Faculty Artist Series program notes

I gave a concert of my recent surround-audio electronic works on WSU School of Music’s Faculty Artist Series this weekend, and wrote the following program notes to go along with it. Shared here because… well, it pretty well goes along with everything else here…

The performance of electronic works like the ones presented here presents a different concert experience than that to which many of us are accustomed, and invites a different listening strategy. In the absence of a performer on stage, the sound sources are instead concealed behind impersonal, inscrutable black boxes, which reveal nothing by way of expressivity or gesture—those visual cues on which we may find ourselves startlingly reliant in a concert setting once they are removed! This music is often referred to as acousmatic, after the Greek akousmatikoi—students of Pythagoras who were required to listen from behind a screen so as to better concentrate on his teachings rather than on his person. The French electronic music pioneer Pierre Schaeffer first applied this term to electronic music in the 1950s, reflecting its reduction of the experience of music to the mode of hearing alone.

Acousmatic music, however, is a stylistically broad category. The works presented tonight further reduce the listening experience, challenging the listener to a mental stillness that is open to the perception of very slow, subtle shifts in sound—gentle changes in tone color, gradual motion of a sound through the concert hall, the evolution of a simple tone into a layered, complex harmony. One might apply some familiar descriptors: minimalist, ambient, immersive, meditative. It is these and others. To the audience member, this is an invitation then to relax, breathe, attend to whatever details most attract your ear. You may find that you encounter familiar musical elements—rhythm, melody, harmony—in unfamiliar guises, but more important is to accept each of these sounds on their own terms without seeking or demanding those things:

“Cultivate a tranquil activity and an active tranquility.”
Carlo Giuseppe Quadrupani, Light and Peace 14.5

“You are ever active, yet always at rest.”
St. Augustine, Confessions I.4

“No purposes. Sounds.”
John Cage, Experimental Music: Doctrine

(Official program notes below are followed by further comments in italics. These are excerpts of email conversations with a friend who produced the digital album on which all of these works were released last month.)

CLOUDS, LIGHT (2016) [6:45] is the fruit of a series of private improvisations I did in April 2016, throwing a variety of simple sounds through a tangled web of sixty-five or so delay lines to see what they would do (this is what we in the biz call “research”). I liked the results of one in particular enough to return to it sporadically over the next six months, pushing and pulling and prodding it until I figured it was really time to call it done and move on to the next big project. The thick haziness of the beginning gradually rises and clarifies until it gives way to a quiet, delicate, warm interlude. The work closes resubmerged in the dense murk, the brief glimmer of light through the clouds passed into memory.

One of the visuals that I often think of when listening to this piece is the bit in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic book The Hobbit, where Bilbo climbs above the canopy of Mirkwood Forest and sees sunlight… the difference being that, in this case, I actually quite like the sojourn through the darkness that precedes the sunlight interlude! But another analogy I often think of with this piece is that of my personal experience of a lifelong struggle with depression, punctuated as it often is by moments of lightness and peace.

PENTECOST (2013) [19:15] is one manifestation of a recent drive to simplify my music as much as possible. It began in the contemplation of a tapestry I own, a deep blue field intersected by white lines. My first sketches—wavering pencil on blank paper—tried to take in too much; but, as I pared it down, I came to a band of interweaving lines flowing across the page, each individual and yet one gesture. The title Pentecost refers to both the event and its liturgical celebration in Christian tradition: tongues of holy flame descending onto the heads of waiting, wondering disciples. The weaving lines of my sketches circle and descend, a moment suspended in time, imagined in sound.

This work is composed of a stack of sine tones, which all descend at different rates from a unified initial pitch while simultaneously rotating around the performance space three times (each rotation shorter than the previous). Number symbolism is always present in my process, so the three rotations is an obvious trinitarian reference. Similarly, the descending tones are made up of nine strands (3*3), each of which also has a spectrum of nine partials that is only heard, quietly, in the final quarter or so of the piece. There is additionally a very quiet bass tone than slowly rises beneath the descending nine strands to subtly accentuate the descent.

THE DEEPS (2017) [4:33] articulates a single gesture divided into three contrasting sections, drawn from a recorded sample of boiling water (actually a barely-altered start-to-finish recording of the electric kettle in my office heating water for coffee). Though the source material is never completely obscured, it is filtered and altered in order to bring into super-real relief its contrasts and textural drama, evoking more profound imagery than its rather mundane beginnings might suggest.

Three sections follow the durations of the three movements of John Cage’s famous work 4’33”. The only sound source is a barely altered start to finish recording of the electric kettle in my office heating water for coffee. As the sounds began to come into shape and the deep wateriness of it emerged, I decided to alter the final *ding!* to sound more like an anchor hitting the rocky bottom than the polite mechanical notification that it was time for tea.

TRANSFIGURATION (2018) [21:10] is the second of a planned triptych of meditations on the interactions, the comings-and goings-and-union, between the tangible and spiritual worlds. The gospels relate the Transfiguration as a brief visible illumination of the depth of reality veiled in flesh in the person of Jesus: “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” Like the other works on this program, Transfiguration is crafted from a simple sound source (in this case, a looped one-second contrabassoon sample). Following an initial pen-and-paper sketch, the work blooms from muted simplicity to a rich, layered texture before returning to a single tone, now flush with the afterglow of its brief metamorphosis.

I’d been thinking about this piece for a long while without doing anything about it, so this past winter I sketched it in its entirety during a cross-country flight—a pencil drawing depicting an expanding central line as the thickening cloud of light illuminating the physical Christ from within, and side lines as the secondary heavenly characters of Elijah and Moses. It is definitely influenced by my encounters with the music of the great French composer Éliane Radigue, who over the past several years has become one of my favorite composers. Like Pentecost, mainly “about” a meditation on a moment of encounter between the frail, perplexed, awed physical world and the eternal Divine.


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