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Brian Baumbusch: Interview

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.

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