Friday, October 29, 2010

Ear to the Earth: environment and electronic music

Yesterday I visited an ongoing exhibit near New York Chinatown, A Soundmap of the Housatonic River by Annea Lockwood. It was commissioned by the Housatonic River Museum in Massachusetts and included in a water-focused festival jointly produced by Electronic Music Foundation and Ear to the Earth. The festival treats water as a natural resource rather than artistic content. The exhibit especially affected me because of my passion for environmental conservation and background in analysis of proposed utility projects (think high-voltage transmission lines).

While waiting for someone to meet me there, I sat and listened to about 30 mins of the hour-long piece. There were four speakers set at the corners of a square in a tiny white gallery space with three chairs facing the same direction in the middle. A shaded relief map of the river with locations keyed to landmarks, dates, and times was installed on the facing wall. A digital time display served as counter so the observer could track the recording.

All the sound I heard was from field recordings, faded and arranged digitally. For the first 15 mins or so, the sound was all "natural" -- although the river undoubtedly attracted civilization and industry, a random sample, which is all a visitor can be expected to stay for, would most likely be gurgling and birdsong, no human noise.

The portrayal of "nature" as romantic, pure, and pristine troubles me because it alienates people. This image insists we are no part of the environment. I believe we are necessarily part of it, interdependent. Sure, there's charm and mystery in the world around us. But to make real, considered choices, we must emphasize and value our impacts on and interaction with this environment. To portray a river in civilization as gurgling and birdsong would be stifling, boring, ineffective.

So I was delighted suddenly to hear the violent, repeated roar of automobiles over the covered bridge at West Cornwall, then a more gentle motorcycle shifting again and again, replaced quickly by the solitary, irregular drilling of a woodpecker quite like a conventional wood block, all over the nuanced, running water. Yes, Lockwood focused on the non-human sounds along the river, taking samples at remote locations and early hours of the day; but she treated human sounds with care, preparing the ear and then recovering with taste and space for afterthought. Mine was: what a perfect motorcycle crossing, still invasive, alone, like the bird, amoral, inevitable. A moving transition.

My rendezvous never showed, but it was a lovely meditation for me. If you have a chance to stop by 153-1/2 Stanton St in NYC by next Thursday, please take a moment's shelter from the uninterpreted urban environment.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


The National Park Service hosts artist residencies at quite a few parks. While only half are open to composers, and none provide much more than a space and access to a stream of enthusiastic visitors, the idea of being mostly alone in a cabin all winter surrounded by the grand canyon excites me. I plan to spend most of the warm months gardening next year, but surely by September I'll be free to get back into wilderness.

How has your environment, natural or academic or urban, driven your work?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

When is it done?

A few days ago I visited this artist to preview his Open Studio exhibit in San Francisco (I would be traveling during the opening).

I noticed his works referred more to the human figure than a couple years before as a result of a figures class he took. He explained figure drawing can be challenging for many because of the body and identity issues it accesses on top of the silencing imposed on art in childhood. The flip side is the visual power of figure.

While showing me one work, he pulled out the "studies" or sketches that had led to it and indicated parts of the "study" that were left out of this work but that he may reuse in a new one. We went on to discuss how we know intuitively when a piece is (un)finished and whether we care how viewers experience it, e.g. in a gallery, displayed over a mantle or stairs or sealed in a box in the attic.

Friday's concert invoked this topic again when I heard an uncomfortably long, slow solo piano piece by Jason Hoopes that finally exploded into vivid range contrasts in that minimalist way; when asked, he laughed that he didn't care how listeners audited it, e.g. in part, as background noise, or in concert as collective captives.

As I explore these questions of triggers, completion, and presentation in my works in progress, I realize my perspective changes as dramatically as that of the meaning of past experiences, where I am in my life, and what I seek from people around me. Maybe it's a sign that rather than hiding in art, I've made it interchangeable with my life and self, but it sure makes it hard to finish a work in progress.

Monday, October 11, 2010

a fine premiere

I just experienced one of the most sublime features of being a composer.

The rehearsal and premiere of Night No. 2 at Berkeley Espresso was such a treat. I wrote it in relatively conventional fashion, for precise execution in a controlled sound environment (a concert hall) by trained musicians. What I heard confirms this is the first piece I've written without a mentor's input that I still like. The recording is on its way.

Other pieces in the concert included a beautiful violin and piano duet by Dan Becker and a fall-down-laughing two piano four hands by Ian Dicke, a kind of jazz meets minimalism in virtuosi.

On the way home from San Francisco I detoured to the Ch'an Meditation Center in Queens, where I enjoyed a talk on the four phenomena of self, lunch, and a long service on the Great Compassion Repentance. There is a remarkable section in the middle of this slowly sung service featuring a long mantra repeated at great speed and without pause 14 times. Its rhythm is shaped with nonsensical syllables somewhat like onomatopoeia in distinctly irregular lines; the repetitions draw it out to incomprehensible length. It was beautiful, though jeweled flowers didn't fall from the heavens as the coda indicates.

I was hardly expecting minimalist choral music flawlessly performed in the middle of service.