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3 Singers?  Try 3 Composers.  (Or more!)  A reflection on 2 years of collaborative work on the 3 Singer Opera.

16116_794159997297494_9091199822295522282_nThat last 2 years of my creative life have been dominated by an all-encompassing collaborative project, namely, the 3 Singer Opera.  The work was officially commissioned by the Cleveland Ingenuity festival following the 2012 festival where we (we being Erica Mott Productions which is a loose consortium of creative artists headed up by the intrepid Erica Mott, a choreographer, director, and deviser I have been working with for the past 5 yearsryanerica) had just given the US premier of a Duet version of 2011’s the Victory Project with the participation of the amazing and gifted video artist John Boesche.  John haFast Walkersd been added to the mix on the recommendation of our friend, mentor, and in this case, Daramaturg, Ginger Farley.  Though the official invitation to create the work came from the festival in 2012, we really had started talking about it long before that.  Erica had been working with sewing machines as sculptural objects on stage a few years previously and had already conceptualized a piece in which 3 performers who embodied textile factory workers, especially those who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, performed with the machines creating rhythmic structures and a constant pulse that grew and grew over the course of a performance length work.  I was already getting excited about the possibilities for interaction and thinking of ways to harness the sewing machine to manipulate different aspects of sound on stage and at the same time was working with my compatriots Kyle Vegter and Dan Dehaan on our “Soundroom” project at High Concept Labs in Chicago.  Soundroom was a project resulting in new concepts of how to use a space as a sound installation, but also how to imagine live electro-acoustic performance and improvisation.  We built a sound installation space that could be performed in giving performers the ability to manipulate certain parts of the installation in a specific way.  Through all of this, I was imagining different ways that performers on stage could manipulate their machines, that they were somehow virtually tethered to, in order to create a sense of metaphor for the machines control over the human body, or more precisely, the back and forth of development of technology to reflect human need and desire, tempered by the effect that technology has on the human body and psyche, creating a kind of socio-technological feedback loop.  Of course, in this particular opera, we were looking more specifically at the way global trade effects one particular situation, that then migrates around the globe, namely, human desire for cheap clothing resulting in sweatshop labor conditions, first in our own back yard, then to central Europe, then south America, and now to Asia.  But socio-political implications aside, I had to figure out how to get the motion of the sewing machines needle or speed of it’s motor translated into digital information that I could use to manipulate the human voice.   I had a feeling I was going to need some cheap labor for this one.

 

Then, on the CTA, a billboard advertising a call for projects for the Segal Institute of Design at Northwestern University.  This was an entry level class in design for young engineering students where you could present a design issue you needed solving and a team of students would come and try to solve it.  Thus, the 3 Singers sewing machine was born.  

Engineering a Singer from Erica Mott on Vimeo.

A machine equipped with an infra-red sensor that simply tracked the motion of the thread arm of the sewing machine.  Each time it passed by, a signal would be sent to my computer that I could use for multiple purposes.  Sometimes triggering sounds, and sometimes cutting up the sound of the singers’ voice.  An amazing project in its own rite, that class in the Spring of 2012 set the stage for what would be an 18 month experiment in human machine interaction (in a very literal sense).

But that was really just the tip of the iceberg in how this collaboration fideswould evolve.  Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce to this blog, Fides Krucker.  When talking about how we would go about developing the techniques that would be necessary, both in movement and sound, Erica and I realized that we would be asking singers to do very unconventional things and neither me or Erica had the specific training to help develop or cultivate such specific techniques.  A friend of Erica’s in Toronto insisted we get in touch with Fides and after a quick skype chat from Iceland to Toronto (sorry, Iceland is for anther blog post that I should have done 2 years ago) we agreed that she would be the right fit.  10383665_794159327297561_9022909170249517409_n

It is tempting here to just tell the story of how this entire project developed, and it would be a long story with many details.  More in fact, than I can possibly remember.  As I pore over notebooks I realize that I could have likely used a personal video documentarian over the past 2 years to follow me around and document each moment so I could later remember what chickens came before what eggs, and exactly who laid them.  Because in fact, this is not a work that I can take full credit for as a composer, even though my name appears by the word “composer” in quite a bit of the information going around out there in the world at the moment.  So in this blog post, I am going to try to give my impression of how this work was created and who is responsible for it.  Call it a memoir of a new collaborative practice.  One in which even though I cannot claim full credit as composer, I am likely even more proud of than those efforts that I can claim full responsibility, for it was hard earned, and in the end, has the richness of many artistic minds working in tandem while, according to many, seeming like something one person set out to create and planned out from beginning to end.  An accomplishment I think any artist should be extremely proud of in itself.

Every Opera (or Ballet piece) is a collaboration between different artists.  There are librettists, poets, directors, dramaturgs, choreographers and set designers all working together to create one work, but in the end, usually it is the composer whose name is attached to such a work for posterity sake.  The same is often true of works for the ballet stage.  After all, you rarely hear about Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring” or Cocteau’s “Oedipus Rex”, even though it is clear that those two artists had an essential role to play in the outcome of the Stravinsky’s musical scores.  1467422_794159433964217_4489717814874301529_nBut in general, a differentiation can be made in these cases as despite the effect the narrative structure of these works had upon the eventual musical score, the music itself was purely the work of Stravinsky.  Now fast forward 100 years, where multi-media work abounds, improvisation has made a comeback into musical form, and often times artists from different disciplines work together to create a work of art where one part depends on the other.   Erica and I have been calling this “inter-dependent” performance and compositional practice but I am sure there are many different ways of referring to it out there.

10341829_794159333964227_8587744907003799891_nWe feel like our methods are fairly unique to how we work together.  I had been looking for a collaborator like Erica for years and had found it in only a rare few musicians who were willing to go on a journey with me outside of the usual business model established by the classical music world.  I found it for years in my collaboration with Jason Wampler (We Can and We Must) and then, on occasion with my sisters and brothers in Assemblage (Charles Waters, Andrew Barker, Shannon Fields), and the 12 Dimension Plane of Sound And Vision Orchestra (Shannon Budd, Erica Dicker, and Dan Peck) where musicians would dive head first into a process of mutual creation.  In We Can and We Must, Wampler and I tried to find points of intersection where we were both creating one sound together as one mind.  Weather it being morphing two sounds that we were controlling together or by one of us manipulating the sound the other was making live, there were many moments where we literally started becoming unaware of ourselves as individual musicians and would feel as if we had one mind with four hands and two voices.  In assemblage and 12 Dimension Orchestra, I created a sound environment that would transform over the course of an improvisation giving my fellow musicians the score in real time in the form of audible feedback from their instrument and various combinations of instruments.  The closest I have come to actually smelting live sound in a room.  But given the intermittency of the latter two collaborations and the departure of Wampler for China in 2008, I was searching for a new direction.

Erica invited me to work with her on the Victory project and in 2011 we premiered the full company version at Northerly Island which featured several duet pieces that involved just her and I as performers.  At first, I played my usual role of working off stage while she interacted with the sound on stage.  Working with a Theremin attached to her body and a desk wired for sound where impacts against the desks surface would generate noise as well as triggering sounds.  But then it became apparent that what we were doing had such a physical connection with me often prompting her to motion and her movement so often prompting me to reaction, she decided we needed to both be characters on stage.  So I moved my setup to the back of the stage and she begin to give me choreographic instructions which eventually led to me being a “dancer” in the piece while simultaneously running the interactive patches that played and manipulated all the sound in the piece.  Though I tried to follow instruction as much as I could during this process, there were times where I had to adjust the choreography for practical reasons as I could not physically do the things I needed to do performatively and also manage the choreography. At other times I would just find that I had a desire to hear something behave differently musically which then affected the way I would move.  10322689_794159540630873_6614933594638908777_nThis fact at first was frustrating but once we realized that it was in response to the sound that my movement was most convincing, we ended up going with that as the driving force for my choreography.  On the inverse of that, from the beginning, when Erica began to experiment with the “War Desk” (the desk that would explode with sound and visual response when she would throw herself against it) there was a constant back and forth regarding the content of the sound as well as the character of the movement including the rhythm of certain gestures, how the desk was struck, tapped, nudged, and what kind of materials were used to do said tapping and hitting.  We would also experiment with different reactions and manipulations to the sound.  In this way, Erica’s movement score would essentially create the live sound score simultaneously.  Through this trial and error process, we would eventually develop a structure for a piece that had some room for in the moment improvisation but was ultimately the work of both Erica and I together.  Though I had musical ideas that I presented, and Erica had movement and narrative materials she presented, the WAY these materials eventually appear in the piece is collaborative.  So we in the end were both 50/50 composers and choreographers (or some other percentage thereof), rather than just one reacting to the others work after the fact.

The Victory Project (Touring Version) from Erica Mott on Vimeo.

With 3 artist engaging in this back and forth, things got more complex, but also much more interesting.  The first time I actually met Fides in a room, and I applied microphones to the singers to have them first work with electronic manipulation of the voice, she said the 5 words that always make me cringe both as an electronic musician/composer and a sound engineer.  “I don’t really like microphones”.  My heart just about stopped.  Here I was, going to embark on an extremely ambitious project dealing with the most sensitive instrument and situation you will ever deal with, that being the human voice, and the person I was going to be working with to get us through this delicate situation had just announced that they did not much like, pretty much everything I knew I was going to be trying to do to the voice and to the singers!  Reflecting back now on those 5 words, I realize that the journey we were about to embark on, and one I am so happy we all stuck with, likely could not have begun any other way.  

3 Singers: A Day In The Process – Fides Krucker from Erica Mott on Vimeo.

3 Singers (Teaser 3) from Erica Mott on Vimeo.

It would be a journey of discovery for all of us about what happens to the human voice when it is first given years of social and emotional conditioning (which I learned over the course of working with Fides is true not just for the female voice but also the male voice, but in very different ways), as well as what happens to the human voice when it hears itself in different contexts, especially when amplified and projected into a space.  It forced me to really consider every assumption I had made about how everyone hears themselves when amplified or manipulated in some way and how to get other musicians, and especially singers, to hear, think, and feel the things I think and feel when performing in this way after having developed personal techniques over the course of 15 plus years as an electronic performer.  In short she challenged me to re-consider how I thought of the interactive process, not just for vocalists, but for all types of performers, and in the process, gave me a whole new vocabulary through which to communicate the “technique” of interactive performance as it applies to my music and electronic techniques.

10670242_794159810630846_7936250330920074646_nI came into the situation, really feeling the strain of having to develop new techniques and teach singers how to do the things I wanted them to, and what I learned from working with Fides and Erica on this project is how to discover what was already inside them.  In fact, this process of devising is essential to the work that they have both done for the last many years.  So, after many failed attempts to impose different processes or techniques onto the situation, I began to just listen.  To approach the work with the same collaborative spirit I had approached Victory Project with and see where things went.

3 Singers (Teaser 1) from Erica Mott on Vimeo.

So in general, a giant pool of research was done by 3 artists and we each interpreted, discovered new tidbits, read different books, and shared our thoughts with one another.  At times I would do my composerly “draft sketch” kind of thing to see if there was any resonance with the other artists and at other times I would just do small sketches of short sections.  Often the ideas for these would come from Erica’s research, but at other times, it would be the result of material that Fides would develop in collaboration with the individual performer.  For instance, each Singer in the Opera has a kind of “totem bird” that their character takes certain cues and direction from at certain points.  Erica had the idea to give them this and worked with them in movement based on videos and recordings of these birds and then Fides had them kind of “notate” in their own shorthand a slowed down version of the bird so they could kind of create their own “human” version of the song, then I later decided to use these slowed down bird songs as a basis for a notated melody (I know, Messian already did that.  Whatever) but all in the same key that then became actual “baroque” style Arias I wrote but that were further manipulated and stylized by Fides and whose presentation was choreographed by Erica.  Then ideas of how to present and structure them in and amongst a factory setting in juxtaposition with physical portraits of the dancers relationship with a sewing machine were thrown around and more ideas about how these arias might return in the space later in the piece and how the clavichord accompaniment was reminiscent of the sewing machine (intentional on my part) so we should perhaps have the accompaniment kind of “duet” and switch off with the sewing machine performances.  It was like how George Martin describes later sessions of The Beatles once they became a studio band.  Everyone’s ideas were tried out.  Some ideas flopped, but sometimes those flops led to more ideas.  After a time, we learned each other’s languages well enough that we learned how to request something form one another’s realm without stepping on each other’s toes.  

3 Singers (Teaser 2) from Erica Mott on Vimeo.

This is not to say that I became a vocal guru or Fides developed a full grasp of technical lingo or how a mixing board worked.  That is not the point.  The point is that we reached a consensus on what things meant and more importantly, we developed a TRUST between one another that allowed us to let our guard down as artists and professionals.  We became close enough as collaborators that we were all allowed to say something stupid, all allowed to fail, and all allowed to say that we understood someone else’s idea but just could not do what the other wanted that particular day.  No  idea was disregarded.  And THAT to me is the really important thing about this kind of collaboration.  Developing that trust.

But that trust was not cultivated and achieved by just the 3 of us.  There were many others who lent an outside eye to the work.  First, there was Ginger Farley.  Ginger offered to be Dramaturg but also general spiritual mentor for the work.  Without her coming in with an objective perspective every month or so, and without her amazing “postit” charts summarizing the structure of the piece she was seeing formulate in disparate chunks before her, we would likely have never had the clarity to make it to the finish line.  It was also very much her research that helped us decide what we were trying to say with the work and was her level head and voice of reason that got us through our most trying moments.  560235_794159243964236_2644740541737170358_nThen there was John Boesche who was watching from afar most of the process to develop some spectacular video material but who also provided a steady professional perspective whenever we were getting lost in the process.  His work projected onto the set (designed by Architect Leigh Breslau and stage and lighting designer Todd Clark) really gives the work its complete form.

Of course, when talking about a collaborative piece where materials are developed on particular performers, we can’t help but mention the performers as well.  And in fact, in this case, we had 7 different performers train for the 3 roles, some of whom had intended to only help us through the development process, but whJennaSingerose contribution should not be under stated.  Jenna Lyle, the only performer at the premier who will have been with us from the beginning, helped me greatly in developing initial manipulation techniques that I would use over the course of the piece as well as developing and perfecting the role of the Blue Grossbeak.  Then there was Lara Oppenheimer who developed the role of the Rock Pigeon as well as engendering a very intimate relationship with the “Kinect Synth” I used to create some initial experiments and made us all see this interaction in a very human and personal way, going from hate, to acceptance, to absolute adoration and love.  Then there was Maggie Mascal who developed the role of the Ruby Crowned Kinglet at set the stage for the boisterous, and celebratory as well as firm and charismatic nature of that part.  With instruction from all of us, they created bird sounds, choreographed material that related to sewing machine sounds, and found individual “protests” and other songs that again were collaborations between the 3 lead artists and each individual performer.  When eventually Lara was replaced as Rock Pigeon, first by Nadia Chana and then by Hope Littwin, and eventually Maggie was replaced by Katie Mazzini, these roles also changed slightly to match the particular tendencies of the performers’ individual voices and energetic states.  Though the character of some of the section changed through this, it was clear that the structure we had developed upon which these performers could express their individual contributions was strong enough to withstand minor shifts in character.  Like an opera interpreted by different singers and different conductors.

10346315_794159680630859_6142985204241460153_nIn the end, all of these contributions coalesce and blur together so it would be difficult to draw clear lines between the different contributions as it would also be difficult to give no credit to the performers, costume designers, video artists, engineers, interns, administrators, and many not for profit arts organizations who contributed to the end result of the work.  But mostly I need to thank Erica and Fides, for putting up with my moods, having patience with my process (and my occasional lack of patience for theirs) and for putting so much effort and giving so much of themselves to a work that I hope will live far beyond the Krakow premiers we just had and Chicago premiers we have coming up.

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3 Singers premiers January 22nd at the National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago.

Get your tickets now on eventbrite!

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/3-singers-presented-by-erica-mott-productions-tickets-14759164057

4 X 4: 3 Birds A brief history of what I Believe to be the 1st piece for live musicians specifically written for the J. Pritzker Pavilion Sound System.

So, around 6 years ago now (wow, that long ago?) I was invited to take part in a very singular collaboration. Lou Mallozzi at Experimental Sounds Studio asked me to be a part of a team including Shawn Decker and Olivia Block to create a sound installation for the J. Pritzker Pavilion based on the sound of trains for the Chicago Humanities Festival. The only stipulations were that we were to try and keep the pritzkersounds as recognizable as possible and we had to work with the man who built the system itself, Jonathan Laney, to create and tweak a setting for the Pavilion’s sound system that carried the sound through the space in 5.1 surround. Kind of like a glorified (extremely glorified I might add) home theater system. Each of us went to work creating short vignettes that Lou then deftly mixed and edited together into a 25 minute or so sound piece entitled Train Time. We installed it in the fall of 2008 where it ran during humanities festival for a good couple of weeks every day. Spectators wandering through the park were serenaded with the sounds of trains literally moving across the space, juxtaposed with a myriad of processed and un-processed train whistles, screeches, and ambient sounds of insects and animals responding to those screeches. In general, the idea was to make the spectator feel like they were in a world that sounded real, but was not quite so. Where sounds moved in impossible dimensions against one another so if one closed their eyes, they would not necessarily know where the sounds came from or how they got there, but only that they were in a somewhat un-real sonic space filled with real sound. To achieve this, we worked very closely with Jonathan to strike a balance between the movement in the space reading and the sounds being equally distributed so that every seat in the house sounded nearly the same. For those who know a bit about psycho-acoustics and the way sound travels through space in general, this is no easy task. But thanks to the masterful design concept and attention to our artistic intent, we were able to get it to sound perfect, no matter where one sat.

This experience kind of opened up many questions for me and made me think hard about how I conceived of my live sound practices. In a situation such as the one at the Pritzker, where all the sonic energy is coming from the speakers, it is really possible to localize sound in interesting ways, even with musicians on stage? To create a sense of un-reality as convincing as the sense of ultra-reality created by the configuration for the Grant Park Symphony (though I would argue that feeling you are in a concert hall while sitting outside in downtown Chicago is also a sublimely un-real experience)? So I started to conceive of other things that could possibly be achieved in that space, all the while keeping in close contact with the ever approachable Jonathan Laney.

Sometime around 2010, after returning from a summer that found me in the north woods for 2 months (as well as China and northern California), I began having more and more conversations in the new music community. Much celebration was being prepared for the composer Steve Reich for the 2011 concert season for his 75th birthday and eighth blackbird and 3rd Coast Percussion were talking about a collaboration to do music for 18 musicians. I had been really excited about the opportunity to mix this seminal work and it became kind of an obsession of mine to dissect and analyze the piece in terms of its spatial possibilities. We were already planning a performance at the Park Avenue Armory in New York where we were going to have a multi-channel sound system built for us and the possibility of expanding on this idea in a more pristine environment seemed a recipe for something really great. Arts programmer Lacy Capps at the Department (once known as) of Cultural Affairs was approached and quickly took to the idea, actually proposing a 3 year trajectory in which a different composer was celebrated each year starting with Reich. This idea predictably fizzled out soon after the transition to DCASE (the other two would have been Glass and Cage by the way, can you imagine that !!!!!?????? A shame but I digress)……………

The result was the Steve Reich 75 birthday celebration in Millennium Park.

In many ways, Reich Fest was the ideal situation in which to experiment. The people involved in maintaining the Pavilion, are some of the best in the city, and besides that, are still extremely passionate about what they do despite year after year of being beset from all sides by crazy amounts of city wide festivals and private events creating long days during the summer that would easily burn out most crews. They look at my sometimes 50 + input riders, with limited soundcheck time, and without blinking an eye just kind of say, “lets do this”. Jonathan Laney has always figured out how to keep the system up and running despite budget difficulties and has remained open, receptive, and thoughtful in how to implement ideas within the bounds of what is currently possible. Without his presence and expertise, as well as willingness to offer his time to it, nothing like Reich Fest would have been possible. And I can’t forget to mention again, the amazing energy and trust of the two people who really made the whole thing happen, Cultural Affairs classical music programmer Lacey Capps, and eighth blackbirds absolute juggernaut of a managing director Jen Richards. Neither of these two were afraid to put their positions, reputations, and personal lives on the line and both had an extreme amount of trust in what was happening even though we were  swimming in un-tested waters. Trust was what was needed, and it is what made the evening of August 26th 2011 so magical for everyone there. I wrote more about this show here.

Since that night, I have worked in the space with 3rd Coast Percussion, ICE, and Glenn Kotche in addition to doing 2 more shows with eight blackbird over the course of the 2013-13 seasons. Each year, we have explored different aspects of sound in space as well as different ways of approaching the programs. An all Varese concert, a concert that mixes electronic and acoustic works putting the audience in the middle of the band, putting different frequency ranges of the various instruments on stage into different parts of the space. But it occurred to me that so far, nobody has written music specifically for this system since 2008 when we first did Train Time. Strange, because it is such a completely singular sonic situation that one would have imagined it would have been explored for its creative potential, perhaps through a series of commissions or at least a call for works. And though Train Time was an achievement I am very proud to have been a part of, the interactive composer in me wanted to try and do more. After many years getting to know and understand how sound behaves in the space, I was finally presented with the opportunity to do so in the form of a piece I have been working on for Spektral Quartet entitled 4 X 4: 3 Birds.

4 X 4 is actually going to be a series of works for Quartets of different combinations, the first of which was written for 3rd Coast Percussion (though it was originally entitled Improvisation in an Altered State). The idea is that the quartet plays with amplification and their sound is transformed by simple space/time transmutation in some kind of 4 channel space (so a sound system with 4 speakers each driven by an independent source). Each player occupies a different space and has a slightly different relationship with time, so that the sounds they play are not only heard from different sectors of the space, but a pattern of delays, each unique to individual performers is heard within those sectors of space in different time relationships so the character of the generated sound from the stage changes over time. It is kind of like reading a quantum physics book but instead of formulas describing what is happening, sound is demonstrating it, if that makes more sense. In more human terms, I have been working with delayed sound as a performer for many years now (perhaps since I was a kid really), not just using electronics, but also just singing and making noise in highly reverberant spaces like big cathedrals and large open outdoor spaces. I am pretty obsessed with the idea that through sound, you can have a relationship with a continuum of your past experience and that that experience informs your future. In an exaggerated way, working with this relationship almost seems to predict your future when you improvise with it in that your next move is always the derivative (there I go with math talk again) of what has come before.   It has to either fit or sharply contrast. Of course, everyone’s reaction to this will be different, but within one’s own experience, it begins to seem like music pours out of you in an inevitable way. This can apply to improvisation, but I also feel it can inform the phrasing and timing of notated music. When I listen to different versions of a Bach organ fantasy or perhaps a Brahms Intermezzo, I hear very different relationships with time being explored. In the case of Bach, specific timings in the form of tempo markings that we use today were not necessarily given and the micro-management of phrasing we have become accustomed to in 20th century music was not necessary because there were certain stylistic conventions of the time that would have informed the phrasing. With the advent of pre-recorded electronic music, and especially that which required performers to play along with a tape, precise and pre-meditated phrasing has become the norm and the freedom to interpret the music has been severely limited. Not that it hasn’t produced some fantastic music, but sometimes I feel like it has no natural breath. It is a snapshot of time and space that takes the performer out of the context of the current situation – a space/time that is fluid and malleable. (see a bit more on this here).

So, the 4 X 4 concept is one that I hope humanizes the technological experience. Allowing the players to develop their own relationship with the space/time present in the room and hopefully putting them in the same space as the audience so everyone present go on a journey together. Though for this one, I have written out a score, each player is free to play their parts with a certain amount of freedom as the harmonic material has some flexibility to it. They are encouraged to listen to how the space responds to their playing and make phrasing and timing decisions based on that intuition rather than exact timings. The melodies are derived from transcriptions of slowed down bird songs. These songs migrate from player to player in the quartet and therefor, migrate around the Pavilion as the piece unfolds.

But I am not going to do a harmonic analysis. I just wanted to give some context to what you will be hearing that Thursday night May 26th at 6:30. I am really happy that this piece will be premiered along-side another of Steve Reich’s masterpieces, Different Trains, as well as a new arrangement by my colleague and dear friend Katie Young. I am also happy that this will mark the debut to the Pritzker mixing console of Francisco Castillo Trigueros who will be working with the quartet on a spec(k)trally spatialized mix of the Reich. Hopefully many things that can be done with the space sonically will be revealed.

I truly hope you can make it out and while you are there, remember to look up. And despite the giant screen with all the disembodied figures displayed upon it, DO pay attention to that man behind the curtain!

(It is the music).

In a related story, I will also be joining my friends in eighth blackbird for a show on the 19th of June. Program including works by Bryce Desner and Michael Ward-Bergman who will also be on the stage with the group.

Does a Recording Steal The Musician’s Soul? Reflections on 4 years of touring Steve Reich’s Double Sextet with eighth blackbird.

I am sitting in an airport in Seattle waiting for a flight back to Chicago, so I don’t have easy access to online or other resources to confirm any assertion I am making here, and after all, it’s a blog entry not a dissertation, so I will just apologize for any inconsistency or potential lack of cultural sensitivity in advance and try to keep my references vague.  An easy task for me as anyone who knows me well can attest to.

I recall an idea I first heard when I was young that there are certain tribal cultures in the world that refuse to have their picture take because they believe that a photograph has the ability to steal one’s soul.  I have often pondered this notion in terms of musical performance, especially with “improvised” music.  As an improviser whose instrument happens to be a computer or other series of devices processing the sounds of other musicians- tandem mixing or tandem improvisation I like to call it – I have engaged in many sessions where I come together with others to attempt to capture a moment in time and space.  In that time and space, we explore, we workshop, we react to and respond to the sound of the room, the energy and mood of each musician in the room at that moment, and the specific way the various signals flow together in the analog/digital soup that is my process of working.  It is a process of discovery, and it is very dependent on the space, the musicians present, and even the energy of the audience in the case of live performance.

As a live sound designer for new music, I also engage in many different “moments”.  Each venue is different and gives opportunity to explore repertoire from a different perspective as does the reaction of each audience as well as the temperament and feeling of the musicians at that time.  Each performance represents a marker along a continuum of evolution for each musician according to the various activities they individually and collectively engage in from one performance to the next.  And their attitudes toward that music definitely change over time.  I think this is the MOST true of music we hold up as being “sacred” or “untouchable”.  In a post show Q and A session conducted by eighth blackbird last night after the Kirkland, Washington performance of Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, the group was asked what music they played outside of eighth blackbird for their own enjoyment.  Almost every member of the group mentioned that, on some level, they always return to Bach as music they are familiar enough with that they can experience it on a visceral level.  Of course, as musicians that almost always memorize the music they play, they get the chance to internalize music so it becomes a part of their physiology.  However, Bach represents a body of work that pretty much every classically trained musician in the world has grown up with from the time before they could read.  It becomes perhaps a part of their blood as you might say.

I will come back to Bach, and our relationship to his music later.   However, what really inspired me to get out the old laptop today was another question posed by the audience and the answer by percussionist Matthew Duvall.  The question was about the Reich and the fact that the group plays against a recording of themselves playing the 2nd sextet.  The question went something like, “how does the group reconcile the idea that you have this one set of instruments coming out of speakers, often hung from the ceiling above the proscenium, and then the live sextet playing on stage?”  Matthew’s answer kind of took me by surprise.  He explained how at first, we spent a lot of time and energy trying to match the tape as best as possible. In fact we did.  We went so far as to ask the publisher for raw tracks instead of the pre-mixed track I was originally given so I could create a new mix in every hall and pan things the way I wanted to.  We even considered placing speakers on stage to play back the tape part but this simply proved to be an un-tourable idea at the time.  Reich himself famously jokes about this with his pre-recorded works such as Vermont Counterpoint and Different Trains, and light heartedly quips in interviews and panel discussions “it’s just the old slogan, ‘is it live or is it Memorex?’”  We eventually settled on a certain working method, perhaps not completely ideal, but one that worked and was practical.  But what he said next was what surprised me.  He said that now, after years of touring it, he has become less and less attached to trying to match the recording with his playing, using different mallets than he chose for the recording and even not trying to match the style he played with at the time.  Then the group began to talk about all sorts of things they were doing differently than they did on the recording such as playing certain phrases with a different emphasis and the winds and strings deciding to play “non-vibrato” while the recorded winds and strings are awash with it.  They have started to think of it as a dialogue with a different time and place instead of an attempt to re-create that time and place.  They started talking about embracing the tension that these differences caused rather than attempting to minimize the difference.

I must admit at this point that for years we struggled with trying to match the original recording.   With a group as particular about their sound as eight blackbird is, finding ways to make that recording match them and vice versa was a big learning curve for me.  Generally tape parts are some kind of manipulated or transformed sound or perhaps some altogether other sound world from what is happening on stage.  In this case, it is just them coming out of the speakers, but in a different room with different mics and in the case of the piano and vibraphone, different instruments.   The musicians also seemed to struggle with it as their attitudes about the music would change as time went on and those inflexible bastards who recorded the original tracks seemed to just truck on with the same attitude, like machines without souls.  We had a short reprieve from this tyranny when the work was recorded for Nonesuch and the publisher again provided the raw tracks.  At first I was convinced the improvement was due to adjustments made in the technique of recording with the tape part in mind as they planned to submit these tracks as the final published tape part for Reich’s publisher Boosey and Hawkes.  Our first performance with these tracks was a revelation for the musicians as well as for me as everything could be heard more clearly and seemed to sound a bit more like what it was supposed to be.  In essence, it was much easier to match the sound from the speakers to what they were playing on stage.  But after just two performances with these new tracks, we took a long break from performing the piece with the tape part.  The group had found a number of opportunities to perform the work with other musicians in various locations so both sextets were performing live.  I have done sound for them in this situation as well and have found it to be significantly more satisfying than doing the work with the pre-recorded tape.  Instead of a game of trying to match sounds, I am free to actually shape the sound of the entire ensemble in the way that really brings the music to the listeners’ ears and can treat the piece as a palate for expression rather than a game of chess with the room that I must win.  The group also prefers the experience.  But after 18 months since our last performance together with the tape part, here we were in Kirkland having the same difficulties we had during the years of first touring the piece with the original recordings.   Of course, part of this is just not having done it in a while.  Another aspect was that there were still problems with a “monitors only” track I had created from the raw tracks so that Matthew and Lisa would have a consistent track in their headphones to play with from show to show.  We had some extra time, so I decided we would get to the bottom of what was troubling them with the track. Aside from being able to compress and EQ it slightly differently to make it clearer, we were also able to adjust certain balances based on what they wanted to hear at the time.  The result was officially gauged as “8 million times better than before” by Lisa.  But it brought up an important question for me.  I wondered what might happen next time we play it.  Will this new track still seem 8 million times better?  Or will subtle changes in the situation, and in the player’s thinking and feeling cause them to want to hear it slightly differently again.  Of course, dealing with changes in the acoustics on stage are always a variable, but beyond that, I think that changes in the state of mind of the musician could influence the perception of how that tape tracks work for them.

In this case, the tape captures a certain moment in time.  A certain attitude or mentality in the way the piece should work that does not necessarily hold fast.  Though the musicians will re-interpret the work based on a new insights and attitudes, the musicians they were at the time of the recording cannot engage in that dialogue.  Intellectually, and emotionally, they will always stay the same and cannot evolve.  In a certain way of thinking, they have no soul.

Back to Bach.  I think the beauty of Bach, other than just his sheer genius as a craftsman and composer, is that at the time he was writing his masterworks, music was only notes.  There were not dynamic markings, no expressive indications. Just notes.  Again, I don’t mean to start a huge musicological debate here in the case that the previous statement is not entirely accurate, but certainly dynamic markings as we know them were not yet a thing.  This left a lot of latitude for later generations to interpret his work.  Of course, we can always engage in historical research to study the performance practices Bach would have been aware of to inform our interpretation of these notes, but we can also ignore this historical performance practice if we wish.  For the most part, musicians have attempted to reference baroque performance practices in their playing, but those that have chosen to approach the music in a different way, putting their own interpretive signature on it, have created some of the most moving and engaging performances and recordings of this work.  In a way, you could say that by allowing us to continually re-interpret his work in our modern context, Bach’s music has retained its life.  Retained its soul.  There is no one interpretation we have universally held up as the end all be all example of how Bach should be played.  I would also hazard a guess, though I have never taken an official survey, that most musicians feel much differently about recordings they make of Bach or any other composers music as time goes on and they continue to play that music.  I have heard musicians say as much on many occasions.  I know that as an improviser, I generally become less engaged with particular recordings as time passes and I loose a mental connection to that time and place.  Improvisers often talk about “the moment” being something that is sacred in performance.  In classical music, I think we have this concept sometimes that we want to interpret music in a way that is “most accurate to the composers wishes”, but the more I engage with live performers, I feel like for music to live beyond a certain time and place, we must relinquish a certain amount of control over it.  Letting musicians engage creatively, and giving them the freedom to do so is essential to the longevity of the music.  The music leaves the composers mind, and pen, onto a sheet of paper, and only once it comes out of the musician does it truly come to life.  A score is perhaps like some kind of genetic code that then grows into a human being who is then further altered by their life experience.

For me, the beauty of Reich’s music, is that despite being very strictly notated, it is mostly about a pure process and structure and does not include or require an excessive amount of dynamic or expressive markings.  The repetition of small phrases and their subtle transformation over time draws the audience and performer into an alternate relationship with time and space.  It is like a fabric that changes each time you look at it depending on the lighting or how close or far away you are, and what portion of it you are focusing on.  Therefore musicians will always find new meaning in it and as the means of distributing sound through a space become more advanced, we sound engineers will find different ways to deliver each part of that fabric to the ears of the listener, thus engaging in that dialogue that keeps the music alive and gives it a soul.  So many music groups when performing Reich’s works with recorded tape such as Vermont or New York Counterpoint have chosen to record their own tape parts rather than the one that comes with the published score.  Generally the reason I hear is that they feel it is difficult to match the sound on the tape part, but it also definitely has to do with the fact that they want the ability to put their expressive stamp on it.  I also note that almost every musician I know who has done so has become dissatisfied with the recording they made in some way and want to do it again after a few performances.  In the case of eight blackbird, and Double Sextet, in the 4 short years we have toured the piece, I feel like each performance is a new discovery of the work and we definitely notice the change in our attitude in the fact that we have a tape part, recorded in a different time and place, as a mirror that reflects this change.

So I guess my answer to the overall question of this post is a qualified yes.  Recording DOES steal the soul of music.  But it is not my intention here to label all recording, or music that uses a recorded part as something that should be avoided.  Quite the contrary!  I just thought it something worth talking about.  Especially now as we plunge into an era where the documentation of performances, as well as every other moment of our daily lives, becomes more and more ubiquitous in our culture.  I think it is important to find ways to keep the things we record alive and to keep a perspective on the fact that a recording really does not give us the full picture of what a work of art, a life, or a moment, really is.