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A Sound Here or There

Greg Stuart
Author
JoĂŁo Santos
Issue 4
September 2017






Banff 2017, in preparation for A mist is a collection of points. Photograph by Greg Stuart.

The recording for A Wave and Waves was one of my first exposures to your work. I distinctly remember being struck not only by the inventiveness of your instrumentation but also by how extraordinarily graceful your realization was on such a colossal piece. Coincidentally, you just came back from Melbourne where the world premiere of Michael Pisaro’s A Wave and Waves took place almost a decade after the piece was written and around five years after the CD release. How gratifying was it to see this be performed by the 100 percussionists and be part of that and how different was this from the Cathnor edition where you assembled everything and recorded the 100 instruments yourself?

Thanks for your kind words about the recording. A Wave and Waves was one of my earliest collaborations with Michael. At the time (this was around 2006/2007) we had done a few small things, mostly from Michael’s Harmony Series, but had also just started working with large, massed ensembles of sounds. The instrumentation is actually specified in the score rather than something I decided upon spontaneously. We did do some work to get the instrumentation into its final form, but not much. That is, what one sees in the score instrument-wise is mostly from Michael. That said, there was a strong component of the instrumentation being a response to/extension of what we had learned with the Ricefall (2) and the Unrhymed Chord recordings. In the former, grains of sound are driven by gravity and the latter is entirely done with friction. These two broad categories, gravity and friction, as well as a few others, are present in A Wave and Waves. There is, of course, some degree of interpretation involved here with the instruments. For example, when a part calls for “dry leaves in a metal bowl” or “bowed vibraphone bar,” it immediately raises the question of “what kind leaves/bowl?,” “what pitch on the vibraphone?” and so on. As I had learned from the earlier pieces focusing on mass that it was basically impossible to anticipate how any individual selection of instrument (i.e., this metal bowl, this set of dry leaves, etc.) would shape the overall sound, I simply went instrument-by-instrument selecting sounds that I liked without really thinking too much about how they might all sound together. In fact, one of the things driving me at the time (and to this day in my work with Michael) is that I really didn’t have any idea what it would sound like, hence the need to make all of the sounds for that piece.

Regarding the Melbourne performance, I’ll start by saying it was one of the most incredible musical experiences I’ve ever had. I cannot thank Eugene Ughetti, Michaela Coventry, and everyone at Speak Percussion enough for taking on the incredible challenge of putting on the piece. That the piece poses some significant logistical hurdles is a huge understatement. To be honest, a live performance was something that I never really thought would happen. Michael and I had done a handful of performances in the past using various methods of surround sound projection of the recorded version (most notably in Berlin in 2010 for MaerzMusik using Wave Field Synthesis) but the thought of doing a live version seemed to be only a theoretical possibility. Again, the piece is for 100 instruments, which in a proper live version, would be played by 100 people, one instrument per person. The instrumentation includes all sorts of things, everything from manufactured percussion instruments (vibraphones, crotales, gongs, drums, etc.) to found and household items (paper, stones, leaves, wooden/metal bowls, etc.). How does one assemble such a collection of people and instruments/objects? Fortunately, Speak Percussion knew how to do it.

Melbourne Festival 2015. Screen capture from the video of A wave and waves by Speak Percussion. The video is available at https://vimeo.com/151855753

One of my favorite parts of the project was getting to know (a little bit) all of the performers. Very few of the performers were practicing percussionists, which of course, interested me greatly because I think this piece, as well as a lot of what I do with Michael, poses (in part) the question, “What is percussion? What is a percussionist?” Or perhaps more broadly, “What is noise?” So we had performers young and old, musicians and non-musicians, percussionists all in this context. It was amazing over the two weeks we were there to see the performers refine their individual parts, becoming real experts at things like shaking a piece of paper, or turning a maraca slowly, to cite two of the 100 parts. The level of refinement brought to these types of actions was incredible.

Regarding the differences between the recording and the performance, there are many, so I’ll offer just one observation here. Specifically, the spatial dimension of the live version was unreal, almost beyond description. The live sound was something that the stereo recording could never in a million years convey. We were able to do the performance in a large space, the Meat Market in North Melbourne. Built in 1880, the building has been subsequently converted into an event space, and was the perfect setting and acoustic for the four performances we gave. The 100 performers were spread out over a large rectangular grid of around 31×13 meters, with the audience sitting amongst the performers. One really had the sensation of being inside the piece. Waves of sound would assemble themselves from all over the room, crest and fall, and reassemble in ever new collections. In particular, the “large” waves in “Part 2″ (the seventh wave of every seven-wave sequence) were truly remarkable. Here one had 40 instruments doing the 20″ crescendo and 10″ diminuendo together. It wasn’t particularly loud, but the amazing sense of force and depth to the sound was staggering. When those waves started to assemble themselves it honestly sounded like the beginnings of an earthquake. This was hearing sound in a way that I had never before experienced. You got the sense that the air was being (softly) pummeled from so many directions that it didn’t even know what to do, a kind of disorganization of the air.

I must confess, having never seen the actual score for the piece, I did not know the instrumentation was specified. But through the decision process you’ve mentioned, whether accompanied or not, I feel these are also your instrumentation choices, due to, as you put it, choosing “these kind of dry leaves” or thinking about “what type of bowl” and “which pitch to choose,” etc. The sheer number of decisions required for all those “small sounds” is gigantic to say the least, so much so that the performer can influence the outcome tremendously through options.

In this sense, I find it very interesting that you mention both Ricefall (2) and An Unrhymed Chord as pieces that require different specific techniques (gravity/friction) and as natural precursors to this. I felt that A Wave and Waves was a further exploration of those techniques, which you’ve just confirmed. In the liner notes for that disc you mention that it is an ongoing interest of yours to find “excitation strategies that diffuse the intentionality of the stroke in percussion playing.” In the years that have passed, I feel this has become a transversal point in your work as a percussionist that continued after A Wave and Waves. Would you care to let me know a bit more about why this is so important to you and how you have approached this in the works previously mentioned? What about other pieces where you feel this is very present? There are so many, but realizations of Congaree Nomads, Close Constellations and a Drum on the Ground, and, in a different light, your two discs with Joe Panzner are some prime examples.

You are certainly correct that the countless decisions made by a performer in making a recorded version of A Wave and Waves have a tremendous influence on the outcome. It’s just that this outcome cannot be anticipated until the work is complete. After all, the score asks you to make a sound that is far denser than you can really imagine. Early on with these massed pieces I found that it was not productive to spend too much time thinking about how any one sound would combine with another sound—to fetishize picking the “right” sound or whatever. I just picked sounds, one after the other; the decisions for any given sound were based on the sounds in isolation. To be sure, “bowed woodblock” or “towel rubbed on a bass drum” are pretty open situations. At a certain point though, you just have to pick one of the innumerable options and a version will start constructing itself. And besides, all of the interesting things that happen in those mass pieces are really beyond any singular intention. In fact, I see what I’m saying here to be largely in accordance with what I wrote in the liner notes. There is a “diffusion of intention” here at the level of percussion playing, wherein “articulation” is broken up not only by the sustain of friction but is also accelerated by the countless miniature collisions of gravity; a “hollowing out” of the rhythmic middle ground of “hand-to-hand” playing. And this diffusion permeates multiple levels, from the micro-level timbral inflections of single instruments up to the mass itself.

With Erik Carlson, Los Angeles 2017. Photograph by Kathy Gleasman Pisaro.

In terms of sustaining this diffusion, given that every piece is different, each situation will necessitate new ways of approaching the problem. Congaree Nomads was a studio creation, something I had never exactly done before, and certainly nothing even remotely close to that scale (the project involved 459 separate tracks). I constructed the entirety of my part out of sounds that I had recorded for earlier projects (i.e., from large collections of bowed marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and crotales). I didn’t record a single new sound for it. It was thus a process of arrangement and sculpting, but also of altering existing sounds to make new sounds as the score required, including pitches above and below the standard ranges of keyboard percussion instruments. One of the things I love about the instrumental part on Congaree Nomads is how at a certain point it goes from sounding like bowed percussion to the most insane organ you’ve ever heard. This change from percussion to organ—becoming-organ?—is still quite mysterious and intriguing to me.

Close Constellations and a Drum on the Ground was different in that I recorded all of the sounds specifically for the project (bowed crotales and various bass drum samples). The primary area of experimentation here was with the bass drum where the mode of activation was playing sine tones into the drum with the head prepared in various ways. This was something that grew out of July Mountain and has continued in our work, most recently in the electronic part for A Mist Is a Collection of Points (in “Part III”) and the new trio Grounded Cloud (where sine tones are played into the bass drum live). The score for Close Constellations specifies frequency ranges for the tones so it was a largely a question of finding frequencies that would get the bass drum to do something interesting. That could be anything from a slight coloring of the tone to setting the head into some sort of chaotic vibration. With Joe Panzner, I’m often not functioning strictly as a percussionist, tending instead towards various electronic setups. That being the case, I have really enjoyed figuring out ways when using percussion to compete with, for lack of a better term, the sheer “firepower” of the laptop. How does one make sense of a drumhead, a piece of cardboard, and tinfoil (to mention only a few of things I’ve used with Joe) in the context of extreme computer music?

I imagine that is one big challenge when working with such a special individual way of thinking like Joe Panzner’s. One of the things I enjoy the most are his ideas and perceptions on density and dynamics, which I feel are a direct correlate to your own approach. Obviously the pieces are very different, but I find a lot of parallels, and not only in intensity/volume, but also in the density of events between say, Ricefall (2), the realization of White Metal, and to a lesser extent Dystonia Duos. In some parts, there are so many events―micro events?―happening in a very short timeframe. Do you feel the relationship between not overthinking and choosing the “right” sound is different there? I’m curious to know what, if anything, changes besides that, both in and out of the Pisaro realm when working with Joe.

Ricefall (2) is a bit of an acoustic illusion. Of course, one can play back that recording at whatever volume one likes, including at high volume. After all, recordings have a certain performative dimension—the “place,” “time,” and “through what” of how a recording is experienced—that makes them far less static as objects than they might appear to be. One of the things that might create the impression of extreme volume here is how it was recorded. As has been the tendency in my work with Michael, all of the 64 parts were recorded quite closely. That is, with the microphone as close to the rice collisions as possible. So you’ve got a kind of “close up” perspective on the action. But the sound, like that of A Wave and Waves, is not really about volume per se, but more a kind of acoustic force or density. The air here is incredibly active by the sheer accumulation of the countless micro-variations in the sound. Each individual collision is rather soft, and of course, they are all different, singular. This may create the impression of volume, but I think what’s going on here has more to do with density and variation than with volume for its own sake.

Things change quite a lot when working with Joe. In the non-Pisaro things we’ve done we rarely play scores—though we have done a few—and in the context of live performance, there has been little, if any, discussion of what we might do for any given performance. So “improvisation” as a working method is more much more relevant here. That said, in making a recorded work like Dystonia Duos there was a kind of overlapping space between what you might call on the one hand “improvisation” and on the other “composition.” A lot of the material was generated independently—although there are things here and there taken from live performance—and we sort of ping-ponged things back and forth until we felt like something was there. We did a lot of work on that record to make sure that the arrangement of its various parts made sense as a complete experience. And there was an extended phase of mixing and mastering work on it to make sure that the sound had the kind of physicality we wanted, which in contrast to Ricefall (2), really needs to be played at volume to function properly.

White Metal (Joe Panzner and Greg Stuart) Boston 2014. Photograph by Lucas Schleicher.

Interesting you mention that. Improvisation seems to be on a downward spiral of sorts in our little corner of the universe. Less and less purely improvised records of note seem to be around, with the live setting taking over almost exclusively. This is probably due to the fact that improvisation and composition have become muddled in the last years, but without wanting to get into a discussion about the nature and state of improvisation or cognitive decision making processes, do you still improvise, per se, a lot? And how much of a role does improvisation play in your musical activities? I think many regard you strictly as an interpreter, which I feel is inaccurate!

In regard to this, given you brought it up, I’d also like you to comment on the fact that, in the past couple of years this trend of making records from a distance and over the Internet has grown bigger and bigger. Dystonia Duos and White Metal were, at least partially, recorded from a distance (many others probably too), so I believe I can assume you subscribe to this practice. Do you feel it’s something that benefits the music, if done properly, that comes as a natural implication of the opportunities the Internet provides for musicians? Or do you feel it is something that came about by necessity, due to musicians being more spread out across the globe, lack of financial opportunities etc.?

I’m a bit wary of these categories, which is perhaps why I was placing them in quotes earlier (i.e., “improvisation,” “composition”) because I think one is always in some sort of mixed state, encompassing many more categories than those listed (perhaps an infinite number of categories?). For example, Meridian—the percussion trio I’m in with Tim Feeney and Sarah Hennies—has largely been focused on improvisation, but reactions to our live performances have often been of the “what piece was that?” variety. I’m happy that there appears to be a kind of indiscernibility between categories with what we are doing. But just so we can have something to talk about, yes, I do improvise (mostly with Meridian but also with others as situations arise) and it’s an irreducible part of my work.

Meridian (Sarah Hennies, Tim Feeney, and Greg Stuart) in Ithaca 2017. Photograph by Inanna Rose.

I have no problem with working at a distance to make music. In fact, several of my most favorite recordings have been constructed this way. White Metal (done with Joe Panzner) is certainly an example of that. The interesting thing there was that we were able to not only assemble a version of the piece for release but were also able to subsequently play the piece live together several times—in New York, Louisville, and Boston—the final of which was my clear favorite (and for which Michael was present). So it was interesting to experience how the piece changed from our studio work to a live context. In Boston, we were able to do the piece on a quad system and the intensity of the sound was just fantastic. In particular, all of the sudden stops and starts, the extreme shifts in volume, and the silences were amazing; an extremely physical experience. More recently, I was able to work with Ryoko Akama on our recording Kotoba Koukan. The title means “text exchange” and our work consisted of just that: sending each other texts scores and making our parts independently of one and other. It was uncanny how the parts fit together. At times one of the parts would be incredibly active while the other would consist of just a sound here or there. It was really striking to hear how the more infrequent sounds would completely transform the music. In general, I don’t think that working at a distance has to be done “properly” as there is no one way to do it and often it’s most interesting to discover a way to do it as one goes along. As for “benefiting the music” as it relates to working at a distance, the music either works or it doesn’t. But of course long distance is often the only way to work with someone who doesn’t live near you, as was the case for much of the work with Joe and all of the work with Ryoko. Then again, I don’t live near Tim and Sarah (who live in Alabama and New York, respectively) and we basically only play together in person. Go figure.

Right, the lines between these categories have been blurred to a point where the distinction doesn’t make much sense anymore. We’ve talked about the current status of academic music in the past, do you care to summarize any thoughts or feelings you have on this, given you hold a faculty position at South Carolina University and work with many in similar positions? But mostly, I’d like to know if you see a divide between your recorded and performed work and your academic/teaching practice, or if you are one of those lucky ones who are able to combine the two?

The activities of teaching, performing, and recording are, as you might expect, all different. Each has its own demands and particularities. I do, though, feel really fortunate in that I’ve been able to focus my teaching in the School of Music at the University of South Carolina, where I’ve taught since 2009, on topics that are close to me. Most of my teaching is now in various areas of experimental music, both performance and history/theory, but I’ve also taught courses in 20th century music, popular music, and, more recently, sound studies. For the past several years I’ve been running an experimental music performance workshop, which has been a real source of inspiration and exploration for me. The class is comprised each semester of 15 undergraduate students (all from the South Carolina Honors College) who come from a variety of musical backgrounds as well as courses of study at the university. The one thing that virtually all of the students share in common is that they have never been involved in any kind of experimental music making situation. Each class session focuses on one piece and we play both “classic” pieces (e.g., Lucier’s Vespers, Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations, Brecht’s Water Yam, etc.) but also a lot of recent music, things written in the last five to ten years. The students also compose pieces in small groups that the entire class performs and the semester typically culminates in a public concert of a new work written for us by a visiting composer. Thus far we’ve worked with Michael Pisaro, Nomi Epstein, and will do a new piece by JĂĽrg Frey in the spring of 2016, where violinist Erik Carlson will join us. Because the students are coming to experimental music for the first time, they tend to come up with some really interesting ways of playing and composing. I often leave class feeling like they have taught me a thing a two. The students have neither this cynical “it’s all been done before” attitude nor a kind of hypercritical self-awareness that prevents anything from happening. Their approach is incredibly refreshing and the work done in this environment often plugs directly back into what I’m doing in my own performing or recording. For example, the new Frey piece we’ll be doing this spring. We’re hoping to record the piece for release while Erik is here in addition to premiering the piece at the Columbia Museum of Art (This piece was later released on Editions Wandelweiser.)

University of South Carolina Experimental Music Workshop with JĂĽrg Frey and Erik Carlson, 2016. Photograph by Dan Cook.

That is great to know, but it’s crucial that you (and others) are able to keep this going and find interested people with an open-minded approach as well as getting support from the university structure.This is something that has almost completely disappeared on my side of the Atlantic. So, it’s certainly a bit utopic to find that out since, outside of CalArts, most reports I’ve heard from others in the U.S. contradict yours and are more similar to mine, unfortunately.

As someone concerned with theoretical questions, are you able to tie materialist and metaphysical discourse to your academic practice? Or is it more of an interest tied exclusively to your work outside of the university, with Michael and Joe for instance? Obviously, experimental tendencies in any art form have always gone hand in hand with philosophy and critical theory, so there will be inherent questions in many of the works you choose, whether for the classroom or for public performance. But under what terms do you feel it is interesting and why is it important for experimental music to confront, work on and extend such ideas? Are there any pieces, works, or authors that you feel are absolutely necessary and important for you with regard to this question?

Rather than a discussion of the merits of this or that philosophy and how said philosophy might relate to experimental practices, or making claims about “essential” texts, let me talk a little bit about how I came to be a reader of philosophy and whatever it is that one calls “theory” today. My interest in philosophy is relatively recent (going back about 10 years or so) and has been something that I’ve continued to read and find interesting on its own terms, and at times, provocative in relation to thinking about making music. My reading here tends to be fairly scattershot and I make absolutely no claims for comprehensive knowledge of the field.

The first thing I read, more or less out of the blue, was Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. At the time—this was, 2004/05, I think—I was very much struggling with what I was doing as a percussionist. Like Joe Panzner, I had been dealing for many years with focal dystonia (hence the title of our Dystonia Duos, a riff on our shared condition and Antoine Beuger’s piece, Dedekind Duos, which we had played together a few times). Briefly, focal dystonia is a neurological condition, which in musicians affects the movement of the body in ways that can make performance extremely challenging, if not impossible. The classic case is of the pianist whose outer fingers spontaneously curl up when playing. My dystonia was located in my left hand/arm and over the course of many years pushed me into a space where continuing to function as a player of the standard repertoire—where all of my training resided and which was premised on highly coordinated hand-to-hand playing motions—was simply no longer sustainable. It was at this challenging point that I somehow stumbled across Plateaus, which I read voraciously from cover to cover, and basically had my mind blown. I won’t pretend that everything made sense during that first read, but it was a thrilling experience and I really had the feeling of awakening from a very, very deep sleep of my life as a percussionist who had been playing the standard repertoire (i.e., things like Xenakis’ Psappha for solo pieces and the constellation of works stemming from Varèse’s Ionisation in the ensemble realm). Reading the various concepts that Deleuze and Guattari explore in the text in addition to the way the book is structured was a genuine interruption and I suddenly felt like I was no longer on autopilot.

The encounter with Plateaus led to further reading of Deleuze’s collaborations with Guattari (as well as Deleuze’s own works), gradually giving way to a much more sustained and focused reading of Badiou. I wrote my dissertation at the University of California San Diego on my experience as a percussionist with focal dystonia and used Badiou’s work in one of the final chapters. In particular, I explored his concept of the “event” in context of Michael’s Ricefall and the beginnings of our collaboration. Deleuze/Guattari and Badiou are therefore very important to me, perhaps less so for the content these days (which, I must say, I still like) but more so for when I came across their work and how it set me off on a new trajectory. So, following Deleuze, not what it is, but rather, what it does.

Currently, my reading is more varied and I’m always on the lookout for new things. I am rather shy about my interest in philosophy, which can make it difficult for me to talk about it beyond my own reading (I definitely clam up around anyone who actually does philosophy). That said, it certainly has an impact on my work as a musician—most often in ways that I cannot directly explain—but it’s also not a “requirement.” I’m more than happy to work in the absence of philosophy/theory, finding new ways of making/thinking about music as they arise (perhaps I’m more interested in “translation” as a way of working?). So in lieu of claims about how experimental music might confront/extend the ideas of this or that thinker or conceptual framework, allow me to simply list a few things I’ve read in the past year, philosophy/theory or otherwise, that I’ve enjoyed (alphabetically ordered here): The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (Franco “Biffo” Berardi), Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates), 24/7 (Jonathan Crary), A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis (Bruce Fink), Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (William Finnegan), A Philosophy of Walking (FrĂ©dĂ©ric Gros), John Cage (Rob Haskins), The Lecturer’s Tale (James Hynes), Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Robin James), The Medium of Contingency (ed. Robin MacKay), Ontology of the Accident (Catherine Malabou), Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice (J.F. Martel), The Number and the Siren (Quentin Meillassoux), The Process That Is The World (Joe Panzner), The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism (Steven Shaviro), The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing), and Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s (Chin-Tao Wu).

I’m sorry to hear about how the focal dystonia diagnosis affected your training and performance ability. I knew Joe was dealing with the condition, but I did not know you were too. Your list looks like a very enlightening one, although I haven’t read some of the titles on it. With that and your remarks on Deleuze and Guattari I think you’ve answered my question significantly, even if indirectly. It’s incredible the influence A Thousand Plateaus has had over the arts and experimental music in particular, both through its content and even the structure, as you say, which I see replicated in many works.

You mentioned you were now more invested in “translation” as a method. Do you mean this in the literal, practical sense or more in the sense of translation as transposition from a spoken/literary language into a musical one? I’d be curious to know as this is a field I am connected to and I feel there are many contributions and studies to be done in this area, especially in relation to music. Obvious cases being Cage and Ashley, but also many Fluxus artists and Wandelweiser members have pieces that deal with language and translation (Pisaro’s Die ganze Zeit, Frey’s Landschaft mit Wortern and many Beuger pieces that don’t have recordings).

No need to be sorry. While dealing with FD was certainly challenging, I am in a way grateful for the experience because it forced me to think about what I was doing in a way that was absolutely unavoidable. At this point, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine myself as a musician without FD and how it changed what I do (much for the better, I think).

When I say “translation” I don’t just mean from language into sound, although it could mean that. I mean translation much more broadly. A grain of rice falling onto the floor is an act of translation. A bow moving back and forth across a woodblock is an act of translation. Cage tracing rocks from the Ryoanji garden in Kyoto is an act of translation. What I’m interested in here is the interface between forces and materials and how leveraging one against another creates affect. I am, however, not interested in there being some kind of “equivalence” or “appropriateness” in translation (i.e., in the realm of language, a translation being “correct”). Here I’m looking for an act of translation to reveal previously hidden forces or dynamics. Nothing is worse than, for instance, in the realm of electronic music, someone saying something like, “Here’s what this equation really sounds like!” It doesn’t really sound like anything. But it is possible to put that equation (or whatever one is working with) into a context where something interesting starts to happen, even (especially?) if the resultant sound/performance appears “displaced” from what began the process. A “non-commensurate” translation or sorts.

With Phyllis Chen, Banff 2017. Photograph by Sarah Hennies.

Definitely for the better! Appropriateness, correctness, and equivalence are contingent terms, subjective. They seem to not have a real proper place in a lot of this music, more so perhaps than in the traditional improvisational dialectic and its relationship with the “error” as a concept/method. Your thoughts and my interpretation of them seem to relate this idea more to a balance of different characteristics of sound and concepts than to the implications of its final recorded/audible form.

Yet, and although I seem to have at least partially misinterpreted your thoughts initially, this makes a lot of sense. I don’t believe I am overextending when putting this together with the techniques of friction, gravity, and etc. that are present in many of your works. Can’t both be regarded as a form of translation in that context? And isn’t it equally a development on a new language that was “forced” upon you through FD and your reading of another form of translation too?

I don’t think that you’re overextending here and I do think of the various techniques you mention as forms of translation (friction, gravity, etc.). For instance, when working with gravity the falling grain becomes a way of translating the force of gravity into sound. In the case of friction, a bow adds “movement” (or perhaps “time”) to a surface. This movement turns the surface into some kind of living sound complex, rather than the seemingly static object that sits before you.

The development of, as you say, a “new language,” was not something that I thought about in a conscious way. And even with some distance, the outlines of that language (or whatever it might be) are still rather fuzzy and discontinuous. I’m quite happy that the edges are not totally defined, so as to leave room for reconsideration or changes in direction. That is, to keep those questions open.

It makes a lot of sense to me that it is not something that comes from a conscious or deliberate activity, even if it came along out of necessity. If it were too conscious and aware of itself, wouldn’t it easily become restricted and exclusive? Leaving the options open and the edges blurred, it’s continuously extending itself and (constantly?) creating new language.

So let’s end it how we started, since in the time between then and now you visited Los Angeles to perform some new works with Joe, Michael, and Phillip Bush. How did it go? You’ve already talked a bit about A Mist Is a Collection of Points. Although I’d happily hear more, I’m also interested in the other two pieces. Which were those?

The trip to LA went really well. It was great to work with Michael, Joe, and Phillip for those concerts. Included on the REDCAT concert, where Phillip, Joe, and I played A Mist Is a Collection of Points, was a new trio that Michael had written called Grounded Cloud. This new piece is for guitar, electronics, and percussion. Essentially the piece deals with the gradual alignment of an underlying pulse in the three parts, with each part creating its own particular arc over 20 minutes. So you have three parts that (slowly) come into rhythmic phase with one another but which can also each change quite rapidly from moment to moment. It’s with these changes that one gets the sense of a cloud (from time to time) condensing before one’s ears. It can similarly evaporate very quickly. I found the experience of playing this with Michael and Joe to be really fascinating. This was highly active and dynamic playing, something I hadn’t quite experienced before with Michael’s music. It felt rather close to improvising but not quite given the absolutely strict rhythmic grid.

The other work, Living with the Death of Time, was performed up at CalArts a few days after the REDCAT concert. This piece is for an ensemble of ten percussionists and one percussion soloist. Michael wrote this for me back in 2012 and I performed the first of six sections in Goiânia, Brazil for XII SEMPEN at the Universidade Federal de Goiás (coincidentally the site of my first performances with Joe Panzner). So the CalArts performance, using players from Michael’s Experimental Music Workshop, was the first time the complete work was played. The piece deals with the physicist Julian Barbour’s notions of a “timeless physics” in his book The End of Time. Here Barbour develops the concept of “capsules” of time, in which time does not exist as a kind of ever-forward-moving arrow (as we commonly think of it) but rather as a series of “nows,” each of which is sufficient and independent in itself. The score is thusly structured, offering lists of events for the soloist and ensemble, some of which are highly intricate. Given the interest in non-measured time, the piece does not use any chronometric measuring devices, and relies instead on the players’ collective sense of movement through the events.

Intersection Festival, Toronto 2017. Photograph by Tim Feeney.

This interview took place between Fall 2015 and Spring 2016. The author would like to thank Greg Stuart for his time, Lucas Schleicher for editing and review, as well as Mark Flaum and Jon Abbey for seeing it through to publication.


About the Author

JoĂŁo Santos lives in Lisbon, Portugal. He releases experimental recordings through the dormant Dromos/Makam labels alongside filmmaker Pedro Peralta as well as non-experimental music through the very active Groovie Records with longtime label founder and curator Edgar Raposo.