movement to sound: multimodal transcription

All sound comes from some sort of movement, whether it’s a strong wind rustling leaves, your lips forming a word, or electrical current. As a musician who grew up playing viola in orchestras, I learned to interpret gestures by following conductors. A conductor’s job is to physically interpret the composer’s score in a way that can be interpreted musically by an entire orchestra in real time. Conductors hone their craft to be efficient and expressive, thus communicating effectively (only using their body from the waist up!) with dozens of musicians.

I became fascinated with the movements of conductors, as well as other types of physical artists (martial arts, different forms of dancing, the movements of musicians), and the sounds (real or imagined) that emanated from the bodies of movers. Conductors, of course, do not make any sound with their bodies, yet pictures promoting orchestras almost always fixate on the conductor and their magic wand. Why do audiences identify so much with the only person on stage without an instrument in their hands? Why is it so sexy? When you watch a conductor, you can almost see the sound traveling out of their hands. Yet, it’s an illusion. It’s in our imagination. Their gestures shape the sounds around them so well (given ample rehearsal time) that we perceive the orchestras as extensions of the conductor’s body. Can we view dancers the same way?

Perhaps the most (in)famous composer/choreographer collaboration of the 20th century was Igor Stravinsky with Vaslav Nijinsky (yes, you could make an argument for Cage/Cunningham, but I would argue that they collaborated on methods for creating, but not during the performance situation itself). The Rite of Spring was premiered by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in April of 1913 in Paris.

Those familiar with the score know that it was quite an unruly thorny beast in 1913. Full of complex meter and tempo changes, it seems like a choreographer’s nightmare, and perhaps hiring young Nijinsky was a strange choice. In Stravinsky’s 1936 memoirs, he wrote, “… the poor boy knew nothing of music. He could neither read it nor play any instrument”. In Nijinsky’s defense, many of the choreographers I work with today do not read music or play instruments, yet they have an utmost sensitivity to sound. Perhaps Stravinsky’s choice in using the score as the medium of communication was simply the wrong choice. It’s hard to tell someone what you want when they don’t understand your language. Try teaching Labanotation to a musician…

Anyways, the collaboration was anything but rosy. Rehearsals were rocky and disagreements between the composer, choreographer, and conductor were frequent. Luckily, they had financial support, got the job done, and made history…

The point I’m trying to make here is that though the Rite of Spring served as a pinnacle of modernism in the early 20th century, this style of collaboration seems unfit for today’s emerging artists. We usually don’t have sustaining financial support, we work with our friends, and most things are DIY. We make art because it’s how we want to spend our time. We see something missing from the world and wish to contribute to it.

So say you’re a musician, and you want to make music that amplifies and recontextualizes a moving body. You have limited time and you don’t want your rehearsals to be a train wreck, nor do you want your collaborators to hate you. If your music is rhythmically complex (as mine tends to be), fixed choreography is tedious and expensive. Thus, it seems like our solution consists of semi-fixed music with semi-fixed dance. I want to create dynamic situations where live musicians respond to a dancer(s) (and vice versa) where neither party feels restricted by the work’s rigidity, and where I can create the illusion of a wild abstract conductor/dancer/mover whose nuanced body leaves vibrant audible residuals.

More later…

collaboration as performance

Two friends of mine (thanks Ilya and Brian) recently gave me the idea of blogging the compositional process. This is something that is common in other fields (programming, cooking, engineering, etc.), but is relatively rare in music. Our work is usually done alone, in privacy with another musician or ensemble, but almost never in the public eye. When our work is presented to the public, it is (we hope) developed and polished, a proper representation of the music as it was idealistically conceived in our mind’s ear. In my humble opinion, presenting only the finished performance perpetuates the romantic stereotype of the composer as the eccentric genius, but most musicians will tell you that during the majority of the composition/rehearsal time, we rarely know exactly what we’re doing or what specifically we’re trying to make. Actually, I don’t have the data to back this up, but I would imagine that many of my colleagues would agree with me… Creating music (for me) is like creating your own map to an imaginary place you’ve never been, then suddenly being teleported to that place wearing a blindfold, and expecting to find your way around. Most of the time, we’re just wandering around in the dark trying to make sense of things.

Anyways, this blog is an attempt to bring the compositional process into the public eye, to scrape away at the all-knowing composer stereotype, to offer my methods as an object of criticism and critique, and to start a conversation. How are we creating performances in 2017? What are the nature of our collaborations?

In the next posts, I will discuss an upcoming project of mine. This May I will be traveling to Berlin to collaborate with dancer Yuri Shimaoka, tubist Jack Adler-Mckean, and contrabassist Adam Goodwin on a new work titled “ironic erratic erotic”. This work will be created using compositional and improvisational methods (which I’ll explain further in a later post) that are novel to both myself and to the performers, and I am eager to share them with you all with the hope that this documentation could inspire some interesting conversations.

Bis bald!