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Lee Weisert: Interview

leeLee 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.


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