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I recently spoke to David Bird about his background and his new work, switch, written for Wild Rumpus. The piece is receiving its premiere on Saturday, February 28, 2015 at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. More information on David’s work can be found on his website: http://davidbird.tv – Sophie Huet, Wild Rumpus development director
What originally got you into music? Were you a performer or were you always interested in composition?
I started making music on a computer, and I took the metaphors of working within production environments like GarageBand. I mainly made things on the computer until I was more comfortable showing my things to people. Then I tried to transition out of working in those environments and trying to notate scores, getting to a point where I could hear what I was imagining and then notate it. Before really playing anything, I was thinking about recorded music.
How old were you when you started playing with Garageband?
Garageband came out early when I was working on stuff. My parents are both graphic designers, and they work a lot at home, so they had their big Mac computers. They also had a family computer that I would bring into my room. If they were working, I felt this weird need to be also working. When I wasn’t in school, I wanted to be busy doing my own thing as they were doing their things; that maintained a studious environment in the house. I don’t really remember when that started, but age wise, maybe 13, 10, I don’t know.
That seems really cool – when I was that age, I was learning to play the clarinet, so it makes sense, but I’m fascinated by this idea of starting on the computer.
I also played guitar, but that wasn’t going anywhere. I played in marching band, because I liked music, but I didn’t really communicate the idea of wanting to be a composer or creating anything to those people. I just kind of kept that in my room. Eventually I would go into the band room at school and record the vibraphones and cymbals and stuff and put that into the songs I was making at home. Usually I kept those worlds separate – I kept the creative world in my bedroom from the performance world, which I struggled with because I’m really bad at performing.
Now you’re a composer and you never have to perform!
I had to perform on Tuesday – I had to memorize the chess game between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky – the famous 1972 game – and I had to memorize it in time, because the performers were playing certain notes when things hit certain areas. It was all projected, so people could see what I was doing; it was really nerve-wracking.
Was that a piece by you or by someone else?
It was by an Icelandic composer named Halldór Smárason. There’s a group in New York called Tak Ensemble and they do a lot of cool stuff. I did that part for them because I like chess.
That sounds cool. I was hoping you could say something about your piece – what was your inspiration behind it or the genesis of the piece?
I have a weird tendency of taking up other, dead people’s obsessions over things, because I romanticize people’s weird struggles. One of the things I was interested in was the writing of William Gaddis, who wrote The Recognitions and J R, these big, intimidating books. One of the recurring themes of his work is this fear of anything digital. He sees the emergence of binary code and computers to represent a simplified concept of good and evil, and all these dualisms that we thought we were escaping in the 20th century. He talks about society in this mechanized way, and using the computer as a metaphor. He also talks about the player piano a lot, because the piano is a symbol of creative genius but the player piano is this imposed binary mechanized thing on the piano which removes all human tendencies. I like his quote that I included in the score, “I see the player piano as the grandfather of the computer, the ancestor of the entire nightmare we live in, the birth of the binary world where there is no option other than yes or no and where there is no refuge.”
I like that. I wanted to focus on very simple on/off material in the piece, and that’s why these key clicks happen. Everything that comes out of that, there’s always these states of either on or off. Then you notice in the animation of those states, there is this new thing that emerges and that’s how the texture builds. The whole material was that one fingering, the D fingering and the A sharp for the clarinet, and I added a similar one for the flute. I had two states and I was trying to see if I could arrive at a whole piece around two states, using the clicks to switch on and off.
In a way it’s kind of trivializing many things being on and off, but there’s also something tragic because it just keeps going. You keep on doing that little click thing for the whole piece. I think it gains meaning.
Knowing that you started composing electronic music – when you write for acoustic instruments, are you trying to recreate electronic sounds with acoustic instruments?
Yes and no. I can’t really comment on that so much, and I’ve always struggled with that because I grew up in that world where sounds were disassociated from their contexts. I heard clarinet first through the computer rather than hearing someone play it. I’m always going to disassociate what I’m hearing from what I see. that probably means that some of my references are going to be obscure, some are going to be impractical. The electronic thing in this piece manifests more in the imposed structure that the piece works within. It’s in the fact that you have to play that key click too fast, and it’s that imposed mechanized process on something that is very human which I think reveals the most interesting parts of the piece. It’s like Modern Times with Charlie Chaplin – you see the whole mechanized world and then you see the comedy of the human trying to incorporate themselves into that world. I’m way more obsessed with structures, and I actually tried really hard to remove the appearance of the structure in this piece because my sketches have stupid things like 17/8 everywhere and crazy obscure time signatures. Then I put it all into 4/4 and just simplified it. When you take all that and put it in 4/4 it ends up looking pretty normal, so that’s what happened.
Is part of your goal seeing the musicians try to struggle with this mechanized sound creation? Is part of it the variability that arises from writing something this difficult?
It’s a little of both. If we recorded the piece, I would want it to sound super mechanized and we would record each section separately, have coffee breaks where you’d eat coconuts and bananas and rest your hands, and then we’d do another 4 bars. I think to get to your question, it reveals something about performance. The difficulty justifies the performance because it offers this new window into something. I feel like there’s an ideal of the piece, but that version is definitely not that interesting, and I’d rather see the other versions. The piece can exist in the perfectly reified mechanical production version and it could exist in this “what if we turned the lights on and saw what was actually happening” version and see everyone struggling and sweating. I think having in both of those states makes it interesting and justifies the performance.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
I’m very happy with how everything is going, and you are the most awesome players. I’m having a ball!
I recently spoke to Ruby Fulton about her background and her new work, you & me, written for Wild Rumpus. The piece is receiving its premiere on Friday, September 5, 2014 at Old First Concerts in San Francisco. More information on Ruby’s work can be found on her website: http://www.rubyfulton.com – Sophie Huet, Wild Rumpus development director
Can you tell me about your background as a musician and how you got into composition?
I started off as a string player playing the violin since I was a little kid in a small town in northwest Iowa. I had a band in high school, and we wrote music, so we were writing, but that didn’t even occur to me as a career path until I went to Boston University and studied violin. I had to take a theory class and I really really liked it. I hadn’t really done music theory before but it was a lot of fun. I had a cool teacher who encouraged me a lot and, one thing led to another, I started to compose. My first piece was a violin duo I performed with my teacher, which was really cool. I remember he came down and played in the Composers Forum, and everyone was like, “Oh my God! Yuri Mazurkevich is here playing violin!” I didn’t know that was weird, I just asked him.
By the end of college, I was pretty committed to being a composer, so then I went to the San Francisco Conservatory, and I studied with Eli Armer and a little with Dan Becker. That was cool. From there to Peabody, and that’s where I am now – Baltimore.
Are you still studying at Peabody?
No, I got my doctorate there in 2009. Now I teach at the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia. I teach there and I teach a little at a lot of different places. I also teach violin.
For the piece you wrote for us, the fundamentals that we saw in the reading session didn’t change so much to the final piece, but how did the reading session and what you heard influence where you took the piece afterwards?
There were a couple really important things. First of all the trombone part was really really high. I guess I knew it was high – I’m a brass player too, but it was kind of a composer faux-pas to realize that really doesn’t work. I thought about taking it down an octave, but that was not the voicing that I wanted. The whole layer that evolves but stays steady, that ended up shifting down. That triggered some other changes. There’s two main layers – a steadier thing, and then the one that’s really erratic. I think one of the big changes after the reading session was, sinking it down, and then letting the erratic line start to infect the steady line a little bit. The grace notes came in as this element of something that’s not quite right, and the piano as it builds started to get some dissonant notes that didn’t quite fit. And then there’s a point in the middle where they switch and the steady people start playing the more chaotic material. It helps so much to hear it with real instruments, and it was really nice to be able to hear you guys play that even though it was not everybody was there.
Can you talk about where you got the idea for this piece, or how it came together?
Basically, this music is about the interaction of two really different things, and how over time the evolution of both those things over time kind of collides and influences the other part. Two layers, one layer being steady, and the other layer being chaotic and jamming those two things together and seeing what happens. For me it was musically interesting to start off with those two things and actually not know what going to happen. For instance, I didn’t know the layers were going to switch places part way through the piece. It’s a dramatic moment in the music. I didn’t plan that out, it just made sense at the time. That’s one of the things I love about composing, you can work through things, or set up a scenario and see what happens.
I’m imagining those little brick things that you set up in rows and you just push one and watch it expand.
Exactly. Set something up and put it into motion and see what happens. It’s kind of a minimalist approach, although the music isn’t really minimalist because it’s kind of dense.
It’s a really great piece – I’m really looking forward to it. I also wanted to talk a little about Rhymes with Opera, because I know you are one of the artistic directors.
Rhymes with Opera is a five-person collective. We do all brand-new opera type music, experimental vocal music. There’s three singers and two composers, me and my friend George Lam, are the co-artistic directors. It’s a bit like Wild Rumpus, actually, because you have the composer-directors too, and the performers. We just do new pieces written for our group. In November, we are doing a Dolly Parton show with an opera based on some Dolly Parton super-fans – those are the main characters, and their lives and how they interact. We’re previewing that piece and then also getting some people to come in and do Dolly Parton covers. It’s a show featuring Dolly and things about Dolly. And then next summer our friend Anna Meadors is working on a new piece, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Coffee and Cigarettes, it’s like short vignettes that aren’t really about anything, but people sitting around talking over coffee and it’s kind of dark. She’s working on an opera in the spirit of that. We also recently now have Rhymes with Orchestra, a chamber ensemble. So we’ve expanded and those are with the same people, the family is growing.
I recently spoke to Per Bloland about his background and about his new work Solis Overture written for Wild Rumpus. The piece is receiving its premiere on Friday, September 5, 2014 at Old First Concerts in San Francisco. More information on Per’s work can be found on his website: http://www.perbloland.com/ – Dan VanHassel, Wild Rumpus artistic director
Why don’t you tell me a little about your background as a musician.
Sure. I started down the whole compositional path fairly late in life. I played guitar in a band in college, and that was great, it was really fun. This was back in the 90s, when alternative rock and grunge were all the rage. We were all interested in a variety of sounds, but generally I leaned toward the heavier stuff while a few others were more into folk. The result was songs in a bunch of different weights, you might say. After my undergrad years I moved to San Francisco to be a rock star, but that clearly didn’t work out, and I was less and less satisfied with that scene. At the same time I was working as a substitute teaching in the public school district. One day I arrived at what I thought was to be a day-long gig at a high school, and discovered the band director had just gone on medical leave. They heard I was a musician and asked me to give the music classes a go. So I started teaching band, though I didn’t really know what I was getting into. At least I knew how to read music, having played clarinet for a number of years. It was a great experience, and I can’t even express how much I learned. After that year I decided I needed to fill in all the holes, and actually get a degree in music, so I enrolled at San Francisco State. I already had an undergrad degree from the University of Michigan, so I didn’t actually need the piece of paper, just the knowledge and experience. One of the first classes I took there was the history of 20th century music, and I was completely floored. The music I was suddenly exposed to so thoroughly grabbed me I decided during that semester to do whatever it took to be a composer. Of course I had no idea if it was even possible at that point, and it certainly was a long slog to get there, but that was my beginning.
Then you went to Stanford for grad school.
Eventually, yes. I was able to get through the program at San Francisco State in just a couple of years, since I had everything but the music classes already. After that I spent a number of years building up my portfolio before even considering applying to grad school. I ended up going to the University of Texas for my Masters degree and then Stanford for my Doctorate.
The piece you wrote for us is from an opera you are writing. Can you talk about the opera and the piece’s relation to that?
I’ve written a number of compositions based on literature – specifically non-vocal pieces based on novels. I became very interested in the process of translating ideas presented in one medium into another. The process is problematic, and probably impossible anyway, but it is nonetheless a fascinating exercise. My research, which started during my years at Stanford, has focused on how other people have approached this task, and how to incorporate these ideas into my own practice. My dissertation at Stanford was a cycle of pieces based on a novel by the Norwegian author Pedr Solis: Stillaset. These pieces drew on my research on the novel itself, and on the author who was quite an interesting character. This has been an ongoing project – since then I’ve written several pieces based on his other novels, and on his life and ideas. When I was contacted by Guerilla Opera Company in Boston, I immediately thought of doing something related to all this. I met up with a former colleague from Oberlin, Paul Schick, who is a librettist and the artistic and executive director for Real Time Opera, and pitched the idea of doing an opera based on some aspect of this guy’s life. He made a connection with a play called The Tower by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and, fusing the two stories together, came up with a really amazing libretto.
There is a tremendous amount of backstory and research that has gone into the libretto, and many musical ideas from previous pieces. The goal is to selectively synthesize this material for the opera. The Wild Rumpus piece, Solis Overture, was a perfect opportunity for me to start sketching some new musical material for use in the opera. I’m calling it an overture in that I will revisit this material in the opera, but it’s atypical in that the composition of the opera had barely begun when I wrote the piece.
One of the things I’m really struck by in the piece is the electronics. Can you talk about your approach to using electronics?
In this piece I demonstrated greater restraint than I usually do in that my pieces are usually much too complicated electronically. I tend to end up with a really impractical piece that is very hard to set up with tons of strange electronics. For this piece I decided I was going to stick to pre-recorded electronics. There is a Max patch that plays back the pre-recorded electronics at specific times, so it did end up getting a little more complicated. The audio files were all generated by a Max patch as well, one that I wrote at the very beginning of the composition process. The patch has a fairly distinct character, and I plan to use it for much of the electronic material for the opera as well. It’s pretty noisy, and I have to say I was influenced by Bauhaus, – the band, not the art deco style. They’re one of my all-time favorite bands. When I started messing with the patch, some of the initial results reminded me of their sound, so I went with it. It’s not a bright and cheery piece.
It is very dark, and the electronics are very visceral and intense at some points. They sound almost like industrial music.
It’s a big influence on what I do. I actually call my recent works chamber industrial. Do you know about “saturation”, the contemporary French musical style? I didn’t know about them until after I’d started going down this path, but their stuff is really interesting. They have a very specific approach about saturating instruments and getting noise from the acoustics as well as adding electronics. For me it’s less about specifically saturating the instruments and more about achieving that heavy post-industrial sound world, often with electronics.
You mentioned that there was some Scandinavian folk music influence in the piece as well?
Part of the backstory is that this author, Pedr Solis, who the opera is named after, might be described as a Samuel Beckett-like character, a bit of an isolationist. His second novel, Stillaset, was released around the same time as another, much more famous Norwegian author, Tarjei Vesaas, died. This was in 1970. Unfortunately that event completely overshadowed Solis’ release. In fact there was no English translation until around 2004, but don’t quote me on that. He apparently started a third novel, but at some point before finishing, dropped the project and disappeared completely from the public eye. Apparently he moved up to the very northern part of Norway but he didn’t really communicate with anyone. That is a significant element in his ethos, this isolation in the north. And thus the perhaps tenuous connection with the Sami people, who inhabit a swath across the north of Scandinavia. I did some research on them and discovered this amazing vocal music called yoiking. I sought out as many recordings as I could find, and came across a traditional melody that I though would work for this piece. I took many liberties, the melody is altered, and slowed to a snail’s pace. It was incorporated near the last end of the piece – a violin-cello duo which slides around. I did run into the problem finding information about my recordings, which generally had very slim CD booklets. The melody I ended up using was performed by a Finnish vocal ensemble, and is not actually a yoik, though it certainly sounds to me as if it were heavily influenced by that style. The words to the song are drawn from the Kalevala, a collection of Finnish epic poetry based on folktales. This particular song looks to be a blessing to the sun and the moon. Which is definitely fortuitous as the images of the sun and of the moon are very important in Pedr Solis’s work. In fact his first novel is called The Electric Moon. It tells the tale of a village in Norway in which an unexplained sound eventually drives the inhabitants mad. Collectively they come to believe the moon is in fact the source of the sound. Stillaset, his second novel and the one on which I based my dissertation piece, is basically an investigation of literary Modernism itself, and the interaction between of subjective modernism and objective modernism. He uses the imagery of the sun and the moon to represent these two sides, though which represents which is constantly in flux. It worked out perfectly that this song is about the relationship of the mythical sun and the mythical moon.
Anything else you think is important for the audience to know about the piece? Is the literary influence important to understanding it?
I don’t think it is. With all these literary connections it’s important to me that the music be completely comprehensible, and most importantly interesting, as music. It’s not a vehicle for disseminating any greater extra-musical ideas. If you are interested there’s a lot of stuff to look into that will illuminate aspects of the piece, but that’s more of a research project. It’s by no means expected. I love to do that with other people’s music, dig into the extra-musical aspects and learn about the piece from those connections. If I’m not drawn to the music by itself though I wouldn’t bother, it has to start with interesting music.
Lee Weisert’s Minutiae will be performed on Wild Rumpus’ upcoming concert on May 3, 2014 at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. I talked to Lee about his influences and the piece, and you can find out more at: www.leeweisert.com. – Jen Wang
Can you tell me a little about how you got started composing?
I started in my junior year of high school in Jakarta, Indonesia. I can’t remember what the class was called, maybe music theory, and I had a really cool teacher, and he played pieces by Ligeti, Lux Aeterna and Rite of Spring. Those were the ones that made me realize you could write music that sounded cool. I wrote some incidental music for a school play, a Bertolt Brecht play. Then I decided to major in undergrad at Colorado and just kept going.
Had you been interested in music before that?
Yeah, mainly guitar. My oldest brother, who is six years older than me, he went off to Stanford and learned to play the guitar. He came back over the summer and had a guitar, so, this was when I was a freshman in high school, I got interested because he was interested. I played in some rock bands and stuff, mostly cover bands, Jimi Hendrix, that kind of stuff.
I was noticing in your piece for us there are these very finely-wrought textures, and there’s a beautiful timbral sensitivity in working with electronics as well. I was wondering if you could talk about what your current musical interests are and how you arrived at those interests.
Most of the stuff in the last couple years has mixed live instruments with electronics. I’m more interested in formal ideas than sonic or timbral ones. I mean, I’m interested in those too, but the main thrust of a piece is some formal conceit. I’m trying to think of ways to use algorithmic and intuitive structures together, going for a kind of in-between-ness where you don’t know if it’s narrative or if it’s some kind of procedural structure. It’s kind of not clear what you’re listening to, from the listener’s point of view, not clear what’s driving the piece. To do that, I’ve used a lot of algorithms on the kind of local level to give gestures and the elements an algorithmic quality. But I’m playing with them intuitively, so that there’s a large scale kind of organicism to it, hopefully, but it doesn’t have that expressive gestural quality that you get when you just write note to note music.
How did you arrive at that way of working? Aesthetically, is there something particularly interesting about algorithmic material, or do you find it a useful way to generate material?
It is useful, once you come up with a system that you like. It does make it easy to generate material. When I went to CalArts for my master’s, I made a big shift toward large scale algorithmic and minimalist algorithmic techniques like you’d hear in process pieces – James Tenney, Alvin Lucier. With that kind of music you have to be a genius to really pull it off in the long run, time after time. I wasn’t there yet, so I was disappointed in the pieces because I liked the algorithmic quality, but it wasn’t compelling enough. When you’re lacking anything to add, it can be boring or predictable. I remember I had a lesson with Steve Takasugi, who teaches at Harvard, and he told me, “Don’t worry about the structure or having purity to the work, having everything lock mathematically in every direction. You have to get your fingers in there and be comfortable with leaving your fingerprints on the piece.” That stuck with me pretty strongly. After that I started tinkering and cracking things apart and rearranging them, and that’s how I got to what I described to you.
I was also interested in what you said about ambiguity for the listener, that you wanted material that had the marks of the algorithmic origins still present, but your fingerprints are in there as well, there’s this muddling of the two. I was interested in the idea that the listener should be able to detect the presence of both, but not necessarily be able to tell where one thing begins and the other ends.
That’s like looking at it from the other way, that you can detect different ones at different times. I was thinking about it from the other way, but it’s interesting that they could know [which one is which]. I’ve used the analogy of Bladerunner, you know, the whole time you’re wondering, is he a robot or is he a man? That’s the ambiguity I’m talking about. I am also fascinated with quasi algorithmic things in nature, for example, related to chaos theory or emergent behavior, they’re not always pure and it’s cluttered.
Let’s talk about Minutiae. Can you talk about the origins of the piece and your concept for it?
That was a fun one. I really had a good time writing it, or drawing it. I drew it first. I learned about an object in Max MSP that would allow you to draw pictures, and I kind of quickly realized that all of these little tiny algorithms that I’d been talking about before, instead of having them drive oscillators or sample playback devices, could hook up to a digital pencil. Instead of hearing these shapes you could see them. I thought that would be fun to do. I played around with it – it took a long time to figure out how to draw them correctly. The drawings themselves are composites of a bunch of little things that I made separately. They each had a kind of essence of some of the sounds I was interested in. I liked that, it was kind of the same but not the same. The idea for the one minute duration came from another practical thing: that I could draw one picture, that’s a page, but you can’t really pack enough into a page to make an 8 or 10 minute piece. You can either engineer it where you can tape the pages together or have it continue, but then I thought, well it would be cool to have it short, like a picture. A picture and sound. Also, everyone loves Webern, including me. You cannot not like him. But you don’t really hear a lot of tiny pieces, which is interesting. I always talk about how much I love his tiny little pieces and I’ve never done it either so I’ll take the chance.
The crux of it was now I have these pictures that have sonic characteristics. Instead of giving [the pictures] to the ensemble like a Cardew or Earl Brown or Christian Wolff kind of thing, which is what a lot of people thought I would do when I showed them the score, I thought it would be interesting to see how it affects the compositional process, for me to interpret it compositionally. It’s like I just added another step in there and transcribed them in a way. But my transcriptions were very imprecise. They weren’t consistent. Some of the drawings I would actually get precise measurements, fractions of a centimeter, for where this dot is on the page, or scaling xy coordinates to vibraphone range, that kind of thing. Some of them were much more conceptual. When you hear about Earl Brown’s December 1952, how he clues the performer in that you can hear it in 3 dimensions, you can look into the page and flip it, rotate it on a 3D axis. I did that for a couple of the gestures, instead of having up and down on the page be pitch, it might be timbre or amplitude or compress everything into one chord. That was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had, composing. It’s like improvising with a safety net.
I like that idea where you are behind all of it, ultimately, but there’s this idea of your interpretation of the images, and then Max patch’s interpretation of the images, of those two being paired together and so there’s translation happening in multiple ways and by different methods.
If you look at it at that distance, I guess you could characterize it as just trying to mess with myself. Try and rig myself up to make decisions that I normally wouldn’t think of having to make. There were times when it worked in the drawing, but I said, “I would never put silence here,” or “I’d never make this keep going,” but it look good in the drawing, and I’d have to do it. There are some parts that are just awkward, musically, but I think that was the idea.
The connections between the pieces and the images are really clear, and I think we’re all enjoying that. We’re also enjoying the sound worlds a lot. I was wondering if you could talk a little about your palette and what your influences are.
The electronics are really rudimentary, very retro. When I hear them, I hear Risset and Stockhausen and FM synthesis. Most of the electronics has that kind of retro 50’s, 60’s sound. With the electronics, I tend to use some kind of multidimensional aspect like a field recording or, in this piece I used an old cheap radio that I hacked to get the noise, so the noise is not pure white noise but a chaotic interference noise. It’s a little richer. You can tell it’s not computer generated. That mixture is attractive to me, that organic electronics with digital sound purity.
Eliza Brown’s In Hora Mortis Nostrae will be performed on Wild Rumpus’ upcoming concert on May 3, 2014 at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. I recently spoke with Eliza about her music and her interest in historical and literary influences on her music. More of her work can be heard her website: http://www.elizabrown.net/Site/Home.html. – Sophie Huet
SH: Thanks so much for talking with me. We are really looking forward to performing your piece, In Hora Mortis Nostrae on our next concert. To begin, what got you started as a composer?
EB: It goes way back. I started playing cello when I was seven, and I went to an elementary school that had a really strong writing program. They had this sort of mantra of writing a lot. My mom’s theory is that I just applied this mantra to cello lessons and assumed that if you play an instrument that also means you write music. I started composing pretty much when I started taking cello lessons.
SH: What made you you decide to focus on composition instead of cello?
EB: Well, I went to the Walden School [a summer camp for young composers]. I applied one summer to a string camp and a composing camp, and I was accepted to composition camp, not string camp. It’s nice to be wanted, but also Walden School is a great place. I think I felt because composing and music were so integrated to the life of the campers, it could be something integrated into your whole life rather than a side thing. It was an empowering experience, to imagine that music be infused into your whole existence.
SH: That’s very Walden – this idea that music is part of everything and not separate from anything else in life.
EB: There’s a bridge between the social element of summer camp with lots of kids who don’t know each other from all different places and turning that into a cooperative unit of people. You can’t separate the music making of Walden School from that project of trying to make a cooperative group of all of these people from different places.
SH: Does that sense of social element inform your compositional process?
EB: Definitely. I think that I’m always asking how it can be more that way. In a very real way I think that’s affected my whole life as a musician. Teaching for me is all about creating this collaborative environment in the classroom, where my students feel like they are part of a conversation they can contribute to that conversation.
SH: I feel like this sense of conversation and collaboration definitely plays into the piece you wrote for Wild Rumpus, which is based on an Ave Maria by Gletle.
EB: The piece for Wild Rumpus is, like many things I write, a conversation with some elements that are from another time or place. It’s influenced by trying to communicate across time and space and empathize with where these objects come from and what was the reality for the people who created these things originally.
SH: It’s a beautiful piece, but what drew you to the Gletle and inspired you to use this particular piece?
EB: I found the piece because I met Michael Leopold, the theorbist, when he came to Chicago to play theorbo for a production of Dido and Aeneas. I was looking up more of his work on the internet later, and I found this video of him playing this Gletle piece with a singer, Marina Bartoli. The piece is beautiful but I think if I had just encountered the score and the piece as it exists on paper I wouldn’t have gone through with it. It was really their performance that put it over the edge for me. They are just both such great performers and the performance is idiosyncratic in some really nice ways. They are really tasteful in the way they pull the tempo around, but they don’t hold back! I mean, their tempo is sometimes pushed almost up to double time. It’s bold and ends up feeling very organic. Sometimes you really lose the sense of meter or you’re just sort of floating in these arpeggiations and soaring vocal lines, but they always come back in at the right moment when you need to land on a cadence. The sense of meter returns just enough for you to feel you’ve arrived where we expected to arrive.
That type of interpretation is already doing some of the kind of work I like to do as a composer, to take things and stretch them in time or by expanding their spectral bandwidth so that things get pulled in and out of recognition or familiarity. The conversation is actually bigger – it’s Gletle and two interpreters who did the Gletle and now me and Wild Rumpus also, because this piece is also very much filtered through my love for that particular interpretation.
SH: So it’s this interpretation in particular that you’re exploring – how does Wild Rumpus fit into the conversation for you?
EB: This conversation with Wild Rumpus is the one I felt most intensely about. The instrumental parts are pretty spare in the score and there’s actually less fussy composer-ly details in this piece than in some of my other scores.
SH: You mean fewer markings on the paper, right?
EB: Absolutely. I think that comes from my awareness of how important interpretation is to the Gletle or any piece that’s melody and continuo. I’m trying to leave space for the ensemble to make some decisions. It’s not as open-ended as actual continuo, but there’s a lot more room for interpretation in the score than in some of my scores or in some other new music composers’.
SH: Yes, I remember you saying in the reading session how you wanted there to be more play with the edge of playability with the fragility of the parts, to explore that sound area, even if the piece ends up sounding pretty different every time.
EB: That sort of momentary presence is very important to me, and I think that also relates to my interest in communicating with the dead. We can’t actually talk to Gletle, because he’s not around, he never will be around, and if he were around now, he wouldn’t be the same composer who produced this music. If we want this music to exist then we can’t actually talk to Gletle.
SH: That is something I’ve never thought about, and it’s also a little creepy.
EB: It is totally creepy! I’m always so interested in history, getting close to the human experience, and understanding what was lived human experience for someone in another time and place. What do I have in common with that person and what is unbridgeable between me and that person. Thinking about historical people magnifies some of the pathos of interacting with people who are in our own time. You can never know someone as completely as you want to get close to them. Then adding the time element, there’s another dimension along which you can have this longing and this separation.
That relates to the idea that I like to create music-making situations that are somewhat fragile. The fragility of the sound or the unpredictability of the sound or the ensemble situation means that that moment is not replicable in a very intentional way. Any musical moment that you hear in the piece also has this quality of longing for it to return but it will never return.
SH: I wonder how this emphasis on the exact moment and fragility of sound affects your attitude towards recordings of your pieces. I imagine it complicates your feelings toward them.
EB: There are recordings of my pieces that I really like and are fantastic. I don’t know. Recordings are sort of practical to have to show people something about what we do. But I guess as much as I am grateful for the presence of recordings and the ability of recordings to get my music to more people, I feel like ultimately they aren’t really are my piece. Ultimately, a recording isn’t really – I feel like this is mean to say – isn’t really a real instance of my piece. It’s one potential instance of my piece, but there’s no such thing as a real instance of my piece.
SH: That’s really interesting to think about. It reminds me, going back to Walden, of Pauline Oliveros and her pieces or even John Cage’s music, where the pieces are different each time they’re performed. This idea that there is the score and the recording but neither is really the piece what is a piece of music, and what does that even mean?
EB: Absolutely. I’m very interested in those questions. There are composers whose work probably asks those questions in much more overt ways than mine does, but if I problematize those questions, it’s on this level of sonic detail. The detail of the moment is only here once and then it’s gone forever. It’s not so much a structural part of the work, the way Pauline Oliveros or John Cage might do, but it’s an internal questioning of the work. I got that from continuo, and from history. How far can you stretch a piece for solo instrument and continuo until it’s not that piece anymore, and what are the limits of interpretation of that piece?
SH: What do you hope the audience takes away after hearing In Hora Mortis Nostrae for the first time?
EB: Well in a way they’re part of the conversation too! I have no agenda for what people get out of it. On a purely sensual level I hope that there is some sensual beauty in it. I think that’s something that many people could access in the piece. I recognize that all of these layers of meaning that a piece like this has for me are not going to be the same for everyone. I’m always interested in hearing what layers of meaning other people put into my music. It’s very flattering that they would even spend the time and headspace to think about those layers of meaning. I think I’d just like to let people participate in the conversation.
SH: This idea of a non-definitive meaning makes me think about novels and writing – the idea that when a writer writes something there is meaning and interpretation they didn’t necessarily intend but that is still present in the work beyond the author’s intentions.
EB: This is partly why I’m very interested in 20th century literary criticism! Sure, there’s something of that there. If I was a hardcore semiologist, I would say that the work is a collection of signs and their interpretation is culturally contingent, and there’s a limit to intentionally constructed meaning on the part of an author.
SH: Does that limitation of intentional meaning on the part of the author – is that freeing for you as a creator or is that frightening? That you don’t have control over the meaning of the work you create?
EB: Part of it is that the work that we do is in new music is ultimately in a small corner of the world. The idea that I can’t control interpretation would scare me more if I felt like people’s lives were at stake or something, you know? But since I don’t think that lives are at stake, then it’s freeing. I sort of can’t imagine thinking about it in any other way, partly because I am a story-telling, music-making thinker. I can’t imagine thinking about what I do without thinking about what it means. I also recognize how convoluted and subjective a lot of my own meaning-making process is. I can’t ever imagine my thought process being duplicated. Not that mine is so great, but it’s so specific. We all have these thought processes of what something means that is very specific to us.
There’s this Borges story about the guy who wants to write Don Quixote [“Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote”] but he wants to do it authentically from his time and place. Just produce Don Quixote because he needed to. The absurdity of this premise is so apparent, but I think when you take that away, it comes back to the question of whether people are going to interpret things the same way.
SH: I always think of that story being more about the absurdity of literary criticism, this idea that we can interpret the same text in such different ways by pushing criticism to its absurd limits. The story to me is just as much, if not more, about poking fun at critics than at authors.
EB: I agree with you, and here we are proving my point. We both read this Borges story and I don’t think either of us is wrong! But we get out of it what is most meaningful to our own purposes. For me, I create art and I’m really interested in history, so it’s like a cautionary tale. It’s saying, okay, you can love this stuff from history but, there’s some cliche quote, history is something you reference, not a place you live. I don’t know the exact quote.
SH: To bring this conversation back to the beginning, what other projects are you working on?
EB: I am working on an opera scene that will be part of the Darmstadt Festival’s contemporary opera workshop. Speaking of history, it’s about a Spanish noblewoman who was a potential heir to the Spanish throne in the 1500s. She was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and she was on paper heir to Isabella’s throne. But she was labeled as crazy and imprisoned for the last 40 years of her life. There’s a question in the historical record as to whether she was actually crazy or whether this was a plot on the part of other men who resented her power to get her labeled as crazy and out of the way.
SH: That’s really fascinating. And it definitely plays into this idea of unreliable stories and conversations.
EB: That’s an expression of this sort of gulf. I feel so much compassion for this woman and what must have been a horrible situation. She was imprisoned, and they took her daughter away. And so she said, “I’m not going to eat until you bring my daughter back,” and they said, “Oh, the queen won’t eat – she is crazy!” There’s this psychological war going on and people’s lives are in the balance when you’re talking about political intrigues in Renaissance Europe. The subject is fascinating, but we can’t really know what was going on in this situation. We can try to uncover it – there’s a really fantastic book about her by Bethany Aram [Juana the Mad], but even the best history can’t tell us whether she was crazy or not, or whether the story was more complex than that. We just can’t know entirely what happened.