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Joshua Carro: Interview
Joshua Carro’s Spectral Fields in Time will be performed on Wild Rumpus’ upcoming concert on February 22, 2014 at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley. I recently spoke with Josh about his diverse background as a percussionist and composer, and the influence of doom metal and just intonation on his work for Wild Rumpus. More of his work can be heard at: http://cition.bandcamp.com/ – Dan VanHassel
Dan: Tell me a bit about your background as a musician.
Joshua: I started out pretty late – I started at age 10 learning drumset. I was really interested in rock and jazz but also in improvisation. That’s really all I had growing up – I had really humble beginnings. I was just practicing drumset seven hours a day. I was also discovering music like Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, and John Cage, and a lot of electronic music like Richard James, Aphex Twin, Merzbow. Then, in Middle School I was in jazz band and all the concert bands. In high school I was in marching band and jazz band. I got a scholarship for percussion performance at ASU. Then I taught for five years after that, just on my own, and I did a lot of writing and arranging. I eventually got to CalArts, and then studied with Ulrich Krieger and Wolfgang von Schweinitz, studying the music of just intonation and experimental music. In between there, I also learned tabla.
Dan: The piece you wrote for us, Spectral Fields in Time, is influenced by doom metal. Could you talk about that, and the genesis of the piece?
Joshua: Sure. When I went to CalArts, I was away from that sort of music but it was always a part of me because that’s where I started. I found bands like Sunn O))), an experimental doom metal band. Also Boris, a doom metal band from Japan, and Earth, another doom metal band, but some of the members in there are the same as Sunn O))). I became extremely interested in this music because it was very drone-esque. It was very focused on sound and listening, which is a big part of what I do now. I found this piece by Sunn O))) called “Big Church” which is a piece for 4 electric guitars, a synthesizer, 3 trumpets, 2 flugelhorns, 4 part voice but only sopranos and altos, trombone, percussion, and voice. I was extremely interested in this piece; it’s just long drones and long chords.
I did a full transcription of it, and ended up hooking with those guys, who are Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson. We collaborated, and I ended up arranging the whole piece for full orchestra. We performed it at CalArts with a lot of success. Stephen put it on his website and it got a ton of press. Within days, there were thousands of plays on my Bandcamp of that piece, and he started recommending my music to other people. I started thinking, these pieces are inside of me if I could transcribe them. Between you and me, it’s really hard to hear 4 electric guitars tuned down to a low A, and then one of them is playing low A, one is playing a B-flat, and one is playing between an A and B-flat, and to be able to hear those notes and pick them out. I spent hours and hours just figuring out one measure of that piece. Just through that practice and listening to it really informed my writing. I had these pieces inside me, like Spectral Fields in Time that I wrote for you guys. Really it was being inspired by these musicians who’ve taken a medium of music like rock music to new experimental levels where it’s not just them jamming in a band, but it’s informed. These guys, like Stephen O’Malley, you see them on the street and they look just like rockers, but they’ll sit with you and talk about Xenakis and Boulez all day long. They know more about it probably than you and I. It was a true inspiration for me to come across that music and see how deep it was. That’s where Spectral Fields came from. Plus since I studied with Wolfgang von Schweinitz who took over for James Tenney, who was the leading just intonation composer of our time. I learned so much from that guy. I thought I had decent ears before, but after studying with him, being able to hear the partials up to 44, 45, the difference between those was really enlightening. I also felt like Sunn O))) was also like just intonation because they use a lot of effects on the guitar such as distortion which outlines the harmonic series and resonates them to extreme levels to where you can actually hear them. That’s where I was going with Spectral Fields in Time.
I also do a lot of stuff with experimental amplification and recording. I like to record things through tam tams, or put condenser microphones two millimeters away from a cymbal and play super quiet but turn the gain way up so that you can hear every single sonority in the cymbal. I started doing that with other instruments. I thought why not write a piece that is informed by all of these things that I’ve been doing for a while.
Dan: When you’re dealing with these influences and this kind of music, and then you’re writing a piece for classically trained musicians, how do you deal with the potential disconnect there?
Joshua: Luckily, I had an upbringing in classical music because not only did I do my undergrad in percussion, I studied music theory from the beginning all the way to vectoral analysis, complete serialism, and set theory. The music of Xenakis goes even further than that, which is using concepts in nature. That leads to just intonation, because that is the sound of nature. I was very obsessed with classical music too. I studied all the piano repertoire from very early stuff all the way to Rachmaninoff and further. I have knowledge about the literature, theory, and practice. I had to learn a lot of really hard pieces for percussion.
I feel like I can use part of that to relate to them, but I also have the upbringing of being a rock musician, where you can sit in your garage and pound on your drums until you’re sweating. That’s something that most classical musicians don’t have. They didn’t look forward to getting home from school so they could play their violin until they’re sweating their ass off. That’s something I try to show them about the music.
It definitely is a challenge. I had a piece played recently called An Imaginary Place and it’s for guitar soloist, which is electric distorted guitar, and full orchestra. It’s basically a Tenney score, where it starts super soft and eventually over minutes gets as loud as humanly possible, and then minutes later goes back to nothing. In the middle of this piece, it’s ffff and everybody in the ensemble is playing as loud as they possibly can, and everyone is amplified, and there are percussionists rolling on bass drums, three tam-tams, timpani, snare drum, and cymbals. It’s not too loud for me, but definitely too loud. Getting ensembles to do something like that is definitely a challenge. Somehow, I made it work. I’ve gotten a lot of annoyed personalities, because it seems like classical musicians these days don’t really play very loud. If you go see an orchestra concert, and you see something like Rite of Spring, it’s never actually loud enough. It’s never even quiet enough, either. I feel like that’s what I’m doing with my pieces as well, I’m trying to widen the dynamic range and make them play loud and soft.
Dan: There’s something very physical when you’re dealing with extremes of volume. Is that sort of what you’re after?
Joshua: It is because it’s like when you’re doing something that’s physically demanding, after a while it’s like running. You hate it at first, and then you get used to it, and then you are kind of stoned, and you don’t even realize it hurts anymore. And then it’s over. It’s something that, in my practice I did because I was obsessed with the drumset and playing it over and over and over, playing really fast pieces, like blast beats really fast. It’s difficult, it’s a challenge, like a sport. I like extremes. I’m also a visual artist, so I don’t think of music as music, I think of it as art.
Dan: How does your experience as a performer inform your writing? The piece you wrote for us, there was the demo recording you made, and that’s you performing on there. Is that normally your process for writing?
Joshua: It’s not the same all the time. Sometimes I start with sounds, like in this case for Spectral Fields in Time. I started with the cymbal actually, by experimenting with this close amplification technique I’ve been using. Once I found the sound I wanted where you could hear all the sonorities in the cymbal, I transcribed the sonorities I heard on the cymbal. All the notes that are in the piece come out of the cymbal. The interesting thing is that the cymbal is not a definite or perfect instrument. When you play a string it has a fundamental pitch, say a C, but the fundamental pitch is not also maybe B or a little bit flat C at the same time, it’s one note: C. But the cymbal is an imperfect piece of metal that’s hammered and sort of tuned by an artisan so you hear not only one fundamental, but a couple of fundamentals which means that the harmonic series is much more complex. That’s where all those notes came from, maybe they don’t come out of a fundamental C but they come out of a fundamental B or B-flat. That’s how I started that piece. Sometimes I don’t start with sounds, I think about, say, the ensemble or just a simple concept like what can this ensemble do, or what’s beautiful about this ensemble that I can expose. In this case, I started with the cymbal and then I orchestrated the partials and the harmonics in the cymbal to make a piece for chamber ensemble.
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