Composing for a new music group is a challenging endeavor. One strives to write something musically inventive, or technically challenging, perhaps contextually relevant, or socially aware, and maybe esoteric…sometimes all the above! Lately I have been really trying to separate any expectations or presumptions and just write in the most direct manner I possibly can to get the aural result that I want. I think the first step to this is trust. Wild Rumpus is a wonderful collection of talented Bay Area new music performers. I knew I could (and needed to) trust them to interpret my music and make it their own.
Another approach I have been using lately is finding the title of a work before deciding what the music will be. The title for this piece, The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time…, is loosely adapted from one of the last lines of the movie American Beauty. I began thinking: what if I took a moment, an energy, and let it grow as organically as I could into a huge moment, and then stretched that moment out? To do this I needed to change time perception continuously, from one range to another, from a rhythm into a pitch, or a tone or a noise into a formal structure. I also decided early on to compose the music entirely using duration, so the performers would use a timer to follow the music. This approach probes into the nature of duration itself, particularly as it relates to human experience. I needed to convey that the dynamic of duration is not only change but growth through change. When the brain receives a lot of new information, it takes a while to process it all. The longer this takes, the longer that period of time feels. Reciprocally, time seems to move faster if there is less to process even if the same amount of time has transpired. With this piece I didn’t want to merely stretch out sound to make it seem like a long time, but I wanted to play with the cognitive process. Most of this was empirical and intuitive, myself being the guinea pig. It is fascinating hearing how others perceive time in this piece. People I’ve spoken to tell me the first five minutes feels like only a few, perhaps due to the complex sonorities occurring. And I build up to these moments with extreme simplicity so there is a continuous change in time perception.
After composing the full score using an Excel spreadsheet and a stopwatch, I began writing out each part. It was like writing a story from the perspective of each individual character (musician) using the global narration (score) as a guide. Each performer’s part had a timeline on the left side of the page and musical indications on the right. For the first reading all the musicians took out their smart phones and pressed a timer at the same time. Nathaniel Berman, Wild Rumpus’s conductor, merely counted off the moment for the performers to press start on their phones. Thankfully, Sean Dougall (the talented husband of Wild Rumpus’ Co-Director Jen Wang) coded a clever full screen timer that the entire group could follow on a laptop. So, now the laptop is the conductor.
The night before the world premiere at Composers, Inc.’s annual !BAMM! 2015 concert, all the members of Wild Rumpus, audio engineer Zach Miley, videographer Taylor Joshua Rankin, and I went into a dark, cold church in Oakland, California, and recorded The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time… into the wee hours of the night. This video is the result of the entire process. So, go into a quiet and dark place, turn the volume up, and enjoy!
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