza down below, so we ran an extension cord up four stories on the outside of the building and plugged in the sound system. I don’t need much electricity to do what I do. A laptop doesn’t take a whole lot and speakers don’t take a lot. But I also feel like I need the electronics for me to perform. If the music doesn’t require electronics, then like the string quartet, it can happen without me.
Of all of the places that I’ve been, the recent trips to China have been particularly interesting because China is not a kind of backward third-world country anymore. It’s got lots of really sophisticated things, and it’s been really interesting to see a kind of underground electronic music scene growing up there. I’ve gone there to do something with the conservatory or an official conference, and then there are these guys who are in their 20s and early 30s in clubs that are completely non-academic. It’s almost like two different worlds happening. I find the freshness of the young non-academic things really invigorating and exciting.
FJO: So now that you no longer have to do the day job of being at the RPI, you can actually travel even more.
NR: I hope so. That’s my plan. I’m in the midst of trying to see what comes up next. I’m working on saxophone and electronics pieces for Demetrius Spaneas. He’s done a lot of work traveling to Central Asia, so I’m looking forward to an opportunity to take that piece to Kurdistan and Tajikistan and all these places I’ve never been.
I have always found something particularly enriching about career-long retrospective presentations of an artist’s work. I have this concentrated immersive experience more often with visual art than I do with music, but albums such as Herbert Deutsch’s From Moog to Mac remind me that the ears benefit as much from taking such a journey as the eyes do.
Presented in chronological order and spanning a period from 1963 to 2007, the works included on From Moog to Mac demonstrate the process of experimentation and development that Herbert Deutsch went through as he created work for Bob Moog’s iconic synthesizers and then on into computer generated sound.
The disc opens with Deutsch’s A Christmas Carol, a 1963 tape piece made before the development of the Moog synthesizer that’s something of a state-of-his-art setter (as the disc notes report it was for Moog as well) for what is to follow. The piece positions audio news clips from the Birmingham church bombings of that era and monastic chanting alongside snippets of the children’s song “Frère Jacques” intended as a call to then-President JFK, all threaded together using a host of processed instrumental sounds.
What follows that track is a sort of audio letter and instrument demonstration from Robert Moog to “Mr. Deutsch, sir!”, which offers an intimate insider’s view of the early days (and sounds) of his prototype instrument. Having nicknamed it “abominatron,” Moog self-depreciatingly suggests that “it doesn’t sound like much when I play it. But maybe someone with more musicianship and imagination can get some good things out of it.” It’s an utterly charming six-plus minutes of his thinking, excitement, and nervousness at that time.
Jazz Images, A Worksong and Blues (1964) is the first piece ever composed using the sounds of a Moog synthesizer (!) and offers a striking view of Deutsch’s early reaction to and experimentation with the technology. He writes:
In 1964, the sounds and the potential of sound modification had a startling effect upon me. It was as if each new sound produced would almost instantly free my mind and my fingers to move in a new direction. This experience fit perfectly into the way I was hearing, and wished to explore, the new jazz that I loved to hear and play.
While it’s an exciting ten-minute historical audio document, it also remains a great listen on its own terms, mixing the sounds of the synthesizer with Deutsch’s own improvisation on piano and trumpet. The same holds true for A Little Night Music, The Ithaca Journal Aug. 6, 1965, composed to close the Summer 1965 Workshop and Seminar in Electronic Music Composition that Deutsch and Moog held in Trumansburg, New York. This piece also relies on the headlines of the day and provides an interesting developmental mile marker when held next to the disc’s opening track.
Once the disc moves past these groundbreaking early experiments, some of the work wears its age more boldly than the rest. Prologue to King Richard III (1971), showcasing the integration of the Mini-Moog into the score for a “modern” production of Shakespeare’s play, makes for a fun bridge between Renaissance sonic cues and synthesized timbres of the time. Using a Moog MemoryMoog and a Korg M-1 Music Workstation, Slight of Hand (Mr. Magic Man) (1989) holds up less well for me, a piece of cabaret-pop marred by the heavy-handed use of now cheesy-sounding (and era-signaling) synth sounds. Fantasy on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” (1995) is an often-jazzy conversation between saxophone and a palate of electronic sounds (those mimicking strings and organ particularly) that took me right back to the Casio keyboard I played as a teenager.
Abyss (1994), however, seems to have escaped its time. A luminescent setting of a poem by Sonia Usatch, it features a piccolo player and mezzo-soprano (at opposite sides of the stage in performance) both entangled in a bed of delicately glimmering computer generated sound. The piece explores the relationship between a mother and her schizophrenic son, as represented by the melodic lullaby-like delivery of the vocalist alongside the piccolo’s fluttering exploration of a 12-tone row. The juxtaposition is quietly powerful.
Deutsch closes the album with Two Songs Without Words for Theremin and Piano (2007). Originally composed for voice, Deutsch rewrote the piece to include theremin after learning Moog was ill and knowing the distinctive instrument was perhaps the inventor’s favorite. The pieces make for a poignant end to an album that traces the interwoven electronic work of the two men.
In addition to the music, the disc also includes historic documents and photographs, two downloadable ringtones (snippets of tracks on the disc), and a 15-minute documentary (also available below). Taken together, it’s a chance to step back through a doorway and listen to an artist’s electronic voice unfold, an opportunity to listen and consider both how much new technology matters and perhaps also how much it does not.
Composers, Inc. continued its 29th season of presenting contemporary American music this month with a performance of diverse works for small ensembles as part of the Old First Concerts series in San Francisco. Founded in 1984 by composers Frank La Rocca and Martin Rokeach as an avenue to get their own and their colleagues’ music heard in the Bay Area, Composers, Inc. has remained a composer-driven organization with six composers acting jointly as artistic directors. (La Rocca tells the story of the organization’s genesis here.) Three of the six—La Rocca, Robert Greenberg, and Jeffrey Miller—were represented on the November 13 program.
The San Francisco Opera Brass, conducted by Dennis Doubin, performing Jeffrey Miller’s Sonata à 11.
The program was titled Brass de Deux, a word play combining the title of Wayne Peterson’s Pas de Deux (performed by flutist Tod Brody and percussionist Jack Van Geem) and the featured artists on the second half of the program: members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra’s brass section performing for the first time as the San Francisco Opera Brass. For the occasion, Miller wrote Sonata à 11, inspired by Gabrieli, and La Rocca transcribed his 1998 a cappella choral work Exaudi for brass choir. Both works received their premiere performances at this concert.
La Rocca’s body of work includes a particular focus on settings of sacred texts for unaccompanied choir. In the original version of Exaudi, La Rocca set sections of four different Psalms, including Psalm 130 (De profundis clamavi, Out of the depths I cry). The choral version was for 12 parts (a perusal score and recording are available here); in transcribing to brass choir, the number of parts was reduced to 11 (3 trumpet, 5 horns, 2 trombones, 1 bass trombone). The vocal writing, full of solemn, extended lines, suspensions, and densely stacked chords, translated well to the unified and rich sound of the San Francisco Opera Brass, which amply filled the church without being overwhelming.
Likewise, Miller’s Sonata à 11 (scored similarly but with a tuba replacing the 5th horn) took advantage of the expansive playing of the San Francisco Opera Brass. As a former trombonist with experience playing Gabrieli’s antiphonal music, Miller wrote for the full and regal quality of the brass choir, placing sustained low brass chords as a bed under more rhythmic trumpet gestures, and horns as a chamber choir embedded in the whole. There was a sense of contained, majestic energy to the San Francisco Opera Brass’s playing in both works that was settled and satisfying.
This was in contrast to two barnburner pieces in the first half of the program, which tapped into a more vigorous and extroverted energy. The evening opened with Greenberg’s Rarified Air (1999) for clarinet, violin, and piano, which takes its title from “that thin, clear high layer of air…known as the stratosphere,” as the composer writes in the program note. The opening and closing movements of this four-movement work, performed with gusto by Rob Bailis (clarinet), Michael Nicholas (violin), and Hadley McCarroll (piano), were dynamic and rhythmically engaging, propelled forward like a train in motion. The more introspective middle movements explored different ranges, establishing a dialogue between the piano and clarinet both in their low registers in the second movement, and placing a clarinet melody and violin obbligato over a mid-range piano chorale with jazz-infused harmonies in the third.
David Biedenbender’s you’ve been talking in your sleep, performed by PRISM Quartet.
The one piece from this program that I’ve since revisited simply for pleasure’s sake is David Biedenbender’s saxophone quartet you’ve been talking in your sleep, performed by the Premiere Saxophone Quartet. (The recording above is by PRISM, for whom the piece was written; a perusal score is available on Biedenbeder’s site if you want to follow along.) In his spoken intro, Biedenbender described one section as being like space alien funk, and indeed the whole single-movement piece explodes into a strange and super groovy late-night sax dance party after some quietly sighing pitch bends in the opening to set the scene. While most of the work is built on complex interlocking rhythmic patterns, there are two homophonic sections that reveal just how precise and virtuosic the performers need to be. (A special shout-out to Aaron Lington, whose nimble baritone sax playing provided an always solid ground for the quartet to work from.) At the end of the piece, Biedenbender sends the soprano sax up into the stratosphere with some screams that were shockingly eyebrow-raising, with pitch bends that echoed the opening but to completely different effect.
you’ve been talking in your sleep was one of two works chosen from 300 entries by Composers, Inc.’s artistic directors for this year’s Suzanne and Lee Ettelson Award, which is open to new chamber works (for up to five musicians) by American composers. The second work selected was Gold Rush for five violins by Indiana University doctoral candidate Ryan Chase (audio here), which will receive a performance at Composers, Inc.’s April 2013 concert. Composers, Inc. is soliciting applications for next year’s award now; the postmark deadline is December 1.
Morton Subotnick, right, performs Silver Apples of the Moon, while SUE-C creates real-time live video imagery.
If my Facebook feed is to be believed, that same evening a big chunk of the Bay Area new music community (myself included) suddenly became aware that at the end of the week Morton Subotnick was coming back to San Francisco, where he had co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to perform his groundbreaking 1967 work Silver Apples of the Moon live at SFMOMA. Presented in the museum’s Phyllis Wattis Theater on November 15, the performance had Subotnick with a Buchla 200e modular analog synthesizer routed through Ableton Live on one side of the stage and Bay Area video artist SUE-C on the other. Speakers were positioned around the hall, which allowed the opportunity to hear the familiar burbles and tick-tick-ticks moving around in space in quadraphonic sound, rather than the stereo configuration that first made the piece famous.
During the intro and the Q&A afterwards, Subotnick addressed the question of why a work commissioned by a record label (Nonesuch Records), which was inspired by the idea of a new technological paradigm allowing for a new genre of music that exists in a fixed form on recorded media, would need a live performance. His response was two-fold: first, that it allowed for collaboration with another artist, in this case visual artist SUE-C with whom he had worked before at Ars Electronica; and also that it allowed him access to a full palette of sounds while remixing the original work on the spot. For this performance Subotnick utilized elements of Silver Apples, revisiting and transforming them through Ableton, and combined it with A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur from 1978. SUE-C created a parallel and complementary performance, manipulating materials including Mardi Gras beads, a paintbrush, faceted glass from a headlight, and a sheet of brass mesh under the lens of a video camera, and projecting the processed result.
The Buchla 200e: “Select some modules, button them up in a 200e cabinet, and you’re off and running with the most sophisticated analog system ever built.” Photo by Gina Basso/SFMOMA
The basement of the SOUND ROOM installation is where the bass frequencies live. Down here, at the bottom of a three-floor brick building on an industrial side street in Chicago, there is almost no light. As you walk through the dark space, you can begin to make out the shapes of hulking speakers, some large enough to lie down on. If you stay in the basement during a surge of bass and volume–like the one during Mike Gillilan’s electronic work Tonar—you’ll swear that the sound is coming from the giant wooden beams in the ceiling, roaring out from the walls. If you sit on the cold cement floor and close your eyes, it is as if you are inside an enormous subwoofer.
As you leave the basement and head for the stairwell, you’ll feel a blast of cold air. The heavy metal door is slightly open to the fall night. But this cold zone of SOUND ROOM is also its most resonant spot: tall, narrow, and enclosed, it’s where the bass frequencies downstairs meet the dynamic sounds happening above them.
Upstairs is where most of the human beings can be found. The composers, the improvisers, and most of the audience are here. Upstairs, the sounds move quickly, like tiny creatures on light feet. This is where, during Kyle Vegter’s Interiors 2: The Actions, we feel surrounded by an enchanting, energetic cacophony of bells. This is where, during Daniel Dehaan’s Speaker Symphony No. 1, simple intervals played on a piano seem to collide with each other in mid-air and break into gorgeous fragments. And it is where Ryan Ingebritsen, holding an optical theremin, makes music with the air around him by leaping, diving, and dancing.
SOUND ROOM was an evening-length performance of electronic music hosted by High Concept Laboratories, an arts service organization which incubates some of the most forward-thinking art in the city. The show was a collaboration between composers Ryan Ingebritsen, Kyle Vegter, and Daniel Dehaan–multifaceted artists and sound designers who, while very different stylistically, share deep roots in electronic music. Vegter studied composition at the University of Florida, where electronic music is strongly emphasized; Ingebritsen was responsible for, among other things, calibrating several of Steve Reich’s early tape pieces for the massive sound system of Millennium Park; Dehaan teaches electronic music at Columbia College’s Digital Music Lab. Together, they created and installed a complex, multi-channel speaker system throughout HCL’s three-story building. They also created custom designed software that makes SOUND ROOM a uniquely responsive performance environment, “a three-dimensional sound spatialization system, specifically tuned to the acoustic nuances of the High Concept Laboratories space.”
For the culmination of their fall residency at High Concept Labs, the composers programmed an evening of their own work, as well as electronic pieces by composers Mike Gillilan and Claire Tolan. Ingebritsen’s three works were all improvisations, including one in which improvisers James Falzone, Jenna Lyle, Glenn Rischke, and Ingebritsen himself interacted with the system to create restrained, timbrally fascinating textures. Dehaan’s forty-minute Speaker Symphony No. 1 was a fully electronic work, performed by the composer at an Ableton controller. Vegter’s works did a bit of both: his delicate, spare Interiors 1: Bingo Yen was fully electronic while Interiors 2: The Actions, included a live element, with haunting vocal work from Maren Celest.
Because the programming for SOUND ROOM was so innovative and diverse, and because I’m not fluent in the electronic music idiom, it is a struggle to write about the fascinating and often deeply moving concert experience that was SOUND ROOM.
As I walked around the space, examining the music from different vantage points, the experience reminded me of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit in Millennium Park. The difference, of course, was that I was not strolling around listening to individual musicians as they struck their triangle or wood block. Instead, I was paying visits to electronic things: a big black speaker, a small white one, a stray wire tucked under the leg of a chair.
The speakers may not be alive, but as 21st-century listeners, we know their capabilities intimately. These are the sounds of our lives; the sounds of great pop, the essence of great film soundtracks, and the obliterating foundation of a great live rock show. As clueless as we may be about the computers, software, and hardware that bring the sounds to life, once we hear them, we find that they are familiar creatures. These booming bass frequencies and the jangling electronic bells are our friends, our family. Speakers are, in a way, the ultimate vessel for realizing a composer’s precise vision. They are (comparatively) predictable, they do not get tired, they do not resist certain tasks.
Is it obvious why I’m trying to give human characteristics to amplifiers and cables? It’s because I’m a performer, and in electronic music, the absence of a clear performer can be disconcerting. A performance of composed electronic works is not like a string quartet performance, in which the music plays itself out on the musicians’ bodies and faces like a story, and in which you can relate each sound you hear to a physical movement by a human being. Instead, the makers of electronic music are more like Oz behind the curtain, their faces illuminated a little by a laptop screen, the tiniest movement of their hands producing a sea change in a massive wall of sound. If there’s anything that my experience at SOUND ROOM showed me, it’s that electronic music is not about what is seen, but what is heard. And even more so, what is felt.
In the work that closed the program, Dehaan’s Speaker Symphony No. 1, there was a great deal to feel. For me, the emotional center of the piece came in the second movement, in which a fragment of dialogue played over and over. “Are you the poet?” a stern headmaster voice demanded in a British accent. “I shan’t tell you,” a small boy’s voice replied. “Are you the poet?” he repeated. “I shan’t tell you,” the soft voice came again.
Here, power appeared to be in dialogue with powerlessness. As my heart gravitated towards the voice of the child, I remembered the delicate and gorgeous piano samples that had dominated the first movement. My memory now registered them as the improvisations, or perhaps the musical dreams, of an intelligent and lonely child. As the third movement approached, with the frightening sounds of hail thrown onto a tin roof and a steadily growing roar that threatened to obliterate us all, I felt I was listening to the sound of pure power–human and inhuman.
The author and her husband consider the music.
The piece, in other words, immersed me in a human story, told through deeply expressive musical gestures and the subtle power of psychological suggestion. It’s quite likely that the composer’s psychological narrative of the piece is different from my own. But as with any great symphony, the epic scale and emotional depth means that the hero is no longer the composer. The hero—as Alex Ross put it in Listen to This—is you.
As I listened, I occasionally caught glimpses of Dehaan, his gaze fixed intently on the screen, his hands touching small square buttons as they lit up. These were the only human hands shaping the sound. When the piece was over, and the last electronic gasp faded, I found myself staring at the speaker closest to me. It was on the floor: an unremarkable black rectangle. It emitted a distinct buzz. I stared at it in a kind of disbelief that I can’t wait to feel again.
Composer, musicologist, record producer, and genre bending pioneer İlhan Mimaroğlu (1926-2012) died last month after a long illness. Composer Bob Gluck was one of the last people to do an extensive interview with him, so we asked him to describe this one-of-a-kind music maker for us in memoriam.—FJO
“Since my early age I was interested in what was going on in the world in terms of music, new music. New music, that’s what interests me, new music. It was my principle: you have to start with what’s going on today and then, gradually, go back to the past, where it came from. Rather than start in the past and going forward, you should know what’s going on today in the world […laughter…], [and then learn] where did it come from. That was my view.”—Ilhan Mimaroğlu, interview by Bob Gluck, January 3, 2006
Serious but funny, irreverent but thoughtful, categorical but reflective, politically engaged yet a pessimist—or was he a realist? I found myself silently testing each of these seeming contradictions when I met Ilhan Mimaroğlu in 2006. I found in him a nobility, a deep seriousness, interrupted periodically by bursts of laughter. From time to time, he responded to a question by removing a book from the shelf and reading aloud, quoting from his own published words.
I interviewed Mimaroğlu in the evening on January 3, 2006. Gungor, his wife, met me at the door and offered me tea before bringing me into her husband’s study. The composer was seated comfortably in an easy chair in that dimly lit room. Surrounded by books in Turkish and English, the room was filled with hazy smoke. Breathing was not easy for me, but neither was it for Mimaroğlu, as he chain-smoked through our two hours together. We joined together in coughs and wheezes.
Snapshot of Ilhan Mimaroğlu taken by the author during their interview in 2006.
I remembered my first awareness of Mimaroğlu, his recording with Freddie Hubbard, Sing a Song of Songmy: Threnody for Sharon Tate. I responded to that work because it combined so many of the seemingly conflicting aesthetic worlds that I loved. The music startled me because I never heard so many of them present in the very same piece. Is it a narrative work with semantic meaning? Is it a tonal work for strings? Is it a construction of electronic sounds? An angular post-bop jazz tune, with an asymmetrical rhythmic riff, yet lyrical trumpet solo line? The answer to all these questions is resoundingly yes! Somehow, Mimaroğlu‘s answer to all these possibilities was “yes,” reconciled within a single work.
I knew another side of his work from listening to radio shows that Mimaroğlu produced for the Pacifica radio station WBAI. He crafted them at home, only stopping by the station to drop off the tapes. The shows represented, no surprise, an eclectic mix of music.
This reconciling of seeming irreconcilable possibilities tells us much about Ilhan Mimaroğlu.
Some Ilhan Mimaroğlu Aphorisms
“Take an ‘o’ out of ‘good’ and its ‘God’. Add a ‘d’ to ‘evil’ and its ‘devil’. To recognize ‘God’ and ‘evil’ and ‘good’ and ‘devil’, one must be a proofreader.”
“We composers worry so much about posterity that we fail to notice what’s happening to our posterior.”
“Calling a judge ‘justice’ is like calling an artist ‘masterpiece.’”
“You know, there really are many under-appreciate composers. But being under-appreciated doesn’t make someone special! The world is full of them!”
The musical world of the late 1960s and ’70s New York might be categorized as the art of parallel play. Serial composers, largely uptown at Columbia, had little truck with minimalists and other eclectic composers who were largely downtown. Art music and popular music rarely intersected. Composers/performers and producers rarely inhabited the same worlds, never mind the same bodies.
Somehow Ilhan Mimaroğlu embodied each of these, all at the same time. He was an engaged composer and informal teacher, uptown at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Mimaroğlu, in fact, came to New York to study musicology at Columbia in order to further his journalistic interests. But, having read about, sought out, and then heard electronic music recordings in Turkey, he discovered the Columbia-Princeton studio.
Also during his time at Columbia, Mimaroğlu’s studied privately with Edgard Varèse. “Most of the time, I used to talk to him over the telephone,” he remembered. “One day, he asked me, ‘What do you want to do in New York? What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I want to study with you!’ He said, ‘All right, let’s start!’ […laughs…] So, I would go to his place, something like every week. It was very interesting. I used to write a few things and he would take what I wrote and he’d start adding notes to it.”
The compositions Mimaroğlu completed during his years at Columbia were intuitive in formal approach. He was more sympathetic to Pierre Schaeffer than to the serialists, noting that “particularly the idea that electronic music and cinema were in a parallel, the same thing basically. One is for the eye, the other for the ear. It is the same idea for me and for Pierre Schaeffer.”
In contrast, of Milton Babbitt he said, “I may not be too fond of his music, but I must admit it’s important. It’s beautifully crafted. It’s not always a great pleasure to listen to, but he’s an important composer, yes.”
In Mimaroğlu’s 1965 electronic work for tape Agony, one hears within this construction of abstract sounds clearly discernable musical gestures and phrases. A three-pulse figure becomes a leitmotif, engaging in call and response. What is most striking is the accessibility of the music, despite the unfamiliarity of the sounds, the lack of pitched materials or conventional musical syntax. If anything, the music is like a conversation, and in the final minutes a delightful one at that.
At Columbia-Princeton, Mimaroğlu became an accidental teacher, recalling that “since [Studio director Vladimir] Ussachevsky was a busy person, he would say to me, at the very last minute during an electronic music class: ‘You go teach this class!’ He would just leave and I would take over. This happened a couple of times.”
But Mimaroğlu may have been aesthetically more at home downtown, during a time when there was little cross-fertilization. He befriended two young composers who were active in Mort Subotnick’s Buchla and tape studio on Bleecker Street in the Village. Charlemagne Palestine and Ingram Marshall (who was Mimaroğlu’s fellow musicology student at Columbia) were by day salesmen at Record Hunter on Fifth Avenue and 43nd Street. Palestine recalls that Mimaroğlu was a regular customer whose music he liked. He was “very nice to us. His music had a dramatic tinge to it; it wasn’t so dry. And he also wasn’t a dry professor type of guy. In those old days when the Nonesuch records came out, Silver Apples [of the Moon by Morton Subotnick] came out, and also a piece by him. They were more light, sort of accessible electronic pieces. They weren’t all that serialism. I do remember that. At the time I appreciated it because I was beginning to overdose on all that heavy profundity.”
I’ve wondered about his mixture of seriousness and humor; his disinterest in authority, and, maybe, his sadness.
Mimaroğlu’s jokester side could be disarming. For instance, he had come to admire the music of fellow countryman Bülent Arel, a future important figure at Columbia-Princeton, before either came to New York. “I remember playing a trick on him. I sat at the piano and started banging the keys [Mimaroğlu makes “busy” sounds with his mouth] and recorded it. I said, “Bülent, I want to play you something. It’s a new piece by Stockhausen.” So I played it. With great seriousness, he starts examining it, analyzing it. […laughs…] When I told him what I did, he got very angry.”
But then, there’s a sense of absolute dedication not only to musical expression, but in a larger sense to justice. I asked Mimaroğlu where he gained the sense of moral outrage represented throughout his writings and musical works. He told me that he was raised during an era of serious moral questioning and danger, but within an environment where critical thinking was encouraged:
I guess I grew up in a country where you are allowed to think about such matters. Turkey, the Turkey of Ataturk, was a totally new country. We used to see signs here: ‘“How happy is the person who says ‘I am a Turk’,” for instance. And indeed as I grew up and found out what was going on in other countries of the world, [it became clear] that this was a truly exceptional country, no question about that! Particularly the [World War II] war years…. So, came 1939, and we were all scared that Turkey would be invaded by the Nazis. Thankfully it wasn’t. It came very close. We came to the center of Anatolia, because [we thought that] they were going to come. Then we returned again to Istanbul. Finally in 1945, I remember the day when the Nazis were vanquished and there were celebrations in the street. So, those were important years for me.
Mimaroğlu emerged from this experience having learned a cautionary tale, a profound and large one for a teenager. His father had died when he was still a baby. His mother no doubt felt an additional sense of weight when thinking about the future career of this musically focused child. She supported his interests, provided they remained just an interest. As a result, Mimaroğlu embarked on training for a professional career, as a lawyer, a choice made quite casually, a story he tells with some humor:
My mother wanted me to be an architect, like my father. Since I didn’t know what else to do, I said, “All right, let’s go to that school where they teach architecture.” The people at the school said, “You’ll have to pass an examination to enter.” What is the examination? They put a vase on top of the table and they said [to] draw it, which I did and I failed […laughter…]. What’s that got to do with architecture? So, what do we do with this child? At that time, my mother and stepfather were in Ankara and the only university where you can enter without an examination was the law school. So they said, “Why don’t you enter the law school?” And I said, “Why not?” And I did. And that was the story. Well, I finished it. I have a law diploma that I am keeping […laughter…] somewhere.
The musical young adult decided instead to become a journalist, landing a job with the Associated Press. One thing led to another and he was selected to receive a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study music journalism at Columbia University.
Mimaroğlu’s sense of commitment to people translated into his concern for young composers. Eric Chasalow, then a student at Columbia-Princeton during Mimaroğlu’s time, is one example. Chasalow, now the Irving Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis University, recalls, “While I did not know him well—Ussachevsky introduced us in about 1979—he programmed my music on his radio program on several occasions. He was a refreshingly no-nonsense guy with no patience for anything but the music. He was very generous to me. He was eager to hear what each generation coming into the Electronic Music Center was doing, and when he heard something he respected, he would support it however he could.”
Arguably, Ilhan Mimaroğlu’s most substantial impact was as a jazz record producer at Atlantic Records. One might not expect a Columbia-Princeton composer to engage with jazz. At Atlantic, Mimaroğlu produced some of the most important recordings of the 1960s, including works by Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman. This was an interest that began early in life. He cultivated it with persistence and, ironically, through a form of intrigue:
I was into jazz all the time growing up. I had a group of friends who were also interested. We used to listen to recordings. I used to play the clarinet. I used to give concerts myself, with this friend or that friend, a guitarist, whatever—it was a jazz group primarily that I was into. At school that’s what I was doing. I used to go to the [school’s] radio station and I started playing records. It was my pleasure. And then one day, the discipline board was in session. I was playing jazz records again. They sent someone, made me turn off the radio and gave me a punishment. […laughs…] That I told to my mother and she went to the director of the school and said, “Is it a bad thing that the child plays music to his friends? Does he interfere with his classes? Why are you doing this?” On that day, they permitted me again to play music on the sound system, but the punishment remained in my [academic] records. And mother didn’t tell me [until] after I finished school, so I didn’t get spoiled [from] what she did to protect me.
Ilhan Mimaroğlu became a record producer, he explained to me, “just to earn some money…. When I came here on a Rockefeller Fellowship, I had heard about Ahmed Ertegun [and] Nesuhi Ertegun, and I went to visit their offices. I remember Nesuhi taking me to a nightclub to hear Errol Garner. That’s one of the memories, yes… They were jazz experts. So they said go ahead and do jazz, do whatever you want.” After a time, Mimaroglu expressed interest in producing recordings with less commercial potential. “I just wanted to do some recordings and release some that wouldn’t sell. […laughs…]. So, [my label] Finnadar was born. They were happy to let me do it.” The label became an offprint of Atlantic Records. The Ertegun brothers were supportive and told him that they would keep paying, as long as he didn’t spend too much money. “And I knew how not to spend much money!” said Mimaroğlu. The array of Finnadar recordings would include works by Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Frederic Rzewski, John Cage, Mimaroğlu’s own work, and that of many others.
Open-minded yet sometimes quite sure of himself, warm and sometimes cantankerous, Ilhan Mimaroğlu was at his core complex and mysterious. His life was one of musical multiplicities. While living in the United States, he and his wife maintained strong ties with their homeland. Throughout his life, Mimaroğlu continued to write and publish in Turkish. While the music of this eclectic composer remains little known, he produced iconic records and created works of depth and breadth. Hopefully the passage of time will help motivate greater interest in the music of this truly fascinating man. Surely over time, stories will continue to emerge about his kindness and commitment to students and colleagues.
Please note: The following audio files—recorded during Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006, interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu—are unedited and unprocessed and are occasionally less than optimal. They are presented here due to their historic importance.
Part One of Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006 interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu.
Part Two of Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006 interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu
Part Three of Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006 interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu
Bob Gluck is a pianist, music historian, and educator. He is associate professor at The University at Albany and the author of You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band (University of Chicago Press, 2012). His latest recording, Textures and Pulsations, a series of piano and electronics duets with Aruan Ortiz, will be released this fall on Ictus Records.
At the home of Cecile Bazelon, New York, NY
June 7, 2012—3:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Homepage image by Mary Noble Ours
Many ingredients go into Judith Shatin’s music. While it is informed by a deep sense of musical history, it is just as much a by-product of her profound desire to search for new sounds. It is also deeply inspired by history itself, but not as an artifact. Rather it is something that is malleable and very much alive, something that we in the present can continue to engage with to better understand ourselves.
A good example of this is her piano and percussion duo 1492, a work commissioned to mark the quincentennary of Columbus’s maiden voyage to the New World. Shatin is quick to point out that also during 1492, England invaded France, the Jews were expelled from Spain, and the Spanish Inquisition began. But her duo is not a direct narrative about any of those things, nor is it in anyway a rehashing of music of that era. Rather, those historical events serve as a starting point, inspiring her to investigate her fascination with the malleability of timbre. In fact, she’s somewhat ambivalent about whether listeners should be aware of these associations as well as any of the techniques involved in forming her compositions.
The ability of Shatin’s music to transcend both its original context and any formal procedures that may have been used to create it is perhaps this is why her music can sound perfectly at home in concert programs alongside standard repertoire whose specific reference points have receded into the past. At the same time, she is completely enamored of the possibilities offered by electronic music and unusual instrumental combinations. And in addition to her works for standard ensembles like piano trios and string quartets, she is not afraid to write pieces for less practical configurations such as shofar, brass ensemble, and timpani or percussionist and six percussion robot arms. Although don’t assume the works for the more common groups are all that common. Her piano trio Ignoto Numine is filled with elements that have made players slightly uncomfortable.
Shatin’s compositions involving electronics also often involve unlikely sound sources. One of the timbres that appears in Beetles, Monsters and Roses was based on recordings of her munching on potato chips. As she explains it, “I just sort of go through life with my sonic antennae up.” But no matter what novel sonorities intrigue her, Shatin still finds the greatest satisfaction in creating music involving live performers that is experienced by an audience in a concert hall in real time.
I personally really love the experience of the live. The other thing about performances that involve live performers is the theatricality of it—there’s delicacy, and there’s the possibility of failure. It’s really a much more vivid kind of experience.
Frank J. Oteri: I know that you’re in New York City this week because there is a concert here featuring your music.
Judith Shatin: I have actually two pieces: Widdershuns, which is an ancient English word that means counterclockwise, and a piece called To Keep the Dark Away, which is inspired by lines from Emily Dickinson poems. They’ll be sandwiched between Debussy, Beethoven, and Villa-Lobos.
FJO: That’s very good company to be in. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately that perhaps one of the reasons some audience members who attend classical music concerts react so negatively to a piece of new music is because the sound world of that lone new piece is completely unrelated to everything else they’re hearing on that program. A concert of all new music, on the other hand, could sound like anything at this point and as a result the expectations are very different; people are prepared to hear something that is unfamiliar. But your music works effectively in both contexts and in fact is often presented on programs that are predominantly standard repertoire. The music that you write is clearly music of our time, its harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary would not have been possible before the late 20th century, and your works involving electronics are very much of the right now, but nevertheless it doesn’t seem to have, at least to my ears, an irreconcilable sonic disconnect with the music of the past. So I don’t think it’s too much of a leap for listeners familiar with the classical music canon to take. I wonder if that is something you consciously think about when you’re writing pieces. What obligation do we have as composers, in your mind, to connect with the larger arc of history? How important to you is having your music be performed alongside a broader range of repertoire rather than just as “new music”?
JS: I think that’s a really good question and one that has very individual answers. In my own musical world, I like to roam both in the past and across the present. So I have music that connects back; a piece called Ockeghem Variations is inspired by Ockeghem’s Prolation Mass. I think that one of the amazing things that we have now is the opportunity to think of the past as present. I’m reminded of an exhibit that I saw earlier today, the absolutely amazing retrospective of Cindy Sherman’s work, and how she uses self to explore the present and the past. I think that one can do something of this same thing in music. One can look to the past as a kind of lens on the present, as well as looking at music from different contemporary places in the world. So I think we live at a really fascinating time when the past as prologue really seems to be operational.
My music has evolved certainly from a long and deep interaction with music of the classical era and earlier, and also various contemporary threads. But I think it really depends on the piece. There’s a recent piece of mine called Sic Transit for percussionist and six percussion robot arms that were created by some of our wonderful grad students at the University of Virginia. It involves some improvisation by the robot arms, in conjunction with this percussionist, and that might seem a little different in a concert that had traditional music. So I think that one of the things I’ve really enjoyed is exploring quite a range, from pieces that do have more of a connection to music of the past and that have inspired me, to electronic works where the cracks between pitches become relevant and where intonation is quite different and there are different types of continuities, discontinuities, than one would find in more traditional music. But drama always inspires me, and I think that maybe that’s one aspect that people can pick up on who aren’t exposed to a lot of contemporary music.
FJO: Yeah, the robot piece probably wouldn’t work with Debussy, Beethoven, and Villa-Lobos. And yet Villa-Lobos was a contemporary composer. He lived until 1959, much later on into the 20th century than, say, Webern did. But you know, Webern’s works are not necessarily going to appear on a standard repertoire concert programmed the way that, say, Villa-Lobos or Prokofiev would. Some composers fit better within that canonic trajectory. But I think another aspect of your music fitting in is that you’ve written quite a lot of music for standard instrumental combinations: piano trios, string quartets. There’s a whole wonderful disc of your repertoire for violin and piano. Plus you’ve written concertos and other works involving a standard symphony orchestra. Every one of these combinations is a kind of loaded historical time bomb in a way.
JS: They are, in a way. For instance, my piano concerto, The Passion of St. Cecilia, is about the relationship between Cecilia and her society. It’s also about a mistranslation, purposefully or not: the fact that Cecilia, although she is portrayed as the patron saint of music, had nothing to do with music. My piece is actually about her martyrdom, and it’s an extremely violent piece. It opens up with this huge orchestral explosion, and it ends with quite a violent shriek actually. It’s a three-movement piece, the second of which is much more contemplative, so it’s a piano concerto, but certainly not in a traditional mold.
FJO: And you gave it another name instead of just naming it Piano Concerto. So you’re not conjuring up the association as much. I think when you use a name like Piano Concerto, Piano Trio, String Quartet, or Symphony, you’re entering a realm that has very specific associations for listeners.
JS: My most recent string quartet is called Respecting the First, and it’s for amplified string quartet and electronics made from readings of and about the First Amendment: from JFK, to Pete Seeger, to Mayor Bloomberg, to various newscasters, etc. One of the reasons I wanted to make it about the First Amendment is that I think people are so unaware of what the amendments actually say. I also have Gabrielle Giffords’s reading of the First Amendment from the floor of the House. The piece is dedicated to her. It’s a string quartet, but with quite a different kind of twist than you might anticipate. The other thing that I did, which I love doing, is to record a number of friends and students from different parts of the world reading the First Amendment. So these are woven throughout the piece as well. I talked to Ralph Jackson about it, and I said, “I’ve been assured that all of this is fair use.” And he said, “Well, at BMI, we don’t believe in fair use. You’ve got to get permission from everyone.” So I got a letter of permission from Pete Seeger, which I thought was pretty nice.
FJO: Another place where I really wanted to go, in talking about composing for standard ensembles, is that if you write for such combinations, there are so many groups out there that could theoreticaqlly play what you’ve written. So on the level of practicality, it’s a smart idea to write a piece for, say, string quartet, since there are a zillion string quartets out there. But when you do, you’re also dealing with the legacy repertoire of that ensemble.
JS: That’s absolutely true, but I will say that it’s not so easy anymore as soon as you add electronics. You’re dealing with having to have sound checks, a playback system, etc. Often you’re dealing with having to have extra union people around. So working with a traditional ensemble, but with a twist, sometimes creates other kinds of difficulties.
Last fall I did a graduate seminar on the string quartet because our graduate students were composing for the ensemble. That issue of historical weight was certainly very much on everyone’s mind. What is there still to say for this ensemble? But they came up with all kinds of fascinating takes on how you can use the instruments in different ways. One of the students created a piece where he used handwriting to create the score, and wrote a program that interpreted the handwriting, and did a beautiful, interesting graphic score. Braxton Sherouse did that. So there are still people thinking very creatively. Another of our students, Chris Peck, took endings from a number of string quartets and put them together and created a kind of historical mirage quartet. So they did it very much in clear thought of the history and yet what one could still do now. Of the string quartets I’ve done, two of them have involved electronics. Elijah’s Chariot is for amplified string quartet and electronics made from processed shofar sounds, so that was also a very different kind of use of the ensemble.
FJO: That’s the piece that Kronos did.
JS: Yes it is.
FJO: Well, even though Kronos is a string quartet, writing for them is usually quite different than writing for a standard ensemble, since they are so adventurous and their audiences always expect something new. I’m curious about the pieces you wrote for other standard ensembles, like piano trio or wind quintet, and the pieces you have composed for Pierrot ensemble, a configuration that is now a century old and has become a contemporary music standard, like your lovely Akhmatova Songs. How often do pieces written for more standard combinations get done versus, say, a piece like the one you mentioned involving electronically processed shofar and string quartet? You also have a piece for actual shofar and brass instruments. I love that sound, but how many shofar players are there out there who will play this piece?
JS: Let me first say that I did this piece called Teruah for shofar, brass ensemble, and timpani, which was commissioned by the Jewish Music Festival of Pittsburgh, and was played by this wonderful horn player Ron Schneider, who’s in the Pittsburgh Symphony. Ron had a number of shofars, so I asked him to record them and send them to me. And there was one that happened to be an E-flat shofar. It’s a beautiful, long, curly Yemeni shofar. Finding shofars that play in E-flat is not necessarily so easy. It turned out a year ago, the Washington Symphonic Wind Ensemble wanted to play this piece. I went and the performance was wonderful, and I said “How did you find the shofar?” So listen to this. The fiancée of one of the members of the group lived in Pittsburgh. They had contacted Ron Schneider and driven the shofar from Pittsburgh to Washington.
As far as piano trios go, I have two. One of them is called Ignoto Numine, Unknown Spirit, and it’s about exploding traditional form. The ending of the piece came to me in a dream, and it’s very explosive. I dreamed that the performers were screaming while they were playing. And my first response to that dream was, I can’t really ask people to do that, can I? And then my second was, well, why not? And so the piece does wind up with the performers using their voices. And some piano trios got very excited about that, and some said, “Are you kidding? I’m not playing this.” They did not want to have to scream in a performance. The other thing is the pianist uses timpani mallets and snare sticks on the strings. So it’s a piano trio, but it does require that they do some things that traditional piano trios wouldn’t do. The other piano trio, View from Mt. Nebo, is more traditional in its approach. I don’t ask them to do anything quite that unusual.
FJO: So which piece gets done more?
JS:View from Mt. Nebo gets done more. Funny you should ask.
FJO: So how important a factor is the practicality of writing a piece that could be done many times in determining what you are going to write?
JS: What’s been more of a factor is what’s come along as commission opportunities, or groups that I’m excited to work with. I’ve written a fair amount for Pierrot ensemble and groups within that because I have a long-standing working relationship with Da Capo Chamber Players. I love working with them. So I think part of it is about who you’re working with and what the opportunities are. That said, I’ve never been able to make either a distinction or decision about my preferred ensemble. I’m not a choral composer, or an electronic composer, or an orchestral composer, or a chamber composer. I love it all. To me, it’s all about sound and exploration. Every ensemble I think really has its voice. I also think that Pierrot ensemble is ubiquitous. But now what we’re seeing is the emergence of different ensembles, especially with electric guitar which I haven’t composed for yet, but I’m hoping to because I think it’s really a fascinating instrument that bridges the worlds of electronic and acoustic.
FJO: Also the saxophone quartet, a combination for which you also haven’t written yet.
JS: I haven’t, but I have written a piece for soprano sax and electronics that’s gotten done a fair amount. There are some really ace players around.
FJO: In terms of this getting multiple performances, I’m curious about your experiences with writing for orchestra. There are definitely fewer opportunities for the greater composer community to write for an orchestra, so a lot of composers don’t. And many of the ones who do have only had their works played a few times and sometimes never recorded. But there’s a whole disc of your orchestral music out there, which is a fabulous CD. Some composers who don’t write for orchestra but who want to write for large ensemble have had great experiences writing for concert band: multiple performances and sometimes multiple recordings. But you’ve only done that once so far.
JS: Actually I would love to do more of that. And I love writing for orchestra; I think it’s just such a fascinating timbral world. But you’re absolutely right. Not only are there few opportunities, but the amount of rehearsal time that’s expended on new pieces is typically so vanishingly small that it’s really kind of traumatic. On the other hand, it’s such an exciting ensemble to compose for. So there is really a kind of struggle there. I would love to do more.
The most recent piece I did is for orchestra and narrator. It’s called Jefferson, In His Own Words, and it’s about Jefferson’s struggles in his life. The first movement is called “Political Passions,” and it’s about how he was drawn into the world of politics. The second movement is called “Head and Heart”; I found this amazing monologue that he wrote between his head and his heart. He was basically a very cerebral person, but he had a big crush on Maria Cosway. And he wrote a very long monologue, of which I could only use a little bit, but it’s very romantic, and it ends by him saying to her, “I promise that my next letters will be short, but if yours are as long as the Bible, they will seem short to me.” I also used a brief excerpt of a letter to his daughter where he tells her how she should spend her time on her education, and that if she does she will warrant his affection. It’s a very interesting and affectionate but withholding letter at the same time; it’s conditional love. The third movement, called “Justice Never Sleeps,” is about his struggle with slavery. I intercut his high sentiments about slavery and the importance of the abolition with his farm books where he talks about slaves as property. You get a real sense of this struggle. Then the final movement is more of a look back at his life, his founding of the University of Virginia, the importance of the freedom of reason, and his hopes for the future. It’s about a 25-minute piece.
FJO: To make an investment of almost half an hour is huge for an orchestra. And then to throw in a narrator of top of that…
JS: That’s true.
FJO: So dare I ask how many times that piece has gotten done?
JS: Actually, fortunately, it was a co-commission of four orchestras, and they each did it a couple of times: the Charlottesville Symphony, the Illinois, Richmond, and Virginia Symphonies. And the Virginia Symphony had as its narrator Bill Barker, who is the Jefferson impersonator for Colonial Williamsburg and a master actor. In Richmond and Charlottesville, Gerald Baliles, who was the former governor of Virginia and is a lawyer himself, was the narrator.
FJO: Does this piece at all reflect Jeffersonian-era music, or is it completely music of now?
JS: There are two spots where I refer to pieces that he is said to have liked. There’s a Scottish air, and there’s a dance. There’s a bit of Corelli. But most of it is music of now, and in fact, probably my favorite is the third movement which is extremely intense.
FJO: The slavery movement.
FJO: Using history as a jumping off point for creating something that sounds contemporary, rather than attempting some kind of reenactment, reminds me of how you approached the commission to write a piano and percussion duo called 1492 about the quincentenary of Columbus’s discovery of America—actually, it was Columbus’s discovery that there were people here in America. And as you have pointed out, it was also the year the Spanish Inquisition began, England invaded France.
JS: The expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
FJO: It was a really bad year, in a lot of ways. And, of course, the Columbus “discovery” of America led to some incredibly bad things. We’re all here now probably because of it, but Jefferson debating the pros and cons of slavery can be traced back to that voyage. To take it back to the music, what you wrote really has nothing to do with the music of 1492.
JS: No, no.
FJO: But it begs a question about what it means to you and to listeners to reference history in your music, the St. Cecilia piano concerto we talked about a little bit is another one. In all of these cases, how much of the narrative is important for listeners to know?
JS: I think they really need to have very little. I would be very unhappy if my music didn’t stand on its own without people knowing any back story about it. But I think it can add. I guess I think of it as a way of sharing my inspiration more than telling someone what and how to listen. And it does have its dangers. For instance, there’s one piece I wrote, Icarus for violin and piano. It’s inspired by the myth, and I think, as you traverse the piece, if you wanted to listen to it from that point of view, you could get a general idea. However, I remember one time, someone came up to me after performance and said, “Well, when does the wax melt?” And that just showed me the problem of somebody being a little too literal about their interpretation of it.
FJO: So in 1492, there aren’t episodes that represent the different events of that year.
JS: No, not at all.
FJO: But the Jefferson piece sounds like it does that.
JS: Well, it’s a texted piece, so in that sense, the music embodies some of that meaning and there are these two quite small places that sort of tie more into the period, but they’re very isolated moments. It had to do with creating a way in that was related to the text at those points.
FJO: So in terms of what listeners should know and what they don’t necessarily need to know. There was an article by Kyle Gann about your music in Chamber Music magazine, and he talked about the language of your music employing 12-tone techniques. I’ve listened to so many of your pieces over the years and have looked at scores, but it’s not something I ever thought about. Not having done rigorous analyses of any of them, I was quite surprised by this, though of course composers have done all sorts of things with 12-tone techniques.
JS: But people actually don’t think of it that way. They also assume that if something sounds quite chromatic, or involves a lot of leaps, that’s probably 12-tone music. I’ve had that response as well. I think that’s really a back story that isn’t that important. But in the music of mine that came out of that tradition, I always was more interested in collections that give you harmonic location and the particularity of sound. I thought one thing that Kyle Gann picked up on that absolutely rings true for me is the particularity of sound in register. I never bought the octave equivalence idea because it just doesn’t sound equivalent, and so I never wanted to treat it as equivalent. So register and how things sound in their particular place has always been really important to me. And how the sound is made, both in terms of the traditional sound production and also what the more extended ranges are.
FJO: So I think it’s probably fair to say though you’ll use different techniques, your music is not about those techniques and therefore a listener does not really need to be concerned with how you put a piece together.
JS: I want to use those techniques to express something. I’m not using them for their own sake. That’s true. But I think that the more one knows about music, the richer one’s experience is. I get into these arguments all the time. My husband, Michael Kubovy, is a cognitive psychologist and studies visual and auditory perception. He is very perceptive of musical design, but is not well schooled in it. We frequently get into this discussion about how much you need to know. My contention is that the more you know, the more you will enjoy it, but it’s not essential to your ability to enjoy or empathize with or be moved by music. I mean I certainly have experienced music and performance, like East Asian music, that I’m not schooled in, but I’ve been moved by it. I think it’s a very interesting question, and one that also reflects what so many students say about studying music theory: “Oh, this is like putting it under a microscope and I’m not going to like it anymore because I’m going to understand too much about it.” I’ve always thought the flip side of that is true. It’s fascinating to know how people think about music and design it and structure it. So I think the more one knows, the better. But can one respond to music without having a deep theoretical knowledge? I think the answer is yes.
FJO: I can clearly hear East Asian music in your piece Dream Tigers for flute and guitar. There’s a portion of it that almost sounds to my ears like shakuhachi and koto. So something from this tradition has obviously seeped through into your compositional language, even if you’re coming at it from intuition rather than deeply immersing yourself in its music theory.
JS: It did not come out of any analysis of East Asian music. I’m laughing because I had never written for guitar before, so I borrowed a guitar and bruised and calloused my fingers trying things out on it, and it was really a fascinating experience to work that way. I like getting physical with instruments and trying things out myself, even if I don’t play them, and then of course I check with people who actually can play them to make sure they’re doable.
FJO: Well, I know you were playing piano before you ever started composing.
JS: Right. I had composed some as I was growing up, but it was really not until I was well into my undergraduate career that I became really fascinated by it. I grew up playing piano and flute, mainly piano. And when I was an undergraduate at Douglass College, I spent my junior year abroad in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, and it was very hard to get to a piano, and I studied other things that I was interested in at the time. When I came back, I was not at all interested in doing a senior piano recital, which would have been the norm. I asked to do a composition recital and was told that if I found the performers, wrote the music, and organized it all, they would let me do it. So I did, and that was what really started me off on the path into composition.
FJO: Was there a lot of music around when you were growing up?
JS: I was very lucky in that when I grew up—mainly in Albany, New York, and South Orange, New Jersey—there was terrific music in the public schools. I played flute in the school band and orchestra. I sang in the special chorus. So I had a lot of live music experience, though much less concert music than I did later, having become a very avid concertgoer in high school and after.
FJO: So I’m curious to learn how you wound up in Virginia; you’ve been based there since 1979, right after you got your Ph.D.
JS: Actually, what led me there was a job. I was graduating, and I applied for this job. It was a one-year job at the time. And it became a four-year job. And then it became much more. And I’m now a chaired professor there, which is really a wonderful position. There were certain major advantages. I was not in a situation where I was held back by people having an idea about how things should be. So when I started the Virginia Center for Computer Music in the late ‘80s, there wasn’t anyone there who said you should do it this way, you should do it that way. Actually, I had been very intrigued by the idea of computer music while I was a graduate student, but it was in the dark ages where you had to type out your note cards and it was mainframe computing, and you’d get to use the digital analog converter in the middle of the night at the engineering school. If you made one typo in your cards, your job would blow up. When I had the opportunity to start the VCCM, I went to a couple of stores in New York. MIDI had just come out, and I sort of camped out and learned enough about it to write a grant application that got funded, and started it with a couple of Mac SEs, a Mac 2, and an Amiga, and it really just sort of developed from that point on.
FJO: Amiga. Wow. That’s a computer I haven’t heard anyone talk about it quite a while.
JS: I know. When I look back, what I was even thinking? I just can’t tell you. It just seemed like a fascinating idea at the time. And it was. One of the problems is that the technology keeps changing. My first piece in this medium was a piece called Hearing Things for amplified violin, MIDI keyboard controller, and a bunch of peripheral devices: a sampler, a voice processor, effects processors, etc. And within two years all of those pieces of equipment were obsolete. That was a real wake up call to how we think about these things. Do we care whether our pieces are ephemeral or not? And I guess for the most part, I kind of do because I spend a lot of time working on them. It’s still an issue; operating systems change. You create programs that work, and they may not work on a later date. It’s not like writing for piano. That probably is pretty settled at this point.
FJO: That leads back to the beginning of this conversation, talking about writing for instruments that have a long repertoire history and the practicality of writing for established ensembles. At this point, electronic music also has a long history, but it’s a history of constant change and flux. There are no standards still, even after all these years. You started this thing 25 years ago. That’s more than a generation. If anything is in dire need of a period instrument movement at this point, it’s the electronic music compositions from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
JS: I know. It’s really funny when you think of an instrument like the DX7, which was absolutely ubiquitous. When I ask my students now, they’ve never heard of it. They just have no idea about it.
FJO: And no doubt the instruments people are working with now will also be obsolete in another decade, probably less. So what’s the point in making such a composition investment in something so precarious?
JS: It’s really a fascination with the malleability of timbre, and the world around us. I’ve composed using the sounds of the animal world, in a piece called For the Birds, for cello and electronics made from bird song from the Yellowstone region. The piece was commissioned by Madeleine Shapiro, who loves to hike in that region. I did another piece called Singing the Blue Ridge: crazy instrumentation, totally impractical. Mezzo, baritone, orchestra, and electronics made from indigenous wild animal sounds. And I worked with the wonderful Macauley Natural Sound Library at Cornell University. They’ve done a fantastic job of collecting sounds from all over the world. There’s a soundscape artist, Erik DeLuca, who always goes to a place to record animals. However, in this piece, I knew that I wanted to use the indigenous sounds of animals, such as wolves and river otter, and I knew that I was not going to be capable of going and recording the sounds myself, but I thought they were particularly appropriate for a work that has poetry that was newly commissioned from Barbara Goldberg. It would be very easy to do a piece about how humanity is destroying the world, but I wanted it to be about more than that, what the world might have been like before humanity, what kind of interactions we have with that world, and thinking about ourselves as animals in relation to that world, and how that all adds up. I’ve used the sounds of a contemporary weaver on wooden looms. I’ve used the sound of a hand-held egg beater, of the chink of a fork on a cup. I just sort of go through life with my sonic antennae up.
FJO: So for you it’s not restricted to sounds that are electronically generated, but also taking sounds from the real world and processing them.
JS: I’ve done both. Beetles, Monsters and Roses is a piece commissioned by the San Francisco Girls Chorus for treble chorus and electronics. In one of the movements called “The Wendigo,” which is a setting of a poem by Ogden Nash, all of the accompanying sounds sound like traditional string instruments and they’re all totally synthetic. And then the sounds of the monster, I made from sounds I recorded myself while munching on potato chips.
FJO: You usually work with a live soloist and electronics or a chamber group and electronics. Writing for electronics with larger ensembles seems very risky. I think part of the problem with folks in the so-called classical music community—not just the performers but also the folks at the venues—is that many of them are terrified of electronics.
JS: That’s true. I think that there are two issues. One is the practicality of the venues. Most of them are not set up to deal with electronics, and they make it extremely difficult. I mean, places where if I go in and I want to deal with my own electronics, I’m not allowed to. It’s made into something much more complicated than in fact it needs to be. And there’s also the fact that most performers don’t have the equipment. They’re not set up to do it, and so it feels sort of scary and confusing. Even though at this point, there’s a lot of music that combines chamber ensemble with electronic playback. And if you have a CD player in your apartment, you can probably find a way to at least practice it. It’s more complicated if you’re dealing with interactive electronics and there are certain performers who have taken that on, but most don’t come from backgrounds where it’s taught. Most conservatories don’t really deal with teaching people how to work with electronics. I know some of them are making some efforts in that direction now, but it’s still something that’s not the norm. Until that changes, I think that we’re going to continue to run into those issues.
FJO: This is in a way a slightly anachronistic conversation because so much of how music is disseminated these days is not through live performance at a venue. It’s through recordings, whether it’s somebody listening, as you said, to something coming out of a CD player, or on the web. But I imagine that for you the ideal musical experience is still a live one, especially since almost all the pieces you have done involving electronics also involve a live musician.
JS: It’s very interesting, even for ones that don’t. I have a piece called Hosech Al P’ney HaTehom or Darkness Upon the Face of the Deep; it’s totally electronic. And I’ve had a number of discussions about why we should bother going into a hall to listen to a piece through loud speakers. And my answer is two-fold. One, the sensation of sound in a large space is radically different. It can envelop you in a completely different way, so that psychologically, I think the impact is quite different. And the other is the sociality of the live experience, the sort of group interaction that happens. So yes, I personally really love the experience of the live. The other thing about performances that involve live performers is the theatricality of it—there’s delicacy, and there’s the possibility of failure. It’s really a much more vivid kind of experience. That said, I listen to lots of music that’s recorded, as well. And I’m happy to have this incredible largesse of recorded music that I would otherwise not experience. But to me, if I have the opportunity to hear something live, I enjoy that more.
FJO: At the very beginning of this conversation, you said we’re at this unique point in history where all time periods can co-exist for us. The past is the present. That’s because of recordings.
FJO: You’re not going to hear Ockeghem live in most communities. But anyone can now hear Ockeghem anytime and anywhere on a recording.
JS: That’s true. That’s an advantage. Do I wish I could hear it in live performance readily? Yes. But I think it’s an incredible advantage that we can make the acquaintance of this music in a way that is not just trying to read from the score. So I think it’s fabulous that we have these recordings. That doesn’t take away from what the meaning is of the live performance.
But I think music is changing. There are really fascinating experiments and pieces that use the web. There are people like Jason Freeman or Peter Traub, one of the graduate students who completed our program who has done net-based music. He did a piece on MySpace where he used sounds from commonly found objects and then created ItSpace, where people could add to them and change them and mix with them. I think what we’re seeing are whole new strands of possibilities for interactive creation that are very exciting. But I don’t think of them as replacing the live experience and the kind of interaction that you have working with live performers and being in the environment where you have that kind of exchange.
FJO: So you wouldn’t see yourself doing an interactive web piece?
JS: I certainly don’t say no. I like to remain open to the possibilities that the electronic media offer us. And as I become enthralled with them or inspired to create something, I very well might want to do something that is web based. I haven’t done it yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t.
For composer and violinist Cornelius Dufallo, making music, whether creating his own or performing the work of others, is quite literally a way of life; he considers it a path of personal discovery. “Composing and performing help me discover who I am not only as an artist, but as a human being,” says Dufallo, who enjoys a richly varied musical career that encompasses music from the realm of avant-garde improvisation to the most exacting fully-notated scores.
During his studies at Julliard, Dufallo became involved in contemporary music because many of his friends were composers, and he wanted to play their work. “I wasn’t thinking of it as a career move or anything—it was like a social thing,” says Dufallo. “I was doing it because they were my friends and it was interesting. And I got to play a lot of really cool pieces that way.” From there he played with a number of ensembles, became one of the first members of the Flux Quartet, as well as a founding member of the new music ensemble Ne(x)tworks, and he most recently spent seven years as a violinist with the quartet Ethel. The process of collaborating with different composers and learning about their creative processes inspired him to compose more of his own works, many of which utilize amplified violin with electronics.
Playing amplified gave me so many more options in terms of tone color, and I learned a lot about timbre that way. Then it was really fun to go back to playing acoustic, with those timbres in mind, because then that really expands your approach to the instrument on a purely acoustic level as well.
Such a range of performing experience has resulted in a personal repertoire of violin music that reads like a thoughtfully curated selection of significant works from the early 21st century. On May 31, Dufallo will present the fourth installment of his Journaling recital series, which he created to track the route he has traveled, via his collaborations with composers, in the performance of contemporary violin music. The concert will feature world premieres of pieces composed by Kinan Azmeh, Tim Hodgkinson, and Paul Brantley, as well as works by Jacob TV, Svjetlana Bukvich, Patrick Derivaz, and Dufallo himself. A new CD with six works from the Journaling series will be released in June.
In the same way that his recitals take an autobiographical approach to current events in contemporary music by chronicling his personal exploits within the field, Dufallo’s own compositions are the result of intense introspection and self-awareness. Composing serves as a means by which he processes life experiences, in addition to providing creative and intellectual fulfillment. He has explored topics such as his own dreams, as in the work Carillon for amplified violin and electronics, and he recently premiered a work for violin and ensemble with the Washington, D.C.-based Great Noise Ensemble titled Paranoid Symmetries that addresses the painful experience of a close relation’s mental breakdown.
In his compositional process, Dufallo attempts to always maintain a balance between structure and spontaneity, staying open to the possibility of unexpected musical connections that might arise throughout the course of his daily musical activities. A short phrase improvised at a sound check for a concert might find its way into his latest composition, or variations on a completed work could be taken in a completely different direction for a new piece. Ultimately for him, composing is one piece of a larger undertaking; that of “finding one’s way as an individual, which is a lifelong endeavor.”
As a composer most comfortable with (and excited by) acoustic instruments, I came to explore electronic sound production much later in my compositional career and I’m still a novice when it comes to a great deal of music software currently on the market. As one might expect, I initially approached composing for electronic media with the same habits acquired through years of notated composition for traditional instruments, which yielded mostly disastrous results. As of the new year, I’m starting an electroacoustic work that is giving me the opportunity to reflect on lessons learned since my first hesitant foray into an electronic piece about five years ago.
Among the many mishaps and miscalculations in my self-guided education, perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that acoustic and electronic music each require their own compositional approach, and don’t fare well when shoehorned into the habits and priorities of the other.
In composing for acoustic instruments, I’ve found that I produce the most effective and imaginative results when I first concentrate on envisioning a unique sound world, and then devise a way to produce those sounds through the medium of music notation. But when working with an electronic interface, I’ve had better results doing just the opposite: finding a combination of a few sounds that sound well together, and then asking myself how to build a piece out of that.
Obviously, it’s not so cut and dried as that—because in both electronic and acoustic composition, there is a complex interplay of sensitivity to the embodied world along with an equally important awareness of our own inner voice, not yet embodied outside of ourselves.
But I do know that my own acoustic compositions are largely representations of something that was actually constructed offsite, in the world of the imagined, while in working with electronic sound my ideas seem to come into being only through a simultaneous contact with the immediate physical world—through what is present to the senses.
I feel there is much to be learned from both ways of working, and sometimes it is even through applying these modes of thought to situations where they are not entirely germane. (For example, thinking of an acoustic composition via the concept of loops or imagined faders can certainly help one think in a different way!) Perhaps what’s most important for composers is the facility and experience with many different ways of working, so that we never feel stuck with one inherited way of doing things.