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In celebration of Lou Harrison’s centennial, Wild Rumpus is premiering a work by Brian Baumbusch, Kings, which is an homage to Harrison’s music, on Friday, May 5 at St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Here, guitarist and Executive Director Giacomo Fiore interviewed Brian about his new piece, his background, and upcoming projects. Learn more about Brian’s music at his website.
GF: Your piece Kings is conceived in part as an homage to Lou Harrison; in what ways has Lou’s music informed your own through the years?
BB: I’ve been listening to Lou Harrison’s music since I was probably 17. The first recordings of his that I got into were on John Schneider’s Just West Coast album. At the time, I was just getting really into alternative tunings, and, being a guitarist as well, I was really attracted to that album. From there, it was Rhymes with Silver, and then Linda Burman-Hall’s album of harpsichord and cembalo pieces in different well-temperaments, which ended up being the one I’ve listened to the most. I learned some of [Harrison’s] pieces on guitar, including one of the Jhalas and Scenes from Nek Chand. I was never particularly interested in his gamelan music, though recently I’ve really enjoyed some of his American gamelan pieces, particularly the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, which I’ve been playing with Willie Winant. I think I never got into his gamelan music originally because I was also much more in the Balinese camp. Also, I wasn’t particularly supportive of the idea of tuning gamelan sets to just intonation because for me, gamelan tuning was much more about embracing inharmonicity; but i’ve since given up on such idealism.
GF: The third movement, “Boru”, features a rather unusual instrument—a resophonic guitar tuned in just intonation, devised by Harrison towards the end of his life. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
BB: So guitar is my original sin, although I am more actively a percussionist and gamelan musician as of the last 5 years. I had one of those JI guitars made for me (with the generous help and support of one Giacomo Fiore, mind you), because I was hoping to bridge my interests between guitar and alternative tunings. However, I never got around to composing much for it because the full-on just tuning seemed to pigeon-hole the instrument into a certain modal language, which I like for re-tuned piano stuff like LaMonte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano and Riley’s The Harp of New Albion, but wasn’t able to capture in composing for guitar. Nonetheless, I’ve still remained interested in Harrison’s JI guitar and have hopes to write something more extensive for that instrument. The story behind “Boru,” in fact, was that I composed the piece for a subset of Balinese semar pegulingan (seven-tone) gamelan instruments last summer, with the intent to incorporate it into a longer piece that I had written for those instruments + electric guitar and electric organ.
I originally thought to have the piece played on gamelan at one point in the composition, and then later on organ at another point; I later realized that it actually fit really well on the guitar, so I planned to have it played as a solo guitar piece to open that whole performance, but eventually I scrapped it altogether. Then, as I was working up the music for Kings, I decided that that piece would actually work really well in its arc, and that it would probably sound fine on the JI guitar. I had to adjust a few notes from what I originally wrote for guitar (or really for gamelan), so as to avoid as many wolf-fifths as I could, but I turned out liking it on JI guitar more than any of the other iterations. Also, the name ‘Boru’ comes from the King Brian Boru of Ireland (11th century), which is actually the person whom my mom named me after. So that piece is kind of special to me… One of the only solo guitar pieces I’ve ever (formally) written also.
GF: You could say that the piece uses different tunings. Do you consider yourself to have a flexible approach to intonation?
BB: I strive for that more and more, and it is actually something that I hold in an extreme high regard these days, that is the ability to find meaning in all tunings (even equal temperament!) and in mixing them together. I would say that there was a time when I was quite inflexible in that I wasn’t really interested in any music in equal temperament. I’ve since grown out of that and learned to like each tuning that I come across for its own possibilities and individuality. Lately, I’ve been really interested in mixing tunings (so, often equal temperament and something heavily inharmonic like gamelan or other percussion instruments). This piece has an aspect of that with the mix of the metal tubes (which although tuned to a concert pitch, have really complex spectra that interact in unique ways with the other harmonic instruments in the ensemble), and especially the brake drums combined with the clarinet, violin, and piano. I’ve been into Charles Ives lately, and especially his father’s obsession with hearing two different ensembles performing simultaneously; I’ve been approaching new pieces by trying to design that sort of interplay with poly-tempo and poly-harmonic relationships.
GF: Indeed, there’s some intricate poly-temporal stuff happening in the interludes. As a composer, what’s your approach to this sort of device? Do you relate simultaneous tempos to acoustical phenomena, sort of like Cowell described in New Musical Resources?
BB: I’m often going for a swarming/flocking aesthetic (schools of fish are good) when using multiple tempo relationships; my hope is that each individual line will be semi-indescernable, but that the lines will have a cohesive motion as a flock, and “change-directions” in concert with each other, for example. In the first movement of Kings, it’s all about creating strobing through the four lines, as they phase and tessellate with each other so fast that secondary and tertiary patterns emerge, both in the fundamental frequency register as well as the higher part of the spectrum, which is a lot of what I am listening to. The last movement is kind of new in my poly-tempi exploration in that I’m going for very slow moving non-coincidental tempo relationships, so that as they pull apart and align, we derive some sort of meaning from how patterns emerge from this generative process, almost like in deterministic chaos. Sometimes I’m thinking of the tempo relationships in terms of their large scale poly-rhythmic relationships, like some large 3/2 that shifts to a 4/3 over time, or something like that, which you could say is reminiscent of Cowell, although I don’t think of it the same way as he did. Rather, I would say where I agree with Cowell is that any simple ratio (2/1, 3/2, 4/3, 5/4, etc..) will have musical significance whether applied to frequency relationships or tempo relationships.
GF: What is the Lightbulb Ensemble?
BB: A neo-gamelan group that I put together during the end of my time at Mills while completing my master’s. We mostly play on a set of instruments that I built which are inspired by Balinese instruments (especially with regard to their tuning), and the tuning embraces a theory of inharmonicity which was put forth by William Sethares in his book Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale.
The Balinese kind of broke the question of tuning wide open by designing audible beats into every pair of instruments, so that the instruments are always beating with one another as a feature of allure and attractiveness; most other tuning theories have been based on eliminating beats, treating them like the enemy. Through my work with Balinese music, I’ve learned to embrace difference-tone beats and inharmonicity, and find those sounds to be some of the most attractive to me.
GF: Tell us what else you have going on in terms of projects and commissions.
BB: I recently won a generous grant from the Gerbode Foundation that will commission a new piece of mine on the Other Minds music festival in San Francisco, a little over a year from now. I plan to compose for the Lightbulb Ensemble, although I might build some new keys for the instruments to start working in a different scale, and also incorporate several 12-tone instruments to have some poly-ensemble capabilities. I will certainly be exploring poly-tempo relationships in this piece, which will actually involve an extended collaboration between my bother Paul, who is a poet and playwright, and Chis Bisset, a South African video artist. We will produce a silent film inspired by German expressionism (and commenting on the historical rise of fascism), and I will compose a long piece (around two hours) that Lightbulb will perform along to the video, inspired in part by early minimalist aesthetics.
William Dougherty is one of the winners of the 2015 Commissioning Project, and we will be premiering his piece, the new normal, at our concert this Friday, Feb 24 at the Universalist Unitarian Chapel. Here, guitarist and Executive Director Giacomo Fiore interviewed William about his new piece, his background, and upcoming projects. Learn more about William’s music at his website.
GF: the new normal, the piece you’ve written for the Wild Rumpus Commissioning Project, uses a variety of sound sources for the fixed media part. Can you tell us about how you went about selecting them, and what they have in common?
WD: In the new normal I used collage as a method, connecting short samples of six different musical passages.Each of the two movements features three external sound samples as its source material. Some of the samples are heard in their original forms in the fixed tape part while others are filtered, stretched, and/or orchestrated and performed by the instrumentalists. The first movement contains samples of a recording by 20th century ethnomusicologist and folklorist Alan Lomax of Black prisoners at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in 1947 chopping wood and singing Old Alabama. The harmonic backdrop for the first movement comes from Ahi Troppo, ahi troppo e duro, an aria from Claudio Monteverdi’s 1608 Ballo delle ingrate (Ballet of the Ungrateful). In the aria, a women damned to Hades because of her lack of love, laments her return to the underworld after having felt for one last time the sun and fresh air of Earth. An orchestrated sample of Japanese noise artist Merzbow’s 1996 album Pulse Demon also features prominently in the first movement. The second movement similarly uses an ancient song for its harmonic backdrop. In this case it is a small section of Henry Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary—a work written and premiered at the funeral of Queen Mary II of England in 1695. The harmonic material comes from a passage titled In the midst of life we are in death. The non-voiced pops, clicks, static, and beeps of police radio recordings from recent mass shootings and murders of unarmed Blacks by police officers are layered to create dense heterophonic textures. And a recording of Simon Loeffler’s 2012 work b for 3 musicians, 3 neonlights, effectpedals and a loose jack cable also features prominently in the second movement.
GF: the new normal employs tunings other than 12-tone equal temperament. What’s your approach to intonation?
WD: I have a deep interest in non-tempered tuning systems, believing that there exists certain expressive possibilities in pitch intervals and harmonies outside of the realm of 12-tone equal temperament—especially in those derived from the harmonic series. I choose not to limit the expressive capability of my music, so I look beyond the confines of 12-tone equal temperament, especially when excellent new music practitioners (like the players of Wild Rumpus) are easily able to execute specific microtonal deviations from the tempered scale.
GF: The way I look at it, you have both just or quasi-just tunings going on in the new normal (in the guitar part), as well as other microtonal divisions of the octave in the strings, and fixed pitched instruments that cannot accommodate either. How do you bring these different tuning “worlds” together, from a compositional standpoint?
WD: I like when two or more different tuning systems collide. I find it less exciting as a compositional exercise to strive for a “perfect” tuning—one that attempts to preserves the simple whole number ratios between intervals of the harmonic series, for example. After all, each tuning system has its flaws, its upsides and downsides. As you say, certain microtonal divisions are not even possible on certain instruments! So rather than restrict myself to one tuning system, I enjoy bringing out the clash of two or more unreconcilable ones. I find that the interaction between these systems and their respective pitch collections can often bring out the most compelling sonorities.
GF: What was your path to becoming a composer?
GF: Tell us about your experience participating in the Wild Rumpus Commissioning Project. What were some of the most beneficial elements in the process?
WD: The Wild Rumpus Commissioning Project has been a great experience so far. Players have been really responsive and helpful when I’ve reached out for advice or guidance on technical and artistic questions. Despite some of my atypical request (like asking the percussionists if they’d be willing to play electric guitar), everyone I’ve been in touch with has been very receptive and enthusiastic, which is often not the case. Having an openness for dialogue is a really important part of my compositional process, especially early in the process, and so I appreciate the players of Wild Rumpus keeping an open mind and taking the time to help bring to life my artistic vision.
GF: What other projects have you got cooking right now?
Carolyn Chen is one of the winners of the 2015 Commissioning Project, and we will be premiering her piece at our concert on Friday, Feb 24 at the Universalist Unitarian Chapel. Here, flutist Bethanne Walker interviewed Carolyn about her background, the piece she wrote for Wild Rumpus, and her upcoming projects. Learn more about Carolyn’s music at her website.
Bethanne: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me! To start, could you tell me about your academic background? And where are you now, and what are you up to?
Carolyn: So I did an undergraduate degree in music at Stanford with a concentration in piano performance, and a humanities program where I wrote a thesis on free improvisation and radical politics. I also did a coterminal master’s degree in modern thought and literature at Stanford, and then I did a master’s and Ph.D. in composition at U.C. San Diego.
I graduated two years ago, and I’ve been living in L.A. since then, just trying to make music!
BW: Great! How did you come to find composing? Composing music, to me as a non-composer, seems to be one of the most intimate types of artform out there, but what people sometimes don’t know about written music is that everything that you personally have communicated is entirely temporal and individually sonic, which doesn’t always translate person to person, or group to group who is interpreting your music, and every composer is different in their style. When did you realize that composing music was the gateway to your inner voice?
CC: I started improvising in undergrad; I played in Mark Applebaum’s improvisation ensemble at Stanford, and that was kind of my route in. I played piano and clarinet growing up, but I never thought that composing was accessible to me. It just didn’t occur to me that I should be allowed to do it. So I joined this improv group, and I was hearing a lot of new music at the time. I never really heard live concerts as a kid, so it was kind of like Candyland when I got to college – I was going to every concert that I could, and the new music concerts were really weird. They were strange and kind of alienating, and I really wanted to understand what was going on, so I just kept going back. And then when I joined the improv group, I was playing clarinet and I hadn’t practiced in a long time, so my embouchure was gone, and I was making these sounds that I didn’t have complete control over–these squawky, noisy sounds. It was kind of like chasing a soccer ball down the field when it’s just a little bit too far out in front of you. But I realized I still had preferences in the midst of these sounds that I had thought were ugly growing up. There was a depth to them, and I was curious about the different ways that they could go, and how people were interacting and listening to one another. After improvising, I would go home and my brain would just be racing because of all the things I didn’t do, or all the other ways the music could have gone. So it was like this music that didn’t happen was stuck in my head, and that was exhilarating! That led me to think that I could try to set some ideas down and shape things a bit more.
BW: Congratulations on your Klangforum Wien commission, by the way! Your music is widely performed all over the world, which is incredibly impressive and really exciting. I’m curious to ask you if you have any advice for how a younger composer can get their music heard.
CC: That’s a good question! I’m not really running things –it’s like improvising, I’m just trying to keep up with the gifts that come into my life! I recently heard a more established composer say that the path just looks different for everyone. Some people are naturally great at talking to people and presenting themselves, and I am not one of those people, so it’s always a pleasant surprise that things happen. But I do think that everything happens through a community, and for it to be a healthy ecosystem, you need all kinds of personalities. Opportunities do happen through just doing the work and showing up and being a genuine person, contributing in whatever ways feel natural — probably more than half of what happens to me is from the generosity of my more successful friends and colleagues! Also, music is a long-term endeavor, so in the end, details like the rate of performances are incidental. A lot of my favorite composers made one amazing piece once a decade. In the end, if you believe in what you’re doing and it’s meaningful to you, that’s the most important thing. People can sense that, so it gets picked up.
BW: Can you tell more about your piece that you wrote for Wild Rumpus? How did you find the poem, what you inspired you to set this particular text, and how did you approach the text?
CC: I was at Colorado College for a residency last spring, and I visited the press there, which was so beautiful! I was browsing around on the website because I was so entranced by all of Aaron Cohick’s handmade work, and I ran into this poem by Divya Victor. I hadn’t known her work before, but this poem struck me as really humorous and beautifully made; the sound of it and all the internal rhyme are so charming, and so clever! I liked the idea of having this kaleidoscopic approach to what a mussel could be—she’s oscillating between the different spellings and the different meanings of mussels and muscles, so you have descriptions of the animal in its natural habitat, the muscles in your face and your tongue and how they move to spell the letters of the words “mussel” and “muscle,” and then these over-the-top foodie descriptions that are very San Francisco-appropriate. It struck me as really funny and a bit dark and edgy, but with a kind of buoyancy that I thought would make it fun to come back to in composing. I was also excited to find a living poet, so I looked her up, and she turned out to be this lovely, generous person who was really open to having her words set in a flexible way. She didn’t have any issue with rearranging, or obscuring different parts of the poem. There’s a little bit of simultaneity and talking-over, as I was imagining keeping all of these ideas running simultaneously. The energy of the language was really inspiring. The poem feels both formally very thought-through, but also very spontaneous in its inner workings, so that was something that I was thinking about in the music. The repeating structure also has lent itself to movements of different characters. It was sort of like setting the same poem through different lenses. Also, since it was for Vanessa [Langer], I thought that something about the fanciness of the foodie descriptions really fits the bel canto singing voice. I wanted her sometimes to have beautiful lines to sing, and the floweriness of that language seemed appropriate!
BW: I try to avoid comparing composers to other composers as much as possible, but I just have to say that your music has such a Hans Abrahmensen style of strength in its own fragility. You are able to sonically explore so much with potentially so little available without any use of force. Do you enjoy the challenge of writing for non-standard instrumentation, such as Wild Rumpus? How do you go about approaching such a project?
CC: I think something unfamiliar is always a creative stimulus. It’s sort of a Pierrot-like ensemble, but with trombone and electric guitar. I think there’s a some humor in combining this beautiful classical chamber music sound with outdoor and more popular instruments. It was definitely one of the things that appealed to me most about working with Wild Rumpus. The trombone and electric guitar are the most challenging for me because they’re the instruments I’ve written for the least often. I like the idea of a possible disruption, both within the music, and also to my own creative process.
Also, when I was writing, I saw this concert by Kidi band, this L.A. group that draws a lot from African music, and that was probably the most joyous performance I saw last year. Something about this way of rhythmically interlocking and being together as a whole felt very beautiful, and I was thinking of Thomas Mapfumo’s electric guitar sound, which is so clean, and springy, and rejuvenating. I have never really written a groove before, so there’s one movement here that’s the most groove-like music I’ve ever made.
BW: You have created an incredible open space for yourself and your work, and speaking of electric guitar, I feel like incorporating multimedia, electronics, non-western music in an otherwise potentially restrictive concert setting can be difficult, and yet I find that your music desires it to be a necessity to incorporate these types of mediums. Did you always think of expanding the setting of the concert hall, or strive to push the boundaries of what concert art music is perceived to be?
CC: In undergrad, I started out improvising and making little tape pieces and working with video all around the same time. I didn’t go to a conservatory. It’s not that I wasn’t familiar with concert music, but it seemed very natural to explore all the resources that were available. I don’t always aim to expand or interrupt the concert hall as a medium, because there are aspects of concert listening that are quite valuable to me. But I think as people living now, it’s part of the joy and responsibility of being alive to respond to the media and material we have around us. There’s also a long history of incorporating these things into concert music, or of taking musical activities outside of the concert hall. I think I’m working in conversation with all of that as it comes up.
BW: Speaking of outside of the concert hall, you have a series called “Music for People,” and I’ve also seen a piece of yours set in a grocery store. Could you speak more about this?
CC: Actually, that ties into the non-western music, because Supermarket Music was based on the guqin, the 7-stringed Chinese zither which I started studying in graduate school. It was traditionally an instrument for the literati, to play for self-cultivation and not public performance, so it’s a very quiet and private instrument. There’s lore and mythology about playing it in nature, over a rushing stream or in high mountains. There’s the idea that you play to get in tune with nature and escape the trappings of society, to tune yourself into the natural harmony of the universe.
So I was learning this instrument in Southern California without a car, and so I was thinking, “What is nature to me here?” And the one place that I visited every week because I had to was the supermarket. There’s Ralph’s, which is a Southern Californian 24 hour supermarket that has everything in it, not just food, but lawn chairs, and sometimes player pianos–if the zombie apocalypse happened, you could totally survive there. It’s just an amazing universe in and of itself that contains everything. I’m also really into produce: I managed produce and soy in my college co-op, so I like hanging out with vegetables! I was thinking about the grocery store, and there’s something hypnotic about the way it’s designed: the muzak playing overhead, and the fluorescent lights so there’s no shadows, and all the aisles are wide enough so you’re with people, but not forced to interact with anyone. There’s an ease and effortlessness about everything: the shopping cart does the carrying for you, and the conveyer belt does the moving of the objects… It’s like this dream space.
CC: I was thinking about the supermarket as what nature could be – if I had to find the equivalent of a high mountaintop in La Jolla. All of this space enables a very private experience even though it is a social space. So that’s where that project came from, and I invited people to contribute pieces, and it became something much more interesting I think than if I had been the only one doing my solo silent music. Since I was an improviser, I was writing text pieces along with fully notated music from the beginning. I would sing with the refrigerators in the co-op and move dry goods around, and things like that. That’s sort of where that strand of work came from, and I think it’s nice because it’s mostly performable by people who don’t need musical training, and they can bring a an interesting perspective to performance.
BW: What is the project of your dreams?
CC: Oh, wow! There was a part of me thinking if we had an anti-gravitational chamber, we could throw people up into it and they could float around, because I think about push and pull a lot in feeling music. I’ve always wanted to do stuff in swimming pools and underwater as well. So one route into this question is the material resources aspect, but generally, it’s really just great to work with people who are fun to work with. I don’t know, I feel I’m really lucky because I get to do that! Every project where you’re working with people who are interesting and are interested in working with you–that’s the dream! That’s the best possible project that there could be. It really doesn’t matter if it’s for acoustic instruments or a deserted field somewhere…because people are so interesting.
BW: Is there anyone that you feel like our audience should know that deserves our attention? Anyone that has really inspired you lately?
CC: Mieko Shiomi: she was a part of the Fluxus community in New York in the 1960s, but all of her work is so subtle and deep. She finds the surprising in the everyday in this beautifully effortless way. There’s a really subtle sense of humor with this slow bloom: it seems simple on the page, but in experience, it just expands and becomes this luminous thing. Event for the Midday in the Sunlight (available in the Fluxus workbook) has directly inspired a few of my own pieces. I also love Smoke Poem and Disappearing Music for Face, amongst others.
Marian Zazeela: I love her calligraphic drawings, and I wrote a paper about this series of repeating initials. She’s just writing a row of letters: it’s so simple, but it’s like looking into an ornate embroidery, or an x-ray, or a ghost of an idea. You can actually see frequency, which says a lot of interesting things about repetition and continuity.
Thu Tran’s Food Party is a surrealist puppet cooking show that uses sound objects really expressively. Everything is alive!
OffTheIce: I don’t even know his real name, but he’s an off-ice figure skater, and he recreates the routines of famous figure skaters in competition, in particular Miki Ando skating to excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen. He’s just standing in sneakers in a driveway, standing still in the poses and then jumping. The video overdubs the soundtrack of the actual competition, so you hear the Japanese commentators and the roar of the crowd when he does the jumps. It’s an amazing example of sound transforming the apparent environment, and it’s been very inspiring to me!
BW: Where can we listen to more of your music, learn more about you, and know about your future projects?
BW: Well, I wish you the best of luck, and thank you so much for your time. I’m very excited to perform your piece, and I’m looking forward to our performance!
CC: Thank you so much!
Nathan Heidelberger is the first composer from our 2015 Commissioning Project to write a piece for us, which we will be premiering at our concert this Friday at the Presidio Officers’ Club at 6pm. Here, clarinetist Sophie Huet interviewed Nathan about his piece, his upcoming projects, and why he chose to write for the ensemble of bass clarinet, trombone, contrabass, and soprano. Learn more about Nathan’s music at his website.
Sophie: How did you get into composition?
Nathan: I started composing in middle school – I was taking piano lessons at the time and I’d started on the french horn. I didn’t really like practicing very much, so my piano teacher encouraged me to try composing. I started writing some stuff for the piano, and then I had a really encouraging middle school band teacher who encouraged me to write more and write for instruments in the band. She taught me the ranges of the instruments and things like that, so I was writing for my middle school band. Things took off from there.
How did you end up in Buffalo?
I came here for grad school, at the University of Buffalo. I got my doctorate last spring. These days, I have a day job as a copy editor at a children’s educational publishing company. I am doing that to pay the bills and writing music on nights and weekends.
I join you in the day job life. I have a day job at a small software company. I feel like more and more people of our generation are doing this. in some ways, it gives you the freedom to do what you want to do without worrying about the money side.
Absolutely, yeah. I thought for a long time that I would try and find a teaching job or something like that but the longer I spent in school, watching other people struggle with adjuncting and trying to get into that world, it just doesn’t seem like something I want to do. Having the pressure to succeed as a composer be coupled with the pressure of demonstrating my success so I can get tenure. I don’t want any part of that. I’m really happy with what I have right now.
To talk about your piece: first of all, I really love it. The rehearsals have been really fascinating. One of the things that really strikes me is I know you had talked about variation in the piece. I was wondering if you could talk about your vision for the movements and how you structured the piece.
I had mentioned at some point that a few of my recent pieces have been dealing with repetition and variation on a very local level. There would be short motive that would get repeated and would evolve over time, over one section or the whole piece. For this piece, I was more interested in looking at the bigger picture and having a larger chunk of music that would then go through this process of repeating and changing over time. A lot of it came out of the text that I was working with. It’s from this work called The Pine Woods Notebook by Francis Ponge, which goes through pages and pages of prose notes he’s trying to describe these woods that he was visiting one summer in 1940. He takes all these notes trying to get the description exactly right, and he’s looking for the perfect word. He keeps going to the dictionary to make sure that all the words he’s using mean exactly what he wants them to mean. He tries to distill all that down into a poem, and he goes through 20 drafts of this one poem, trying to get it right. This resonated with me a lot in terms of the compositional process of working through a process of drafting and reworking your stuff, but I also just liked seeing the way words would change over the course of these drafts. He’d put a different word in where he’d used one earlier, or the order of the lines would change. That really spoke to the way that I work with my musical materials, developing them over time, reshuffling the way they happen, trying to change the ways they relate to each other. I was really hoping to capture that over the course of these variations.
Even with the repetition, there is a sense of growth over the whole piece. The ending is so cool!
One thing I was thinking about, is if there’s one thing that’s repeating or slowly developing, that either some other aspect that goes through this very clear linear progression over time. One particularly clear way to do that is through register, so over the course of the whole piece the four movements, things slowly move higher and higher through register, which I think is very apparent. Working my way up to this higher register at the end of the piece is a culmination of that. And I guess it could work if you’re thinking about moving up a tree that’s being described in the poem, from the roots up through the trunk into the branches and the pine needles at the top.
How did you end up selecting the 4 specific variations from the 20?
That’s a good question. I think I retyped them all and printed them out on individual pieces of paper, and I put them all next to each other. I was trying to maximize a bit of variety – some of them are much more similar than others, some of them follow the same basic line order. The ones I ended up picking, there’s a bit more variety in terms of the order the lines come in, that was appealing. They all bring a different ways of dealing with the same image. For example, the last lines of the second and third movements of my piece:
“But ribbons woven of sleepless atoms” vs. “Beneath taut-strung ribbons of sleepless weave”
They’re both getting at the same image, and it’s clear how, given one, Ponge could have arrived at the other, but they’re also quite different each other. And then, in the last movement, those lines turn into “…to tell of sleepless flies.” So there’s that balance of continuity—being able to trace an image from one version of the poem to another—and variety—changes of wording (“woven” to “weave”), the introduction of small, new elements (“atoms,” “taut-strung,” “flies”). Not all the drafts offered that, particularly the variety part.
Did he end up with a final draft, or did he give up at the end of it?
He pretty much gives up in the end. In fact the last poem that he arrives at, which is the last one that I set, he breaks it down into these modules. Each module is maybe 2 lines or 3 lines and he says, well actually you could put these in any order. Now that I’ve arrived at this particular wording and these particular groupings of lines, we could just reshuffle them however you want and it would work. Which was also really cool to me as a composer, thinking about mobile forms and things like that. This idea that you could have a poem that would shuffle itself around. So in the end the order of the lines that I chose for that isn’t the way it’s printed in the book, but he says you could have reordered them in any of these ways.
Did that resonate you with what you were saying earlier about you moving the musical materials around and reshuffling those?
Absolutely. I think this is the best possible solution – that he arrives at this point where it generates all these other possibilities beyond itself. I hope there’s a sense of that in the piece, that there are these different gesture types or materials that appear in the ensemble in each movement in a different way, developed in a different way, lined up with a different part of the text also, the idea that you could keep reshuffling that for ever and ever.
What are some other projects that you have coming up?
My dream project right now is a solo piece for myself, actually. On piano and melodica, simultaneously, and vocalizing too. In a lot of my music, performers may be called upon to vocalize, non vocalists may be called upon to vocalise. We have a concert coming up in Buffalo, with a lot of pieces like that where performers are doing multiple things at the same time, which is really appealing to me. I’ll also be writing a piece for voice and cello soon, setting a Psalm from the Bible for a whole recital of song settings for voice and cello.
How did the reading session and our approach to this commission, was this helpful for you, and how did this affect the end result of your piece?
That was extremely helpful. When I initially got this commission and I was asked to suggest instrumentations, I was really excited about this really wonky sounding ensemble. Bass clarinet, trombone, contrabass, and voice sounded really great to me, but when it came to actually writing the piece, it became much more of a challenge to juggle that. Having that opportunity to read through the draft of the one movement was extremely helpful because it was really hard to get my head around that at first. I think it highlighted things in that initial draft that were pretty muddy and denser than they should have been given the register and the instruments. Figuring out ways to scale back on that and push things into the higher register as the piece went along really helped.
What made you suggest this combination of instruments to begin with?
I was pretty much looking for the most outlandish thing I could do, I guess. Then I had to follow through on it.
We last interviewed Jenny Olivia Johnson in 2012, when we originally commissioned Reflect Reflect Respond Respond. Soprano Vanessa Langer checked back in with Johnson, speaking more about her piece and her inspirations. Join us tonight to hear the revised version. You can learn more about Jenny Johnson’s music at her website.
Let me start out by saying we are thrilled to be performing this new incarnation of Reflect Reflect Respond Respond for Wild Rumpus. Even as it has its own particular challenges of endurance, it feels like a crossbreed of Wagner, Philip Glass and Bach.
That’s the most amazing compliment I’ve gotten in my life, as those are two of my paragons. I’m a huge Wagnerite despite all of his horrible politics and personality.
You are a native Californian?
I am from Los Angeles. I actually just came from there today, but I’ve been living in New York and Boston for a long time, but I’m a Southern Californian girl. I love the Bay Area though, God!
Well it sounds like you might be coming out to tinker on our upcoming album.
I would love to actually. I love recording. I just did my first album, and I just got obsessed with the whole studio process. It’s also something I would just love to learn how to do myself, be an engineer. That’s a weird aspiration of mine.
What was your source of inspiration for writing this piece, and why do you feel you had to communicate this body of work at this particular time?
I wrote this piece in 2012 and as you know I just re-did a big arrangement of it, but when I think back on the original impetus of this piece, it was really about teaching counterpoint. It was about teaching theory, about teaching Bach chorales and becoming newly obsessed with what those chorales meant to me as a composer, and especially the Jesu meine Freude set, because Bach set that melody in E minor so much. So I became obsessed with teaching through that chorale, through those different settings of it. For me, it’s incredibly sad, and I was interested into in the concept of sadness. What does it mean to lose something? What does it mean to obsess over something that you can’t have, and that erupted for me over this melody that you could set so many different ways, but each way being a different lens into this idea of loss. So I wanted to express all of the various lenses of the different Bach settings that I had studied as a kid into this piece about loss. I wanted it to be this multivalent repetitive delayed miasma about loss. And I wanted it to be this ecstatic version, because that is something I have studied a lot when I’ve done scholarship on trauma. I’ve thought a lot about the energy that is generated around negative feelings and sometimes that energy can be very euphoric. Sometimes it can be the energy that propels you into a new state of being. And so I wanted to think about sadness and loss as this sort of propelling energy to a new phase of life. I wanted to look at sadness from a lot of different angles. That’s when I took this idea of the Jesu meine Freude chorale and set in a repetitive, energetic, intense, circle of repetitions and had these idea of delay lines that would mirror it out into the universe and create this energy that would be propulsive, that would propel you into another state.
In terms of loss and euphoria is there a point in the piece that the transformation happens that the audience can look for?
Well you know after the singers sing “Jesu meine Freude…will you sing my sad songs…if I can’t touch you let me gaze.” That for me is a transformational point where it’s clear that actually what I am experiencing is not real. But let me still gaze upon it, let me still experience this simulacra of my emotional state in the most intense way I possibly can, even though its not real. That intensified, repetitive fast part ‘let me gaze upon you’ which I gather is really hard for the musicians to do, to me that is traumatic repetition. That’s the repetition compulsions. That’s the compulsion to repeat because, as Freud writes in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” we have this drive to repeat things that are traumatic for us that we don’t yet understand. There is a weird way in which we gain another kind of pleasure from trying to understand where we come from, even though we know we don’t have all of the information around it. We gain pleasure from the pain of the past. For me, that’s the point at which the piece hinges and turns toward the recognition of loss.
What can you tell us about the instrumentation you chose?
I was really excited about the idea of any stringed instruments as plucked tear drops, that was something I was playing with vis a vis my studies of Purcell and early music. What we the call the affect and lear, the theory of affects, different types of keys and also instrumentation techniques for evoking emotions is something I wanted to play with a lot. But at the same time that I was obliquely reference early music I was at the same time interested in a big sound. And so at that point and this point as well, what ever you guys have I’m going to write for it. So when Dan said, “Okay, here is out new band,” I said, “I’ll take them all!”
Your mythological reference to Narcissus and Echo and the play between self love and self destruction is a really fascinating one. Is that personal?
It hit home. I had been teaching a couple of classes on psychology and music, psychoanalysis in music. And I was interested in the concept of narcissism and what that means. And you know it always has this very negative connotation. You know, “Don’t fall in love with a narcissist, you are going to get your heart broken. And everything terrible is going to happen to you.” And in a way I’m thinking we are all narcissists. What does it mean to examine that, examine the idea of having a relationship with yourself and examining having a love relationship in which you really confront yourself. Which I think is what happens in all love relationships. I wanted to concentrate on that feedback loop of what happens when you are examining yourself and what happens – why is that necessarily good or bad. I wanted to remove the reductive veillance that our society gives narcissism and think about the fact that we are all narcissists, we have to be constantly examining ourselves when we interact with each other.
In a way, it’s impossible and in a way all of these terrible things that can happen to you when you confront a narcissist or your own narcissism are so important. It’s so rich you know, and I wanted to celebrate that richness. I didn’t necessarily want to just write a morality play about this. It’s just an inevitable fact about being a human being. You are going to be a narcissist and run into narcissists.
In a way we are discouraged from being narcissists. It’s so sad that we are taking selfies of ourselves but in a way with or without the camera we are always doing that. Everybody that we encounter is a selfie because we are always getting reflections of ourselves off of other people. And learning how to acknowledge the other with the inevitable fact that we are going to be “selfie”-ing with the other, always!
Well Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a favorite no doubt. It’s a beautiful science fiction book about adolescence in space, having to engage in a battle that they don’t know they are fighting. They think they are training to fight a battle and then they find out they are actually fighting this other species and they kill them. And actually that’s what this tattoo is on my arm with the carrots. What happens is that this young genius is charged with killing this race of insectoids, these aliens that are like insects. And he thinks he is training. He doesn’t know that in fact he is going to destroy their planet and destroy their species. But there is one cocoon left that he eventually discovers after the war and it communicates with him telepathically. And the way that that telepathic communication is indicated is with these carrots around the word yes. And that is the word that the cocoon conveys to him. Yes you have found the right spot for us. Put us here so that we can eventually regenerate and regrow. So for me this idea of intuitively knowing something is right is very powerful. And having somebody else just be able to communicate that yes this is right telepathically is like a load stone for me. That is everything.
Oh man, well it’s funny, my girlfriend is writing an opera that she wants to put on a beach and I think that is so great, but that is her dream project, so I’m not going to take that on. For me a dream project is actually having an opera in an art gallery, in a hall of mirrors, and the audience has to be in that hall of mirrors and it’s very disorienting. Definitely sight specific opera, like the Industry in L.A. what they are doing in limos and cars is blowing my mind. That kind of opera really excites me.