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David Bird: Interview

birdI 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: – 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!

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