Tag: experimental music

Constantly Missing Randy (Endless Bummer)

[Ed note: One of the highlights of this year’s 20th anniversary MATA Festival will be a repeat MATA performance of P(l)aces by Randy Hostetler (1963-1996) during the April 13, 2018 concert called MATA’s Greatest Hits. The posthumous world premiere performance of that composition, the score for which MATA co-founder Lisa Bielawa reconstructed from manuscripts, computer files, and videotapes rehearsals of the work in progress that she found among effects of his that his parents kept, took place during the very first MATA Festival in a concert on January 13, 1998 at Anthology Film Archives in New York City. Its extremely strange mix of metrical complexity, appropriated riffs from reggae, salsa, and many other styles of music, taped sounds of barking dogs, power tools, and lamps made it one of the legendary events in American music history as did its illustrious cast of perfomers: Bielawa and MATA’s other co-founder, Eleonor Sandresky, the Talujon Percussion Quartet, trumpeter Susan Radcliff, trombonist Monique Buzzarte, trombone, guitarist Oren Fader, Jack Vees on electric bass and washtub bass, percussionist Frank Cassara (who served as a timekeeper), and conductor Beatrice Jona Affron, music director for the Pennsylvania Ballet. Since in addition to performing in that premiere, Jack Vees had an unusual relationship with Randy Hostetler, we asked him to share his memories about him and that premiere.—FJO]

It has been twenty years since the performance of Randy Hostetler’s P(l)aces on the first MATA festival. Randy was a composer whose works lit up our world—for many of us starting in the early 1980s—and that glow continues on through today.  His life was cut short (probably by Addison’s Disease) in 1996. His death left a huge tear in our community—not just because of the brilliance of his own works, but also because Randy’s generous spirit brought people of all sorts together.  Shortly after he moved to California, he established the series Living Room Music, which gave opportunities to many composers and performers and provided a much-needed outlet for alternative new music in the Los Angeles area.  It was through a network of friends and colleagues that I began to know of this extraordinary person.

One of the factors that makes writing this remembrance especially difficult is that Randy’s is one of my first and deepest friendships with someone that I never met in person.  OK, this will take a little explaining, but I think it will point out what a remarkable presence Randy is (not was) in this proto digital era.

Randy and I maintained an almost perfect symmetry of being on opposite coasts at exactly the same time.

Randy and I somehow maintained an almost perfect symmetry of being on opposite coasts at exactly the same time.  While I was at CalArts (official student-hood starting in the early ‘80s) Randy was an undergrad at Yale. When I came East in the summer of ‘86, landing at Yale as a spouse-in-tow of a grad student (Libby Van Cleve), Randy was heading toward CalArts. I like to think we passed each other somewhere in Kansas.

Shortly after arriving at Yale, I began to hear stories from Martin Bresnick about this really cool, young composer I should have met, but who had just graduated and left to continue his studies at CalArts.  These included some of the escapades of Sheep’s Clothing, a student performance art group, under Martin’s direction.  That group has left a legacy of antics from its members, which included Randy, Jeff Brooks, Scott Lindroth, and David Lang.

And the Randy-related stories didn’t stop there.  Pretty soon I was hearing more about this “kid” from Art Jarvinen, one of my closest longtime friends and accomplices. Art and I had been involved in a number of Dadaist and Fluxus performances, so we were used to seeing and hearing things that most others don’t just happen across in their travels.  This is just to say that for Art to remark about something or someone, it really had to be truly remarkable on a grand scale, and apparently Randy was.

I would go back to Southern California pretty frequently in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, usually to take part in performances or the Monumentally Bad Poetry Soirees at Art’s house.  Although Randy would certainly be part of this crowd, it seemed every time I came west, he’d be on a trip somewhere else.  I was constantly missing Randy. Bummer.

Mel Powell, who had seen a lot in his lifetime (and had learned to let our silliness just wash over and not perturb him), knew that the “catchiness” of the surface of Randy’s pieces was a reflection and link to deeper truths, not just icing to hide the lack of them. If I would bump into him during my visits back to CalArts, Mel would often bring me up to date about the latest batch of crazy kids.  Even in this milieu, Randy stood out.  Mel commented about “that Eight-Ball piece” (actually titled 8) as being particularly memorable.  There was something about it that Mel knew was much more than witty novelty.  If you take the time to watch Randy’s performance of it, the experience is enthralling, and Mel knew it was brilliant.

Somehow as the late 1980s became the ‘90s, my trips to L.A. became less frequent, but the common use era of email began to open up other possibilities. Art Jarvinen was instrumental in connecting Randy and me.  We traded a few emails, and I believe that somewhere in a landfill in Connecticut there’s a NeXT cube with the extent of our correspondence on it.   In 1996, things seemed about to change.  I would be headed out west again, and this time Art was planning on setting up one of his incredible dinners for us to finally meet in person.

Then in February I got “the phone call” from Art.  Randy had passed away after what seemed to be a very brief illness.  Art was devastated.  Though being of stoic Finnish stock, Art could be tremendously impacted by friends’ deaths. In response to Randy’s passing, he wrote the beautiful Endless Bummer, a gentle and poignant turn on the surf music of “Endless Summer”.

A graph paper page from the original manuscript score of Randy Hostetler's P(l)aces.

A graph paper page from the original manuscript score of Randy Hostetler’s P(l)aces.

What I remember about the first MATA festival and the process of bringing Randy’s P(l)aces together is this: Lisa Bielawa and Eleonor Sandresky had both gone to Yale around the time Randy was there. As they began the huge task of programming the festival, it was clear that P(l)aces would be an important element both aesthetically and emotionally.  To be honest, I don’t remember if they first asked me to play bass on it, or if I insisted that I had to.

If we try to put it into a particular box in terms of style, P(l)aces is uncatagorizable.

P(l)aces shines a light on at least two important aspects of Randy’s work. First, if we try to put it into a particular box in terms of style, it is uncatagorizable.  However, it does have certain attributes of both modernist and post-modernist styles (and probably Classical and Romantic too, but that’s calling for a wider paint brush than I brought today).  I think it has something to do with Randy’s sense of how to take primal elements and to find how they relate in complex ways instead of taking the easier route of just being complicated. This has a benefit for the players.   As part of the ensemble, it always felt like individual parts were rooted in a familiar tradition, but all the parts together were unlike anything I’d ever heard.

Similarly, in Randy’s electronic works he manages to sculpt the familiar into the unique with the use of only the bare minimum of studio frippery.   A prime example is Happily Ever After. It has no robust algorithms, no elegant Max patches, maybe even no reverb.   What it does have is a collection of very human-sized stories told by many of his friends and recorded by Randy.  They all start the same way (“Once upon a time”) and all end the same way (“happily ever after”).  What happens to the individual threads in between is up to each storyteller, but the resultant whole is an exquisite tapestry woven by Randy that gives dignity to each of those threads.

Randy’s generosity towards other composers and performers carries through to all of us who listen to his work.  He never directs our attention to his own skill as a composer, but subtly shifts our attention to have us reconsider our own selves—and each other—in a more favorable and generous light.

A page from Lisa Bielawa's digitally engraved score for Randy Hostetler's P(l)aces

A typical page from Lisa Bielawa’s digitally engraved score for Randy Hostetler’s P(l)aces showing his penchant for dense polymetric textures.

The Future of Choral Music

Here’s a common experience I have as a publisher of choral music: I’ll receive a piece with all the hallmarks of a composer who knows what they are doing. The piece is well engraved, follows the rules of voice leading, is idiomatically written for the voice—and is dull. But then I’ll do a little sleuthing and find samples of this same composer’s instrumental music, which will often by contrast be lively, engaging, and innovative. Nothing drives me battier than to see this separation between the two mediums, and I’ll often write an impassioned reply to the composer asking why they are so apparently willing to stifle their creative voice when it comes to choral music. Nine out of ten times, they respond with something akin to “thank you for giving me the permission to write the music I want to write.” These experiences have lead me to the belief that while there is plenty of newly composed music for choir, it is not part of the same contemporary conversation around new music as its instrumental and solo counterparts.

Highly chromatic or atonal music is rarely written for choirs.

It’s no shocker to say that the choral and instrumental worlds have evolved quite separately over the past century. Highly chromatic or atonal music is rarely written for choirs, and the deep exploration of timbre found in instrumental pieces from later in the 20th century has mostly been ignored in favor of the pervasive choral sound inherited from the English cathedral tradition. Not only have the two worlds evolved separately, but their cultural importance is weighed differently as well. Using the Pulitzer Prize as one limited metric, it’s worth noting that, until The Little Match Girl Passion in 2008, an a cappella choral piece had never won the prize. This fact is confounding if we consider that choral music is thesingle most popular activity among adults in America. It is estimated that 32.5 million adults in America sing with a choir on a weekly basis and that ensemble singing is the most popular arts activity among adults in the United States. While the majority of choirs are religious or school ensembles, it is conservatively estimated that 12,000 of US choirs are community and professional groups. That’s 10 times the amount of community and professional orchestras in the United States. It’s entirely possible that the Pulitzer committee shares the same perspective as much of the new music world, that choral literature is not in the same “high art” category as its orchestral counter-part. And to be fair, the largely avocational nature of choirs contributes to the cultural sense that, as a whole, it need not be taken as seriously as instrumental music.

Choral music performers are hungry for new types of exploration.

Thankfully, choral music in the 21st century is undergoing a cultural renaissance. More and more ensembles are bringing together musical innovation in the choral world, and ensembles are performing music that points composers in a new direction. These composers are exploring and expanding what is possible in the choral medium without being stymied by the avocational nature of many of the performers. There has, perhaps, never been a better time to make a national, and even global, impact with choral music. The choral world is one of the most accessible avenues for the public to stay connected with “classical” or “concert” music, especially when it comes to the work of living choral composers, where there is still a mass appeal from the young to the elderly. The medium is hugely popular, it is being taken more seriously than it has for the past hundred years, and the performers themselves are hungry for new types of exploration.  There is a wonderful opportunity to use choral music as a way to expose a wide swath of Americans to the adventurous side of today’s new music conversation by getting people involved as performers, not just passive listeners.

In the series of articles that will be posted here in the coming weeks, I will explore: how the choral world is changing artistically, logistically, and creatively; what factors into that change; and where we all might be headed. I’ll also describe how technology is changing the social and business world of publishing and what methods composers can employ to bring experimental musical ideas to a wide demographic of people without alienating the majority of avocational singers in the choral world.

Sky Macklay: Why I Love Weird Contemporary Music

Sky Macklay has been receiving a great deal of attention for her string quartet Many Many Cadences which, as per its title, involves a relentless chain of cadences—some of which are completed and some of which listeners who are acculturated to the canon of Western classical music perceive as such by being able to infer the missing sonic links. This piece fetched Macklay a 2016 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and its premiere recording, by the Spektral Quartet, was nominated for a 2017 Grammy.  In September, it will be performed by the Utrecht String Quartet during the Gaudeamus Muziekweek in Utrecht, where it’s in the running for the 2017 Gaudeamus Prize, and in November it will be performed by the Bozzini Quartet during the 2017 ISCM World New Music Days in Vancouver.

Macklay first came to my attention five years ago after receiving New Music USA funding for a quirky orchestral piece she wrote to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Lexington, Massachusetts called Dissolving Bands, a work which earned her the 2013 Leo Kaplan Award, the top honor in the Morton Gould Awards. When I read the then 24-year-old composer’s description of it as a musical rendering of the “tension, instability, and unpredictability of life in colonial America on the cusp of revolution,” I knew I needed to hear it. The music she wrote is sometimes reminiscent of the sound world of the maverick New England composer Charles Ives, but Macklay is a maverick in her own right as I kept discovering the more familiar I became with the rest of her compositional output.

She’s made it very easy to discover her music on her own website, which offers audio recordings—and sometimes video recordings and musical scores—for 17 different compositions which range from a wacky sound installation comprised of industrial fans channeling air into either large heavy duty garbage bags or air mattresses stuffed full of deconstructed harmonicas to a provocative chamber opera whose three characters are two spermatozoa and a uterus.  As she acknowledged when we visited her New York City apartment just weeks before her move to Chicago, she usually comes up with a generative concept prior to creating a note of music:

Oftentimes it comes to me like a flash of inspiration. I then figure out the details of how that will work and can bring it to life. That’s the excitement of composing for me. I am a very conceptual composer.  I like structuralist ideas that I can flesh out formally; that’s really how I work.  It could be a combination of a sonic concept and a formal concept usually.  Maybe sometimes also an extra-musical concept.

Macklay’s extra-musical concepts are often highly charged politically. In Lessina, Levlin, Levlite, Levora, a speaking violinist (whom she requires to be male) simultaneous bows various figurations while reciting a list of FDA-approved female contraceptive devices and drugs, pharmaceutical companies’ advertising slogans for them, side effects from taking them, and user reviews.

“I think that’s a really common and traumatic experience in a lot of women’s lives,” she explained. “So making that into music was a way to share that experience mostly with men who don’t understand that experience on a deep level.”

Another work, Sing Their Names for unaccompanied chorus, was created in response to the recent police killings of black people. Its text is simply a list of victims’ names.

“I saw a poster that had a list of just pictures and names of people who had been killed by police, and I thought that I could make a memorial out of it,” Macklay said.  “I wanted to be abstract in that most of the time you can’t really understand the names in the piece, but maybe a few of them emerge in the end that you can hear. … The abstracted syllables of the people’s names is a metaphor for erasure and the lack of visibility of the humans involved, and then in the end it’s maybe a little more visible.  I think of it as a sacred piece that is supposed to be a requiem-like meditation on the people’s lives.”

Sometimes, however, the concept is purely musical, as in her stunning violin and piano duo FastLowHighSlow, in which fast and slow music are presented simultaneously as are the extreme registers of both instruments. She got so excited by the idea of exploring every possible permutation of those two binaries that after the work’s initial performance she added an additional optional movement which presents every possibility at the same time, although to do so ultimately required a second violinist and a second pianist.

“It’s definitely not the most practical movement, which is why it’s optional,” she acknowledged.

But despite Macklay’s love for esoteric concepts (read on to find out why she subdivided an ensemble into two groups tuned approximately a quarter tone apart), it all stems from a desire to communicate visceral experiences that can engage listeners. She is particularly excited by introducing younger people to the rich resources of contemporary music, which she does through teaching at The Walden School as well as creating music for student ensembles.

“I love weird contemporary music and sharing it with the next generation,” she explained. “I think a lot of it is sharing my own personal perspective on it—just show how much a particular sound excites me and how beautiful I think it is.  I think that’s sort of contagious, or at least let’s people perceive it as a beautiful thing, or something that some person thinks is a beautiful thing. I also think that exposure, experience, experiential education, and experiential pieces are really a great way to do outreach. … That’s something I think more composers should do: write music that has a participatory role for amateur musicians, or for just audience members.”

Sky Macklay in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Macklay’s NYC apartment
May 10, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: Thank you for including so much information about your music on your website, not just recordings but even scores for most of the pieces. It really helped me get to know your work and, because of that, there are so many details I want to talk about with you.

Sky Macklay:  I like to share all the information and be transparent. Sometimes you can make great connections through that. So I like to put the scores up there, at least for the pieces that I’m done with.  But sometimes I have a performance and I think I’ll probably make revisions, so I don’t put up the score.  In November, I was part of the NEM Forum with Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne in Montreal, and I wrote a large ensemble piece for them called Microvariations. It uses a lot of the same ideas as Many Many Cadences, but with two groups tuned microtonally apart from each other. I wasn’t very satisfied with it compositionally.  I thought I missed some opportunities to orchestrate in a way that made those microtonal harmonies more audible.  It was not as vivid as I wanted.  But somebody from the Society of Contemporary Music in Montreal heard it, and they’re going to do it again in Montreal.  So now I have a chance to totally revise it and perfect it. That’s a really great opportunity. How I love to work the most is to have a performance, have a chance to perfect it, and then that’ll be the real final version.

FJO:  So that’s why the score for Microvariations is not online. I really wanted to see that score.  Since you said it draws on an idea from Many Many Cadences, I’d like to find out more about that. In both pieces it sounds like you’ve taken a bunch of brief, disjunct musical phrases and stitched them together by implying relationships between them that people immersed in listening to common practice tonality would perceive. In a very extensive interview that Brendon Howe did with you for VAN magazine last year, you said that you were annoyed because a lot of people were so focused on the fast succession of tonal cadences in the opening of Many Many Cadences that they missed what you think is the most significant aspect of that piece. Of course, a composer can’t ultimately control what listeners are going to think a piece is about, and you did call it Many Many Cadences, so people are going to focus on that.

SM:  I don’t think that people in general misunderstood what it was about.  I’m happy with how audiences received it. I think most people definitely took in the whole picture.  I was just ranting about the way it was portrayed in “the media,” the publicity that that particular album got, how in so many reviews of the album the reviewers only described the beginning and didn’t describe the trajectory of the piece, what happens to that opening material.  I definitely feel for the reviewers, because I know they are trying to keep their word count down so they just describe it real quick in a way that people would relate to.

FJO: Both Many Many Cadences and Microvariations wind up not sounding at all like pointillistic music because the missing links between the musical phrases are implied and we’re somehow able to perceive them.

SM:  Our brain fills them in. I’m fascinated with perception and tapping into the habits that our brains have. But I don’t really think of them as disjunct moments in time.  They are connected by their staccato attacks, and they’re connected by our brain by their proximity and the historical idea of cadences.

FJO:  In terms of how Microvariations expands on this idea, it sounds like there are actual references to standard repertoire pieces in it, but I can’t identify any of them.

SM:  The timpani is referencing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with all the rhythmic octaves, so there are definitely references, but not any direct quotes.  If you took any common practice period piece and did a Schenkerian analysis of it and reduced it to its most foundational, tonal elements, that’s sort of what you would get.  Like Many Many Cadences, it would just sound like those chords.

FJO:  I’m curious about the way you used microtonality in Microvariations.  By dividing the ensemble into two groups that are not in tune with each other, you’re playing around with the notion of absolute pitch not being absolute.  Nowadays musicians are trained to play the A above middle C at 440 Hz, but it wasn’t always that way.  Pitch was lower. In certain places it has even gone higher. But how does that play out in terms of what you’re doing?

SM:  First of all, it creates clashes of approximately a quarter tone among them. Sometimes I have one person from the higher group and one person from the lower group playing in unison. It sounds like a de-tuned unison, and I think that’s a really great sound.  I want to definitely take advantage of that more.  But then, the way it coalesces in this piece is we have a motive in a pitch level, and then something in this other pitch level.  It goes back and forth, and then when they come together, they sound so spicy together. It also uses a lot of chords that are in just intonation, spectral chords that I orchestrated thinking, “Okay, this group is about a quarter tone flatter, so members of this group could play the seventh partial of the harmonic series.”  Of course there are lots of adjustments, but it’s finding the overlap where their pitch levels would be in tune in the harmonic series.

FJO:  Classically trained musicians have a real resistance to being “out of tune.”  How did you navigate that?

SM: In my experience in Montreal, the musicians were down for it. It definitely has a precedent. I had all of the winds tune their instruments down a quarter tone.  The brass players had no problems with it.  The clarinets and oboes maybe had the most trouble because their instruments are more affected by the extreme tuning.  It’s definitely a little wonky with wind instruments. If you pull out the tube, not everything is perfectly in tune all along the instrument.  It messes up the perfect adjustments that the players are used to making.  I play oboe, so I’m aware of that.  I embrace it and say, “If your timbre is a little wilder than usual, just go with it.  Don’t worry about a super refined tone.”  They definitely just went with it and adapted.  I think the tendency was they would get a little higher as the piece went on.  They would start creeping up to the strings, but I had the conductor remind them to relax and keep the pitch down.  It was a conscious thing they had to keep thinking about, but then they did a great job.

FJO:  But a lot of classical players dread that people are going to think they’re out of tune.  How do you navigate that—being out of tune is actually being in tune for this piece?

SM:  I try to make it a clear rhetorical reason in my music, something that’s obvious enough. The differently tuned pitches will play enough of a role that people listening to it will know this is obviously the way it’s supposed to be. In this day and age, so many people are doing microtonality, I think that attitude is definitely fading.  Pretty much every musician that I work with is very open to alternative tunings.

FJO:  But when you get a commission from the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic after your Gaudeamus and ISCM performances, you might encounter some resistance if you ask the players to veer outside 12-tone equal temperament.

SM:  Well, I don’t really work with orchestras that much at this point in my life.  I’m sure orchestras are generally more conservative than chamber music people who specialize in contemporary music.

FJO:  The first piece of yours I ever heard, Dissolving Bands, is an orchestral piece and it is not microtonal. So was microtonality not part of your musical language at that point, or did you figure that it wouldn’t work in the context of writing for orchestra?

SM:  I was definitely interested in microtonality at that point, but it didn’t seem important for what I was working with for that particular piece.  I was trying to write a successful piece for orchestra that would fit with the Lexington Symphony. I don’t remember being held back by anything that came to mind, but I suppose with an orchestra, I’d definitely be more conservative with microtones.

A work table with a closed laptop, an additional computer keyboard and large-scale monitor, headphones, and printed musical scores.

Sky Macklay’s composing desk

FJO:  As far as I can tell, Dissolving Bands is the earliest piece that you still put out there.

SM:  Well, if you go back through my SoundCloud account, you can find some earlier pieces.  But that one is my first mature piece.

FJO:  So that’s Opus 1?

SM:  Yes.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you begin your catalog with that, especially since it received a lot of recognition; it got the top honors, the Leo Kaplan Award, in the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards competition. Of course that makes listeners curious to know what came before it, how you got to that point as a composer, but they can’t if you don’t want those earlier pieces to be done at this point.

SM:  Oh, I would consider some of them maybe.  There’s actually one piece before that that’s on my website—Döppelganger.  It’s for two oboes and—

FJO:  —and organ.

SM: I actually made the version for two oboes and organ in 2014, I think. But the original version, for two oboes and chamber ensemble, is from 2012 or 2011.  Then I kept working with that idea in different instrumentations.

FJO:  But only Döppelganger III, the one for two oboes and organ, is on your website.  I was going to ask about one and two.

SM:  Well, Döppelganger I is on my SoundCloud.  An oldie, but goodie.

FJO:  So that piece you’d still encourage people to play.

SM:  Yeah.

FJO:  The Döppelganger pieces all involve oboe, so they’re very personal.  You’re an oboist.

SM:  Yes.

FJO:  What came first, playing oboe or composing?

SM:  Oboe came first.  I always really loved music, and when I was a kid I was in choir. I started playing oboe when I was ten, and I was really into it. Then I started getting serious about piano at 12 and studied pretty seriously in my teens.  I started composing when I was 17 or 18, not that early.  One of my creative outlets before that was that my friends and I had sort of a movie-making collective called AnimeSpoof.com; we did spoofs of anime, but also other funny movies.  I sometimes did music for that and then late in high school, I started writing songs.  I became serious about composing my sophomore year of college and became a composition major. But I always kept playing oboe and was serious about that, too, and kept studying it through my master’s degree.

FJO: And you still play oboe.

SM:  Yeah.

FJO:  So did you start out writing pieces for you to play yourself and then it gradually morphed into writing music for others?

SM:  Well, my earliest pieces were songs for voice and piano, but they weren’t always for me. I remember in my first composition class that my first piece was for oboe and accessories. My next piece was for marimba and voice. Then I branched out writing for all kinds of instrumentations. My final project for that class was for trombone choir.  That was a disastrous piece because it’s not very idiomatic for trombone.  It was very high and contrapuntal, so it totally fell apart in the performance.

FJO:  How many trombones?

SM:  I think there were maybe ten parts, but I honestly don’t remember. That’s definitely in the trash bin.

FJO:  But you went on to write a piece for multiple oboes called Inner Life of Song which I think is pretty incredible.  There’s no date on the score or in your notes, so I don’t know when that piece happened.

SM:  I think I wrote that in 2015.

The score for Sky Macklay's composition Inner Life of Song

FJO:  I love how open-ended it is. It can be for any number of oboists, and it’s a graphic, indeterminate, conceptual score.  It is instruction-based, rather than something with a lot of complex notation, so it seems like it could be put together relatively easily.

SM:  Definitely.  That’s the idea. It’s a communal experience. It’s very experiential. Of course an audience can listen to it, but it’s more about the experience of the performers and their listening because it’s a deep listening piece where I want them to really feel the collective multiphonics and get deep into the inner life of the sounds. It’s very approachable for students who’ve never played multiphonics before.  They can just try them out, and if they mess up in the performance, or they don’t speak in the performance, it’s okay, because there are usually other people playing at the same time.  I hope that wherever there’s a large group of oboists, like at a double reed festival or in studio class, they could play that piece.  It’s my offering to groups of oboe players who want to have a collective experience playing multiphonics. There’s an International Double Reed Society Conference.  And then there are also regional double reed days that a lot of universities have.

FJO:  I imagine it’s much harder to put together a performance of one of the Döppelganger pieces. I studied the score for the third one, and it looks pretty hard. That’s not something that could be done by a pick-up group.

SM:  That is a virtuosic piece for sure.  But I personally like to play that piece a lot, so I’ve played it with my teacher from Memphis and with lots of different oboe friends.  It’s a nice bonding experience with other oboists.

FJO:  Most of your other pieces don’t really involve the oboe, so you don’t really perform in them.  Even though you still play oboe, composing became your main activity.  So when did that happen?

SM: I really started identifying as a composer in my sophomore year of college. I’ve definitely liked writing for myself, but I saw that as a small part of my work as a composer.  I have written one more piece that’s oboe-centric called Sixty Degree Mirrors.  I don’t have that on my website, but I’m going to be making a recording of it with Ghost Ensemble in June, so I’ll definitely put that up when I have the nice new recording.

FJO:  What’s the story with that piece?

SM:  It’s for flute, oboe, accordion, harp, bass, and viola.  It’s called Sixty Degree Mirrors because that’s the angle of the mirrors in a kaleidoscope. All these little sound objects are played and repeated with slight variations.  It’s a very fractured form. Imagine different things in mirrors.  Then, at the end, a lot of it is based around multiphonic harmonies in the oboe and flute together.

FJO:  Your titles frequently seem to reflect a core structural element in the music. It seems there’s often a really intense concept which generates the music, so I’m wondering what generates those concepts. Does a title come to you before the music or perhaps a concept that you flesh out sonically and then title?

SM:  Maybe not exactly the title, but a little kernel of an idea. Oftentimes it comes to me like a flash of inspiration. I then figure out the details of how that will work and can bring it to life. That’s the excitement of composing for me. I am a very conceptual composer.  I like structuralist ideas that I can flesh out formally; that’s really how I work.  It could be a combination of a sonic concept and a formal concept.  Maybe sometimes also an extra-musical concept.

FJO:  When I was looking at your score for The Braid, I spotted something that really seemed like a musical parallel to the concept of braiding, which is the really detailed undulations of the dynamics. Each of the musicians start out playing super quiet, getting slightly louder but still quiet, then going back to being super quiet, but at different times.  It’s like contrapuntal dynamic levels. It’s a very strange idea, but I imagine it came from having an idea about braiding and then trying to figure out how to make it work musically.

The score for Sky Macklay’s composition The Braid which shows her extensive use of subtle dynamic fluctuations.

SM:  I have to give credit where credit is due and say that I got that idea from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet. She has little dynamic fluctuations and intertwining voices. I also wanted to use different timbres that can really blend together. It’s a piece for cello, percussion, and clarinet. I wanted to hear the beating between those instruments and play with the subtle threshold of being able to distinguish them as different instruments.  I think I thought of the concept of the braid, but not the term braid, then I did it and I thought of the actual word for it.

FJO:  I should have recognized the connection with Ruth Crawford Seeger, but I didn’t. Although, to get back to Dissolving Bands, at times it sounds quite reminiscent of Charles Ives.

SM:  Definitely.  It’s a very New England-y piece, because it was for the celebration of the town of Lexington, Massachusetts.  So I definitely channeled some Ivesian ideas.

FJO:  And in FastLowHighSlow, I feel like you’re channeling Elliott Carter.

SM:  I wasn’t thinking of that at all, but I think that’s a perfectly valid connection to make.  What do you see as the connection?

FJO:  The superimposition of fast and slow music simultaneously, which is something Carter explored a lot in his string quartets.

SM:  Right.

FJO: Each of the movements is a different permutation of these fast/slow/high/low possibilities. So did the idea come first or did the music come first?

SM:  I knew I was writing the piece for violin and piano, but definitely the concept came first, trying to have very obviously slow music cohabitate with very obviously fast music.  I’m really into binaries and trying to explore extremes of musical axes like pitch and speed.  So I thought I could have this boundary of duration: in two minutes, I’ll have as much fast music and slow music as possible within the bounds of these two instruments. Then I knew I would name it something like FastLowHighSlow because, like you said, that describes the concept and the whole persona of the piece.

FJO:  Hearing music that’s simultaneously fast and slow is very disorienting.

SM:  Well usually the fast dominates, I think.  We hear that as the foreground because it’s very active. One of the reasons why I wanted to repeat the exact same material in the different movements is then I think it dawns on the audience that there’s this slow thing that was in the first movement but now it’s in the totally slow movement. They can trace that and have a deeper understanding of the form after hearing multiple movements.

FJO:  And then you have an optional fifth movement that requires two violinists and two pianists.

SM:  At the premier performance, my friend Susanna realized that there are these musical motives that are repeated, four musical things together in different permutations, but only with two instruments.  And she said, “You could have all four of them together if you had two violinists and two pianists.” I totally agreed. That really makes sense formally to kick it to the logical extreme. It would also be very climactic and exciting to have four people for the last movement—piano four hands and two violinists. There actually has been a performance with the optional fifth movement at my concert at Spectrum in October.  It was really awesome.

FJO:  So are these two additional people hidden somewhere?  How does that work?

SM:  The second pianist, Mila [Henry], was turning pages for Jacob [Greenberg], so the page turner became the second pianist.  And then Erica [Dicker] came up from the front row [and joined Josh Modney]. It probably wasn’t a surprise because it said their names in the program, but it could have been a total surprise.

FJO:  Yeah, I think it would be better if it was a surprise.  Maybe wait to give people a program after the concert’s over.

SM:  I like that idea.

FJO:  Or perhaps it could be done with pre-recorded tracks.

SM:  I don’t think that would be as good.  I think it would be kind of weird to add an electronic element.  It’s better live.

FJO:  It’s just harder to have two more people.  Violin and piano duos are very common, but there aren’t a lot of ensembles made up of two violinists and two pianists.

SM:  Yeah.  It’s definitely not the most practical movement, which is why it’s optional. Maybe not with an established violin and piano duo who do a lot of recitals everywhere, but any time it’s possible with piano and violin friends it could happen.

FJO:  So even if you weren’t consciously channeling Carter in FastLowHighSlow, you’ve also channeled Alice Coltrane in a piece you wrote for youth orchestra which you called—quite directly—Ode to Alice, and in White/Waves you very indirectly channeled Beyoncé.

SM:  Yeah.

FJO:  When the electronic component first appears [in White/Waves] it sounds a lot like a theremin, but then all of a sudden there’s a giant full-range sound. I thought it was really cool, so I looked at the score to see how you notated it and you simply have this phrase “convolved Beyoncé sound” which is something I don’t completely understand and never would have associated with that sound.

SM:  I’m actually glad that it’s not too obvious sonically, but the way I achieved many of those sounds in the electronics part is that I took a chord from “Pretty Hurts” by Beyoncé and used convolution to combine it with ocean wave sounds.  The Beyoncé chord is the impulse response. It’s like hacking the impulse response reverb to harmonize the noisy sound through the tone-filled sound.  Convolution is a reverb hack that you can do in a convolution reverb module like, for example, in Logic. The space designer is a convolution reverb, meaning that the reverb takes a replica of a space by using an impulse response—taking a loud sound in a space that can algorithmically be applied to the sound to make it sound like it’s in that space.  For an impulse response, you usually use a really short one-sample loud sound, but you can use convolution in a different, more creative way by instead of using just a one-sample loud sound for the impulse response, you can use any sound for the impulse response, like a chord from Beyoncé. Or you could convolve Michael Jackson and bees. Anytime you take a noisy sound and mix it with a sonorous sound, it sort of imbues the noisy sound with the tone of the harmonious sound.

FJO:  So you sampled a Beyoncé recording, but it’s almost the opposite of the way a sample is used in pop music. Those samples are usually about being audibly recognizable reference points, which is why rights need to be cleared in order to use them. But I can’t imagine that anyone would be able to hear that what you’ve done is based on a sample.

SM:  I hope not.  I hope Beyoncé doesn’t get mad. My justification for why it’s okay is hopefully that it’s not very noticeable.  People can’t tell that it’s Beyoncé.  It’s more like using her beautiful B-major chord as a harmonic tool.

FJO:  But if you’re going to sample something and people can’t tell, then what’s the point of sampling it?  Isn’t part of the point of sampling to reference something in order to make a commentary on it and turn it into something else?

SM:  But I’m actually not referencing Beyoncé in this piece.  It just happened that I wanted to use it sonically. I could have used a chord from many other possible places, which is why Beyoncé is not in the program notes or anything.  It’s just a sound that I made that happened to come from that place. I don’t know if it’s that important that it is that chord in a way.  I just was experimenting with different convolution ingredients and that one sounded great, so I went with it. I knew I wanted a big sonorous pop chord. That was the qualification that I was looking for and I found a good example of that in “Pretty Hurts,” so I tried it.  It worked great and I went with it.

FJO:  It’s funny because when I heard that chord it reminded me of the sounds that R. Luke DuBois got from collapsing the full pitch and timbral ranges of pop songs and distilling them into single chords in his piece Billboard. There as well, if you didn’t read his program notes, you’d probably have no idea where those chords came from even though they matter to him and also matter to the structure of his piece, which is derived from how long each No. 1 hit song stayed on the Billboard chart.

SM:  I’m very into the catalogue and big data-style pieces that Luke is doing. I think that’s really fascinating.  But in this case it is just all about the sound and I wasn’t trying to be referential at all.

FJO:  Pop music seems utterly removed from your own sound world as a composer. Do you actively listen to Beyoncé or anyone else in pop music?

SM:  I definitely love Beyoncé, and I’m really into that album. It’s part of my life for sure.

FJO:  But in a way, your use of that chord is an aberration. It’s not your usual method of working. It’s less about the sound following from a concept.  The sound is its own thing.  You put it in as an ingredient, but there’s no larger metaphor for why it’s there.

SM:  Right.

FJO:  But still, you’d never sit around playing the oboe or the piano and come up with something and think, “Oh, I want to turn this into a piece.”

SM:  Usually not, although that’s somewhat what happened with Döppelganger. I was playing a really high G to A-flat trill. I found a cool fingering that made it really easy to do.  But that was more of an outlier.

FJO:  Now the only other thing that I have heard in your music thus far that’s anywhere close to the lushness of that full-range convolved Beyoncé sample is what you’ve done in your sound installations with all the harmonicas, which you first did at the Waseca Art Center in Minnesota and then at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.

SM:  I consider Harmonibots and MEGA-ORGAN two different pieces. They have the same sonic and production concept, so they’re a part of the same series.  The concept is I create inflatable sculptures and I then affix deconstructed harmonicas to holes in the sculpture. You take off the outside case and the inhale reeds and just leave the exhale reeds, so the comb channels the air through the reeds properly.  I use heavy duty fans.  I have a bunch of them in my room.  I’m trying to get rid of them now, or find a place to store them. I’m very attached to them, but for logistical reasons, I think I have to get rid of them.

An orange-colored Ridgid Air Mover

One of those heavy duty fans.

All you have to do is fill the sculpture with a lot of air pressure. Then the harmonicas will play all ten notes at the same time.  Pitchwise it’s just three octaves of a major triad and then one extra tonic note on the top.  I organize the harmonicas into different keys, basically. In Harmonibots there’s a big section of C harmonicas, a big section of G harmonicas, a big section of A, and then a dissonant corner where there is a mixture of B-flat, D, and E-flat harmonicas.  Then I used a home automation system that I repurposed for the motion sensors.  When people trigger them, basically then it turns on certain sections of the harmonibots. It’s a very simple machine. The air turns on.  They fill up. They make a beautiful sonorous chord. Then, when there’s no motion, they deflate and make a sagging decrescendo. Because of the different tonal centers, you can create different harmonies by exciting different sections. So for Harmonibots, which I did in Minnesota, the sculptures were made of garbage bags and they were kind of tall. Part of the piece was watching them unfurl and grow upwards.  I thought of them like a fungus or like an animal, but they’re very fragile.

For MEGA-ORGAN, I wanted to make it more interactive. I wanted to encourage people to change the articulation by physically laying on, squishing, and touching the bots—in MEGA-ORGAN, I call them the bellow beds because it’s drawing from this metaphor of the organ.  People can play the beds like bellows.  And the timbre really sounds like an organ, so that really connected well with the idea at Judson. At Judson Memorial Church, their organ doesn’t work anymore. This piece was up next to the shell of the organ, and I visually integrated the mega-organ into the space and see it as a sort of revitalization and re-sonification of their organ.

FJO:  Since these pieces are installations, they have no precise beginning or end.  People can stay there for as short or as long a time as they want.  But I feel like it would have a lot more impact the longer you’re listening and the more details you hear, like the clashes of these different tonal centers overlapping.  Did people spend a lot of time wandering around the sounds, or just pass by?

SM:  I think it totally varied. Some people would just stay for a few minutes, but some people stayed for hours.  The most audiophile nerdy people stayed for hours and hours; it was very self-selecting. The nice thing about an installation is you can make it however long you’re into it.  And, of course, I agree that I think it’s more fun the longer you stay there.

Two of the sculptures in MEGA-ORGAN were like little tents that have a bunch of harmonicas inside. That was the most intense listening space, because if you put your head inside, they were blowing right at your ears.  It was really loud in there, and it would be a really big D-major chord. Then, when you’d step out, all of a sudden you were able to hear the rest of the chords, so you could sort of just design your own tonal adventure in a way.

My original concept was I was going to precisely tune them in some way to make it more microtonal, but then once I stared working with them I realized that I didn’t need to do that. They’re so unstable that it wouldn’t really stick anyway; the tuning of mass-produced harmonicas is not very precise.  Then I realized that because it’s not precise, it’s really complex and microtonal the way that I wanted it anyway, like, right out of the box.  If you have 20 harmonicas in the same key, they’re not going to produce a perfectly in-tune triad.  It’s a very detailed dis-chorus-y microtonal sound, which is perfect because then when you move your head around, you just hear totally different pitches popping out.  That worked out really well without me changing the tuning of the harmonicas.

FJO:  How many harmonicas do you need to build one of these installations?

SM:  Well, Harmonibots had I think about 80, and MEGA-ORGAN has like 110.

FJO:  Where’d you get the harmonicas?

SM:  From Amazon.

FJO:  Harmonicas are cheap, but once you start adding them up it can get pretty expensive.

SM:  Yeah, it is definitely expensive.  I had a commission from the International Alliance for Women in Music for Harmonibots, and I went over budget.  And then for MEGA-ORGAN, I had a project grant from New Music USA, and I went over budget again.  But it’s okay.  It’s worth it to me.

FJO:  You need to get rid of all the industrial fans because you’re about to move to Chicago, but are you keeping all the harmonicas?  They’re smaller, but over a hundred is a lot and since you’ve deconstructed them you really can’t use them as harmonicas again. They could only be used in another incarnation of this series of installations.

A deconstructed harmonica affixed to an air mattress.

A deconstructed harmonica affixed to an air mattress for Sky Macklay’s installation MEGA-ORGAN.

SM:  Well, all the harmonicas that I used in Harmonibots, I used again in MEGA-ORGAN, and now I’m planning to save them and use them again for the next installation. I don’t know when that’ll be, but I do plan to do another one, so I’ll definitely repurpose them for the next installation. I don’t really want to think about that yet. Doing an installation is so much work, and it’s such a headache moving all the stuff everywhere. I just need a break from that for a while, but I’ll definitely do it in the future again.

FJO:  Even though in these cases you don’t have to deal with the whole rehearsal process with musicians for really hard music, the amount of planning is massive and it’s laborious production work.

SM:  To build the mega-organ I made the sculptures out of a composite bunch of air mattresses that need to be connected together, so I cut them apart and re-melted them together using a technique where you have two strips of tin foil and you put them around the two pieces of plastic and use an iron to melt them together. And then you only get a little bit of it melted together.  You have to be very precise, so it’s a very long and laborious process.  I became like a craftsperson melting these giant sculptures together. It’s really fun, but it’s something that I can’t and don’t want to do all the time.

FJO:  And it’s another one of these things where you can’t completely know what it’s going to sound like until you’ve got them all there.  It’s very different than hearing, say, a string quartet in your brain and then fleshing it out on paper.  Instead these installations are very much in the spirit of Cageian experimental music.  We’re going to set all these things up and then we’re going to find out what it sounds like.

SM:  Well, before I did Harmonibots, I had the original idea and I just started making prototypes. So I sort of knew what it would sound like just from my experience making them in the past.  But definitely—the whole composite piece, the space, and how people would play with it, was definitely going into the unknown.

FJO:  We haven’t talked about pieces involving texts yet, but you’ve done a lot of very unusual things with text. When you have a text, it’s a lot easier for an audience to perceive the concept of the work because the words are something people can latch onto.  Take something as abstract and yet as direct as your choral piece Sing Their Names.  By just having the chorus sing just names of people who were killed, without any additional commentary, you’ve made a very powerful statement that’s also emotional without in any way being sentimental, which is very difficult to do especially when dealing with such a sensitive subject.

SM:  I knew that I had to be very careful if I was going to write a piece relating to Black Lives Matter. I saw a poster that had a list of just pictures and names of people who had been killed by police, and I thought that I could make a memorial out of it.  I know that a lot of other artists and composers are making music relating to Black Lives Matter, and so I saw this as a contribution to a genre that already exists and is growing.  I wanted to be abstract in that most of the time you can’t really understand the names in the piece, but maybe a few of them emerge in the end that you can hear.  Basically my musical material was octave leaps that go up chromatically and a melody in parallel fifths.  The process of the piece is that slowly, over time, the micro-polyphonic octave leap-y part morphs into the parallel fifth chorale part.  The reason I picked those musical materials is octave leaps are very energetic yet static.  So I saw it as a metaphor for the pace of progress, basically, the kind of almost futile feeling whenever you hear of another person being killed by the police feels like the octave leaps—no progress, basically.  Similarly the parallel fifth melody is static, but it’s a much calmer sound, maybe a bit of hope. The abstracted syllables of the people’s names are a metaphor for erasure and the lack of visibility of the humans involved, and then in the end it’s maybe a little more visible.  Those are the ideas I was dealing with. I think of it as a sacred piece that is supposed to be a requiem-like meditation on the people’s lives.

FJO:  I recently thought of your choral piece in the context of this huge controversy over the display at this year’s Whitney Biennial of Open Casket, Dana Schutz’s painting that was inspired by a photograph from the funeral of Emmett Till, a black man who was beaten to death and whose face was disfigured beyond recognition in the process.

SM:  I haven’t gone to it, but I know about the controversy.

FJO:  I find it troubling that many people believe Schutz had no right to make such a painting because she’s a white person and this is not her story to tell.  I think we all should be outraged that this man was killed this way.  This story belongs to everyone and everyone should pay attention to it.  I think a lot of people don’t know who Emmett Till was, certainly younger people who weren’t around when he was brutally murdered in the 1950s.  If this painting raises the public consciousness that this thing happened and that we should all be outraged about it, I think it’s making an important statement.

SM:  I agree that we should all be outraged about it.  I guess I’m inclined to listen to the people who are saying this is exploitive use of the black experience, because we should listen to black people if they say to white artists that that’s exploitive.  When I started reading about this particular issue, I started self-reflecting and thinking, “Did I do that?”  I hope not. I hope it’s a little less appropriative. Sorry, but I don’t really have a great answer to that.

FJO:  But as artists, we have to be able to tell the stories of what’s going on in our society.  I don’t think any one group of people owns that narrative. If anything, we need to embrace all of these narratives. I think both Schutz’s painting and your choral piece call attention to deep wrongs by abstracting them in ways which allows space for people to reflect and feel the weight of these tragedies.

SM:  Of course.  I totally get what you’re saying about everybody chiming in on important issues of our time.  But I think the problem that activists have pinpointed with the painting is that maybe this artist is profiting as an artist from using this highly charged image in a way that’s yuckily commodified. I guess that’s one way it could be seen as appropriation.

FJO:  But the artist made it a point to state that this painting is not for sale.  I don’t mean to put you on the spot with this, but there could be parallel scenarios for your choral piece. Let’s say it gets done all over the place.  You sell the sheet music and you also get performance royalties.  Someone could turn around and say you’re profiting from this thing.

SM: I would say that I see this particular work in the context of other works in a similar genre that other artists are contributing to this body of music about Black Lives Matter. If I actually did profit off this piece, which I haven’t so far, I would donate the profits to Black Lives Matter.

FJO:  To take this in another direction, it’s very clear that the text is very important even though for most of the time it’s not audible.  In Fly’s Eyes, you created your own language, which raises some interesting issues vis-à-vis text setting.  In both pieces, you’ve gone against the grain. For Singing Their Names, your music captures the spirit of the text by not making it clear. In Fly’s Eyes, the text setting is clear, but it’s complete gibberish. The music marries the text, but the text actually has no meaning.

SM:  The way that I actually made the text is I made a mixture of Latin, English, and animal sounds to give voice to different animals.  The meaning of the text didn’t really matter; it was more the emotive quality that a voice can give. Babies can portray a huge range of emotions with their voices; it’s not about the semantic detail.

FJO:  With Glossolalia, you were working with a pre-existing text.  But once again, it’s not really clear from the setting what the text is about.  And, in a way, the setting is about it not being clear.  Even the title, Glossolalia, means speaking in tongues, so it’s about obfuscation to some extent.

SM:  With that piece, the poem itself is very surreal and abstract. It’s just sort of a list of words and a list of malapropisms. It makes sense as a glossolalia, but maybe not as a narrative.

FJO:  With an opera, of course, there is a much greater expectation regarding narrative. You wrote an opera this past year and so you really had to foreground a text in a way that you had never done before.  But the story you foregrounded in your opera Why We Bleed is a very peculiar one. There have been a lot of very overtly sexual operas in the last decade, but I don’t think there’s ever been one where the three singers are two spermatozoa and a uterus.

SM:  The idea originally came from an article by an evolutionary biologist named Suzanne Sadedin called “How The Woman Got Her Period.” In that, she dramatizes the evolutionary reason why women menstruate—this concept of the zygote being an adversarial creature. The woman’s body has to vet and decide is this particular zygote is genetically a good investment. Considering all the risk and work that goes into pregnancy, is this particular zygote worth it?  The way that Suzanne Sadedin wrote this article was extremely evocative and character-driven. So I thought wow, this is very dramatic. There’s a lot of deep possibility for symbolically dealing with reproductive rights’ issues, so I just decided to go with that story. My friend Emily Roller wrote the libretto, so she and I worked together on that.

FJO:  So it was your idea but you chose not to write your own libretto, even though you’ve created your own texts for other pieces.

SM:  With something like an opera, I would prefer to work with a librettist. I really like Emily’s work and value her ideas.  I like to write a little bit, but I don’t think I want to write my own libretto.  That’s a whole different craft.

Why We Bleed – Macklay/Roller from American Opera Projects on Vimeo.

FJO:  The opera is relatively easy to put together—three singers and a piano—but I imagine if it had a full production, you’d want to maybe flesh it out more, orchestrate it and stage it. What would it look like on stage?  How could you represent it?

SM:  I definitely have plans for a fully-staged version of it.  I’m not sure how much it’ll stay the same and how much it’ll change, but I am doing an opera with the University of Illinois Opera next year that will have a full sinfonietta and be more staged. The main costume/set piece is the uterus’ costume. Imagine a dress that’s so long that it flows across the whole stage and becomes this giant tapestry and curtain that engulfs the whole space. That’s how I’m imagining her costume will be, her costume and the entire curtain-y tapestry thing that creates the whole set.

FJO:  So there’s going to be a staged production of Why We Bleed in Chicago next year?

SM:  Well, I’m not exactly sure if I will define it as the same opera.  It might be so different that it becomes a different piece.  We might have another character.  But I will be doing some opera that deals with the same themes in Urbana-Champaign.

FJO:  Another piece you did, Lessina, Levlin, Levlite, Levora for speaking violinist, is also super provocative in terms of dealing with sexual politics. But for that you used a found text.

SM:  I went through a process with the text first.  I looked up all the FDA-approved devices and drugs for contraception. The first text was just saying the names of them.  The second layer was adding advertising slogans for those particular devices and drugs.  Then the third layer was adding the side effects, like at the end of the ad, you know, they have “heart attack, cramps, nipple discharge, high blood pressure in a quiet voice.  For the fourth layer of text, I looked at reviews online of these devices and drugs, and added the users’ reports of their personal reactions and side effects.  The whole piece was inspired by personal experience and my own struggle dealing with the medical, industrial, pharmaceutical complex and the way that that intersects with or intersected with my own body.  I think that’s a really common and traumatic experience in a lot of women’s lives, so making that into music was a way to share that experience mostly with men who don’t understand that experience on a deep level.

FJO:  I thought it was really interesting that it wasn’t a piece, say, for women’s chorus.  It was a piece for a guy who’s playing the violin and sort of stating all of this at the same time.  I imagine it’s pretty hard to do.

SM:  Yeah.  I think Josh [Modney] definitely rose to the challenge, and he likes doing it. The hard thing was nailing the text expression.  The easy part was the violin part because the violin part’s very easy.

FJO:  Do you want it to always be performed by a man?  Is that the point?

SM:  Yeah, that’s part of it.

FJO:  You’ve pretty much written every piece we’ve been talking about in only a few years, which is a lot considering everything else you’ve been doing—completing your degree at Columbia, teaching at The Walden School, and now you’re in the midst of a move to Chicago.

SM: In the last five years I’ve pretty much written all those pieces.  I do have a really busy life. I’m stressed a lot.  I’m always behind on my deadlines.  I’m always scrambling to get the next thing done.  I have to just say no to some more things in the next few years and focus my time a little more intentionally on projects that I really love, that are really are good for my career and artistically satisfying.

FJO:  We’ve been talking about pieces emanating from getting an idea and then fleshing it out musically, but sometimes I imagine what happens even before that is that somebody wants a piece and there’s a commission involved.  We didn’t talk about Density Dancity, which I think is extraordinary—it’s nothing but chains of multiphonics.  It’s a crazy, crazy piece.  But I don’t imagine that you said, “Oh gee, I want to write a piece for tenor sax and piano.”  I imagine that the player came to you and said, “Could you write me a piece?”

SM:  Yeah, that’s what happened.  Jim [Fusik] and Karl [Larson]’s duo commissioned me to write that piece and I was very happy about it.  I play oboe with a lot of chained together multiphonics.  I wanted to work out a similar thing with tenor sax.  That happens a lot.  I love collaborating with people. Each new opportunity that comes with a musical relationship is amazing. I think that’s weaved into the whole process of getting an idea and fleshing it out which is usually before, “Will you write a piece for me? Here’s the instrumentation.”

FJO:  Sometimes saying yes to something maybe doesn’t get you a performance in Carnegie Hall, but it could lead to other things that might ultimately be more rewarding. For example, Ode to Alice, which is very different from most of your pieces, was written for a student group and perhaps because of that—correct me if I’m wrong—maybe you can’t do all the wild, crazy, extended techniques and microtones and things that you might want to do, but it allowed you to focus in another way.  Based on the performance you have up online, the students who did it put tons of work into making it happen and, looking at the score, it is not at all basic music by any stretch of the imagination.

SM:  I am very open to and excited about writing for student ensembles or amateur ensembles, because I think these are great opportunities for building community through contemporary music and just having great social experiences. This is why I love weird contemporary music and sharing it with the next generation.  So with Ode to Alice, definitely I felt like this was a piece that’s my music. Maybe it’s a little technically easier than other pieces, but it’s not an easy piece. Totally, like you said, they puts lots of work into it.  The students sometimes have these wild noisy solos and they really did a great job; they weren’t fazed by the extended techniques.  I definitely thank their teacher, Dan Shaud, for being a great advocate of contemporary music.  They’re going to play it in Niagara Falls next week.  So it’s going to go to Canada.

FJO:  I’d love to follow up on what you just said about liking weird contemporary music. I grew up in an environment where contemporary music was perceived of as this weird, off-putting thing, but I think there’s an attitude today that it’s not this weird, off-putting thing; it’s actually kind of cool and fascinating and actually more interesting than the stuff that isn’t weird.  So how do you convey that enthusiasm to somebody who hasn’t heard it and doesn’t know what it is? How do you present yourself as a citizen of the world to turn people on to all these crazy ideas—like two sections of an ensemble being a quarter tone out of tune with each other, which is a pretty kooky idea?

SM: I think a lot of it is sharing my own personal perspective on it—just show how much a particular sound excites me and how beautiful I think it is. I think that’s sort of contagious, or at least let’s people perceive it as a beautiful thing, or something that some person thinks is a beautiful thing. I also think that exposure, experience, experiential education, and experiential pieces are really a great way to do outreach. I participated in a workshop version of this new piece Pan by Marcos Balter that has audience participation with tons of people, and that’s something I think more composers should do: write music that has a participatory role for amateur musicians or for just audience members.  Doing Harmonibots and MEGA-ORGAN are really important parts of my outreach because people can engage with them on all kinds of different levels.  They can be the nerdy audiophile who likes to hear the different tones for three hours, or they can be the person who likes to just fall onto the mattress and hear the sound change, and that will maybe hook them to try other pieces of mine or other composers. The ideal listener for me is just somebody who is willing to go there with me, to listen deeply, to try to follow my trajectory for the piece, and who is willing to be surprised or be actively listening and making predictions or making inferences. That’s all I ask.

Headphones on top of a Columbia University notebook on Sky Macklay's desk

Proudly Disruptive Yet Guilelessly Generous—Remembering Elliott Schwartz (1936-2016)

Elliott Schwartz at the piano surrounded by scores of his music.

Forty years ago, as a grad student composer, I had learned about Elliott Schwartz’s more heretical works from the mid-sixties to early seventies—Elevator Music, for example, with twelve groups of student musicians on twelve floors whose music waxes, blends, and wanes as audience members ride up and down with open elevator doors; or Telly for TVs, radios, pre-recorded tape and a variety of conventional instruments.  At that point I thought of Elliott as one of the more aggressive, proudly disruptive composers of the day (usually assumed to be a good thing among my peers at the time). But it was after reading his refreshingly informal, conversational Listener’s Guide to electronic music that I began to realize that Elliott had a different passion, which was to welcome everyone—whether aficionado or skeptic—into his own personal, life-long exploration of the physical, cultural, and psychological spaces where music reveals and transforms who we are. Ever since then, in my periodic association with him as co-author, presenter, and friend, I’ve come to marvel at, aspire to, and now mourn the loss of Elliott’s unique mix of intellectual brilliance and guileless generosity in wanting to let the whole world in on music’s big secrets.

Those who have watched him speak to a group—of students, colleagues, or especially “lay” listeners—will always remember with delight those signature moments when Elliott (demonstrating from the keyboard with his Mephistophelean goatee and thick glasses) suddenly catches himself in mid-sentence, looks straight out with widening eyes, and proclaims “but instead we find something quite surprising…”

There is much that he hoped would surprise, enlighten, and delight us all: that music can make perfect sense and be completely unexpected in the same instant; that musical perception can be radically altered by what our other senses encounter when we hear it; that performance ritual and the norms and values it projects are as central to the experience of a live performance by the New York Philharmonic as to, say, an Ashanti healing ceremony; that the future of music flows mysteriously but inexorably from a sometimes affectionate, sometimes fractious conversation between its past and present. These are among the ever-unfolding discoveries that animated Elliott’s life and career, and he was convinced that a deep dive into such phenomena could make the music of any tradition, old or new, vitally interesting to anyone.

For Elliott, though, such pursuits were most urgent in his own journey as a composer. And since about 1990, the most consistent feature of his music has been an interweaving of past and present musical languages through collage, quotation, improvisation and moments of theater. These are integrated into a musical discourse—by turns hard-edged or lyrical, brutal or whimsical—in which the historical emerges from, recedes into, and otherwise haunts the new, as if today’s music were in a dreamlike, at times nightmarish internal struggle with its antecedents. There have always been high points in Elliott’s repertoire, but to my ears, his music has become more focused in this direction with time, and ever more clear-eyed and compelling. He did indeed have, as he said shortly before he died, “so much more music to write.”

Until his artistically gifted and beloved wife DeeDee left us unexpectedly about three years ago, Elliott continued to travel the country and the world by invitation, his music being recognized both overseas and at home as iconic and exemplary in the musical library of American modernism. Given the long and distinguished list of composers, performers, and scholars whom he has mentored and with whom he has collaborated, I can only believe that his music will be kept alive and inspire us for decades to come. My hope is that, after the grieving, all of us who remember the persistent (if somewhat mischievous) twinkle in Elliott’s eye and who live our lives in music will carry that big-hearted spirit—and that deep and relentless curiosity—into all our future endeavors.

Elliott Schwartz and Daniel S. Godfrey

Elliott Schwartz and Daniel S. Godfrey

Mary Ellen Childs: On Merging Sound and Scent

Mary Ellen Childs sitting on a bench in front of a branches.

Even though Mary Ellen Childs had a lot to say about sound when she visited with us last month, we also spent a lot of time talking about the other senses since many of the works she has created have been immersive multi-sensory experiences.

Still I was totally unprepared for Childs’s ruminations about the aesthetic possibilities of scent, despite my harboring a personal fascination with the relationship between music and perfumery ever since I attended a performance of something called a “scent opera” seven years ago. As a result of our mutual obsession, when I asked her about her attempts to incorporate olfactory perception into her own work our conversation took a significant detour. While this digression ultimately seemed a distraction from our larger musical conversation, it is yet another manifestation of Childs’s unique approach to the creative process.

A conversation at New Music USA
May 6, 2016—2:30 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

FJO: Literally 15 minutes before you walked in the door I just read an article about you wanting to develop a piece that involves olfactory sensation.

MEC: I’m really fascinated with this. I’ve been researching it now for years. I’ve done some kind of cursory, more experimental sort of public events, but I haven’t yet created the piece that I really want to create, which would be instrumental music written to pair with senses. Specifically I’m interested in writing the music first and having a scent designer create pieces inspired by those pieces of music. And then giving the audience a way of experiencing the two things together.

FJO: There’s an ephemerality to both sound and scent. They’re both produced by physical objects, but they are also both non-corporeal. We live in such a visually dominated world, and these are two phenomena that you can’t actually see. At least sound we can now preserve on recordings. Scent is more elusive. You can bottle a scent, but when you use up that bottle, it’s gone. The other fascinating parallel for me is that the people who make perfumes are called compositeurs. They’re composers. It’s the same word, and it’s the only other usage of this word I know.

MEC: Well, and they work with notes. I have done a ton of research on this. I’ve read a lot, I’ve smelled a lot, and I’ve talked to neuroscientists who work in this field. I’ve gone to France and I visited the Museum of Perfume in Grasse, and I’ve met with a master perfumer near Paris and talked with the director of the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles. I’ve thought a lot about how this is going to work. I think it just takes the right moment with the right amount of money. It’s one of those pieces that has not really gone forward because it needs some financial support to make it all happen. But I’m very keen to do it.

Not too long ago, I came across reference to a study that was done showing that what we listen to affects how we smell. I was so pleased. I knew it. That was my hunch, because both those senses can make us have an emotional reaction. They might even make us experience time or space differently. Think of a smell that you want to recoil from. You physically want to contract. So you feel space differently. Sound can do the same thing. You may actually feel more spacious because of what you’re listening to. And you can slow down your perception of time through music. I think you can also do those things with scent. And so you put the two together, and the impact that they would have on you could be quite interesting.

I did an installation-style event as part of Northern Spark a little less than a year ago. Northern Spark is a festival in the Twin Cities that happens overnight, usually around the time of the solstice. It starts at sundown and it ends at sun up. I did a piece called Ear Plus Nose, because I just wanted to sort of get it out there. I just wanted to see how an audience would respond. I used recorded music, my own music. It was a room bigger than this, but not a lot bigger than this, and there was one fragrance that was diffused into the space. Then there was one long table where there were four fragrances. You could take a smell strip and dip it into the fragrance and then could combine that experience with what was diffused into the room along with what you were hearing.

I asked people to write their responses afterwards. I had two stations with two different sets of cards—two questions. The first question was basically just to write about your experience in this room. You know, what was it like? What did you respond to? And the other one was to write a scent memory. And once you’ve written that scent memory, tell me if there was any sound associated with it. I thought maybe some people will do that. But I still haven’t gotten through all the responses! I have a huge bag full. In the course of those hours, I also learned which of my pieces worked in that setting and which didn’t. I was going to try to cycle through various kind of moods and sound worlds, and keep track of when that music was playing and what responses I was getting. That became too much of a headache to keep track of, so that went out the window pretty fast. I ended up gravitating towards one piece that was pretty steady state. It created a mood, but it didn’t have a lot of ups and downs and changes, and I just let that play over and over again. And that was the thing to do in that particular setting.

FJO: Well, what’s interesting is that music has this narrative arc over time and changes. Even most very hardcore minimalist pieces are about the very subtle changes that occur in them over time, because when changes happen so slowly it makes the moment of change feel extremely significant. In a way, such pieces are similar to the way we experience a scent. It initially seems like a steady state but, due to the physical properties of chemicals, it changes over time and certain notes that were less prominent become more foregrounded. Perfume writers often compare a fragrance’s top notes, the olfactory combination you originally encounter when you smell it, with the base notes that appear after its dry down. Of course, this is a function of physical reality.

MEC: Right, so in a concert setting the way that I’m curious about exploring the use of scent is with diffusion techniques and to see if the landscape of scent will change over time. I actually wanted to have additive scents. Let’s say you start out with a citrus note, then you add something more floral, then after that something a little more savory, stronger in some way. Over time you change the scent in a way that actually works. But there are some challenges with that. It’s not a straight forward thing to do because what happens with the way our noses work is that once you smell something you tend to stop smelling it after a while. So, in order to change the scent landscape over time, I would probably have to diffuse the citrus note and then bring in more citrus plus the second scent. And then also consider that the experience of somebody who might walk in midway through would be different because they’re getting the first impact of everything.

It would take some work, and it would take some very knowledgeable people to explore this with me. I don’t know that that particular thing has been done very much, and I’m really interested in exploring it. But on a different note, the other thing that I’ve been doing just to try to start working with this material is I’ve been hosting a series of scent dinners at my home where we have a food course, then a scent course, then a food course, and a scent course. I love to have people over for dinner. I love to cook. I love to make an experience of the evening, and so adding in scent was kind of an interesting thing for me to do. And so I did the first few scent dinners without music, then I thought I should just be taking advantage of these people who are here to pair the scents with music, and so I started doing that and then asking people for their responses. And that’s been pretty interesting, too.

When I talk about working with scent and music, mostly people are very curious and very interested and they want to know more. And they say, “I want to come whenever you do this piece.” But I also get people whom you can tell they’re put off by it, or they’re a little bit worried about it, or they’re not sure they would want to come to a performance like that. And I think it’s because you can close your eyes, we can even plug our ears, but scent actually comes right into our bodies. It comes right inside your lungs. People have strong reactions to it and it is different for everybody. You have different scent preferences. And you have different things that you associate with scent. I was surprised when I heard there were some people who love the scent of skunk. I always thought that that was a miserable scent that you wouldn’t want to be around if you didn’t absolutely have to. But there are people who actually enjoy that scent. And I think that just tells us how individual people’s responses to scent can be. It has to do with your own personal history. I also think it has to do with your cultural background. So I feel like this is such a rich thing to be exploring with music, and I’m actually very eager to do more.

Communal Experimentalism in the Sixties: The Pulsa Group

Serge Tcherepnin, brainwave experiments at Harmony Ranch, 1970
What is a community in new music? A panel of musicologists attempted to answer this question at the second annual New Music Gathering last January. Community might be manifested in an experimental commune, in the practices of minimalist music, in the radical identity politics of an opera, or in the labor of administrators and institutions. Rather than provide a singular answer to what a new music community might be, our panel provided many. Over the coming weeks, you can read our examinations of new music and community from a variety of historical and ethnographic perspectives. We are very grateful to NewMusicBox for hosting this weekly series, to the organizers of New Music Gathering for sponsoring a thought-provoking conference, and to our home institutions for supporting our research.—Will Robin

Countless forms of experimental music took place communally in the sixties, but much of that music eludes our histories of American experimentalism. Many groups didn’t produce scores or recordings or even hold formal events or concerts; many people didn’t assemble officially as “groups.” When we do reflect upon communal experimental music, we might recall well-known ensembles like the Theater of Eternal Music/Dream Syndicate and the Sonic Arts Union, or slightly less-known groups like USCO and Group 212. These ensembles were communal to different degrees and at various stages of music making—from the collaborative creation of works to each individual’s prominence within an ensemble to the eventual ownership of compositions and recordings. One collaborative group that sought to both live their lives and make their music communally was the collective Pulsa. As a group dedicated to exploring “perceptible wave energies” through light and sound, Pulsa created art and music that not only made group collaborations audible and palpable, but they also reminded their audiences and participants—through light and sound—that actions have effects.

Pulsa, Harmony Ranch, Oxford Connecticut, ca. 1969

Pulsa, Harmony Ranch, Oxford Connecticut, ca. 1969 (source)

Pulsa participated in a massive communalist movement in the United States. Between 1967 and 1970, tens of thousands of Americans turned away from outward political action and went “back to the land,” joining what historian Fred Turner has called the “New Communalist” movement. Unlike the more explicitly political New Left, many of these New Communalists believed that the revolution wasn’t outwardly political but inwardly transformative—a revolution attained through interpersonal relationships and experiments with consciousness. Although many who joined communes eschewed electronics and large-scale technologies, a certain strand of this movement embraced small-scale tech like strobe lights, amplifiers, and slide projectors, along with bodily technologies like yoga, meditation, and hallucinogens. Pulsa was thoroughly plugged into this techno-powered back-to-the-land movement.

Pulsa was thoroughly plugged into this techno-powered back-to-the-land movement.

The Whole Earth Catalog—called by Todd Gitlin a “Sears catalog” for the sixties counterculture—is an eclectic artifact of the time period. This catalog incorporated, among hundreds of other things, pamphlets on how to build a teepee, a yurt, or a geodesic dome; tips on organic farming, mountaineering, and hitchhiking—practical information for going “back to the land.” But the catalog also included blurbs about books on cybernetics and early systems theory; advertisements for tape recorders, Moog synthesizers, and John Cage’s most recent books Silence and A Year from Monday. The catalog also featured an ad for the art and science organization Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), of which Pulsa formed the New Haven E.A.T. Local Chapter.

Founded in 1966 and active through 1973, Pulsa was an experimental collective based in Oxford, Connecticut. The group consisted of 7-10 people working in various disciplines, including painting, architecture, film, music, electronic engineering, psychology, mathematics, and computer programming. They lived together communally on a property called Harmony Ranch, and they also organized events at a downtown New Haven loft where, over the years, they hosted La Monte Young, Steve Reich, James Tenney, Terry Riley, Maryanne Amacher, Serge Tcherepnin, Richard Teitelbaum, and many others.*

In their essay “Notes on Group Process,” Pulsa—who always published collectively—described their central objective as developing “techniques for controlling perceptible wave energies.” Despite the varying specializations of its members, Pulsa aimed for each individual to be familiar with every dimension of a project to allow for the “complete interchangeability of roles.” By 1969, Pulsa was collaborating with a neuro-physiologist, attempting to model their working processes on the parallel processes of the human brain, which was “capable of simultaneously performing a variety of interactive operations.”

Pulsa described gardening as equal in significance to their more public projects and further emphasized the symbiotic relationship between their creative and agricultural work.

In working with wave energies, part of Pulsa’s work dealt with often invisible or inaudible materials like heat, sound, and light. For instance, in early 1970, Pulsa held an installation in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art’s Outdoor Sculpture Garden. In the MoMA garden, Pulsa aimed to gather “environmental information,” including sound, light, movement, and heat, using microphones, infrared sensors, and photocells. They then fed that information back into the garden using strobe lights, infrared heaters, and loudspeakers. Pulsa’s installation persisted 24 hours a day for two months, in the winter of early 1970, so even in the middle of the night, a strong gust of wind, the headlights of a passing car, or falling snow would trigger a response within the garden. And since Pulsa’s MoMA garden was receptive to heat, the mere presence of a body walking through the garden would be detected by infrared sensors and responded to with strobe lights and loudspeakers.

Pulsa Installation for Spaces Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden, NYC, 1970

Pulsa Installation for Spaces Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden, NYC, 1970 (source)

Beyond their larger installations, the majority of Pulsa’s work took place at their commune, where they could experiment with wave energies in everyday life, including tending to their farm at Harmony Ranch. In an essay from György Kepes’s collection Arts of the Environment, Pulsa described gardening as equal in significance to their more public projects and further emphasized the symbiotic relationship between their creative and agricultural work.

We grow many kinds of vegetables organically on the farm. Out of a half-acre garden we grew enough vegetables to feed ourselves, supply our neighbors, and barter with organic food stores. Agriculture provides information about long-term growth rhythms and is comparable in scale and as an energy to Pulsa’s other art works.

One of Pulsa’s main investigations with wave energies was conducted through brainwave experiments. In these experiments, participants would attach electrodes to their forehead and receive sound or light feedback when they achieved a certain frequency, most often an alpha state (around 8 to 12 Hz). Energies like brainwaves typically go undetected in day-to-day life, but by transducing it into sound and light, people could hear and see these energies. Such experiments, though, were not concerts or even formal events; they took place most often gathered around a circle at Harmony Ranch.

Serge Tcherepnin, brainwave experiments at Harmony Ranch, 1970

Serge Tcherepnin, brainwave experiments at Harmony Ranch, 1970 (source)

Pulsa’s experiments worked towards making wave energies more tangible and served as a reminder that when you make music—let alone move or breath or plant a garden—you affect the world around you. Although Pulsa’s example is perhaps an extreme one, it’s also a useful one. Pulsa’s work attested to the myriad ways that human beings are entangled—with each other and with environments—and you can hear this involvement; you can hear community through sound. Pulsa created a musical community that privileged not just the people within it but the sound and energy that sustained them.

* Members of Pulsa have uploaded numerous documents, including photos, event reviews, programs, and essays to achive.org.

Kerry O'Brien

Kerry O’Brien

Kerry O’Brien is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Indiana University and a percussionist with Nief-Norf. Her current research examines postwar experimentalism, media studies, and countercultural spirituality. O’Brien lives in Seattle where she is finishing a dissertation titled “Wireless Experimentalism: Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), 1966-1971.” Her work has been supported by grants from the Presser Foundation, the Getty Research Institute, the Paul Sacher Foundation, and an American Fellowship from the American Association of University Women.

Charlie Morrow: Wearing Different Hats

A conversation on the second floor of the historic Ear Inn (est. 1817) in New York City
April 17, 2015—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

The variety of activities that Charlie Morrow has been involved in for more than half a century is staggering even by today’s standards, when the wearing of numerous hats is almost a pre-requisite for being successful as a composer. The almost always Bowler hat-clad Morrow was writing conceptual pieces that predicted Fluxus as a high school student in the 1950s, twelve-tone scores under the tutelage of Stefan Wolpe at Mannes in the 1960s. He went on to develop alternative performance spaces, environmental music (including a widely publicized concert involving performances with fish), and music for multiples of the same instrument in the 1970s. While immersing himself in all those activities, he built one of the first private electronic music studios and wrote hit arrangements for Simon and Garfunkel, as well as The Rascals and Vanilla Fudge. He also penned some of the most earworm-inducing commercial jingles which promoted everything from Diet Coke and Hefty garbage bags to special express subway service to JFK airport.

Although I had never had a lengthy conversation with Morrow until we met up with him for this NewMusicBox presentation, he was a major role model for the choices I have made in my own life: he was a Columbia grad who, during his time there, immersed himself in world music; a musical creator who was never beholden to any particular musical genre or the limitations that adherence to any genre demands; for many years he was also the publisher of EAR Magazine, a seminal publication for new music which was one of the main inspirations for NewMusicBox. So I had tons of questions I wanted to ask him. Some of his answers led in directions I didn’t anticipate. For example, when I asked him about his earliest musical experiences, he actually spoke about events from the first year of his life and even shared a memory he had of being born.

“I always wanted to remember my birth,” Morrow explained. “I spent a number of years working back towards it. Using milestones of memory, you can find your way back to things that are lost in your memory by locating things; you can be very certain. … I remember that the physician who delivered me stank; at least he smelled bad to me as a living creature who had never smelled anything outside of amniotic fluid before. Then I remembered feeling crushed and totally thrashed in the birthing process. Then I remembered floating and hearing voices outside of my mother and having the sense of the world beyond the place where I was as my consciousness evolved.”

When we talked about his 1967 Marilyn Monroe Collage, which he created at the invitation of Andy Warhol to accompany an exhibition of Warhol’s legendary iterative Monroe silkscreens, I thought it would lead to a discussion of his gorgeous Wave Music pieces, which are scored for multiples of the same instrument—a process that seems aurally analogous to filling up a wall with iterations of the same visual image. Instead, he said, his impetus came from attempting to perform concerts with toadfish!

“I had decoded the language of toadfish and did a fish concert,” said Morrow. “In the course of doing that, I would get my audiences to make the sounds and then I decided that I would do a herd of the same instruments. It all grew from having heard the fish … as groups of individuals all signaling and communicating with each other. … Every living creature has evolved being able to receive vibrations from all of their vibratory receptors in a certain bandwidth and a certain sensitivity level and then a certain selectivity level. … We’re in two different parallel universes with different band widths, different perception and reception. But if you do get a message back—it seemed that we were able to understand in both field frogs and toadfish a kind of communication.”

As luck would have it, the fish concert took place right after Richard Nixon resigned from the United States presidency, and it became an international news story since it was a quirky distraction from current events.

“It was a total accident,” Morrow acknowledged. “He resigned the night before. He didn’t send anyone an invitation about his resignation. I mean, it wasn’t like ‘a month from now, would you all like to watch me resign?’ You know what I mean? What had happened was at that time, as part of my jingle business, I discovered PR. There was a guy named Morty Wax, who was my press agent at that time and who was very clever. … Since he was a respected press agent, everybody knew that it was going to happen. And on that morning, it became a world press event because everybody needed some distraction from the horrors of politics. … I heard reports of it from all over the world: Nixon resigned last night and this morning a group of artists in New York gave a concert for fish. It was that kind of ironic spin.”

Although Charlie Morrow is the quintessential DIY composer, he often thinks big—extremely big. Over the past decade, he has developed a revolutionary three-dimensional soundscape design, and his recent projects have included everything from a 72-speaker immersive environment as part of Nokia World in Barcelona to a permanent sound installation at the new display of the Magna Carta at Lincoln Castle in England. For next year’s summer solstice, June 21, 2016, he is mounting an unprecedented 24-hour concert that will take place in 24 different time zones.

“A mass performance should be either a totally composed piece like the Monkey Chant or Berlioz’s Requiem or something that’s created by the people who are doing it,” Morrow opined. “I’m sort of in the middle, but I think the pieces themselves have to achieve an audience. … My job has been to keep people surprised and interested as a sound maker. Whatever I turn my attention to, the idea is to bring something to it that makes it worthy of attention and, at the same time, to find some balance where it doesn’t burn itself out from multiple hearings.”

A Bowler-hat clad Morrow sits at a desk and triggers sound from his laptop.

Morrow demonstrates 3-D sound for us using his laptop.

Frank J. Oteri: We usually tend to begin at the beginning, in so far as we can begin at the beginning. There are many beginnings. But where I wanted to start our talk isn’t exactly at the beginning. I wanted to talk with you about your years as an undergraduate at Columbia, because I’ve read in several places that you studied with Colin Turnbull, who wrote a very popular ethnography about the Ituri rainforest pygmies and made some amazing field recordings of their music. So I was curious about how you, as an undergrad, became interested in the music of other cultures.

Charlie Morrow: Well, I’ve always been interested in the music of the world because I’ve been interested in radio. I’m a radio amateur. I started out by being a short wave buff; I would listen on many frequencies to sounds from all over the world. I came quickly to understand that there was a wide variety of music that was—I would say—misunderstood, or marginalized, or made other than mainstream by— at the time—the prejudices that divide anthropology from sociology. It was almost as if there was a racist component to it. If you weren’t white and from Western Europe, or amongst the elite of Asia, that what you did was somehow on a second category.

This impulse has been running through all of my work. A large part of it is because some of the more excellent things that music’s about are actually part of world music and older cultures, and it has been lost by the commodification, commercialization, and conversion to listener-directed product making. I come out of signaling—bugling, music for the time of day and for the location that you’re in, the idea of it being involved in some social structure like the Boy Scouts, the military, or the church calendar. I come from a multi-cultural city, Passaic, New Jersey. We had representatives of practically every religion and many, many countries there. So there was a sense, just walking through Passaic, of a wide variety of people. There were many small communities—Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, many flavors of Judaism, small synagogues the size of this room. But the one thing that characterized most of these groups, I found later on, was the incredible insularity of “we’re right and everybody else is wrong,” which is what I think created an atmosphere, when there finally was a kind of elite majority that controlled the pantheon of Western arts, that they said, “Well, this is ours.” And there were basically too few of everybody else holding onto their own traditions.

That’s a long introduction to the fact that I studied principally with Willard Rhodes at Columbia, because he was my ethnomusicology teacher, and then I met Colin Turnbull informally through the Museum of Natural History. I met him and I would go through the storeroom. Our discussions were based on the functionality of music. Functionality is a huge issue with me. Not just signaling, but ceremonial aspects and particularly the power of materials. A lot of my early writings concerned how, for example, something living has to die in order to become a musical instrument.

It’s a big theme that runs through my work. The relationship of death and life in Western music and, in particular, instruments—that’s what was so fantastic. You know, people play elephant tusk horns, Tibetan thigh horns, and I’m a horn-trumpet-wind person. The idea of blowing the breath of a living person through part of something dead was a connection to a larger world, rather than something morbid for me. I think this is what brought Colin Turnbull and I to our relationship because he felt very much the same. He saw magic everywhere. And he also saw clearly the way people treated each other. I think that he, in his own life—particularly in choosing a male pygmy as his husband—was putting himself on the line. He was a high-risk guy.

FJO: It’s fascinating to hear you say that as a teenager you already had the idea of infusing the past into the present and that it’s been a running theme in all of your creative and theoretical work ever since then.

CM: Yeah, actually it was earlier. I think it came from one particular question which I had had until I answered it, which was that I always wanted to remember my birth, and remember before I was born. I spent a number of years working back towards it. Using milestones of memory, you can find your way back to things that are lost in your memory by locating things; you can be very certain. And I finally went back and was able to remember my own birth. I remember that the physician who delivered me stank; at least he smelled bad to me as a living creature who had never smelled anything outside of amniotic fluid before. Then I remembered feeling crushed and totally thrashed in the birthing process. Then I remembered floating and hearing voices outside of my mother and having the sense of the world beyond the place where I was as my consciousness evolved, so going backwards into that process led inextricably to an explanation of why I thought this way.

FJO: This is amazing! Usually we begin these discussions at the beginning, but we’ve never talked to anyone about the very beginning.

CM: My beginning, anyway.

Charlie Morrow climbing on a Keep Off sign

A maverick from the very beginning. (Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

FJO: So, alright, since you went all the way back there, I’m going to try to go back there with you. Do you remember the first time you heard something that was described as music?

CM: Yes, I do. I remember that my parents had a record. I must have been about three-years old, and they said, in playing the record, that this was music. I remember hearing a recording of Stravinsky, a narrated record about music, and then they said there’s some new and wild things like Stravinsky. And it went on from there. I had limited experience of music making outside of our house. But actually, my first real experience of the power of music was much, much earlier when I was about a year old. I was born in ’42, and my father and mother both were psychiatrists. My dad wanted to practice psychiatry in the military. He had volunteered for the Navy, but he was too short by some tiny amount. So he wound up in the Army. They put him into an army psychiatric hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. And my mom and I took a long train trip down to visit. It must have been the summer after I was born. There was a military parade for the officers. I remember how I could not keep the sound of the drums outside of me. It seemed to penetrate my body. I had never experienced anything that loud or that close. That became the earliest experience for me of music, just that very, very intense military drumming.

FJO: What’s so interesting about that is that one of the instruments you would have heard in that military parade—trumpet—became your first instrument, and also that you wound up doing so many outdoor, environmental pieces. So the seeds of those later developments go all the way back to this initial musical encounter.

CM: I think you’re right. It also came from the intense liberation that I felt as a bugler in the Boy Scouts. The experience of blowing “Reveille” or “Taps” from a hanging metal cone megaphone, and blowing it in three different directions—I think that that completely convinced me of where I was going. It sounded so different in each direction. Having three shots at playing it, having learned and heard the first and then the second, and the third, was an iterative experience that made me well aware of what environments are about.

FJO: That also ties into your whole development of the 3D sound cube and directionality much later on.

CM: You’re absolutely right, because what I wanted to achieve with the 3D sound cube was a natural feeling that you could locate where sound came from. Because it makes you nervous if you can’t, because your life is threatened on a very primordial level if you don’t know where sound is and what’s making it. It could get you, or you might not get it if you needed to eat it or any number of things that are defined by instantly resolving where something is, and instantly making a judgment about what it’s about. You know, is it threatening? Is it appetizing? Is it intriguing?

A diagram showing the speaker alignment to simulate 3-D sound

The schematics for the MorrowSound 8.1 System Single Cube array.

FJO: In that sense, sound is very different from visual information because we’re trained to sense perspective, which enables us to know how far away something is just by seeing where it is. Sound, on the other hand, we perceive as a non-corporeal, disembodied thing. But of course it is physical, too, but it’s not something we can necessarily see.

CM: Also our eyes are frontal, but our ears—divided left and right—resolve sound in a full spherical environment. Your eye is not trying to invent anything for the portion that it doesn’t see, unless you stick it in an oculus or another kind of enhanced, immersive experience. But your ear does that all the time; your ear is resolving x, y, z, w, and t at least—w is where the observer is, t is over time.

FJO: Before we get too theoretical, I want to head back to Columbia. There’s another person whom you studied with there at that time who is one of my heroes because of his incredible open-mindedness—Otto Luening. So I’m curious to learn more about your relationship with him and what his influence was on you.

CM: Well, I had a class in music history with him, which was quite nice because he was able to speak very personally about the materials in music. I think that his most fascinating teaching was the multi-level interpretation of everything. You don’t just hear the music or see it in one way; he always explained what it was for, who did it, and what the environment was at the time. He was also interested in the gestural aspect of the music. And he had a great sense of humor. I remember once he was talking about one of the Scarlattis, about the tight little playing of very delicate and carefully honed keyboard music. And he said, “They did that ‘cause in those days you couldn’t go like this: bang-bang-bang-bang.” He always had little side trips like that. He was constantly riffing on what he taught, which created open doors because he took everything he said with a big grain of salt.

FJO: Did you have any involvement with the electronic music studio that he was developing?

CM: I didn’t work in it, but I became very familiar with it. Being a techie, I was fascinated and I met a number of the people who worked there. I knew Bülent Arel and some of the South American guys who were working there, and I continued to have a connection to the studio. I maintained a steady relationship with Charles Dodge. I stayed connected because they were proactive in creating a world of their own. Early sound studios were very particularly made to the interest of their creators. I had one of the first privately-owned sound studios in New York. When I moved to 365 West End Avenue, we built a studio there and I had a team of people working with me. Our studio was totally different from what Columbia was about; it was concerned with programmability, repeatability, and the accuracy of a lot of the work. All of those issues distinguish what I’ve eventually done with 3D immersive sound from what the entire industry is doing with it.

A long-haired Charlie Morrow leaning at a table and surrounded by a lot of electronic equipment

Charlie Morrow at his NYC studio, circa 1969. (Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

In a way, Columbia’s studio set me off on a path of being a staunch independent, doing more gesturally-based things, working with cheaper equipment, working with approaches that were more connected to the natural world. I always wanted to get closer to electrons as part of nature; my field at Columbia was chemistry. Chemistry’s an extraordinary embodiment of metaphysics.

FJO: So you weren’t a music major?

CM: No, I was a pre-med student.

FJO: So you were trying to follow in the footsteps of your parents?

CM: Yeah.

FJO: Interesting. I didn’t realize that. So you studied music history with Luening, not composition?

CM: Yes, but I had studied composition. My first composition teacher was a guy named Carlo Lombardi, when I was in Newark Academy. Carlo was a student of Dallapiccola, so I got a really interesting education right away—a really Italian take on Viennese 12-note music. Carlo was also a very good keyboard player; he could play anything I could write, so I suddenly started to have good performances of what I was doing. And he encouraged me to go to Interlochen where I was in high school composition and orchestration classes. I worked with a number of teachers there and things got played. What really took my career along was the idea of having the work played, because I’d written for years before that but I didn’t have anybody to play it, except if I wrote it for trumpet, which was my instrument.

FJO: But what interests me is that already, before you went to college, as a high school student, you were writing conceptually based pieces. And this was music that was 180 degrees away from 12-tone music. You were writing downtown music in high school back before the words uptown and downtown took on polemic meanings.

CM: Yes, I was. I did a slow Gabrieli piece.

FJO: That piece [Very Slow Gabrieli] actually reminds me of the music of a younger composer, Jacob Cooper, who—nearly 60 years after you wrote that piece—has created a whole body of fascinating repertoire based on slowing down older music.

CM: Interesting. It’s nice to know that the door, once it was opened, is happening. But my favorite [among my early pieces] is the surprise music where at a pre-arranged time, when an orchestra’s playing, everyone stops and squirms and belches and makes funny little noises, unknown to the conductor. It’s a guerilla event in the middle of an orchestra performance and it really worked out well.

FJO: That’s a very Fluxus idea, but this is pre-Fluxus.

CM: It is. We’re talking the 1950s.

FJO: But it makes me wonder. I went to Columbia in the ‘80s, which was at the tail end of what some people perceived as the period of 12-tone hegemony in many academic institutions. It was a time when many folks still didn’t really look too kindly on alternative compositional approaches. So I could only imagine what the reaction was there to the wilder side of your music at that earlier time.

CM: Well, basically I divorced myself from the non-ethnomusicological part of Columbia. I played with Philip Corner, James Tenney, and Malcolm Goldstein and was part of the Tone Roads concert series. I guess we had our own world. I met Cage through them, and it was like finding my people.

FJO: Yet in the middle of all that, you wound up going to Mannes and studying with Stefan Wolpe, a fascinating composer who was at the other end of the aesthetic spectrum.

A photo of the back of Charlie Morrow's head, wearing a Bowler hat

Charlie Morrow. Photo by Colin Still (courtesy Charlie Morrow).

CM: I was bouncing back and forth. I have works in different styles from that time. I guess what I was discovering was that I could work in a number of styles. It’s how I wound up in the jingle and film scoring business. I could work authentically and non-imitatively in other styles, and that became interesting for me. Having done that for a while as the business became more codified and referential, that stopped being fun. It was fun as long as the door was open. When I first went into that world, I went into it as a combination composer and sound designer, because those were two separate things: two people that got a job. I could get a job, and they could pay me once, instead of paying two people. But once the ’80s came, I began to look for something else to do with myself because it had become pretty much like Columbia and 12-note music. The commercial music scene had become formulaic.

FJO: But we’re jumping ahead here. You weren’t doing commercial jingles when you were studying with Wolpe at Mannes.

CM: No, that hadn’t happened yet. That happened after I did a piece for tenor and orchestra that won a prize and brought me out to San Francisco. When I came back to New York, I had imagined that since I’d met Leonard Bernstein and had suddenly been introduced to the mainstream world that I’d get phone calls and letters and requests for commissions. It was a wild fantasy. It never happened. I think at that point, I wrote an essay called “View from the Bottom of the Heap” which was published in 1966 in the American Music Center’s newsletter. John Duffy encouraged me to put my ideas out there about being an independent composer and earning a living from it. So it was at that time that I began to part company with the concert hall. I did a protest concert called “For the Two Charlies,” with Ives’s music and my own, and that was the end of my life in the concert hall. I just devoted myself to music outside the concert hall.

FJO: At the time you complained about the constricting of sound in the concert hall, that it’s a very artificial idea to create a blank slate for music to fill up, since in every other environment outside of a concert hall music co-exists with many other sounds. So the concert hall environment artificializes the listening experience.

CM: It’s true. Later on, as an outdoor event-maker turned soundscaper, I began to realize the concert hall was just one of many possible environments. When I started to build things in 3D, the idea was that you make a location and then you populate it with sounds and sound scenery. But first you make an environment. Every place is an environment. I think it was a conceit on my part to see the concert hall as being too quiet for what I had in mind.

A photo montage from three different musical events: an event composition involving violins and bathtubs, two people standing under a bell, and an ensemble atop a tractor.

Charlie Morrow’s journey outside the concert hall has led him to create music with bathtubs and tractors as well as experiment with new ways to hear sound. (Photos courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

FJO: So how did you make the transition from writing for tenor and orchestra to creating music for experiences that were outside the concert hall? Building your own studio and production company takes money and time. And to be successful at it also requires connections. I know one of your classmates at Columbia was Art Garfunkel.

CM: Right. I also met people who had studios. I learned how the studio world worked. At the same time, I had a bit of interesting input from my mother who was a psychiatrist and introduced me to a fellow named Andy Mashberg, whom she’d met at a medical convention. After I came back to New York and actually saw Leonard Bernstein sitting at the Bavarian Inn at the next table from me, I met Andy Mashberg whom my mother had talked to. Andy had said to my mother, “I know how he can survive without teaching.” He met me and he said, “You can be a writer of jingles and corporate music and film scores. This is what you have to do.” And he talked me through it. He gave me a list of people. He told me how to make a demo reel. So I was basically walked right to the door of work. And fortunately, within a half a year, I started to have some good opportunities. I did a kind of humorous Cinzano radio commercial. “Please, don’t pinch Cinzano ashtrays. Try Cinzano vermouth instead. Cinzano vermouth is better than ashtrays. Get it into your American head.” These were the lyrics of a mad man named David Altschuler. We became lifelong friends. And fortunately he had work for me. My career has been meeting people who thought that what I did could be useful for what they did. So in terms of being a producer, I quickly learned to do what was needed by people who liked me and thought I could do it.

FJO: So you were already doing commercial work when you started doing production on pop records in the late ‘60s?

CM: No, the other way around. What happened was my then-wife didn’t like me up all night and away, you know, because in the daytime I was also trying to find work and it was stretching our relationship. So what I’d learned from the pop music world was that I wanted to work in the daytime if I was going to keep a home together. So that’s what happened. I more or less started out by getting into the commercial studios through the pop music connection, but then making connections into the advertising world. I already knew good performers from all the worlds that I was in. And that was from a long history of being a producer as well. I had helped Charlotte Moorman produce an avant-garde festival and I had worked in Norman Seaman’s office, who was a promoter—all of this with my mother behind the scenes trying to figure out how I might survive doing what I wanted to do. She was a great admirer of [Sol] Hurok, and she said, “Look at that guy. He finds the talent, he finds the venue, he finds a sponsor, he spends other people’s money, and he makes money for himself.” She was constantly encouraging me to figure out what was on the table and how to move it around.

FJO: So she never tried to get you to go back to med school?

CM: No. My father did, but not my mother. When I was 38, my father, having seen a concert of mine at MoMA, said, “Haven’t you had enough fun now?” I was trying to figure out what he meant. At the time, I was making a very good living, so it couldn’t have been about money. I think he was embarrassed by my eccentricity.

FJO: So getting into the pop world was through Garfunkel?

CM: Yeah, it happened through Garfunkel. And then I had a business partner named Barry Minsky and through him I wound up doing an orchestra piece for The Young Rascals. Then I met other people. Through Atlantic Records, I wound up working for Vanilla Fudge. Then it went kind of back and forth. Studios would put together teams, and so I wound up doing arrangements on various records; the Record Plant studio became a kind of home for me. It evolved from A & R studios where Simon and Garfunkel had recorded originally. I think it was a Columbia studio on lease, or they bought time at A & R. But from A & R, it led to the Record Plant. And everybody hung out there. It was kind of the club house for all different kinds of music production for the pop scene.

FJO: In terms of its production, Simon and Garfunkel’s record Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme was radical at that time; it was the first eight-track record. Considering your ideas about the directionality of sound, which an eight-track recording would have emulated much better than any previous technology, did you have something to do with that?

CM: I created hit charts for them. I talked to Paul Simon about the sounds, using a Renaissance keyboard instrument. None of them read music; it was all about sharing ideas. So I had something to do with it, yes. But I didn’t write a note.

FJO: But did you have anything to do with the multi-tracking? It was a vital step toward the way most pop music recordings were subsequently made. Nowadays, with digital studios, you can theoretically record an infinite number of different tracks and then mix them together however you want to during post-production. But before that album, most recordings were one-track or two-tracks as stereo came in. Then George Martin made the first four-track recordings of The Beatles in 1963. But Simon and Garfunkel beat even The Beatles to eight-track, and from thereon in there was no turning back.

CM: Well, I think it came from the engineering side; that wasn’t my idea. I was just a hired hand. I would come in and do the sessions, or talk on the phone before. For the real artisanal work that was done in the studio, there was as engineer involved. I think his name was Stan Tonkel. He was extremely far thinking. Of course, Columbia Records themselves bought a lot of multi-track machines. They had the money. Commercials lent themselves to multi-track machines also because you wanted to be covered for different versions and be able to do very polished work based on a lot of fragments. Directionality was not such an issue. It was more about layers. Layering is still very important in the work that I do, as you’ll see in the software that I’ll show you later. We layer in 3D. We can create as many layers as we like in order to be able to create a world of sound, and that is similar to what an eight-track machine has to offer.

A concert poster for an all-Morrow concert listing performances of his Marilyn Monroe Collage (1967), Sound Piece for Rock Amplified Piano (1968), and A Little Brigati Music (1969).

A poster for an all-Morrow concert at Town Hall in NYC before he decided to create music outside the concert hall.

FJO: One of the reasons I thought there might have been a connection here was that you used multi-tracking in the multi-layered Marilyn Monroe piece you did around that time [Marilyn Monroe Collage].

CM: Well, actually, I had to do that piece as a series. I remember, I had a classmate, Mike Shapiro from Columbia, and Shapiro had gone to work for a sound library. They had an excellent mono studio. I think we did the Marilyn Monroe piece by creating all of the elements and rolling them in on two-track machines, doing them as very careful sound on sound. So that was because I had a guy who was really good at being my hands and he engineered the whole thing for me. It was such a juggle.

FJO: It certainly doesn’t sound like it’s just two tracks.

CM: No, it doesn’t. But I think that might have been just prior to eight-track recording. I knew about four-track recording.

FJO: That piece opens up doors to all kinds of things, like taking found sounds and using them as sonic objects for your own ends, which is a very post-modern idea and something you’re still doing now with your recent re-compositions. It’s an idea that has a lot of currency right now—sampling something and turning it into a new creation by remixing it and making it your own. Everything in your Marilyn Monroe piece came from something she actually said that was recorded, but you turned it into something that she never said.

CM: That’s right.

FJO: Also since she was so iconic, and was someone that everyone could immediately identify, there was something very populist about your piece, even though it was experimental conceptual music.

CM: It’s true. It had grown out of an invitation by Andy Warhol to create a piece for his Marilyn Monroe show at a gallery on 57th Street. My motivation for it was actually seeing everything and, in terms of ceremony, thinking of the artist as a sacrificial lamb. And I thought, coming back always with this death image, that I was taking Marilyn Monroe and reviving her for my own benefits. She was a beautiful vehicle for the thoughts I had about her, which concerned, in my way, the exploitation that show business does.

FJO: Another interesting aspect about what you did with Marilyn Monroe, which makes more sense now that you’ve referenced an exhibition of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe silkscreens, is that you’ve taken something very popular and turned it into something much more rarified and abstract, just as Warhol did by silkscreening those images of her. Her image became just a form in which to explore a process, just as he had done earlier by painting sequences of Campbell’s soup cans or Brillo boxes. Which connects to another thing you have done as a composer—all the stuff you’ve composed for multiples of the same instrument. Having 30 harps or 40 cellos, all the same sonority, is the sonic equivalent of a whole room filled with the same visual image.

CM: That’s a very interesting reading. I was on a panel about animal communication. I had decoded the language of toadfish and did a fish concert and had before that done a lot of field work with peepers where I could get into dialogue with them. In the course of doing that, I would get my audiences to make the sounds and then I decided that I would do a herd of the same instruments. It all grew from having heard the fish and the peepers as groups of individuals all signaling and communicating with each other.

Page of a manuscript score showing sequences of numbers shaded in various colors.

From the score of Charlie Morrow’s Book of Numbers. © 1974 by Charlie Morrow / Other Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

But then you remind me that when I first went to Mannes School of Music, I met a guy from the neighborhood whose mother had an empty flat. He said, “You’ve got to come over here. My mom let this crazy art director from advertising do a show in one of her empty flats. It’s a block away. Come with me, Charlie.” I walked in and there was Andy Warhol, and it was his first show. And the walls were exactly as you say. And I remember thinking about the simultaneity of duplicates at the time. But until our conversation it had not surfaced that this is a piece of that, because I’d always seen it through the herds and other multiple images from nature, rather than from the manipulation of the artist.

FJO: That fish concert happened during the period between Richard Nixon’s resignation and Gerald Ford being sworn in as president. Was that some sort of an artistic statement?

CM: It was a total accident. He resigned the night before. He didn’t send anyone an invitation about his resignation. I mean, it wasn’t like “a month from now, would you all like to watch me resign?” You know what I mean? What had happened was at that time, as part of my jingle business, I discovered PR. There was a guy named Morty Wax, who was my press agent at that time and who was very clever. Morty himself was the one who said, “You’re working with all these sounds. Why don’t you do a concert for fish?” And I said, “What a great idea, Morty. We’ll do it.” At the time, I had been working for large industrial, multi-media projects with a guy named John Doswell. Doswell just died a month ago, but he’s been significant in my life because he was very active in the harbor life here. And he arranged tugboat races and so forth later, but Doswell said, “Come on out. Let’s do it from my boat.” So I suddenly had a boat, and I knew the technology, and so Morty Wax’s suggestion turned into reality. And since he was a respected press agent, everybody knew that it was going to happen. And on that morning, it became a world press event because everybody needed some distraction from the horrors of politics.

FJO: Although I would imagine in terms of it being a world press event, it was overshadowed by Nixon’s resignation.

CM: Of course.

FJO: So that’s the bad part of it happening the same day.

CM: But it was mentioned worldwide. I heard reports of it from all over the world: Nixon resigned last night and this morning a group of artists in New York gave a concert for fish. It was that kind of ironic spin.

FJO: At that point, you had already done stuff with birds, the Central Park pieces.

CM: Well, I had done the solstice events. Let’s see; let me put it together: ’74 was when Nixon resigned and we did the fish concert. I had already started The New Wilderness Foundation and the New Wilderness Band. We had already been doing solstice events, and we were communicating with birds in those events.

The New Wilderness Band in performance sometime in the mid 1970s.

The New Wilderness Band in performance sometime in the mid 1970s. (Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

FJO: So in terms of how that works, you say communicating with birds or with fish. I’d like to unpack this a bit.

CM: Sure.

FJO: We’re hearing their sounds, but do you have any sense of what they’re hearing from us? Is there really a two-way aspect to this or is it all just our interpretation of what this is?

CM: Well, I would say that it’s both. First of all, I believe in the bandwidth of perception. Every essay in the book I’m working on has to do with the fact that every creature hears and sees vibrations on different wavelengths. Every living creature has evolved being able to receive vibrations from all of their vibratory receptors in a certain bandwidth and a certain sensitivity level and then a certain selectivity level. It’s absolutely true, for example, that a horse and a human might be riding and spending days together, but they’re not getting the same world because their ears are in different positions and the evolution of our sensory systems are different. So going then beyond a fellow warm blooded animal to reptiles, talking to each other through a black hole, so to speak, we’re in two different parallel universes with different band widths, different perception and reception. But if you do get a message back—it seemed that we were able to understand in both field frogs and toadfish a kind of communication. They basically both have a simple language and it was the complexity of such a simple language that turned my interest.

Toadfish make a sound [demonstrates] and they tend to have a lead toadfish that’s making a sound and the others want to reply. So groups follow the leader. And then that toadfish, once he’s got a group, starts to increase the tempo, jumping the beat, and the group follows until another starts over here at a much slower tempo. This goes on every day. That’s an auditory transactional state that those folks are in, or those critters. So if you make those sounds, and they answer you, they play; if you can play in that band, you’re there, at least for the part that you hear and the part that they hear.

FJO: That’s absolutely fascinating. What’s perhaps even more fascinating is that at the same time that you’re doing this really out there stuff like this concert for fish, you’re making a living doing commercial jingles. I’m curious about the spillover. Some of your commercial stuff is quite avant-garde in some ways. Your Hefty garbage bag theme, in particular, is pretty wacky musically; it’s full of really unusual harmonies which never resolve.

CM: My job has been to keep people surprised and interested as a sound maker. Whatever I turn my attention to, the idea is to bring something to it that makes it worthy of attention and, at the same time, to find some balance where it doesn’t burn itself out from multiple hearings. Soundscapes are like that. We build soundscapes that people will hear for a permanent installation. There is this balance that has to be achieved between every element in relation to the other elements.

That’s something you learn from orchestration. This is just a contemporary equivalent of orchestration. Whether it’s a trumpet orchestra in West Africa, or a Western orchestra, or an opera. It functions transactionally. Everybody’s got to have a role in it and have a good time somehow. Like in a good gamelan piece, the social fabric is illuminated when all the pieces come together and the music ticks. A trick with being in the jingle world was always to find that balance. However, I don’t think it’s possible in the same way now. I have a job right now, which shall go nameless. The environmental pieces of it were created and were fine with the client. But all the tiny sound effects that were in it they wanted copied exactly from today’s latest high-tech, game-oriented feature films.

I had an argument with people who were half my age—actually in this room—in which I said to them, “I think that you’re making a terrible mistake. I think that just simply copying that without a reason other than that you think people will identify with that is basically to burn them out faster. What you’re doing will be trivialized faster in my experience.” At which point, I put somebody else from our team on the job. And a note came back. “It’s a problem working with Charlie; we have to listen to philosophy.” From my point of view, I’d given them sound economic advice, and from their point of view, I was wasting their time because they were in a hurry to do something they thought was right. It kind of epitomized what has happened at all stages of my career.

At one point I was asked by an agency guy to write a Pan Am commercial. He said, “Would you make me a commercial? I want you to do this with an original flair. It shouldn’t sound like anything that anyone’s heard before.” I said, “Do you really mean that? He said, “I do.” I said, “Well, it’s opportunities like this that I live for.” And so I wrote two pieces, for the same ensemble. We read through the first one, and the guy came out screaming. He said, “What is this shit? I’ve never heard anything like it in my life.” I said, “Well, did you hear what you just said? Wasn’t that my assignment?” He said, “Don’t fuck with my head.” I said, “Well, I’m just teasing.” We played the other one. He said, “Don’t ever do that again.”

FJO: Do you have a recording of those? I’d love to hear them.

CM: I actually do. I have to dig them out.

FJO: The jingles you created for Hefty and WINS radio were both used for years. Those were really successful.

CM: They still are.

FJO: And they’re both instantly identifiable. So there were—and clearly still are—folks that were accepting of these more unusual kinds of sounds. People obviously liked them, because they’re still popular.

CM: There are tastemakers who do it right. There’s also such a thing as good luck. But my style has always been to create something that’s a little bit on the edge. Generally that seems to work to keep it fresh for as long as it lives. I mean, that’s in my mind and what I’ve learned from composers of the past. The good stuff still sounds fresh and sounds right. So I try to impart that, whether it’s a three-second logo or a ten-day event.

FJO: At that same time, you also wrote a tune that could very well have been a Billboard hit single, if it wasn’t written for a commercial—your “Take the Train to the Plane” jingle for the New York City subway system. It’s actually almost a pop song.

CM: It really is. Well, that was a remarkable situation where I wrote for two very bright marketing guys who were great fans of things that were just like that. They wanted me to write something that’s memorable, that people would sing, and that would possibly have a life outside of the use by the MTA.

FJO: And did it?

CM: Yeah, there were a number of releases of it. It’s been licensed for a number of feature films. It hasn’t been what you call an avalanche of coverage, but it has lived.

FJO: So you worked in all these different genres. You created avant-garde music, and you have this academic music that you’d written earlier, you did pop music production, you did improvisatory stuff with the New Wilderness Group, and then commercial jingle work. Then you were part of the creation of EAR Magazine, which was a publication for new music that embraced it all. It makes sense now, because your background was doing it all. But I’m wondering what made you decide to participate in a publication for this stuff.

CM: Well, it’s just like my mother or Morty Wax suggesting something. I’m not so much an inventor of things, but a selector of good ideas that float past my nose. First of all, Beth Anderson and a guy named Charles Shere from San Francisco developed a community mimeo publication called EAR. And Beth came and lived in this house. R.I.P. Hayman has had many people come and share his roof with him. He’s a very generous guy. And Beth and he put out EAR together, and then Beth wanted to get out. Magazine fever is something people usually have for short periods of time—I mean, a certain number of years. But Rip wanted to keep it going. So Rip asked me, since we were already working together on so many things, whether New Wilderness could be its fiscal agent, its bank account, and its tax status. And I said of course. Then I wound up working with EAR a lot. I took an interest in EAR because I believe in thematic publication. So under my tenure with EAR, we had issues on music of healing, poetry, politics; the EARs were basically anthologies.

I also have to say that I’ve been very much inspired by my long-term relationship with the poet Jerome Rothenberg, who was a master anthologist. Poetry appears in the first person. You print the poem and there it is before you. The idea of EAR was that we’d have essays and actual compositions, a direct communication from the creator to the reader, which is quite different from the way music is generally handled. Music is generally written about—it’s critiqued, it’s promoted, but the actual primary content is very rarely presented other than in books of scores. So I would say that in that way we fell together as people who were interested in what the other was doing and then seeking a community through publication.

FJO: Well, as I’ve told you before, EAR was one of the main inspirations for the creation of NewMusicBox—people who create this work talking and writing about it themselves, rather than there being filters. Initially, for the first few years that NewMusicBox was online, each month was a thematic issue. Ultimately, though, we realized having a monthly thematic format wasn’t the perfect fit for the instantaneous 24/7/365 communication mechanism that the internet was evolving into, so now we post stuff almost every weekday and the pieces don’t all connect to each other in the same way. But I’m curious; you talk about EAR on an aesthetic level. I always thought of it as a socio-political act. We have this world outside of what we do that doesn’t necessarily understand what we do. So the media often gets it wrong in terms of how they describe it. Sometimes they’re dismissive and at times they’re downright hostile toward it. But we can create our own publication. We can create our own world. Let people know about what we do by telling them ourselves. Rather than relying on tastemakers to do it for us, we can be our own tastemakers.

CM: I agree, and program makers, too. Our solstice broadcasts were lengthy compilations of material done in celebration of a holiday, and promoted to the world through broadcast and getting people to physically show up. So I agree with you. The idea of artists curating artists, and artists writing in the first person was definitely in the air and I felt very strongly about it. After all, my whole career has been stepping out, making my own studio, making my own way as a producer, and I thought that in this sense a community is built by people who are able to do that and then sharing the skill sets. Bringing that together, how wonderful EAR became under different editorial leadership and different art direction!

It was quite unusual for a publication within music to take on such great graphic interest. This is where R.I.P. Hayman’s particular inspiration—and all of us, in that way—all feeds back to Philip Corner. Rip and I met through Philip Corner’s sound out of silence spaces. Philip had learned calligraphy in Korea and made calligraphic music; his calligraphic scores had opened the door between graphics and communicating and music and sound. So we were looking to get the word out. At that time, I became the music critic for the Soho News, and I wrote essays about Jackson Mac Low, Alison Knowles, and a number of other people who were important in their thinking to me, because no one knew who they were. They weren’t mainstream artists. They were just doing their work and I think that publishing the work and also writing about it within a framework of the art community is very positive.

A poster for the Ear Magazine benefit concert on April 8, 1983 featuring an illustration of a giant ear and listing the participation of Charlie Morrow, Joan LaBarbara, Robert Ashley and many others as well as the world premiere of John Cage's ear for EAR

Ear magazine was much more than a publication; it served as a central hub for the entire new music community. The April 8, 1983 benefit concert for Ear brought together a widely diverse group of music creators including Laurie Anderson, Derek Bailey, David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir, Nam Jun Paik, and the Gamelan Son of Lion as well as John Cage who especially created the composition ear for EAR for the event.

FJO: The other thing that I found so inspirational about EAR was its definition of what new music was. It was really open-ended. I first became aware of the rock band Sonic Youth through EAR magazine. EAR was a portal into a broad range of genres, not a place that passed judgment on what was “uptown” or “downtown” or what had pedigree or lacked it. It presented everything on an equal footing, which was incredibly mind opening and made for a more inclusive new music community.

CM: I think you’re right, and in that respect, EAR also demonstrated that a community could be supportive of each other. While there had been this weird uptown-downtown split, it was really a tiny fissure in a community of people who otherwise were quite frankly really hungry to be more connected to other people and to know about things. I mean, your own experience shows what we found with EAR, because the readership went up. People were hungry to learn, and it was easier to understand it if you could see the real work, and understand that it had been either an impulse or been thoughtfully put together. It was transparently primary materials. What made it exciting for all of us was that we were constantly amazed by the breadth of the community and the diversity of what was called new music. It didn’t have to be pigeon-holed. Every time anyone would describe it, it would become something else.

FJO: But EAR eventually went away. We were talking before we began recording about finding ways to digitize the EAR archive to make those incredible issues available again, but it’s weird. All of this existed before the internet. It almost predicted the internet in terms of its interactivity and its attempt to join communities. At one point, I know there had even been an EAR Music East, and an EAR Music West on the West Coast. All these things are so much easier to do now that there’s an internet, yet by the time the web became used by the general public, EAR no longer existed, which is a tragic irony.

CM: It was unfortunate. You know, EAR kept evolving, and at a certain point EAR wanted to separate itself from New Wilderness Foundation and I think it was a time of a changing world. In my own case, I became a father in 1989 and producing the big solstice project that year for June 21, I barely was able to attend my daughter’s birth and be there for when she came home. I suddenly had a whole other world. After that, it kind of came to an end. EAR got a board together and then it went bankrupt. One of the differences throughout the whole project was that Rip and I, when there was no money, would put money in. That’s a necessary and magical ingredient; no matter what happened, we would keep it floating. The new board for EAR had a situation. The printer had gone out of business for some reason and EAR was impounded by a creditor. But EAR had already sold substantial advertising like in tens of thousands of dollars. In order to collect it, EAR had to appear. Generally speaking, EAR paid for its printing after it got its advertising money. So, this chicken-egg effect worked out that then the board, who were a lot of nice people, a lot of them with money, when it came time to put their hands in their pockets, they put their hands in the air. And something very wonderful came to an end. I think no project like this can exist unless there’s somebody who’s a tireless fool who will pay the bills.

FJO: The other amazing thing about it is that magazine was created in this space, the Ear Inn—a building that’s been here since the second decade of the 19th century. In a way, it’s a remarkable parallel that connects back to what you were saying earlier about creating new work through a relationship with old things. We’re in this really old place, certainly by New York City standards, that became one of the meccas for really new music. It seems wonderfully contradictory and yet it makes total sense.

CM: True. It’s a nice thought. I think that very much has to do with R.I.P. Hayman and his great generosity, imagination, and tenacity with keeping a space like this from being totally wiped off the face of the earth, which it’s been threatened with so many times. It makes this a very vital location for doing things.

FJO: I know your feelings about the concert hall and what it represents. So you created a musical existence beyond it and I think, to some extent, that idea translated into your idea about recordings as well because for a very long time your music was never available on recordings. Once again, just like a concert hall captures sound and puts it in this one place, a recording does that even more so because it captures time. John Philip Sousa rallied against canned music a century ago, but unfortunately in our world, unless you can your music and commodify it that way, people aren’t aware that it exists. A few years ago, after all these incredible things you did across many decades, XI finally put out a three-CD retrospective so people who weren’t around to hear these things when they happened could actually hear them.

CD cover of Toot! featuring a drawing of a Bowler hat filled with musical notation against a black background.

In June 2011, XI Records finally issued the first-ever album devoted exclusively to the music of Charlie Morrow, Toot! (XI 135), a generous 3-CD retrospective containing works spanning half a century.

CM: I think that I’m not so good at making records. My whole career has been in making soundtracks, making events, and broadcasts. For all of these things I’m an expert, but I was never a good producer for my own work. They say that a lawyer who represents himself in court has a fool for a client. I think there are people who are excellent record producers for themselves, but it just was a skill that I lacked. There was no other reason for there not being recordings of my work. There were small editions of my work along the way, as part of anthologies or some collection or another, but my work was primarily in broadcast and in media and in public spaces, because that’s what I knew how to do. It is a picture of my limitations, about presenting what I do to a wider audience in that medium.

Now I have marvelous spatial systems. I’m quite capable of presenting large spatial events. I do them once, and I have not attempted to publish them and make them repeatable. It’s just simply a limitation that I’ve got. I think that if I had somebody helping me over those years, that side would have been much better handled. Without Phill Niblock saying that he would like to do a triple CD of my work, I would simply have not done it because it’s just a little bit off of what I do well. So I worked on it with a group of people and they helped select things that would be good on CD. I think what makes me a terrible record person is that I’m a terrible A & R guy. I can’t figure out what belongs on a disc, what’s a reasonably good experience and so forth.

Alyssa Hess standing and leaning on a harp with Charlie Morrow, John Cage and R.I.P. Hayman seated in front of her.

Harpist Alyssa Hess with Charlie Morrow, John Cage and R.I.P. Hayman at MoMA in 1984. (Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

FJO: Well there are certainly some pieces on there that work wonderfully as stand-alone sonic experiences, particularly that gorgeous multiple harp piece [Wave Music VII]. But of course it makes me eager to hear more. I read that there are three string quartets that you wrote early on. Are there recordings of those? Might those be released on another recording one day?

CM: Well I’ve assembled an archive now. I’ve started to put together collections on SoundCloud that are private. Jerome Rothenberg and I have done a lot of collaborations, so I’ve put all the Rothenberg ones together. A friend of mine has an online radio station, so we did a Rothenberg celebration for a bunch of months. But radio is a funny medium because people aren’t necessarily going to listen to long works on radio. But everything’s available in the archive. So we have a number of solutions. David Rothenberg thought there should be a retrospective museum. Owen Bush has suggested since I’m working in virtual reality that we create in virtual reality our own virtual museum, and put all the work in there, since it is site specific. It could then be performed in a more or less site-specific way. And we’re building that virtual reality museum right now with the help of the Unity Studio in Denmark. I think that will come along, but if any of the pieces are interesting to you, and you had some idea how they might be best presented to others, I’m totally into it. I just haven’t taken that step.

On the other hand, we’re remastering all the audiographics cassettes. We had 42 of them. It’s probably the seminal series of sound art and anthropological music: Philip Corner’s first recordings, Dick Higgins’s stuff, Alison Knowles’s stuff. I’m going to make all that available, because there’s a French label that’s interested in doing a sampler and then helping to collect orders for it. I have such big chunks of things that making them meaningful and making them available in a way that’s sensible is just slowly coming to me.

FJO: Since you mentioned Denmark and a French label, there’s one last thing I want to ask you about. You’ve spent a considerable amount of time doing projects in Europe. For some of the larger-scale activities that you’ve done there—like that piece of yours that involves 2,000 people—we certainly have the people and the enthusiasm to make it happen here, and yet these kinds of things seem to happen more in Europe these days.

A page of handwritten manuscript score for Charlie Morrow's event composition CityWave

From the score for Charlie Morrow’s CityWave, an event composition involving more than 1000 performers. © 1985 by Charlie Morrow / Other Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

CM: I think as always, it has to do with who the organizers are. I’ve been recently talking to Aaron Friedman, who was my successor to Summer Solstice celebrations as large scale music events. But I discovered that one of the biggest differences between the stuff that I did and the stuff that he does is that we paid people. He doesn’t pay anybody anything. So therefore the group that’s going to organize itself as 15 percussionists are going to play their own works because they’re there for free and they’re going to want to organize what they’re doing. So it’s a pinch point in doing a curated performance. We were able to do what we wanted because we paid for it—we went to the music performance trust fund and got half the money from the musicians’ union, and they matched the funds. Nobody got a lot of money, but it made it easier to rehearse, say, with cellists or more or less mainstream performers whose time is very precious and now even more so as it is even harder to live in New York.

But I don’t think it’s any easier to organize these large-scale things in Europe any more. First of all, anything like that tends to bear the aegis that they’re retro, ‘60s events; they’re post-hippie stuff. I mean, there’s a variety of ways in which mass performances are described. And in a way, a mass performance should in fact be either a totally composed piece like the [Balinese Ramayana] Monkey Chant or Berlioz’s Requiem or something that’s created by the people who are doing it. I’m sort of in the middle, but I think the pieces themselves have to achieve an audience. The fact that you and I are sitting here talking about it hopefully will lead people to go to the website. Because now on my website, I have a sample of all of the major works. You can see the piece—not on video, but there are photos—and you can hear a good sample of what they’re like. At this point there’s now a lot of material, so hopefully people will find it useful and want to bring it to life.

A Bowler hat on a speaker mounted on the ceiling

Jen Shyu: No More Sequined Dresses

A conversation in Jen Shyu’s Bronx apartment
February 23, 2015—10:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography (unless otherwise noted) by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

“The voice has allowed me passage into meeting people from every part of the world,” beamed Jen Shyu when we visited her at her apartment in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. And indeed, she has met people from all over the world—her peregrinations have taken her from Peoria, Illinois (where she was born) to extended stays in San Francisco, Cuba, Brazil, Taiwan, Indonesia, East Timor, China, South Korea—she returned there again for a six-month residency just a couple of days after our talk—and New York City, which has only been her home base since 2004.

Those worldwide travels have also broadened her aesthetic horizons far beyond anything she imagined growing up in the Midwest. It was there where she initially trained to be a concert pianist (she performed the third movement of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra at the age of 13) and then became obsessed with musical theater (where she developed her passion for singing). She even remembers composing what she described as “Rachmaninoff-ish songs.” But she did not really feel a sense of personal ownership over what she was doing musically until she started exploring jazz, which she still considers the core of what she does musically. As she explained:

Once I tasted that, improvising, it was really hard to go back. … I do feel tied to the continuum—or the tradition—of innovation, and I think jazz is very unique in that way. It’s such a large and dangerous word, but I still feel like what Randy Weston said is that he’s a fan of the music. I still feel like I’ll always be a fan of it—the study and the honoring of those giants, the deep looking inside of it and knowing these musicians, seeking out elders. I feel tied to jazz in that way, and that has inspired a lot of what I do and how I go about doing it.

Admittedly Jen Shyu’s definition of jazz is extremely broad at this point. She was deeply influenced to go in her current music direction through formidable interactions with multi-instrumentalist Francis Wong, a pioneer of the Asian-American jazz movement, and her many years of performing with the omnivorous Steve Coleman in his group Five Elements. It’s a direction that took her from performing standards “wearing very sequiny dresses” to writing her own material and becoming proficient on many traditional East Asian instruments and in many different traditional vocal techniques, including Indonesian sindhen and Korean p’ansori. In fact, her monodrama Solo Rites: Seven Breaths–which incorporates many of the techniques she acquired through her immersive Asian travels and synthesizes them into a fluid whole—is a far cry from what you might usually hear in most jazz venues. However, the mesmerizing performance I heard her give of it took place at The Jazz Gallery, a non-profit space that showcases experimental jazz. But is it still jazz?

That’s where I leave it to you. You tell me. … Then you have to define jazz. That’s such an impossible thing. That whole show, there’s a structure, but … there’s improvisation all the time. And I feel like I’m telling stories of struggle. … I see value in everything and in every musician, and I think that inevitably, if someone feels very strongly about something—maybe they think music should be a certain way or that jazz should be a certain way—I would say, “Yeah, well everyone’s entitled to believe what they believe.” I’m looking at what people’s contributions are: what are they giving musically and energetically to our music? That’s what I’m more concerned with. I try to stay away from things like ownership. I feel like I have very little time on this earth relative to the whole scope of things, so I want to figure out what I am going to contribute.

Shyu’s referencing of “stories of struggle” in her explanation of how even her most musically far-ranging work is still connected to jazz is very telling. Jazz has been the soundtrack of social struggle long before the legislative victories of the civil rights movement, and it is something that all three of the vocalists we spoke with addressed in describing their work.

We all have our way to do it that I think has to be—there’s an Indonesian word called sesuai, which means to match your character. I believe in subtlety. … I don’t use sequined dresses anymore. And I’m playing all these instruments, and singing and writing all the music. That in itself is already a statement.


Pages of Chinese calligraphy in frames on the floor next to a laptop and a few DVDs on a desk

Jen Shyu’s work area is an amalgam of old and new: framed pages of Chinese calligraphy share space with a laptop and DVDs.

Frank J. Oteri: You do tons of different things as a musician, but in the first sentence of your bio you describe yourself as an experimental jazz vocalist. So I wanted to ask what that means to you.

Jen Shyu: Experimental is the first thing, I think. I always will be trying to break down any preconceived notions of anything that I’m supposedly doing. The word jazz is in there because I do feel tied to the continuum—or the tradition—of innovation, and I think jazz is very unique in that way. It’s such a large and dangerous word, but I still feel like what Randy Weston said is that he’s a fan of the music. I still feel like I’ll always be a fan of it—the study and the honoring of those giants, the deep looking inside of it and knowing these musicians, seeking out elders. I feel tied to jazz in that way, and that has inspired a lot of what I do and how I go about doing it. And vocalist? Voice has become my main instrument, even though I think my first love was dance, and it still is a deep love of mine. But I find that the voice has allowed me passage into meeting people from every part of the world. Even if I don’t speak the language yet, if I explain I’m looking for these older songs, then if I sing a little from another culture, then they’ll understand what I’m looking for, just from hearing that. And then they’ll understand, oh, this isn’t just someone wanting something from our culture. There’s a relationship that’s immediately built. I feel like I’m very lucky to have such a tool that can make that connection with people so quickly.

FJO: So many of the things you just said, both about jazz and about being a vocalist, are about tradition: going and gathering stuff from another culture or dealing with elders. But then there’s that word “experimental,” which is the opposite. Those other words are about yesterday, but experimental is about tomorrow. So there’s a pull.

JS: Yes, very true. You would think that they’re diametrically opposed, but for me I feel like we can learn so much from looking at tradition. A lot of traditions are built on necessity and just looking at what’s the best way, what’s the most efficient way that we can do something, while honoring our ancestors. So it’s a beautiful marriage, being innovative but honoring those who came before us and showed us the way. I think they work together very well. For me, to gather the best of those worlds is how I would reach the full potential of who I am as an artist. Also, when I see those qualities in other people’s work, this kind of nod to the future but with deep rootedness in the past, I’m immediately attracted. Whenever I see that relationship in a deep way where it is something new that I haven’t seen before, then that’s my “ooh, I want to work with that artist.” To me it’s very clear when something is coming from a sincere place as opposed to coming from “we’re just trying to get over” place.

FJO: I think we’re now more in a state of détente than we’ve been in quite a while, but over the last 50 years there have often been great tensions between experimental jazz and more straight-ahead approaches, to the point that they’ve felt like warring camps.

JS: I try not to worry too much about that. I’ve met and had wonderful interactions with people from both camps, from different camps that maybe, if they themselves came together, might have these great tensions. I see value in everything and in every musician, and I think that inevitably, if someone feels very strongly about something—maybe they think music should be a certain way or that jazz should be a certain way—I would say, “Yeah, well everyone’s entitled to believe what they believe.” I’m looking at what people’s contributions are: what are they giving musically and energetically to our music? That’s what I’m more concerned with. I try to stay away from things like ownership. I feel like I have very little time on this earth relative to the whole scope of things, so I want to figure out what I am going to contribute. So I have to know where my parents are from. I was born in America, so what does that mean? I’ve been so lucky to have met people like Francis Wong, Jon Jang, Steve Coleman, and Von Freeman. Each of those meetings meant so much to me, to be able to interact—I feel like, wow, if I were able to have met John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, it’s the same weight of meeting someone with such creativity and vision. What if I could have met Bartók, who’s like this kind of shining idol to me? It’s been humbling along my own journey to intersect with these big geniuses in our time. I feel like I’m so lucky to be here.

I’m just focused on the path. Being able to travel and spend long periods of time in other countries exploring my own ancestry, but also going to Korea because I wanted to go. That’s a gift. So I think there’s a way to find peace in all of these supposedly opposing viewpoints. I think everyone ultimately is searching for their own voice and how they will contribute. Human nature is that way, especially when you have very opinionated people. They’re going to feel like things could be in this direction or could go in that direction. But I hope that as long as everyone’s beliefs and music can be allowed to happen and be heard, I think it’ll be okay.

A page of handwritten manuscript and a Bartók score published by Universal Edition are side by side in front of a Boradman upright piano

Jen Shyu keeps some Bartók sheet music alongside an original score at the upright piano in her apartment.

FJO: To take this back to being a vocalist, specifically being a jazz vocalist, that phrase has a special meaning as opposed to another kind of vocalist. So I was wondering what for you distinguishes a jazz approach to singing versus other kinds of approaches to singing.

JS: The deepest study I did of the tradition of jazz improvisation was with Steve Coleman, just sitting at the piano and then listening on repeat to Art Tatum phrases and Charlie Parker phrases and then singing them and then learning them on the piano. Then looking at those small fractions of a second to look at why they did this. “What do you think, Jen? How are you going to build that in there?” And for a long period of time—years—going that deep with other musicians, making music and performing, being tested on the bandstand and being just terrified. In the first year I was just terrified, but knowing, “Well, I’m a performer, so be cool on stage.” Then after a gig, “I didn’t get this, and I didn’t understand this.” Going back and asking Steve, “What was this one? How did this happen?” That constant dialogue of seeking and growing and messing up all the time, but then getting back up—having come from a classical background, making mistakes and errors was such an issue. It was a very different approach to the right and wrong of things. It wasn’t about right and wrong anymore. It was about, “How are you going to improvise out of this and make the best out of whatever just happened?” It was a complete shift for me. Then with the voice, what was interesting was that Steve really didn’t want me to approach singing jazz or whatever, at least in his band, in a normal—I don’t want to say normal, but I guess in a traditional—way. He’s like, “Jen, we’re not going to be the band playing behind you. You’re going to be part of us. And you’re going to know as much information as we do, and you’re going to be free to do whatever you want and not just be out in front.”

FJO: That’s very interesting because you can instantly recognize the voice of the most iconic jazz singers—people like Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald—and their voice is primarily what people are listening to. But the whole tradition of jazz singing was largely about being the front person, but at the same time usually having less control either of the actual material they sang (in terms of authorship) or how it was arranged. There are gender issues wrapped up with that—the female singer, the male band leader, etc. Somebody who really broke that mold was Abbey Lincoln.

JS: I love Abbey. Again I thank Steve so much for introducing me to Abbey and I’ll never ever forget being at her house. It was me and Steve and then a poet who’s his wife, Patricia. It was just the four of us talking with each other and she was so strong. When we first met, she kissed us all on the lips. She just held me and then kissed me on the lips. I was kind of terrified. But then Steve was like, “Jen, call her. Now you’ve seen her, call her. Just talk to her. It’s not a big deal. Who knows how long she’ll—” and of course, just a few years later, she passed. But I did call her and started to ask her about growing up, what was her time like in Chicago? I’ll never forget—this is a funny anecdote—Steve, when we were at her house, told me to give her my CD. I think I gave her a demo or something of For Now maybe. It was so many years ago. I felt weird about it, but he’s like, “No Jen, give her your CD.” And then Abbey, she’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ll listen to it.” I called her when I was in Chicago, just called her up and we were talking and then I said, “I don’t know if you got to hear my CD or not.” And she’s like, “I’m not listening to your CD. If I were listening to music, I’d be listening to my own music, or just listening to the silence.” I learned a lot from that. The obvious things, you know: here’s a master, don’t be laying your stuff. Of course Steve kind of pushed me, but just to hear her say that was a great lesson for me.

FJO: I think with Abbey, the other layer there is that, whereas I think it would have been really cool to get her reaction to Jade Tongue, the album you gave her is predominantly standards. This is stuff that I think she did incredibly well back when she recorded that stuff in the ‘50s with Max Roach and Julian Priester and those incredible groups. But it’s what she rebelled against. She rejected that material for herself, so why would she listen to you sing it.

JS: Yeah, completely. I got to hear her sing all of her songs at Aaron Davis Hall. I even got to sing one of her songs in an early production of Sekou Sundiata’s 51st Dream State. He wanted me to sing one of her songs. I sang it half in Chinese and half in English. He had me translate it into Mandarin. So she is such a model to me, her phrasing and her technical things also. Steve—because Steve played with her, he was one of her sidemen—was always pointing those out to me. Actually one of the ballads on Jade Tongue, “The Human Color of our Veins,” was totally inspired by Abbey. I was completely channeling her in a way for that song.

CD cover for For Now featuring a picture of Jen Shyu singing into a microphone

Jen Shyu’s first, self-released CD For Now, from 2002 is a collection of eclectically arranged standards.

FJO: There’s a seismic shift between your first album, For Now, and Jade Tongue. Already on For Now, even though you’re doing standards, the arrangements are fascinating and often pretty weird. I was particularly intrigued by what you did with “Lover Man.” It sounds like no other version of that song, but it’s still not your song. And so you went from doing that to doing all your own music. I’m wondering how that transition happened and how gradual it was.

JS: Well, it began before I left for Taiwan and then went to New York. Francis and Steve both really encouraged me to go to Taiwan. I had this instinct that somehow I had to go there, because I was dealing with these folk songs that my dad had given me from my fourth grand auntie. I was already treating them in the Bay Area. I was using sheet music and then just kind of doing arrangements of them, but I knew it wasn’t deep. My own approach to it was just musical; it wasn’t grounded on experience. So Francis was very encouraging when I told him that I needed to go to Taiwan. He’s like, “Yeah, that would be good. I think you should just hang out.” That’s exactly the words he used. Then when I met Steve, he had this project he was doing—the album Lucidarium where he was using a lot of voices. That’s kind of how we met. He was looking for vocalists at the time. I studied at his house for like eight days. Right after that I went to his house in Allentown and starting studying Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. Then he asked me, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to go to Taiwan, but I didn’t get this grant.” It was a grant I’d written, but I didn’t get it, and so I was kind of figuring out what I wanted to do. He said, “Jen, you should just go. Borrow money from your parents and just go. You know, you might get hit by a bus tomorrow. Save up money from whatever jobs you had in San Francisco and just go and you’ll figure it out. If you don’t go, you may as well move to New York, because you’re kind of spinning your wheels here.” He just knew I was. I was kind of still in the jazz singer role. I was wearing the dresses. I had a gig in a restaurant where I was wearing very sequiny dresses. Then Steve told me this story of Abbey Lincoln. She used to wear those dresses, too. She said Max had told her to throw away that dress. So it was like, whoa, that’s so strange that that would parallel what happened.

So I went to Taiwan for two months. I didn’t have keys. I was not homeless, but I didn’t have a place. I had all my stuff. I moved from San Francisco. I dropped everything and went to Taiwan. Then I came back. I did a recording with Steve briefly, and then I went to Cuba, because I was interested in the Chinese diaspora there. Again it was Steve saying, “Yeah, why not. Go to Cuba. Do it.” So I went there, and that is what inspired the piece that ended up on Jade Tongue, the whole suite. I just had a sense that these are stories that needed to be heard. And I wanted to tell them musically and originally.

The cover for Jen Shyu's CD Jade Tongue featuring original abstract art.

Jen Shyu’s 2008 album Jade Tongue is a fascinating synthesis of experimental jazz and traditional Asian music.

But the shift was from working with Steve, starting in 2003. It was like an apprenticeship. It really turned my world upside down, just the work I had to do to sing his music. It changed everything. You can hear a lot of his influence I think in Jade Tongue, in terms of composition. That was 2009, so it was a long period of gestation, taking extra musical things and translating them to music and then using traditional texts. It was all coming together. I think Jade Tongue was this kind of “well, this is all the work I’ve done, let me just put it on a record.” I had started my own band and it was really exciting for me; it felt like a true transformation.

FJO: Now you talk about having the whole world turned upside down, but it was the second time that had happened to you musically, because before you got involved with singing jazz you actually had a classical music background. So you went from performing other people’s music and doing your best never to make a mistake, trying to be totally in control, to doing music where your individual interpretation became the focal point even if it was someone else’s music to, finally, doing your own music.

JS: Oh, and it’s still going Frank. It’s very true. But I’m always thankful for the classical training, starting from ballet, piano, violin—the rigor of practicing four or six hours a day and competing, doing piano competitions and violin competitions. In the classical realm, I think my piano performance excelled the most, so I started to focus on the piano. But at the same, right when I started doing that, I was beginning musical theater. So I was doing shows like A Chorus Line; I was Diana Morales in A Chorus Line.

Right at the time when I was most seriously doing piano, like from eighth grade through junior year of high school, I was with an amazing teacher who was a student of Soulima Stravinsky. My teacher was Roger Shields, this brilliant piano teacher. I was memorizing all the repertoire for the competitions—a Bach toccata and fugue, Chopin barcarolles, Stravinsky etudes. Somehow a year after I started with him, I was playing the third movement of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. I think I was 13. I don’t know how I did it, but I was up there playing. So that kind of focus and training has prepared me for a lot that I don’t even realize because I was young.

But I didn’t improvise at all when I was that age. My only improvising came from singing. When I began musical theater and getting obsessed with musicals, I would sing in the garage. When no one was home, I would sing Natalie Cole, that famous arrangement with her father, “Unforgettable.” I would just imitate it and try to get that voice. I felt there was something magical and fun here that was so different from the rigor of piano and all of that. Being on the stage doing shows was like the liberation for me, so different from performing and competing in this context of I had to get this right. So it was all this stuff happening. Then when I went to college, I started focusing on opera. On opera! So it was like taking the voice and becoming like, let’s train it in the Western classical way, which was what I’d done with ballet and piano and violin. I was just following that track. I trained with Jennifer Lane, an amazing voice teacher at Stanford who was molding me into an opera singer—the breathing and the control, the technique, we really got into the nitty-gritty of that.

But voice was the fun thing. So entering into jazz via the voice was kind of a natural thing. That’s what got me out of the classical realm. Once I tasted that, improvising, it was really hard to go back.

FJO: So all the time you were doing classical music, no one ever suggested or it never occurred to you that you could write your own music?

JS: No one pushed me. My parents weren’t artists. My dad was an engineer. My mom was a librarian. And they loved classical music. That’s kind of all that they knew about. My teacher at the time, and we’ve talked a lot since then, what he feels as a piano teacher is that when he’s training these young artists to do competitions, the pressure is so high on him from the parents. You know, my child has to achieve this and this. So there’s no room or time for pedagogy to develop with improvisation and composition. There’s just no time, if he’s on that pressure to schedule—O.K., now she has to memorize the complete Bach preludes and fugues.

But I did start writing, I think at the end of high school, these romantic, Rachmaninoff-ish songs, art songs in English, but very little. I can really think of only a few pieces. Then I started writing a little more at Stanford when I was in composition class. But I felt like it wasn’t a natural thing for me. I felt like a performer. I was a technician. My training was so much of that, execution and delivering of the song or the material. I kind of regret that I didn’t take a second to really write my own things, but I guess I’m making up for it now.

FJO: You’ve definitely more than made up for it. But the other part of the whole equation for you is that while you said your parents loved classical music even though they didn’t have a musical background, the music you’re talking about is Western classical music.

JS: Yes.

FJO: But such a fundamental part of your mature musical identity has involved incorporating elements of traditional Asian music. Not just music from your own particular background—Taiwanese and Timorese music—but also material from mainland China, Korea, all of this. Did you grow up hearing any Chinese music?

JS: No, very little, and what I heard of it was very commercialized, what you’d hear in, you know, ding ding ding-ding-ding. It was kind of comical what we heard. We’d hear it at gatherings of the few Asian families that were in Peoria. We would gather for Chinese New Year and have dinner, and then they’d play this stuff on the speakers. I couldn’t stand it, and at that age I had no interest. To me it was all about the great Western composers. My interest in that stuff began in the Bay Area with Francis and Jon and all the amazing artists that I met there. They were nudging me to check out some of this music. Then I heard things on recordings that I’d never heard before. I was at Amoeba Records in San Francisco and I found this French label had released this Aboriginal Taiwanese music, the indigenous music from Taiwan. I’d never heard it. And I listened to it and it was like, “Oh my God, it sounds like African music. This sounds like these chants that I had begun to learn of the Santeria. Santeria, which is in the Lucumi language, sounded so much closer to that than any of this “Chinese music” that I’d heard.

So I wanted to understand where that came from. I was determined from that point on. There’s a lot I don’t know about music in Asia. And I naturally was drawn to this stuff that I’d never heard before and that is not played in the States. People don’t know about it, so I’ve been on a mission to not just learn the music on a surface level, but to understand where it came from. What does Taiwanese indigenous music have to do with the Ainu people in Japan? What about Malaysia or the Philippines, or the Austronesian migration? It gets much more difficult to trace. It’s impossible to say Chinese music. You’ve got thousands of different ethnic tribes and you’ve got all these different dialects. And then, okay, let’s go to Indonesia. Oh my God, there are hundreds of different kinds of music in this archipelago. It’s so much bigger and I feel like a mission for me, or it’s my duty having been born here and having that advantage of English as my native tongue. I feel like I have to be that bridge. There are a lot of things that I’ve dealt with, like racism as a child, that I just knew this is because people don’t have exposure to these other people, and I have to break all of that. Every stereotype. I just feel like it’s my job to do that.

Jen Shyu singing and ribbing a brass bowl in an outdoor ceremony .

Jen Shyu performing in Indonesia. (Photo by Ganug Nugroho.)

FJO: In terms of how this mission connects to jazz, jazz has always been this music that combats social injustice, even before the civil rights movement, Ellington, and even Louis Armstrong—Benny Goodman playing with an integrated band, Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” which is about a lynching. And then in the 1960s things like Max Roach’s We Insist, Freedom Now Suite, which Abbey Lincoln was such an important part of. This is extremely visceral music that serves as a powerful reminder of the injustices that were wrought upon the African-American community in the USA. But other groups have stories to tell through this music as well. There have now been two generations of Asian-American jazz musicians—Francis Wong, whom you worked with, and the late Fred Ho, who was based here in New York for many years—making very charged political music that speaks to these issues. How central is the politics to your music?

JS: It’s a question that’s always in the forefront of my mind. I myself am kind of turned off when someone’s yelling at me to do this or think that way. I think there are ways to address these issues in a way that is not—oh, how do I say this? I think even doing what I’m doing oftentimes is already a political statement. But I feel like the power of just doing and being oftentimes does more, and it affects people more and they want to listen. So, for instance, a song that I have recently been writing and performing, part of it is I’m interpreting a traditional song from East Timor, at the beginning and at the end, so they’re kind of the bookends of the piece. Then inside are my own lyrics. It was inspired a little by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and I guess it is kind of a protest song.

I wanted a beautiful melody, then inside is a text that’s quite violent. At the end are actual testimonies of women who were raped by the Indonesian military. These women were reporting back as part of this commission report that was made. But I think it’s beautiful. And so I believe people will want to hear it. It’s a statement. I’m not telling people what to do; it’s more like it’s just their testimony.

Everything that we do should have meaning. Fred had told me, “Jen, your music should be revolutionary.” Fred told me a lot of things and I didn’t agree with everything. I miss him because he was so strong about what he stood for and I loved that. We had a meeting once where it was just like “I’m going to tell you about the music in the street,” things that I’d never talked so openly about before. So I appreciate that. Let me tell you, I’m constantly grappling. I still get mistaken for being some of my Asian colleagues, like Linda Oh. Someone had said, “Oh, your bass playing is so wonderful.” I’m like, “Oh, I’m not Linda Oh.” He’s like, “You’re not?” and just ran away. I get it all the time, I mean all the time, and from people who really should know. Again, I’m not accusing anyone, but it’s just very clear we have a lot more work to do. As a female artist and an Asian artist, it all means something. I don’t talk about it a lot, but it’s in all my work.

We all have our way to do it that I think has to be—there’s an Indonesian word called sesuai, which means to match your character. I believe in subtlety. I think that song is pretty strong and graphic, but I still think it’s beautiful and that it will be something people will want to hear. That’s why I love Joni Mitchell. I think there’s the balance there that is necessary. I mean for me, it’s there. But I also think that just the way I perform or now, you know, I don’t use sequined dresses anymore. And I’m playing all these instruments, and singing and writing all the music. That in itself is already a statement.

A traditional four-string Chinese moon lute

This yueqin, a four-stringed Chinese moon lute, is one of many traditional Asian instruments in Jen Shyu’s apartment.

FJO: There are a couple of other pieces that I heard of yours that went toward that direction like Inner Chapters, but your solo piece in which you play all these instruments—Solo Rites: Seven Breaths—is the furthest away from jazz of anything you’ve done. It’s the furthest away from wearing that sequined dress and singing “Lover Boy” that I can imagine. So is it still jazz?

JS: Well, that’s where I leave it to you. You tell me. Someone asked me, “Are you trying to redefine?” I believe that I’m always trying to redefine anything I do, but it’s not for the sake of just doing it. It’s more like I’m trying to find the fullest expression of me. There are so many stories. It was almost three years that I was out in Indonesia and there’s so much transformation that occurred. Then you have to define jazz. That’s such an impossible thing. I mean you have to start telling the whole story. But I feel like if you’re looking at improvisation, that whole show, I mean there’s a structure, but every moment I’m dealing with the lighting. I’m dealing with the sound. I’m dealing with what I hear from the audience. So there’s improvisation all the time. And I feel like I’m telling stories of struggle. I’m channeling these different characters.

Jen Shyu, wearing a traditional white Asian dress and a red scarf sitting on the stage surrounded by a moon lute and a zither singing and making hand gestures

Jen Shyu performing Solo Rites: Seven Breaths at Roulette in 2014. (Photo by Steven Schreiber.)

Whatever you want to call it, I think the essence of it is not just jazz at all. There are traditions that I’m quoting directly from sometimes. But also in my own compositions, just embedded inside the music and my arrangements, are qualities from these other traditions that I’ve been inside of. So, again, because I wrote Seven Breaths over such a long period of time, when I worked with the director Garin Nugroho to put it all together it was more like a summation. Let’s find an order. He found order very intuitively by looking at all my field work, and that’s where the structure came from.

He’s a wonderful director. He’s a filmmaker primarily. I told you about finding people’s work that magically and beautifully melded the modern and the traditional. When I saw his film Opera Jawa, that’s exactly what I felt. I was like, “I have to find him.” So I asked him to direct this piece and it was the first time he directed a solo show, one performer. When we were sitting there, he said, “Okay, Jen, this is the first structure.” I came up with the breaths part, but he came up with seven.

Starting in East Timor, then Java, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and then Korea, back to Indonesia, but [this time] Kalimanthan, which is where I did some fieldwork. Then East Timor again. Returning home, then kind of having a nowhere world, a nowhere zone. We were trying to lose all culture. Each world had a message: East Timor was departing home. In Java, I was really interested in the oppression of women that I experienced when I was there. Not me, but seeing all my friends who were Javanese women. Overall I felt that a woman is behind the husband; she gives up everything, even if she was a great artist she gives up everything to support the husband. It’s very normal there. But some women were not happy with that arrangement, so I was addressing that.

FJO: In terms of definitions, I didn’t know until this morning that you had studied opera. It’s interesting that you also call the work an opera because that’s another loaded word, maybe even more so than jazz, or—even more complicated—jazz opera. What does that mean?

JS: I know. Well opera, I’m still grappling with this word. Now that I’m starting to tour it, and people are like, “Well, what is it?” Most recently, I called it a solo music drama. But I like opera because the focus is the voice. The voice is what ties everything together. So, that was in my mind. That’s how I think of opera—the voice is the main message giver. But just in this sense. I’m not singing like a Western classical opera singer, which I was trained in, but then you go to Java and it’s their version of classical singing, which is different though in some ways, there’s some overlap. Then in Korea, pansori, you know, actually that’s more folk music to them. But it’s an opera in that it’s dramatic, playing all these roles. In Korea they have fully staged versions of pansori which I’ve seen. Instead of having just one character, they have a whole cast playing all the characters. But again, I’m not so interested in the hard and fast definitions. If I’m concerned with making something new, then that’s fine. Those things will have to somehow be lost anyway. But jazz opera—maybe you can come up with a better word. I just make this stuff, so I’m still experimenting with this label.

Jen Shyu singing and playing a moon lute on an outdoor stage in a park.

Jen Shyu performing in South Korea. (Photo by Thitipol Kanteewong.)

FJO: There’s one other thing that I would hate not to talk about because it’s just such a great album, your duo Synastry with Mark Dresser. What’s so wonderful about it is that it’s just the two of you and it’s really exposed. That’s another thing that’s been an undercurrent tradition in terms of jazz vocal albums where somebody works with one musician. You know, Ella Fitzgerald with Joe Pass, Tony Bennett with Bill Evans, but perhaps more to the point, in terms of its relationship to this record, are all the voice and bass duets that Sheila Jordan has done. Was her work in any way an inspiration for what you and Mark did?

The CD cover for Synastry featuring original abstract artwork

On Synastry, a duo album by Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser released on PI in 2011, the voice and double bass are equal partners.

JS: Not directly with this album, but I love Sheila and the fact that I can email her and we have contact is amazing. It’s a blessing to me. But this project was more an idea that Mark and I just came up with. We were at the International Society of Improvised Music, ISIM, in 2008 when I was singing with Steve Coleman. We met, and then we thought let’s just have a session. Let’s improvise together, and we did. I think we rehearsed at Cornelia Street [Café] for the first time, and then we just kept meeting up. If he was in New York, or if I was in San Diego or L.A., we would do a gig. And we both realized that it was very full, even though it was just two of us. You know, I was always doing movement, and his sound is already a whole world. That was very easy for me to step into. And we had this material that was all our own compositions.

FJO: And I do think you’re again engaging with redefining things. Most people, when they hear a singer and an instrumentalist, will probably hear the singer above whomever the singer’s singing with. You were talking before about Javanese classical singing which is unusual in that singers are often in the background and are just one of many layers; their voices are not supposed to be foregrounded. But in pretty much any other musical tradition I can think of, if there’s a singer, the singer’s out front. So you think, “O.K. Jen Shyu with Mark Dresser.” But it wasn’t singer and accompanist. It really was a duo in the full sense of the word. You were equal partners and that’s what makes it so musically compelling.

JS: Well, he’s a melodicist. I mean, big time. He’s just lower. And then he’s got those harmonics that he uses, so it was this world that I was just dancing around. In terms of melody, I never felt like he was just supporting me. I felt like we were completely just having this conversation and always discovering.

FJO: In terms of your output thus far, it’s sort of a left turn. You had this progression from singing standards to being a sideperson for Steve Coleman to creating music for your own group to doing an immersive solo performance piece that explores other cultures. That path seemed like a linear developmental trajectory, but this duo was something else entirely, at least to my ears. So are there going to be other turns in the road? Two years from now, might you be singing standards again somewhere, or doing another duo with somebody. Are all of these still options on the table or do you have a clear direction of where you want to go and so you’ll just follow that?

JS: Well, it’s funny you say that. There is probably a record coming out that I’m a sidewoman on and there are some standards on it. I feel like it’s all related. The thing with Mark really came out of my relationship with Mark as an artist. I feel it is part of the path. As humans, we have so many different aspects.

My newest album is Sounds and Cries of the World. Right now that’s the title. I think that’s going to end up being the title. It really was a culmination. A lot of material is from Solo Rites, but with the band. It was a whole other thing, and for me such a great joy. Wow, I don’t even know how to define it; it’s just getting into this other realm of sound that I believe exists. A lot of those songs came out of dreams that I had when I was in East Timor, very strange, oftentimes scary dreams. They’re laden with everything I absorbed from my travels, especially the last three years.

I do a lot of things. There’s a duo with Ben Monder as well. We haven’t recorded anything, but we will, I think. It’s about these radiant people that I’m able to share these moments with. I love Mat Maneri, too, so he’s been in a lot of my recent projects. I’m drawn toward certain artists. I’m just following the music and the imagined music—I’m following that as well.

A two-stringed moon lute resting horizontally on the floor next to a rug and a puzzle.

A two-stringed Taiwanese moon lute, another one of the many traditional Asian instruments in Jen Shyu’s apartment.

Read conversations with two other extraordinary vocalists:
Sheila Jordan: Music Saved My Life
Fay Victor: Opening Other Doors

There’s This Thing Happening: The New York Avant Garde Festival and Its Audience

I started this NewMusicBox series on experimental music festivals of the 1960s with an article about critical reactions to the New York Avant Garde Festival; I trawled the newspaper reviews and promotional materials to find you facts. Next, we looked at the realities of composing and producing the Tudorfest; interviews and secondary sources carried the day. Then Ian Power gave us insight into what it was like to perform pieces from FluxFest Kit 2; in this case, personal and physical experience guided our understanding. And now I’d like to come back around full circle, to reinterpret what we think we know—the New York Avant Garde Festival again, but this time through the eyes of the audience.

Composers, performers—they’re relatively easy to find and talk to if you want to track them down. After all, many of them went on to established careers in the arts, and they have gigs and websites and email addresses. But audience members? People who just wandered in off the street and experienced what the New York Avant Garde Festival had to offer? That’s a little more difficult. Where do you even start?

I started by writing that first NewMusicBox article, hoping that the readers of this website might have been there, might be able to tell me something more about what the festivals felt like. I wasn’t disappointed. A comment on my March 5 article led me to contact information—which inspired me to send out an email and then schedule a Skype interview.

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz wandered into the 10th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival at Grand Central Station in 1973 and—instantly, magically, organically—became part of the event.

The original poster for NYAGF 10th Annual Avant Garde Festival consiting of multiple texts in different directions superimposed on one another.

Poster for NYAGF 10th Annual Avant Garde Festival at Grand Central Station, 1973.

There’s a catch, a small caveat to this audience member’s experience. Báthory-Kitsz is, in fact, a composer, a musician, the former host of the award-winning Kalvos & Damian. (He’s also an author, an instrument maker, a teacher, a librarian, and an archivist if you want the full picture.) He ended up becoming a good friend of NYAGF producer Charlotte Moorman, and went on to attend (and perform his music at) all of the New York Avant Garde festivals in the 1970s that followed—even the much-maligned Cambridge River edition. But at his first 1973 festival, Báthory-Kitsz really didn’t have any idea what he was in for. “I don’t really know how I heard about it,” he said during our interview. “Somebody must have told me there was this thing happening in New York—I don’t think I read it, because I certainly couldn’t have afforded to buy a New York Times. I heard it from somebody.” He was young, he was full of curiosity; he found a friend, took the bus from Trenton, New Jersey to New York City ($2.25 round trip), and made his way to the festival-occupied train tracks.

It was like a huge party, he told me. There were events happening everywhere, and he got to meet people. People like Jackson Mac Low, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Yoko Ono—people who were making names for themselves in the experimental milieu, who were doing the very thing Báthory-Kitsz hoped to one day do himself.

“That’s cool. I love this,” he thought. And so he found ways to participate further, to get in deeper. He called ahead of the next festival—dialing a number that turned out to be Charlotte Moorman’s direct line—and found himself heading to her apartment to help fold promotional materials and talk experimental composition. The thing about the New York Avant Garde Festival was that there was no application to fill out, no credentials to present. There were no obstacles to you (yes, you) participating if you felt so moved. All you had to do was inform Moorman that you wanted in—so your name could be put on posters and so you could be counted in the official tally of participants—and then you were in. That’s all there was to it.

The way Báthory-Kitsz remembers it, the New York Avant Garde festival was completely non-exclusive, totally welcoming. There was no need for traditional musical virtuosity to perform these pieces; there were no great skills to show off except for a willingness to jump in and do, to take an idea and run with it as far as you were able. It was a “that-sounds-really-exciting-let’s-do-it!” culture, as Báthory-Kitsz calls it. In some ways, that made the whole avant-garde an outsider to the musical establishment. And if that was true, if everyone was an outsider, it paradoxically meant that everyone was an insider—even the audience, should they so choose.

An historic photo of a group of people playing outdoors on invented instruments

Dashuki Music Theatre performing at the New York Avant-Garde Festival World Trade Center June 19, 1977; from L to R: Shirley Strock Albright; Jannet Passow Gillock; David Gunn; Dennis Bathory-Kitsz; Linda Kaye. (From the Dashuki Music Theatre page of the Trans/Media Arts Cooperative website.)

The distinction between audience and performers wasn’t important, because there was always the potential for the one to become the other. It was 1977 at the 13th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival held at the World Trade Center, and Báthory-Kitsz brought his own ensemble to perform a chamber opera he had written for instruments he’d built himself, including the geometrically tuned “Hharp” and the wood and glass “Uncello.” (I have a copy of the poster for this festival, by the way. Báthory-Kitsz’s name appears at exactly the halfway point in the list of 237 participants.) “I know we had an audience, because I have photographs showing we had an audience,” he told me. The question of who exactly that audience was…not so clear. Báthory-Kitsz remembers walking around the festival, going to see other friends and acquaintances perform—so there were festival performer-spectators at any given event. Then, there were people who had come to see his opera specifically, and so he assumes there were people who had come to see other particular performers. And then “at one point I know that somebody wanted to play my ‘Uncello,’ and so sure they were in it.” The audience member turned performer. “It was so crowded,” Báthory-Kitsz said, “the vast majority of the people there must have been audience.”

A photo of Báthory-Kitsz's uncello which is shaped like a giant bow with a clear glass sphere in the cavity

Báthory-Kitsz’s Uncello (From the page devoted to his instruments on his website.)

Must have been, but who knows. All that really mattered was that it was exciting, that it was this huge event with many people and many performances, that there was an experimental electricity in the air. In any case, it clearly made an impression. Báthory-Kitsz went on to organize his own Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde in ’74, ’76, and ’78. “We were inspired by [Moorman’s] festivals because we had no gathering like that south of New York and we didn’t know if any were going on elsewhere in the country. But we knew one was not happening in Philadelphia, and certainly not in Trenton.” That sounds really exciting, so let’s do it! Báthory-Kitsz et al. contacted Trenton’s city council in the fall of 1973, rounded up 60 artists—some with name recognition (once heard, who could ever forget the moniker of sculptor Woofy Bubbles?), some with only the experimental love in their hearts—and put on a festival. Hundreds of people showed up. It was a great success. So great, that they put on an encore two years later and then another two years after that.

The original poster for the 1978 Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde featuring text and drawings

The poster for the 1978 edition of the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde (From the website of the Trans/Media Arts Cooperative.)

Báthory-Kitsz has photographs from the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde—and from the New York Avant Garde Festivals, too. Photographs, and also negatives, slides, posters and playbills, bits and pieces of handmade instruments, thousands of hours of audio on reels and cassettes, and even a few 8mm films. All of these things live in a storage unit (if they’re not temperature sensitive) and his studio (if they are)—because no museum or university will take them. Archival media is expensive to maintain, and Báthory-Kitsz is (quite reasonably) unwilling to split up his collection, to skew the representation of these events. Here I am, a historian who can’t find archival materials about these festivals in any of the usual places; there he is, a participant and a documentarian, with mountains of archival materials that he just can’t reliably get to the historians. But these photos and those reel-to-reel tapes are our history nonetheless, and they tell a story about festivals in general as surely as they do about any one festival in particular.

“So, you went up to New York for the New York Avant Garde Festivals, and then you produced your own festivals—what was it about the festival medium?” I finally asked him. “Well, it’s where you met people,” he told me. “There was no occasion to meet anybody if there was not a large event to meet them at.” It was a time before the internet, it was a time of exorbitant long-distance phone bills—“we were really disconnected from each other,” Báthory-Kitsz noted. Tudorfest? The ONCE Festival? Fluxfest? They might have been happening, but you had to know someone who was in the know in order to know about them. And even if you did hear about a concert now and again, it was always hard to tell if it was going to be worth it. You needed a good reason to travel to hear something new and interesting—and what could be better than an event where you were guaranteed to hear not just one new thing, but hundreds, where you could meet not just one new composer, but dozens?

For critics, the experimental music festivals of the 1960s and ‘70s were a departure—and sometimes an escape—from the highbrow world of classical concerts. For composers, they were a risk, a gamble of time and money and energy—and also a chance to put their work out there, to show the world just what they were doing. For performers, they were the chance to reach a more general audience and to commit to the uncanniness, the empowerment, and the fun of the experimental ethos. And for audience members, they were an opportunity to participate, to live in the experimental world for a day or two—to hear some new things and make some new contacts. When Báthory-Kitsz went to the festivals, he met people; when he offered to help fold posters, he met people. When he decided to produce his own festival, he got in touch with all those people he had met at the festivals and the poster folding marathons. When he started his radio show Kalvos & Damian, he pooled those contacts. Each new contact led to more contacts with more people—critics, composers, performers, audience, some combination of the above, it didn’t really matter. They were all interested in experimental music.

“I have one last question,” I told Báthory-Kitsz. “Do you have any plans for future festivals?” “Well no,” he said, but he is planning a huge party in August 2015 to celebrate all of the people who contributed to the Kalvos & Damian radio show during its years on the air. The long list of past interviewees consists of composers of every stripe, including Laurie Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, James Tenney, Larry Austin, Frederic Rzewski, and David Behrman—avant-garde festival goers and doers every one. This party, then, is a celebration of the radio show, but I also like to think of it as a celebration of the way we meet people and the way that a community of experimental musicians produces so much more than a single event. It is, in its own way, a festival of festivals, and I for one hope that Báthory-Kitsz documents every last detail.


Fluxus is attitude, anti-art, cultural-social-political revolution, intermedia, renewed Dadaism, art as life and life as art. Fluxus is not a coherent movement, a set form, or a particular style. It is meant to be “grasped by all peoples, not only the critics, dilettantes and professionals,” as George Maciunas put it in his Fluxus Manifesto of 1963.

Maybe for that reason, festivals have always been important to Fluxus. So important, as it turns out, that Maciunas introduced the term “Fluxus” in a pamphlet he handed out at his very first festival in Wuppertal, Germany in 1962. After that, the floodgates opened: Fluxus festivals were produced throughout the 1960s and ‘70s in locations as diverse as Paris, France, and Rutgers, New Jersey. These festivals really did allow a public forum for Fluxus to be experienced by “all peoples.” In fact, the values of Fluxus and the advantages of the festival medium meshed so well that George Maciunas created several art posters that served as an introduction to Fluxus festival production. The first of these was called FluxFest Sale (1966), and the second was titled—even more explicitly—FluxFest Kit 2 (circa 1970). These two documents are conceptually similar (if differently organized), and so from here on out I’ll refer to the FluxFest Kit 2 as a stand-in for both.

An eight column listing describing all of the Fluxus artists' projects

George Maciunas’s 1966 Fluxfest Sale

It wasn’t a total free-for-all. Maciunas had very specific ideas about how a Fluxus Festival should be. What follows (capitalization, punctuation and all) is taken directly from the upper left hand corner of the FluxFest Kit 2 poster—we can think of these as the Rules with a capital R.

Any of the pieces can be performed anytime, anyplace and by anyone, without any payment to fluxus provided the following conditions are met: 1. If flux-pieces outnumber numerically or exceed in duration other compositions in any concert, the whole concert must be called and advertised as FLUXCONCERT or FLUXEVENT. A series of such events must be called a FLUXFEST. 2. If flux-pieces do not exceed non-fluxpieces, each such fluxpiece must be identified as a FLUX-PIECE. 3. Such credits to Fluxus may be omitted at a cost of $50 for each piece announced or performed.

Lesson learned: credit Fluxus where credit is due. The largest part of the poster, though, is a catalogue of approximately half of the Fluxus catalogue. Not all of the works listed were explicitly or implicitly musical, of course, but I can’t get over how many are performative and how many do make reference in one way or another to musical signs and symbols. A few examples, in list form:

  • George Maciunas, Piece for Conductor, 1965: Conductor steps over podium and takes a conventional bow. He remains bowed while tying shoelaces, polishing shoes, rolling and unrolling legs of his trousers, scratching ankles, picking up small specks from floor, pulling nails from floor, etc. etc.
  • Joe Jones, Duet for Brass Instruments: Rubber glove is place over bell and tucked inside. Air is blown until glove emerges from bell and is inflated.
  • George Brecht, Drip Music (Drip Event), 1959: For single or multiple performance. A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel. Second version: Dripping.
  • Robert Watts, C/T Trace, 1963: An object is fired from canon and caught in bell of tuba.

So, Maciunas created a document that not only provided specific pieces and scores, but also outlined a general format, and even gave a raison d’etre. In other words, this one poster supplied everything a person (musician or layman, artist or enthusiast) could need to produce their very own Fluxus festival. You could become the performer-producer of your dreams.

What was it like to perform these pieces? I wondered. And who is performing them now? Ian Power was born decades after the height of the 1960s Fluxus festival craze. He has never put on an entire festival dedicated to Fluxus pieces, and he doesn’t follow all the Rules. (Ian, have you paid any Fluxus fees lately?) Even so, he frequently programs Fluxus gems in concerts of his own music—Power takes seriously his role as new music composer-performer-producer-advocate. At the same time, he’s living proof of Fluxus’s reach: Power is the next generation of musician Fluxus enthusiasts.

Archival footage from a 1962 Fluxus Festival in Wiesbaden
A short digression. I’m not here to argue about whether or not Fluxus is music. In some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. Personally, I find it hard to ignore that its members—many of whom at one point or another considered themselves musicians and composers—pointed to musical forms and instruments in so many of their titles and with so many of their materials and processes. And it’s hard to argue against the fact that so many of these pieces are performance based, that they move through time, and that sound is purposely juxtaposed with the visual. Regardless of whether or not you buy that, though—regardless of whether or not Fluxus is music—I think that musicians and musicologists (with our focus on sound and temporality) have a unique perspective on these performances, and with that comes the potential to understand Fluxus in new and exciting ways: what happens if we suspend our disbelief and treat these pieces as music?

Now back to Power. “If I program the pieces, it’s because I believe in them as music,” he told me in an e-mail interview. (Good, I thought, we’re on the same page.) “These pieces, even ones without much sound, coax me to attend to time and experience in much the same way (and in some important, invigorating different ways) than any other good ‘music’ might.”

True, and while Power hopes that some of this same attention might rub off on his audiences, he also recognizes that his role as performer—and therefore as a kind of translator—grants him certain privileges and responsibilities. A couple of specifics: during a recent concert, Power interpreted Mieko Shiomi’s “Boundary Music for Piano” as the movement of sheet music from the floor to the piano music stand, all accomplished as quietly as possible. That same concert, he set up Alison Knowles’s “Chair Music for George Brecht” in the back of the hall: he chose to provide a reading light, a book of Japanese death poems, and a biography of Erik Satie, all just waiting for Brecht to appear. Or not.

At one point I asked him: How seriously did you take these performances? Did you ever feel silly? “If I did,” he said, “it was likely part of the learning process essential to arriving at a place where I can really understand the music.” Power embraces the self-consciousness of performing these works, and notes that a good performer can make all the difference in establishing an atmosphere of good will and humor in the hall. “Not to compliment myself,” he said, “but if there’s one thing I can do, it’s commit to a Fluxus performance.”

That commitment is key. That commitment is the reason historical Fluxus has made its way through to the present day. Power wants to preserve the uncanniness, the situational poise, the amazement, the empowerment, and the fun of the Fluxus spirit—a big part, I think, of what makes this music (this art) as exciting and innovative now as it was in the 1960s.

Which brings me back around to the FluxFest Kit 2 and the question of performance. In the very early stages of my research, I’ve found evidence that at least one person did, in fact, follow Maciunas’s poster-art instructions (at least in spirit, if not to the letter). Jeff Berner, photographer and conceptual artist, presented his Fluxfest (a festival in two parts) at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco on March 31, 1967. Tickets were two dollars and fifty cents, and absolutely no cameras were allowed inside. “Experimental is not knowing what the results will be,” reads one of his publicity posters.

The poster for Jeff Berner's 1967 San Francisco Fluxfest featuring a drawing of a woman in a top hat and heels

The poster for Jeff Berner’s 1967 San Francisco Fluxfest.

Berner, though—Berner was a member of Fluxus. His website notes that he has participated in “the international conceptual/performance art group since 1965,” and so we have to consider him an insider, someone more specific than the “all people” Maciunas dreamed Fluxus would reach. What really interests me is who among us non-Fluxans rose to the challenge of transforming the FluxFest Kit 2 into a real-life, realtime festival. Surely somebody couldn’t resist the possibilities of this performative readymade. Was it you, NewMusicBox reader? Please step forward and identify yourself—we all want to hear your story!