I wanted to share the remarkable work of the inaugural class of So Percussion Summer Institute composers. I'm embedding video of each piece below, in the order in which they were read at the close of this summer's institute. It's unbelievable to me that So were able to read these so blisteringly well with precious little time with the scores.
I'm honored to have mentored these six composers over the course of developing these pieces, and grateful to So for pulling me in.
Why is it that in dreams we can't do the simplest things? (Dominic Coles)
Blue, Green, Purple, and Pink (Steven Stavropoulos)
Bright, Loud, Weird, and Delicate (Daniel Allas)
Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (Ian Michael Clarke)
The Creation of Thunder (Christopher Poovey)
What You Want and What You Get (Lonnie Jordan)
My job is to water the garden.
I root for the underdogs,
the transplants we probably shocked
with cold and rain
when we moved them out of the guest room,
hopeful that they could thrive in the yard.
It's not that they're dying exactly,
except for the parsley, which is definitely dying.
More that they're frozen in time
snapshots of what they were on their last day indoors.
There's a metaphor in this, I suppose, and I remember
my father choking up in my dorm room
and down the hall as he rushed away from me
on that first day of my own transplanting.
For his sake I hope I've taken root,
that I tower over the child he left
in haste one end of summer.
My body in decline,
I try otherwise to grow
and hope he can see it
as he takes stock in his own backyard.
His mother controls their garden these days,
lording over the flowers and herbs
with an old watering can,
while I take to the yard with a hose or measuring cup,
envisioning late summer salads
tomatoes in jars,
to feed my budding family from the small plot of earth
in my charge,
hoping we didn't misread the frost charts,
or sever roots
while thinning out the sprouts we grew from seed.
I'm working on a new piece. I wrote some very anxious lines, that will turn into sound, that go like:
The night I found out you were coming
I walked across the street for groceries,
then fried eggs on the narrow stove in the apartment
where we planned to live until you could crawl
over to the drawers or the air conditioner,
find a pair of scissors, or press a button and dissolve
the oppressive radiator heat
to draw us together under blankets in our sleep.
Better that than finding a pair of scissors
or some powder under the sink
designed to break another nest apart and,
like a good worker,
carry it back on your body to the place where we sleep
and bury us all.
I seal kitchen cabinets with elaborate straps and adhesives,
your grandfather builds a staircase gate with the cat in mind,
but today at the doctor
a boy who hit his head was throwing up in a plastic bag,
and I wonder when our barriers
against sharps and poisons
will give out.
Inspired by Deveryminou's Vegan Chopped submission, and by food blogging in general, I decided to do something I have never done before: to think--and write--a little about the process of making something and actually to show the stages. Think of it as live-tweeting composition, except it's not live and I'm not tweeting.
I'm working through a new piano piece for Kate Campbell. The initial idea was to do a kind of Jerry Lee Lewis thing, though it would be significantly masked. Maybe that was just an excuse to raid PREx for old records. Which I did. And then dropped the concept. Like so:
This was the initial marking of the page. Note values and rhythms mean close to nothing. It was more an idea of moving through a "grip" on the keyboard and activating different registers.
Then the charge became finding a kind of propulsive skeleton to hang things off of, which I did here. The thought was for a kind of impressionistic language and gestural vocabulary, but I wanted it to be well in rhythm. Can't really out-Debussy or -Ravel Debussy or Ravel, so I thought I could bring in a different-than-usual profile for this sort of language.
Pushing that led here. Which follows from the other ideas, I think. It intensifies the idea of giving the material a profile in time. But the 7/8 thing felt a bit contrived, so I started thinking about "normalizing."
Which I did here, to a degree. 6/8 but with anticipations for all of the high notes, which are just the tops of the chords that used to be two-handed in earlier versions but are now arpeggiated in just the right hand, expressed over a few beats horizontally instead of in a single moment vertically. It comes from rolling the chords. If you're going to roll them quickly, low to high, then maybe try "rolling" them slowly and high to low?
And then I started seeing all of the opportunities to connect the left-hand line while introducing a kind of rhythmic antagonism, three against two (but with anticipations, to throw off the three.)
I thought the duple left hand was a bit clunky, though, so the next step was to pull that element out. The result was a kind of invention-sounding thing. Which I liked for a few hours. But then...
I realized that the beats had shifted in that last version. so I moved everything over to make things more intuitively related to the time signature. But the way this was just SO 6/8 started to feel clunky as well. The way out seemed to be returning to that three against two idea, but not dividing it so neatly between the hands. What if they're changing roles?
Which got me here, which is where I am now. I'm sold enough on the idea to write about it as an arrival point, but I could have said that about any number of stages that, in retrospect, I was only passing through.
There's something about this compulsive rewriting, or rather of writing into an idea, that I really like. It happened this way for fall down five times get up six and I remember being strangely proud of having persisted through a million drafts of the first few measures. I also remember that the compulsion seemed to be building potential energy for a very different sort of writing later on in the piece, that the overproduction seemed to crack open a more intuitive composing that didn't require all of that labor and rethinking and second guessing. So maybe I am setting myself up for that. I'll report back.
There's no multimedia today. I could post mockups of Electrobot, I suppose, but I'm going to hold out for some real documentation of the first performance at the end of July. Besides, this isn't really a post about new musical/artistic happenings per se, more a post about life happenings (or nonevents that feel like something more) that of course encompass new projects, but those projects are maybe symptomatic of a new or at least refreshed attitude and outlook.
Writing is sometimes like the cartoon image of plugging a dam, stop up one leak and another blows through and soon you're out of fingers and toes. I say that because now, instead of writing about a psychological resetting I want to write about whether making things is the symptom of rejuvenation happening elsewhere or its cause. Neither/nor. More like a feedback loop. Maybe that's the way to think of it: outputs wired to inputs, always, and living well means negotiating the signal. Sometimes the signal gets so hot, though, that you have to pull the plug. And somehow being greeted by DADADADADADA when I got home, along with laughter and a gigantic eight-toothed smile didn't overheat the system. I'm building capacity, it would seem. And now onto the next: a set of new songs for Wassaic, which has a new website (the Festival, not the town). It's a lot to commit to physical memory in six weeks, so there's really no time to waste. Then I get working on the DEFINITIVE audio version of The Exchange, which will then become to definitive video version of the same. And then MORE MORE MORE before the school year starts, taking care to keep the feedback under control.
I'm still trying to figure out how this website is supposed to work, i.e. whether this belongs in "news" (no) or "video" (maybe) instead. I think the length and predicted lack of focus of this post, though, will reverse-justify its placement here. Soon my blog posts will forgo this self-reflexive language, but for now I am warming up, so chill out.
This piece, THE piece for a long time, by which I mean the kind of culmination of what I've been up to for the past many years, is how I chose to open my set at the Queens New Music Festival. Twenty intense minutes, vulnerable, personal, difficult to perform in their way. I had a generous and gentle audience, as you will hear, for which I am really grateful. Prior to this performance I did the same piece at Cakeshop and that was a kind of disaster, though there were some kind folks in the room then, too. But nothing like this show. Friends, family, students, colleagues. Some said "whoo." It was great!
I haven't actually watched the video I'm posting here. I didn't watch the video of the premiere (actually the dress rehearsal of the premiere) until my defense, many months later, so this is nothing new. Someone tell me how it is. I checked out the first minute, maybe, and the sound is not great, speech at the expense of samples. I guess that's more favorable arithmetic for this sort of thing than the other way round.
The next life for The Exchange will, I hope, be a record. I'm working on working on it, which is not a typo. First I have to get a few things up and running. Next year's course, and Electrobot, and a set for Wassaic. But after those things are done or have legs I'm turning to a new project: definitive audio for four pieces that have been around for awhile but never received proper treatment, one of which is The Exchange, which I've thought of as a performance piece rather than something that could stand alone with eyes shut and headphones on. Two others are recipes (also not a typo) that were intended specifically for closed eyes and headphones, but I've learned a few tricks since I committed those to "tape" so want to revisit them. The last is something called "Plant a Flower," kind of the genesis for this whole new direction, a leap of faith. I can't wait to get that one right. I have a draft but it's unclear whether that draft is a stopping point on the way to the best version I can make or something I'll need to discard. Either way it's going to happen soon. I'm eager to begin.
Thanks for reading. As I said earlier I'm still getting my footing. I used to blog a lot, in a kind of unselfconscious, antagonistic, and highly unhinged way. I sort of miss the swagger of the language, and the feeling that it was necessary, that I was creating a kind of resource ("Thank You Campaign is a free culture resource," I might have said). But I don't miss what it took from me on its way out and onto the page. Sometimes I think the really, truly compelling versions of what I could make are unsustainable, that I could have maybe done great work for a little while, before burning up. I'm playing a longer game now. Hence The Exchange works well as a title for THE piece in a way I hadn't imagined before. This is what you get when you make the trade.
By which I mean this--Electrobot--is, I think, the last bot in the series of bots I've been composing every year since 2008. Octobot->Polybot->Babybot->Electrobot. Somewhere in the middle of the series I decided to capitalize as a general title policy, so probably it's more like octobot->polybot->Babybot->Electrobot, without retroactive capitalization. Because this matters.
I'm here, writing, because making Electrobot has been a singular process, and I wanted to take note of the ways in which it was surprising to me, and also just take some notes on where I am in the piece, what I need to do to get it done, and why it feels like either the end of the bot series or, maybe, a kind of postscript, a way I've sort of melded the thinking I do as a solo performer with the thinking that the players will have to do as they figure this piece out.
It will look like nothing on the page, oversimple, because what the player sees is markedly different than what the player will hear when s/he is wired, i.e. plugged into the laptop with the software running. Every note struck triggers a longer sample with its own groove, and if everyone does their part and stays metronome-precise, the samples interlock, which you hear one way as the piece begins to move along, and then an entirely different way as it pushes towards a moment in the center when Something Happens.
The piece is, then, a kind of leap of faith. The performers will practice this nothing-seeming piece on faith that Something will happen when I plug them in, and I write this Something-seeming piece on faith that these young, precocious, wildly talented players will not laugh when they get piano music in the mail.
About that: Roland was supposed to loan us 4 SPD-X controllers for this piece, which is why its alternate title is "Fundingbot," but that fell through. So now we're using Axiom-25s. And I'm not using their pads, I just decided. So this piece for percussion quartet at this reputable summer institute for percussionists has these mallet-and-stick-wielding young lions essentially playing keyboard parts.
Still to do: make sure that, for all the excitement of Something Happening in the center, the beginning and end are as straightforward and playable as possible. This requires much more work on my part, essentially rewiring my brain to think of these grooves in a whole new way, so I can notate them in the way that makes the most sense for the players, but it also contributes to the feeling that this is a nothing-seeming piece, on its surface, that they will open up their envelopes and be disappointed that they didn't get a showcase. And I need to map the samples onto the keyboard in a way that makes the most sense for a non-pianist to approach. Those are two big jobs. But it's exciting and satisfying work. It feels like creating a whole world, like a door is blowing open.
In general that's the feeling around the office these days. Electricity. The sense that things are transforming, and that the conditions that bring about a new quartet every summer might just change before our eyes, might be changing now before our eyes.
I've been thinking a lot about what to say to my brother this year. "Thank you for your service"? (Over text message because he never picks up his phone, which I try not to take personally?)
I want to acknowledge what he did, or what was done to him, or what he was made to do, without turning it into some kind of ra ra ra you mess with the bull now feel the horns an eye for an eye etc etc. There isn't a flag hanging outside my house or a yellow ribbon decal stuck on the back of my car, and I doubt I'll be watching the parade. In fact I'll probably be at the Genius Bar requesting a repair of the iPhone I accidentally smashed to bits in a parking lot. I suppose it's appropriate: he'll think of the friends he lost in combat and I'll think of the $110 I lost because I dropped something. My life is easy and his is immeasurably difficult. I know, we all have our struggles and demons. But there are orders of magnitude separating us.
Cracked glass triggers a memory: he punches through the picture of his Recruit Training Battalion that my father had framed for him as a surprise one New Year's eve. That's how he felt about being a marine. Victimized by his own decision, maybe. Enraged at himself. We all hated that anger at the time, but now I think it was a symbol of strength and willfulness, a sign that he refused to be broken down and rebuilt in someone else's protagonistic image.
When my brother was about to enlist a friend of ours said something like "this isn't fucking Braveheart." My brother looked to me to sort out his confusion. My parents called me l'avvocato, the lawyer, because I always took his side, pled his case. I told him to join.
My Aunt scoured the internet for news of my brother's location, which we didn't ever know, while he was away. One day she came upon a picture, marines dug into the side of a road, armed to the teeth. She zoomed in. There was our name on the back of a helmet. I wrote over it but it still shows through.
I'm sorry for everything that you've lost, I want to say. Not thank you, or way to go, or job well done. And I want to say that I am sorry for every selfish part of myself, that is like every selfish part of every other person, that means there need to be jobs like the one you made yourself do. And I'm sorry for being ungrateful and naive and wishing that job away when I'm supposed to be celebrating it.
I thought it would be clever to say hello with a recent performance picture, taken by a student who was gracious enough to travel from Princeton to Long Island City to watch my Queens New Music Festival set.
There's video from that performance on my news and, um, video pages. Right now it's just "Blip-hop," but I'll have the longer piece (The Exchange) up pretty soon as well. Also, "Blip-hop" is likely not the real name of the song. Maybe "Things As They Are"? Because "Blip-hop" is kind of tech-y, and was devised before I wrote any words. Which I did on an airplane on the way to Seattle.
It's good to blog again! It's been quite awhile since I really said anything on my other blog,called Thank You Campaign, about to be buried. I'm sad/happy about that. A closing of a door, a new beginning, nostalgia for the idea that the whole crew would work together somehow, that I could instigate some giant collective enterprise. Now I fly solo. Except for everybody else.
The big question is whether blogging will replace 750 words. Which is a great idea, and which I have been doing, and which you should do, too. The other big question is whether I will really return to blogging at all. The first time it felt like there was just so much to say, with my brother being in a war, my family divided over it, my head in turmoil. I needed a valve. I don't feel the same imperative to write now, but maybe just setting out a few things every now and again will be helpful or entertaining or meaningful to someone, sometime. We'll just have to see.
The Aphex rerelease (Selected Ambient Works 2) has been spinning and spinning over here. I'm sorry to have missed it the first time around, but grateful to be getting to know it now. Don't tell my students, or bosses, that I linked to Wikipedia.
Good things are happening over here. Making records, writing the SoSI piece, getting ready for Wassaic, reengaging the old manuscript. And saying these things out loud, so to speak, committing them to print, so to speak.