A little over 10 years ago, I wrote a piano piece in large part because I couldn’t fathom writing a piano piece. My work at the time—and I suppose this continues to be the case—was primarily about transitional states, about instability of pitch and timbre, about sliding between various unstable points (from one ambiguous state to another), about what happened between the beginning and end of a sound. The piano didn’t do any of that particularly well—in fact it didn’t do anything that my music ‘did’—which to me seemed like a perfect reason to try to write a piano piece.
In the same spirit, I suppose, I find myself working on an electronic piece. I don’t have the slightest idea what I’m doing, which is exactly why I’m doing it. The tools are unfamiliar, the materials even more so. I come to this blind, naïve, ill informed, and in way over my head.
The gap between my musical practice and the world of electronic music couldn’t be any wider. I’ve categorically rejected the notion of music as a primarily sonic art form, arguing (for over a decade now) that the way in which a sound is made is intrinsic to the sound itself. I’ve never had any interest in electronic music largely because, on the whole, the physical was absent, or was at least extrinsic. The listening experience of electronic music has often felt sterile and thin, and though there have been electronic works that I’ve found quite compelling—from Steve Takasugi and Chris Mercer, in particular—in the end the experience was never as rich or detailed or … musical as I’d like.
It was Chris, in fact, who first really started pushing me to try my hand at electronic music. And I pushed back. We talked, we argued (usually over far too much scotch at Edgewater Lounge in Andersonville in Chicago), but I didn’t budge. He made the perfectly reasonable suggestion that, like any other useful or meaningful listening experience, I needed to learn how to listen to this repertoire. Its materials required a different listening vocabulary, a different set of ears, a different set of tools. Despite some really wonderful late-night listening sessions (Chris is an avid record collector, and I have particularly fond memories of a David Tudor LP that was indeed very special (I have less fond memories of helping him move that record collection from one apartment to another)), I still didn’t budge.
I’ve been on the staff at the University of Huddersfield for almost exactly six years now, and I am surrounded by some truly extraordinary equipment (it’s almost impossible to overstate how impressive the music technology facilities are) and an outstanding collection of colleagues and students involved in music technology in myriad ways. Quite a few of those colleagues have nudged me in the same way Chris did. And, predictably, I’ve resisted.
It’s not that I have any resistance to the technology, as such—I’ve been active as a CD producer for nearly a decade, and while there are certainly holes in my knowledge base I’ve always been perfectly comfortable with audio technology. It’s just that I’ve always been much more comfortable either recording something (almost always something purely acoustic in origin) or doing the tech for someone else’s piece. When it came to being a composer, other than a few early works that include some amplification I have distinctly avoided making music that involves loudspeakers.
This is all to say, that background, that resistance, that assured and confident stance … those are the reasons I’m now giving this a try. The primary motivation is that my work over the last many years has come to be entirely intertwined with its notation, and that notation is fundamentally linked with how I work, how I start pieces, how my compositional methodology has come to define itself, how I have come to make pieces. My approach to almost every aspect of musical material—rhythm, meter, gesture, dynamics, register, timbre, etc., etc.—is tied in with a compositional methodology that has become a ‘given’. When I start a new work, most of the important decisions have already been made. That was highly intentional, at least initially. I designed a way of working that did what I wanted my music to do. But increasingly I’ve wanted to at least force myself to consider doing something else, and to do that my sense has been that it would be necessary to therefore upend the very process of making pieces. I’ve considered a variety of approaches, but in the end they all felt like tinkering around the edges. I needed a less familiar space and a much higher degree of discomfort.
At the moment, the fact that I’m making music at all is a bit of a victory. I haven’t written anything in nearly two years. That silence has been the result of an awareness that what I do—what I make—has become too fixed, too predictable, and frankly has become something of a ‘brand’. It is too easily reduced to a gimmick, too easily aped, and it has been far too easy for me to focus on newness/uniqueness or some façade of innovation rather than having to truthfully engage with and confront the work’s quality, depth, or sophistication or indeed with larger issues of art and humanity (though that’s not to say I haven’t tried).
The reasons weren’t as clear or calculated when I started working on this new piece—I just wanted to make something, and I wanted to work with a new set of materials without knowing yet what they were or what they might become. I knew I wanted to work with the recording of A painter of figures in rooms. It’s something of a reclamation project, or perhaps simply unfinished business. But beyond that, I really didn’t have the slightest idea what the piece might be. As I’ve worked on it—I’ve been at it for about a month, and so far I think I have just about 44 seconds of potentially usable material—the reasons that I’m doing it have become clearer. Mostly it’s a question of having to step away from notation, forcing myself to think about materials in a way that’s divorced from notational conventions. I’m having to think about rhythm and gesture and event and iteration and volume in a completely different way, and at the moment I have an opportunity to work in a completely different fashion than I’m used to, working more like a sculptor or painter or dancer, pushing, pulling, moving, exploring, testing, etc. in a much more immediate and direct way than I’ve done before. When I was in graduate school I started painting as a way of regaining a direct connection with making things—I needed the physical interaction with material, the direct feedback, the resistance from the canvas, the link between physical gesture and shape, the very real sense of making something. I suppose this is a rough equivalent.
My initial experience has been surprising in many ways. Firstly, I’m surprised at just how little that sense of ‘immediacy’ is present. The work is still very slow and methodical (as I’ve said, in a month I haven’t yet even generated a minute’s worth of music that is useable, and what I have generated isn’t anywhere near ready for prime time), and there still seems to be a significant gap between imagined material, working material, and the actual experience of experiencing material. (I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising, but it is.) Second, I’ve been surprised at how difficult it is to construct gestures. There is a flattening that is quite troubling and challenging. Again, that shouldn’t be a surprise, but I was struck by just how much I had to fight against the lack of acoustical space inherent in the medium. That challenge is interesting, though, and it’s forced me to work with a spatialized, multi-channel setup that is way beyond my technical facility. And third, I’m intrigued that some of my usual ways of working with acoustic instruments might well be really beneficial and interesting in the electronic medium. For the time being, I’m avoiding that kind of approach, mostly because I’m trying to unlearn my defaults (so resorting to those defaults, even if it might generate interesting results, would be misguided and unhelpful), but in the future I might try to explore what might be possible by employing my existing acoustic compositional methodology in an electroacoustic musical environment.
I really have no idea what I’m doing, and I only have a vague idea of why I’m doing it. But that to me seems like the only useful space to occupy at the moment. I’m happy to be in a place where I’m forced to reconsider how and why I do what I do, what my ‘givens’ are, what my basic materials as a composer might be. I suppose like everything else I’ve ever made, it’s an experiment, and one that might very well fail. But quoting Feldman quoting McLuhan: ‘If it works, it’s obsolete’.