Original Collage © Paige S. Spangler, 2011
Granted, no one really asks in that way. But still the question hangs in the air at parties and during moments of intense self-scrutiny, which coincidentally often strike at parties. Are you a _____er, a ______er, or a ____er? asks someone at the punch bowl, real or in my head. The short answer is that I've stopped caring, the longer answer is that I've stopped knowing. (Maybe vice-versa.)
This is mostly the fault of the faculty at Princeton, who never seemed to sympathize with the writer vs composer question framed as identity crisis. There Is No Problem Here, their bewilderment seemed to say. Work at the intersection of word and sound, or work with word as sound, or don't. No boxes for what you do. Boxes shut the process down.
I love imagining a post-compartmentalized creative life for myself. Write the words, write the music. That's nothing new in popular music but in "Art Music," more often than not, we "set text" because composers and writers are specialists and you have to pick a thing to do or you won't get good enough at it to survive bla bla bla. My work straddles a divide between "pop" and "art," (and by that I don't know what I mean,) so the approach to text feels particularly vulnerable to contestation and its attendant anxiety. Especially when you start speaking it instead of singing it. It's weird enough to sing your own song if you're a capital-C Composer, weirder still if your voice is dull-sounding and your intonation questionable, but what is going on with this speech, this talking? Further, what about this "accompaniment," which is how we often describe the not-text: it's…pop-y?
I started down this road in what we might think of as a "safe space": I read the texts and then messed with them, made them sound brutal or fractured, played with legibility, thought of institutionally acceptable ways to think of the project, like "using speech-rhythm to generate musical events," or "mapping text fragments to samples to reconstruct narrative through performance." But I'm not doing that in these pieces. I wrote some lines. Poems (I'll say it). And then I read them, and under and around the reading there is song. The result is that I don't know what these things are, I don't know how to describe them in a tweet or on a job application. But they exist, and you could listen to them if you wanted to. Thanks.