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The music of composer Matthew Burtner is in large part inspired by his childhood experiences of the Alaskan landscape where he grew up. That influence applies not only to the content of the music, but to the way it is created. At times during his childhood, his family lived in extremely remote locations in the North and managed without electricity or running water. “So now, I really love to be surrounded by electric things!” he admits, laughing. Burtner can be found knee-deep in cables, computers, and electronic gear pretty much wherever he is—whether directing the Interactive Media Research Group at the University of Virginia where he serves as associate professor of composition and computer technologies, working with his organization EcoSono, which seeks to foster connections between the arts, technology, and environmentalism, or presenting solo performances on the metasaxophone, a computer-enhanced saxophone of his own creation.
Much of his compositional work over the past 15 years has focused on a triptych of multimedia operas, each based on one of the three different geographical regions of Alaska where he lived as a child. The third and most ambitious opera is Auksalaq, co-created with media artist Scott Deal, which employs an interdisciplinary team of scientists, media technologists, artists, and musicians to form an interactive, multimedia commentary on the environmental changes taking place in the far north of Alaska, and the long-term, worldwide effect of those shifts. Described as a “telematic opera,” the performance, which involves a combination of instrumental music, computer sound, spoken and sung texts, and extensive video footage of scientific data and dramatic arctic landscapes, takes place in several locations which are connected via the internet. The audience in each venue experiences part of the performance in person, as well as performances from other regions which are projected onto video screens. There is even an app (prompting audience members at a recent Washington, D.C., performance to coin the term “appera”) which allows people at all of the locations to share their reactions to the drama via texts that are rendered into a constantly moving thought cloud on a screen for all to see, and from which the main character, sung by soprano Lisa Edwards-Burrs, chooses words with which to construct her final aria. Everything about Auksalaq is intended to highlight the concepts of remoteness and interconnectivity, which by the end of the work do not seem to conflict in any way.
Working with and—literally—through the environment is an integral part of Burtner’s musical aesthetic, which he calls ecoacoustics. His interest in the perception of sound traveling through natural materials—such as snow, wind, and sand—has resulted in a number of compositions that make the natural world part of the musical ensemble. For example, Syntax of Snow, created for glockenspiels and fresh snow, is ideally performed outside, as is the work Sandprints, for human-computer ensemble, whistling, and sand. It requires microphones to be buried under the sand to amplify the movements of people manipulating the sand above ground, which are in turn manipulated by a series of computational processes to form the musical material. He has created a large umbrella for this methodology by turning ecoacoustics into an entire course of study, part of which is a performing ensemble called MICE (Musical Interactive Computer Ensemble) which has performed Sandprints in the Namibian desert, as well as created and performed numerous other works. He has also founded a non-profit organization called EcoSono with the mission of spreading the integration of experimental sound art with environmentalism through education, engagement, and artistic production.
When questioned about how he reconciles the potential conflict between his passion for technology and for the environment, he is quick to point out that humans have always needed technology to survive in the world; we need clothing to protect us from the elements, we require boats to move across water, snowshoes to travel over arctic terrain. He sees the potential of technology to assist in bringing people closer to nature, rather than separating them from it, and is intent upon exploding those early childhood experiences listening to the sounds of nature into a shared universal perspective. “I see the issue of climate change as the defining issue of the 21st century. As an artist I think the best thing I can do is to try to engage with the public about the issue, and try to activate more and more voices talking and thinking about it.”
Conducted at the composer’s home in Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 2, 2012—12 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Poster image by Myra Klarman
Transcribed by Julia Lu
In conversation, Evan Chambers conveys his ideas using words in a strikingly similar fashion to how he delivers them in music: honestly, intelligently, with neither fear of open emotion nor of making a sharper point than his laid-back demeanor might at first lead you to expect. As he speaks about his familial roots in folk music, his love of poetry, and the responsibility he feels as an artist to acknowledge broader social, political, and environmental challenges, a portrait of the composer emerges that reveals again how incompletely shorthand genre descriptors and professional biographies capture art and artist.
And so it was that we moved from the tag of “folk-inspired” composer to discussions of the brutal side of traditional music and the power it holds over audiences both native and foreign. A commission from the West Point Band became more complex once it was revealed that music that digs around in the messy pits of conflict and loss and death inspired both the request and the resulting piece. Chambers is a composer well versed in electronic music, yet a strong advocate for making a deeply human connection. He is a musician firmly rooted in his Midwestern community, but just as genuinely entrenched to society’s broader concerns. Through it all, he is listening and incorporating his experiences into his life and work. It leads him to quote Rilke:
There’s that poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” right, and the last line is, “You must change your life.” So we have these aesthetic experiences, these moments of awareness, and even if we don’t know how, we have to change somehow and that imperative drives the process. It’s an imperative—you have to do something with that, the rhetorical you has to do something with that. I have to do something with that. You have this tremendous enthusiasm to make something out of it, to express it somehow.
And so he has, that we might follow.
Molly Sheridan: I know that you tell a story about listening to The Thistle & Shamrock some years ago and undergoing something of a musical conversion experience. And I want you to tell that story again! It is a great entryway into some of the things you’ve done. But I’m also interested in what goes around that story. Where were you in your music making before that point? Did this inspire a sudden sharp shift or were you already questioning some things and this was sort of a way towards an answer?
Evan Chambers: I might start crying! [laughs] It was a really emotional experience. My parents were 1950s folk revivalists. They weren’t professionals; they were just people who loved the music. My dad played the banjo and the guitar, and he actually “collected” folk songs. He had notebooks full of songs and all the old Sing Out! magazines. So my earliest musical experiences were him banging on the guitar and singing with his head tilted back at the top of his lungs—really physically committed performances. It was a hootenanny kind of atmosphere, people getting together and singing together, and those were the happiest times. When my dad was singing, the family was happy. It was just this joyous thing in my childhood. But he also was interested in classical music. He loved opera, and he played the violin. He would bang through the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with a cigarette between two fingers on the bow, and he’d stop and smoke. So I had these two kinds of things going on.
I started music late—I really got into it when I was a junior in high school and went completely gaga for classical music, just buried my head in the trough for many years. By about 1988 or ’89, I was in between degrees, living here in Ann Arbor, working at the original Borders store back before they went bankrupt. I worked on Christmas Eve, and I was driving to Cleveland to see my true love—who is now my wife—for Christmas. They’d given us a little glass of champagne at Borders before we left, so I had a little happy feeling. I remember I was driving past Toledo, which doesn’t sound romantic but, you know, it’s Christmas Eve and the snow is falling and I’m free from work! I turned on the radio, and it was The Thistle & Shamrock, and there was this group called the Tannahill Weavers, a Scottish group, singing “Auld Lang Syne” in the melody they said was the original one that Bobby Burns intended. It was like getting punched in the chest. I just had to pull over—tears streaming, and all of that—because in that moment, I reconnected with some of the energy of that childhood experience. I always tell my students, if you can find a way to put what you’re doing now together, or to bring it into sympathy with, synchrony with, your earliest musical experiences, then that releases a lot of energy because it’s like being in touch with your roots, honestly. I guess that’s a simple way to say it.
I wouldn’t say I made some kind of conscious decision to change direction. It was like a heart opening, honestly. I started to learn to play the fiddle, and I started working to find a way to integrate that kind of folk music, community music making and energy, into music that I was writing. Which was a little bit hard at the time—I encountered some resistance.
MS: I was going to say, these days that kind of thing might be quite accepted—not arbitrarily smashing genres into concert music in a fake, impersonal way, but actively mining all musical experience. But I imagine that there might have been some push back at the time you were exploring this, either from people you were studying with or your colleagues.
EC: Yeah, it’s hard to say sometimes exactly what that is. As a student, I can say that a lot of us felt kind of trapped in the 1980s vocabulary. There was a lot of octatonic music. I felt like, at the time, there were a lot of people forcing dissonance into what they were writing. Nobody instructed us to do that. I was studying with Bill Albright, for example, and William Bolcom taught at my school, and those guys were shining examples of how to move between Boogie Woogie, ragtime, the popular music styles of the early 1900s, and contemporary classical tonal and rhythmic techniques. But somehow the students weren’t getting the memo. There was some peer pressure to be a certain way. I’ve looked back on it and I’ve tried to analyze: Was it the teachers? And I think it was more us; it was more the students than the faculty. We were repressing ourselves in some way. But I was lucky that I had the two Bills—as I like to call them—because they were both very supportive. They helped me and encouraged me quietly, especially Bill Albright who I was studying with. I brought him a string quartet that was all Irish jigs and reels, and he said, “Great! I’m happy about this!” I was a little nervous showing it to Gunther Schuller—who actually liked the piece, too, and programmed it at his festival in Sandpoint. So I feel fortunate in that way, even though I personally had to struggle.
MS: If it wasn’t coming from the top, so to speak, what was driving that pressure among the students? Why was that the vibe?
EC: I don’t know. I had one teacher say, “What the fuck is this? This is fucking Renaissance music. Don’t do that. Give me a real piece.” So there was that. I had some really important people in my life who I learned tremendous amounts from, but it was still hard. You have Bill Albright saying, “Good, I couldn’t be happier about this,” and yet somehow there’s still internal turbulence. I guess when you’re young and you’re still learning, you’re still forming not just what you can do technically, but also who you are, how you think about things. You’re forming this worldview and this aesthetic. It’s hard to figure out where your attention goes. The negative inputs and the positive ones kind of vie for attention in a lot of ways.
MS: That “folk-inspired” influence, though, carries its own pressures and mischaracterizations. I think the impression might be that this is something that’s somehow quaint or cute, but in reality, of course, folk music can be quite raw and direct, and sometimes quite dark. The influence doesn’t necessarily equate with a watered-down cartoonish approximation of a genre overlaid on concert music.
EC: When I first started writing folk-influenced classical compositions, I worked to overcome the pervasive idea that folksongs were somehow quaint, naïve, or innocent. To me, they are instead powerful, sometimes gritty, bitter and ironic, full of the sadness and longing of life, and I always try to go beyond the texts and musical surfaces to translate a feeling for the expressive values of a participatory whole-body experience.
I have a student now, Tanner Porter, who is writing a setting of “Barbara Allen.” It was one of my father’s favorite songs, and might get dismissed as a polite old chestnut, but it tells a story that is full of hurt, suffering, unrequited love, illness, and death. In the end even hard-hearted Barbara Allen realizes she can’t bear what she has done—a tragic cautionary tale that might serve to warn us about our own lack of compassion in this world.
It seems clear that at present we are at a very serious environmental, social, and economic crisis point, and for me it all boils down to a crisis of compassion. Things are too dire for us to just keep working to get ahead within the existing system—the existing system is literally killing the planet, and it’s our own hard-heartedness that leads us to tolerate war, homelessness, and the destruction of the living world. We need more of anything that can break through the silent acceptance of what amounts to a gradual apocalypse, that can break through our chauvinisms to instruct us about our real place in the world, that can help us wake up and open our hearts even a little bit. Folk music from our own culture has the potential to remind us about who we are and what truly matters in part because it can bypass our defenses withits familiarity and get straight into our bodies. And if one of the things music can teach us is how to move, then our encounters with traditional music from other cultures can teach us to move in a new way. Both offer us an experience of the transformation and reconnection that we so desperately need in our society.
MS: That all said and appreciated, I don’t want to give the incorrect impression that your work sounds like you’re soundtracking a Civil War documentary. This is something bigger. The “folk music influence” is a neat biography tagline, but your catalog is of course much broader than that.
EC: When I started out, it’s important for me to note that I was an unrepentant modernist. I loved the avant-garde. I was ecstatic when I first heard Messiaen. In high school, I drove myself downtown to the Dayton Public Library—which seemed like going to the moon, even though it was, you know, 20 minutes away—and I would go to the bin that had the Composers Recordings Incorporated recordings. They were records still. I would check out everything that they had. Then, the next week, I’d go back and get everything else. It was just thrilling to find the experimentation with sound and the dissonance. There was a composer, Dane Rudhyar, who you don’t hear very much these days, but he had some string quartets with the early incarnation of Kronos that just set my hair standing straight up. That was really important to me. So it’s true, even though I’m influenced by folk music, it’s more the energy almost than the sound, right? Like I talked about my dad—the physical commitment to sound, this kinesthetic UGGGHH of a moment, trying to get that into the performers’ bodies so that the audience can feel that release and that energy.
I’ve also been influenced by a lot of different kinds of music. I was really involved in studying ethnomusicology as a graduate student, and my wife is an ethnomusicologist. So, for example, she took me on a fieldwork trip to Albania shortly after the Communist government fell, back in the early ‘90s, and I had, again, these experiences that were just—I think we all have them, right? I’m tempted to call them conversion experiences, but peak experiences, peak listening experiences where everything seems to drop away and you’re just left vibrating with the music. In Albania, I had some experiences like that, so that I feel like it’s my responsibility almost to integrate them into my own singing because they’re so important to me as meaning events and not just as sonic events or cool licks to steal. So even when I’m writing a piece about polka, I figure I’m trying to get inside how it feels to be in it, not writing how it sounds to listen to it. The same thing with folk music or Albanian music or Sufi Qawwali music—all of which I’ve tried to integrate into the way I sing.
MS: How does that end up happening in real terms? I’m asking you questions I know you might not be able to answer in words, but it kind of begs the question: you have an amazing musical experience. It’s touched you; it’s become part of you. You want to put that out there, not copy something else, so what really is happening?
EC: Whoa. This gets into the most intimate, the most non-verbal…how do you synthesize an experience into your life? How do you take an understanding that opens your heart and your mind and then integrate it into how you act every day? We don’t know, but we do it. We don’t have a system for it, but we do it. I mean, I guess honestly, the only thing I could say about that is to quote Rilke. Saved by the bell! Saved by Rilke again. There’s that poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” right, and the last line is, “You must change your life.” So we have these aesthetic experiences, these moments of awareness, and even if we don’t know how, we have to change somehow and that imperative drives the process. It’s an imperative—you have to do something with that, the rhetorical you has to do something with that. I have to do something with that. You have this tremendous enthusiasm to make something out of it, to express it somehow.
MS: There’s also a stream of electronic sound through some of your work, but is this a multi-stranded braid you’re developing through your work, or are these different boxes that you’re drawing out of but keeping distinct?
EC: It’s interesting. Sometimes I’ve been told it’s a good thing that my music doesn’t fit into one category, and sometimes I’ve been told it’s a bad thing. I think it all sounds like me, honestly. Electronic music was one of the early thrills for me, too. My parents had a reel-to-reel tape deck, and I “invented” tape deck echo. I didn’t study it, I just learned that if you do this to this switch, and do this to this switch, and go Pakown, it goes Pakew…kew…kew…kew. That pure joy in sound was so important. Then, when I started studying electronic music, the kind of physical gesture that you can create when you don’t have to use just these muscles to make the music go into the medium you’re storing it in, really that was another thing that helped me release some energy into the music. I have this idea that music can be kind of like psycho-spiritual Rolfing or deep tissue massage or yoga, where you get into people’s bodies. If the music has these physical tensions and releases and pushes and pulls built into it, then you can, in a way, inflict those symptoms on the audience. If you can cause tension and get into that place, you can also then release that for people. So, electronic music had a real physicality about it that fits with that for me. And I taught electronic music—I still do—so I’m around those sounds and that medium a lot and think in those terms. But I’ve been doing it less and less actually in terms of my own composition in recent years.
MS: It does seem to me in a sense though—and I’m curious what you would say to this—that there’s a kind of parallel between the folk music and the electronics. You’re getting off the page. These genres seem like opposites on the surface, and yet to me there is an underlying parallel there.
EC: Yeah, I think there is. Folk music influences the electronic components of my sound, and even my acoustic pieces are deeply influenced by electronic music. I mean, I cut my orchestrational teeth in a tape studio, cutting tiny pieces of tape that are like five millimeters long to put on the beginning of a ding. So you really come to see how sound is put together, both in time and vertically in terms of timbre. But also, I guess I find that being able to put the physical energy into the taped music is very similar to the kind of physical commitment you can put into folk performance. And I do want to bring that together in the middle.
MS: I would also argue that electronics today are in some sense taking the place of what folk music offered, in terms of perhaps a lower bar to participation—the perception at least.
EC: But I think it’s important to remember that the technology, the way it is now, really puts lots and lots and lots of steps between you and the making of the sound. That’s why I’m much more interested in the live performance, DJ thing where they’ve got record players to play and things to physically control. The sequencing stuff on a laptop—you can end up separating yourself from the physical performance so much that it sometimes loses that sense of every sound being crafted and touched by human hands. That’s what I love about live music, and it can be a quality of electronic music, too, if you hand craft every note and shape every sound and every timbre. Then it has this wonderful living feeling, but if you throw things onto a track and leave the same effects on the whole time, it tends to flatten out and be a kind of machine music that I can see the value in, but it’s not my style.
MS: You yourself have been in the performer’s chair, so you have first-hand experience of delivering these kinds of physical performances. But when you’re at your writing desk, how much and in what ways does that experience filter into the music you write?
EC: You know, you start out when you’re young, and honestly, for me, the thing that drove me was just that adolescent angst that builds up in your gut and has to get out. So, the physicality of performance comes in—your hands have to make it, you have to almost squeeze that sound out of the instrument and push it out into the world. Composing is not just collaborating with an eventual performer. You are the performer in that moment that you’re writing. You’re thinking about the instrument. You’re thinking about what position you’re putting the player in, often trying to maneuver them into uncomfortable positions actually, to, again, model a symptom for the audience, to create a pattern of tension and release in the people who are listening and attending to it. So I don’t think about the music as subsisting in the notes on the page or some rarified autonomous object that is in the world, but not of the world. To me, it’s not pure proportion or a kind of platonic ideal, the composition. The composition is a recipe for action. I’m very focused on the action part of it, so that is performance. I’m composing that in, I hope.
MS: I want to talk a little bit about place and your work. It’s not as if your career is limited to this lovely campus, but you have invested a lot of your energies here: first with school and later with teaching, lots of performances with ensembles in the region. Your work is played all over, of course, but there’s also a rootedness and a connection to this place that you’ve taken care to cultivate.
EC: There’s this tremendous local food movement; we don’t want our food to come from far, far away and be factory made, or made by people we don’t know. There’s something tremendously rich about knowing the person who grew your lettuce. And for me, art and music have a lot to do with the sense of place. I’ve thought about what it means to be a composer from the Midwest, who lives in the Midwest and has a great love of the Midwest. People driving on the Ohio Turnpike or something will say, “Oh, this drive is so boring.” But you know, if you look out in the fields when their corn is up, you can see the rows of the corn strobing as you go by, you can see down each individual row. But it’s more than just even being able to take pleasure in those small details of the world around you. There’s a tone to the kind of beauty that I think really deeply informs, or I hope deeply informs, what I do with my music. And I think there’s a value in being rooted in a place. I ask my students sometimes, What are you going to do when the power grid goes down? I teach electronic music, so they’re working on their laptops, and everything’s electric, so I say, That’s great, but make sure you have something you can do when the power grid goes down. Because when it does, every single one of us is going to be needed to bring a local community and a local sound and a local activity because we won’t have anything else. I like going to other places, but I really believe in trying to do something for this place. I’m writing pieces about this river, and this environment, and these trees. I mean, that’s where I am. I’m here. I don’t feel like it’s healthy for me to chase after imaginary people and imaginary places, in a way. I want to belong in this place.
MS: In an interview you gave in 2005, you drew some lines between your music and poetry: that it wasn’t a straight literal narrative, but it also wasn’t completely without meaning, and you used the metaphor of it being poetry. But that’s all you really said about it, so I wondered if you’d elaborate a little bit further on that idea.
EC: I do think of my music as poetry. A lot. I spend a lot of time reading poetry, I love poetry—some of my best friends are poets. [laughs] I have a good friend named Keith Taylor and one of the first collaborations I did with a poet was an electronic setting of his poem “Upper Midwestern Apologia,” which speaks about how people from outside experience the white pines here as “dismal bushes wrapped in ice, and the rivers that we mythologize as creeks,” and how many people “try to love this place but leave bitter, partially broken by our endless gray.” So even from the beginning of my mature work, I was thinking about being rooted in a sense of place by devoting so much time and energy to that particular piece. I may not be the one to speak about what the process of making poetry is, but to me, what I think about it is, you take experience and match it with language and distill, distill, distill, distill down to this core that has everything packed and encoded into it. It doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t necessarily tell a story—or maybe my favorite kind of poetry doesn’t—but when you read it, it opens up like a flower. And everything is in there. All these intense interrelationships of sound and meaning and association are all woven together in this small offering that—I don’t like the metaphor of unlocking—but that opens for you when you read it. And it invites repeated encounters, too, because you hopefully put enough in there that it can sustain you.
MS: That makes me think of the text from your piece The Old Burying Ground. That isn’t poetry, per se, but the way language is used, there’s some mystery left in it. You could really let it fly in your own head.
EC: Yeah, The Old Burying Ground came out of another one of those really incredible “smack upside the head” kind of experiences. I was at the MacDowell Colony and I was “called out of my studio” to go hang out at the cemetery with a friend who was going to do rubbings for an installation project—any excuse to play hooky. So I went and ended up reading the tombstones. In this particular place in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, the stones were just absolutely riveting. It’s kind of amazing to think of a tombstone as being a real grabber, but the man who was the longest serving pastor in American history there, Laban Ainsworth, just really put some heavy stuff on them. I’ve never seen a tombstone anywhere else that had an exclamation point, for example. In order to read them, you have to lie on your stomach—you’re prone, the words are very small at the bottom where they put the poems. The guy could write, and he had a message, and when you’re laying face down on someone else’s grave, stern exhortations about how short life is have an impact. So, there was already poetry there at the heart of that—his poetry, although he’s not directly credited anywhere. But I knew that I wanted to not make it about that particular place. I knew that I wanted to make it about, well, about what’s really one of the noble truths about human life, which is that we die. And there is suffering around that. Our culture tries to ignore death. Thomas Merton says that by ignoring death, by denying death, American culture actually multiplies it. In any case, we are, each of us, individually deeply in need of facing this truth about our lives. So in that piece, I had to generalize things enough that it could be present and past, and specific and personal, and also about the human condition. One of the vehicles for that was contemporary poetry. So I have those very old poems from the tombstones, and then I asked friends and people whose work I really admire to write poetry to go in between those, to keep changing the reference and frame and simultaneously turn little lights on between the movements and also put it in a contemporary context.
MS: In a sense, your work Headwaters is somewhat the inverse of that, a composition that began as a piece about water generally but then focused on a very specific body of water.
EC: Yes, that’s a place one, too. We were asked to do a large scale, multi-media video/dance/music piece about water, just in general. And our group got together and decided that we would focus on our river, the Huron River, which is really just down the hill from my house. I go to see it every day. We were working with an environmental scientist, who is also a painter, and we grabbed another environmental scientist to go up there. We went walking around the headwaters of the river and then went to some of the early parts of the streams. So we were trying to bring together the environmental message, because when you think about your river, you have to start thinking about its health as a being thing, as a living presence in our world. But you want to try to find a way to do stealth advocacy. If you put in a bunch of facts and figures about the river while the music’s going by and things like that, it just—[shakes head no]. So it was an evening-length work and what we settled on was trying to come up with a way to point, like the finger at the moon. The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The video and the music about the river is not the river. But the least we can do as artists is use our face time with the audience to point to the things that really matter.
I mean, we’re filming this just after one of the largest, most destructive storms [Hurricane Sandy] in the United States, and we’re living in a time when the environmental, social, and economic issues are so serious. We’re at such a crisis that we’ve got to do something, even if we feel like it’s not enough. So we treated this piece as a way to show the place and, in a way, educate [the audience] to love the river. Because if you love the river, you’ve got to get right with the river. If you love God, you got to get right with God. If you love Allah, you got to get right, you know. So that was the idea. We tried to give people an aesthetic experience around the ideas of the health of the river, and the river itself, and then hope that they carry that out with them the rest of their lives. I wrote a song called “Where is the River,” and hopefully it’s catchy enough that they’ll leave thinking, “Hmm, where is the river?” Well, it’s everywhere. It’s beneath my feet. It’s in my veins. The river literally flows through us.
MS: Is this where your work typically comes from, a desire to communicate a kind of message that’s bigger than, or that at least reaches beyond, the notes on the page? Do you ever sit down and write a piece of music purely with just aural inspiration, or are you usually starting with something more topical and then using music to talk about it?
EC: It’s the absolute music and program music divide. This gets to the notion of poetry again; that’s why I would classify myself as a poet-composer. I suppose I have written pieces of music that don’t try to message the way that you might put it. But I write a lot of music where I’m trying to get something right; I’m trying to get at something. There’s this idea that there’s something real, and then you put it to music. It’s not fair to music, because that means that music isn’t the real world, and the whole world is the real world. But I do think of myself sometimes as a translator between experience and sound. I’m trying to put the physical experience of sound into some other kind of experience.
There’s a story behind how Outcry and Turning was born. I could tell you that story.
MS: Let’s talk.
EC: Well, there’s this subcategory of works now where composers are all having to—at some point—write something about 9-11. My version of that is I was writing a piece for the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings—they’re members of the Detroit Symphony—and right in the middle of it, 9-11 happened and the piece just took this turn. At that time, I couldn’t turn it into a memorial kind of piece or anything, but I certainly had just wrenching feelings about it. I had to try to put that in somehow. I’d written several pieces that are related to Sufi Qawwali music and right after 9-11, the backlash against Middle Eastern people and the whole culture of Islam broadly defined across the whole globe was so huge. So I decided to put a little prayer in this by making it a piece that’s overtly about Sufi music, which I’ve spent some time with but I’m no expert on. It’s, again, one of those things that’s changed the way I sing and the way I experience music.
That piece got played in Chicago at a conference and there were some things in the program notes about this, and after the concert, a guy in a military uniform came up to me. I thought, oh god, here it comes. I’m going to get it now—like I’m fraternizing with the enemy, and how could I do that. It turned out that that was just a pure spotlight on my chauvinisms and my prejudices, because the guy came up to me and said he wanted to talk to me about commissioning a piece. Then we had this long discussion about the limits of military power in the 21st century. He was a conductor of the USMA band—now they’re going by the West Point Band—and it ended up they played a large piece of mine called Polka Nation and they commissioned this piece, Outcry and Turning, which I wrote as the wars were beginning in Afghanistan and Iraq. I had to say something about this. It was another one of those things where you could just see the death and destruction that were going to be visited on the world. All of us have experienced the pain of grief and suffering, and we’ve all, on some level, felt that this cannot be—some loss or death or disaster—and we have to cry out. So I ended up writing this piece about the wars, but also about our own individual losses and grief and suffering, for the USMA band. They played it beautifully and they recorded it, and I then I revised the piece and we recorded it just this past week with the University of Michigan band.
MS: Why the revision? A practical or artistic consideration?
EC: Well, you can imagine, because it’s called Outcry and Turning, in the outcry sections of the piece especially I was going for something that really hurt: really dissonant, really packed orchestration, really irregular rhythms that lope constantly, push against the beat, and I think I overdid it a little bit. The piece worked; I think it worked very well. But I think it would only have worked for the highest level of professional players, and I wanted to try to make it a little more accessible to university bands. So I had to make some adjustments in thickness and dissonance, so that it could sound more easily. I had lots of very close half-step dissonances in high trombones, for example. I love that sound. Just bzzzzzz. I stepped back from that a little bit and tried to make it a little easier to get into people’s bodies, so that you could hear where your part fit into the whole, and also feel where you sat on the beat a little more clearly without trying to change the way it felt for the performers and without changing the music too much. So that’s the kind of adjustment I was making.
MS: So to bring it back around to where we began, but having covered all the ground that we have now: There are the common shorthand phrases for your work, things such as that “folk-inspired composition” tag, but then you also have the official bio, which list awards and commissions that have been important, career highlights and such. Still, what words would you choose if these were not already the engrained ways we talk about composers? If you were simply free to express something about yourself and your work that is meaningful to you, what would it be that identifies you as an artist?
EC: I’ve been railing against composer bios for many, many years. When I was a graduate student, for one of my “big” performances I wrote a bio that talked about, you know, that I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and that I had a dog named Socrates that I loved very, very much and that he had recently died. And I loved going for walks in the woods and spent a lot of time trying to notice things about trees and leaves. The professor said, “No, no, you can’t do that. Come on, you won this award. What else have you done?” I’ve been tilting at that windmill for a while. I have written my ideal bio. I’ve also written what I call my anti-bio that I swear someday I’m going to publish. My colleague Paul Schoenfeld has done this. He’s brave. He put it up on the university website. He and I were always joking that we were going to put our bad reviews in our composer bio and he has things up like, “An undeserved standing ovation”—The New York Times. I’m so proud of him. So someday I’ll publish my own anti-bio on my blog or something.
But it gets back to our short life and our inevitable death. The question that comes to the center is not what prizes did you win, but what do you want people to say about you when you’re dead—right after you’re dead, because after you’re dead for a while, we’re all going to be forgotten. What do you want your friends and loved ones and the people whose lives you have touched somehow to say? And I think it would be something like, “I always tried to pour my heart out in every single piece.”
Quite a number of years ago now, I spent a summer working for the Chicago Park District, which meant that I got to wear a bright orange t-shirt emblazoned with the Chicago Park District seal, including its motto—hortus in urbe, a garden in a city. Which is itself a clever inversion of the Chicago city motto, urbs in horto, a city in a garden. Which I loved: a civilized tussle over whether civilization itself is the insider or the outsider, whether the machinery of nature only acquires meaning if it has an empire of more obvious machinery to compare it with.
I mention this because it might go some small way toward explaining why I was almost constitutionally incapable of experiencing John Luther Adams’s songbirdsongs, in its recent recording by the Boston-based Callithumpian Consort, purely as a piece of music. Written between 1974 and 1980, songbirdsongs is very much a nature piece: birdcalls and the rustling ambience of their customary surroundings paraphrased into a nine-movement suite for two piccolos and three percussionists. But the simulation of nature is so particular, so intent on being perceived as faithful, that songbirdsongs becomes one of those nature pieces that gets me wondering whether the end result is supposed to be the aural equivalent of conservation land, or something more—which, depending on your point of view, might actually mean something less.
This is the third recording of songbirdsongs, following its original 1982 release on Opus One Records (with Adams himself among the percussionists) and a 1996 reading by The Armstrong Duo. The Callithumpian Consort’s version, directed by Stephen Drury, is bright and energetic, and, not surprisingly, sounds better than its predecessors: detailed and clear, even managing to conjure up a sense of acoustic space. But the piece was designed for big-room, scattered-about-the-perimeter spatial performance—and, even on headphones, that full-immersion, lost-in-a-forest experience is left to the imagination.
The music’s grammar might best be described as kaleidoscopically imitative: drums and winds aping each other, the layers building up to a static, busy landscape, melodic tweaks to each movement’s motives spreading from instrument to instrument. The transliteration of the birdcalls tends toward the diatonic, but then they pile up in competing, polytonal profusion, falling somewhere between Messaien’s chromaticism and the more poppy triads of other strains of minimalism. (It’s more far out than a lot of Adams’s later, more gently contoured music—such as Strange Birds Passing, which, in a performance by the NEC Contemporary Ensemble, makes a dulcet pendant to this recording.)
In the notes for that 1982 recording, Adams wondered if he had “abdicated the position of Composer (with a capital ‘C’),” but, flattened from a spatial experience to a recorded one, songbirdsongs shows a notable amount of usable space between capital and lower-case composing. All the compositional decisions, the design of the rhetoric, if not exactly of the structure, seem to come to the fore when filtered through the microphone—and it was those sections in which the composer’s hand was most noticeable that I found the most arresting: the bright, Martinů-like busyness of “Apple Blossom Round,” or the bass-drum thwacks and furious twittering of “Joyful Noise,” the aviary having a go at a Sousa march. The marimba-roll drones behind “Mourning Dove” were such lovely sounds in themselves that I found myself wishing that the simulated doves, plangent as they were in their ocarina guise, would take a break.
It’s the complicated nature of such loveliness that is the source of most of the work’s drama, at least for me. The musical motion is constant—motives and sounds never quite come back or combine in the same way twice—but it is movement without a strong musical direction, except forward in time. But there’s a tension between the natural world songbirdsongs is meant to evoke and the artificial means of the evocation that gives the music an interesting texture. Lovely things happen in every movement of the piece, but in a way that is meant to feel accidental and found, rather than designed and anticipated. At the same time, while the natural sounds are presented in a more organic way than, say, Ravel’s pre-dawn Daphnis birds or even Messiaen’s collections, the translation into instruments is palpably inescapable. In the grand scheme of life on earth, flutes and vibraphones and even ocarinas are, after all, pretty advanced technology. I kept thinking back to another warhorse, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, with its obbligato of nightingale-on-phonograph-record, and the more I thought about it, the less I could say whether one captured birdsong was more “real” or more “fake” than the other. Had the garden invaded the city, or the city the garden? The more songbirdsongs left that an open question, the more I got lost in it.