outside of time | inside the sound
dissertation colloquium, May 6, 2019
The following text was written as a presentation in defense of my PhD dissertation. As such, I wrote it with the intention of it being heard, not read, and the writing style reflects this. It is reproduced here without most of its accompanying slides. This is not an exhaustive account of my musical project, but is rather a candid, personal reflection upon how my project had developed, intentionally and unintentionally, between the years of 2011-2019. I presented this on May 6, 2019 in the Davison Room of the Fanny Peabody Mason Music Building at Harvard University to an audience of my colleagues and advisors.
I remember having a very clear objective when I first arrived here. My studies at the University of Huddersfield centered on physicality and instrumental mechanism, and helped me refine a language of local-level musical activity. Here, I wanted to delve into issues of musical form so as to create a similarly refined language of global-level musical organization. I came here with protean, slippery notions of what I meant by “form,” and as I am about to leave here, my understanding of form remains slippery and unfulfilled. But this aspiration towards an idea of form ended up propagating new ideas in other areas of my work, while sparking me to redefine existing concepts that were already very important to me and present in my musical thinking.
In surveying my past eight years of creative output - 26 musical works, to be exact - I saw in one hand just how much has changed about the music I write, while in the other hand, how very little has changed with regards to the main entryways through which I access my musical project at the beginning of every piece. By and large, I think about music and sound through the same frames as I did eight years ago. However, what that thinking sounds like has changed dramatically. Today, I would like to lead us through seven frames through which I think about writing music.
The first two frames - Physicality and Mechanism - were already heavily influential for my musical thinking even before I got here, and they still are; however, how they articulate themselves in my music has shifted significantly over the years, and today I wish to chart this evolution.
The middle frames - Form and Scale - are things that were with me in some embryonic form when I first arrived here, but only took shape after some time. These became the strongest catalysts for change in my work, and today I want to take account of where they came from and how my work quickly changed in response to them.
The last two frames - Time and Closeness - are the surprises. Eight years ago, I thought I had either no interest or no ability to work with these ideas; they were either avoided by or uninvited to my musical project. At a certain point not all that long ago, they simply showed up, after having been there for longer than I realized, and radically altered my values as a composer. These are things that I’m still thinking through, still trying to understand the possibilities within, and the limits of.
My aim has always been to embed the tactile, corporal, palpable forces at play in sound production within sound itself such that a piece’s sonic identity carries with it the energies of its own making. In my work, the performer’s physical relationship with their instrument is always evident within the sound they create. If, for example, a string player is moving their bow from tasto to sul pont, I want us to hear not only the change in timbre that that repositioning creates, I also want us to hear the hairs of the bow moving along the winding of the strings. This has been a constant through-line in my work, but the ways in which this is articulated have gradually changed. Over the course of my time here, the music I’ve written has shifted from being an enactment of physicality to an embodiment of physicality.
Earlier works (ex: HEAVY MATTER, DRIFT MATTER, Uns-Apparatus) propose an ecstatic, frenetic physicality that is primarily located at the level of the gesture. Here, gestures are constantly elided into one another, never fully resting and never clearly delineated. Some element, some parameter from one gesture is always intruding into the next. Gestures are always smeared across each other to create a moment-by-moment turbulence upon the surface of the music. Gestures also never seem to be fully fixed within any of their parameters, and may at any moment contain dramatic and momentary shifts in register, dynamics, articulation, or quality of sound. The impulse was to create the sensation of a highly active, frenetic sound world which contains multitudes of itself, and these multiplicities are almost molten, spilling into one another, their energies renewed at every passing moment and constantly being put out into the world.
These pieces construct sound worlds that display an effortful, virtuosic, extroverted type of physicality which is always pointed away from the body. Like the sonic energies contained in the musical gestures themselves, physical energies are constantly being spewed outwards towards the listener, and the musical power of this physicality comes from its effortful display of itself. These pieces are intensely physical experiences for the performer, but for that intensity to reach the listener, the pieces must enact this physicality through their wild, ecstatic gestural language. They are demonstratively physical. As an idea, physicality grounds the musical material to a rich and specific foundation which is both conceptual and a very real element in performing these pieces. However, the gestural language at play subverts this by putting the physical, corporeal language on display as a feat of strength. While the expression of physicality as fundamentally athletic, energetic, intense, or ecstatic is a perfectly valid articulation of what physicality can sound or behave like, my understanding of what physicality is has shifted and broadened over time. I began to see my adherence to this particular gestural language as being too prescriptive towards a certain, specific expression of physicality. I asked myself and my material: “How else can physical thinking sound like?”
In more recent works (ex: WORLDEATER, your body is a volume), an altogether different understanding of the body is at work. Here, the relationship between a body and an instrument is understood as internal, almost private or hermetic, and located at the level of touch. Sound worlds are entirely built upon how and where the performer touches and connects with their instrument. Sound is still thought of as an amalgamation of various physical parameters in simultaneous movement, but they are now bundled together so as to articulate the behavior of specific worlds of sound. Maintaining the correct touch - be it finger pressure, bow pressure, breath support, embouchure, bow speed or placement - is of the utmost importance, even through the modulation of any one of those parameters. These pieces resist at almost every moment the transmutation of touch into gesture, while still embracing movement itself as a fundamental imperative. The impulse is to create a sound world that is so richly dense, textured, and tactile that it seems to completely saturate the space and subsume the listener inside a sort-of aural amniotic fluid which, once inside, alters one’s sensation of elemental things like gravity and time. In other words, establishing a world outside of the world and inside of the sound.
These pieces require the performer to draw their attention inward and develop a sensitivity towards small spaces between themselves and their instrument: the space between a finger and a string, or a tongue and a reed. Physicality is no longer enacted as it is no longer expressed through gesture. The type of physicality required here is almost invisible to a viewer, but should be heavily palpable to a listener, and hopefully pulls that listener inwards, towards the source of the sound and inside the space of the piece. Just as before, these pieces remain intensely physical experiences for the performer, but here it is because the performer is required to fully embody the physicality required. It is not a constant release of physical energy; it is a constant containment of that energy, and a measured modulation of bodily condition. Before they activate their instrument, performers must first feel these sounds in their bodies and direct their physicality towards the idea of that sound. This is called proprioception: one’s awareness of the position and movement of their own body as measured from within their body. The physicality required by these pieces brings the performer closer to their own body and sense of bodily awareness.
For me, instrumental mechanism goes hand-in-hand with physicality. Where physicality in sound production can be thought of as the orientation and behavior of one’s body towards a musical instrument, mechanism is how the construction of an instrument informs us in how to connect to it. For a very long time, the music I’ve written begins from a place of interrogating how the movements of the body and the structure of an instrument’s mechanism can both be compositional determinants, musical material, and primary informants in the creation of a sound world.
In earlier pieces, the individual elements that comprise an instrument’s mechanism (so, for example, in a wind instrument, this would be the keys as well as the mouthpiece/reed; in a string instrument it would be the four strings, their tensions at different points on the instrument, as well as the bow itself) were approached as autonomous agents that each had the capacity to shape a sound. More importantly, once combined with the equally autonomous points of contact with the body (the mouth, embouchure, tongue, lungs, fingers, arms, etc…), the actants at play within instrumental mechanism and physicality were treated as highly combinatorial. Extreme repositionings of the embouchure upon the mouthpiece can happen on top of rapid application or subtraction of keys on the mechanism while the degree of breath support is in flux. This is largely why the gestural language discussed in the previous section is so typified by extreme and brief shifts in register, dynamics, articulation, and sound quality: as the piece celebrates the autonomy of all these physical parameters, the sound itself is constantly pulled this way and that. Sound is imagined as a material sleuced through the ever-shifting mechanics of the instrument; prismatically refracted and mutated by the turbulent actions of the body and the mechanism. As a crude oversimplification: the body activates the instrument and the result is sound.
While I still think about instrumental mechanism as something that is layered and individuated, it is now participating in a totally different relationship with the body and with the sound they produce together. Now, actions upon the mechanism are always directed towards a specific sonic idea, and modifications upon the mechanism are always at service to some internal movement or mutation happening within that established sound. What’s more is that I eventually started prioritizing sounds the techniques for which are quintessentially anti-gestural. Things like: in winds, very particular categories of multiphonics (largely dyads in clarinets or saxophones; or highly noisy and textured ones in the bassoon); in brass, split tones and half-valve techniques; in strings, a sustained haze or noise within which pitch is a function of the bow, not the left hand... All of these techniques have their own language of movement, but that movement typically takes place within a very narrow bandwidth which resists the gestural language of earlier pieces. The sounds themselves have an internal vitality that I want to explore from the inside-out, rather than problematize through outside interjections. I said earlier that in the music I was writing eight years ago, I wanted to create sound worlds that contained multitudes of themselves as evidenced by the ecstatic, constantly-unfolding gestural language. Now, I seek this quality within the sounds themselves: density, vibrancy, complexity, movement, tactility, all contained within a sound. Mechanism and physicality are the ways through which I understand how these sounds are made, how I as a composer am able to create a behavior for a sound from within it, and how I can inscribe something personal inside it.
I previously said that my impulse to develop a specific sense of form has gone unfulfilled, though that isn’t exactly the situation. I’ve spent my entire time here in search of one idea of form, but repeatedly producing, almost accidentally and in spite of myself, an other, very different & unintentional expression of form. I see form as being distinct from structure, though not totally inseparable from it. Structure, for me, accounts for the architectural scaffolding behind a piece; one could listen to a piece and make a map of its structure. Form, on the other hand, has more to do with the shapes a piece creates through sound itself as stretched out over time. It’s about how a piece changes your sense of the space, time, and depth it occupies. If structure is architectural, then form is perhaps sculptural, but it’s a sculpture that’s created in time and which only reveals itself as a result of us experiencing more of it.
My intention when I got here was to achieve a behavior of form that would work similarly to how local-level instrumental gesture was already operating. Where modulation of the performer’s physicality in counterpoint with the combinatorial handling of instrumental mechanism yielded smeared, contorted, mutated gestures that spilled over into each other, I imagined some musical operation that would project that situation onto the higher order of form. Larger swaths of sound objects would be smeared across instruments and across sectional delineations such that any feeling of locality within the piece can only be gleaned as a vague sensation and only, perhaps, in retrospect. I can imagine what this sounds like very easily, but it has proven to be surprisingly difficult to actually realize, and even more challenging to sustain over the course of an entire piece. And, for the record, achieving this is an aspiration I still hold.
I mentioned in the beginning of this talk that despite reaching for this ambiguous, multivalent form, I repeatedly and almost accidentally produced a completely different expression of form. What’s more is that this other-form hinges on something that I thought I was completely uninterested in and which my aspirational-form specifically avoids: sections. Time and again, the pieces I wrote witnessed the emergence of clear, unambiguous, delineated, global sectional boundaries. These sections almost always broadcast themselves through an unassuming introduction of Material B into Texture A, and proceeds either through Texture A slowly fading out as Material B is brought more into focus, or with the sudden disappearance of Texture A, leaving Material B exposed and made to carry the piece forward. Either way, the formal and structural maneuver is clearly audible and the sectioning event is read as a shift in some fundamental element of the piece which is reducible to that moment.
This excerpt of KARST contains a bad example of ‘crossfade sectioning’ as well as a great example of ‘sudden sectioning.’ The excerpt drops us into a dense and detailed sound mass which has the entire ensemble engaged and which has been gradually ebbing and flowing for six or seven minutes. Buried within are two bass clarinets gently sitting on and occasionally flipping over a D-flat. As the dense mass starts to dissipate, some strands from within emerge - two celli, two percussionists, the piano, and saxophone, along with the aforementioned clarinets - while the tuba and harp exchange D-flat niceties. In comparison to the dense mass of sound from a few moments ago, we think we hear the bass clarinets as an exposed thread from that mass. But it isn’t until the other remaining instruments suddenly extinguish themselves that we register the bass clarinets as actually having brought us into a new space altogether, one that was not actually contained by the original dense mass. In this moment, the pressure of the space of the piece drastically changes, and the two lone clarinets take on a heaviness and a hugeness that they did not have when accompanied by the small battery of instruments a moment before.
[The excerpt in question begins after 25:00 and continues until 27:20. In the actual presentation, I played from the studio recording found on the Kairos portrait disc, time timecodes for that being: 33:00-35:40.]
The unambiguous sectionality of these pieces yields a sensation of form that allows the listener to locate themselves within detailed and expansive sound worlds, both temporally and spatially. Despite this basically being the antithesis of what I originally set out to achieve with form, it continues to happen in recent pieces because a) it creates powerful moments, and b) I think it helps the types of anti-gestural sonic materials I’ve become drawn to articulate themselves over large stretches of time.
As an aside, I think the single piece that comes closest to achieving my original aspiration of form and sustaining it over the course of an entire piece is The Chain of the Spine, though it does so by eschewing the hallmarks of both expressions of form...
The reason why the sounds and instrumental techniques that I began to prioritize changed my understanding of physicality and mechanism, and yielded a different approach to form than I had intended, is because these sounds fundamentally altered the scale at which these pieces operate. “Scale” - as in a distinctive relative size or degree - was never a frame through which I considered thinking about my work until after the pieces I wrote ushered in and reframed the concept for themselves. The durations of my pieces became longer and the general rate at which events unfold became slower, but I don’t necessarily think of the music I’m writing today as being primarily “long” or “slow.” This is because they only read as these things if our listening measures the pieces though what I think of as a human scale, where the fundamental unit of measurement is something proportionate to quotidian human life or behavior. Human speech patterns, human movements, the segmentation of information to make it easily understandable to us… if all of this was converted to units of time, it might boil down to “a couple of seconds.”
For an example of what I mean by ‘human scale’ in music, consider the work of Morton Feldman. Though the pieces are quite long, the basic unit of information sits comfortably within our human scale. Take the hour-and-twenty-minute long Piano and String Quartet. Feldman establishes this human scale immediately in the opening gesture [below]: the arpeggio from the piano takes a couple of seconds (two, in this recording, though even the interpretive decision to slow it down wouldn’t fundamentally alter the scale at which it operates), the strings sustain their pitches for another five to six seconds, and the resonance of the piano is heard alone for another small handful of seconds before the gesture is heard again. This becomes the reference against which all passages and events are measured for the remaining hour and twenty minutes. If something sustains over a significantly longer amount of time, it is felt by the listener as being longer in relation to our established sense of scale, rather than being fundamentally re-scaled; the unit of measurement has not changed.
Over my time here, the scale at which most of my work operates shifted from this human scale to something that I think of as a geologic scale, where the basic unit of measurement is much larger and the rate of information and change is far more expansive. In pieces like subsidence, your body is a volume, or WORLDEATER, nearly every parameter has proportionately altered itself up to this geologic scale, and a single musical phrase might take upwards of ten minutes to feel fully complete. At this level, it takes a while to adjust our frame of reference as listeners, to feel what a unit of measurement is in these pieces. It takes a while to scale our listening up to the geologic, and it is my job to induce a reframing of our listening through the behavior of the material itself. The pieces teach us how to listen to them, they attune our listening to their scale. This is what I meant when I said earlier that our sensation of elemental things like gravity and time are altered when listening to these works.
If the music itself were a physical object, this rescaling of the behavior of the material is articulated not as a distancing from the object, not a zooming out so that the immensity of the object can be regarded, but the exact opposite: a zooming in and getting so close to the object that it occupies your entire field of vision. This is what the aforementioned repurposing of instrumental mechanism serves. By using mechanism as a material that articulates a sound’s behavior from inside the sound itself, it brings us so close to that sound object that it seems to stop moving, and only then can you start to understand how it really moves. It is the difference between how my body moves through a space versus how my body moves within itself, within its own space. This is proprioception at the level of sound itself. Just as the performers of these pieces must access a focused, private physicality within their own bodies, the compositional handling of these sounds over such large swaths of time requires me to attune the material to the scale of the sound, and relate how the sound moves within itself.
For the listener, I want this geologic scale to induce a certain sensation of being completely within, completely saturated inside a very specific and expansive ecology. Again, as a physical object, these pieces aren’t things that you watch; they’re places you’re in. In a lecture he gave at the [Harvard] Graduate School of Design in 2014, choreographer John Jasperse articulated this sensation perfectly. In these pieces, I’m trying to induce the sensation of “being an object inside a momentum that’s larger than [our] own intentionality.” If this is achieved, then part of this situation is the feeling that you, the listener, feel located somewhere within this ecology, feel like a patch of turbulence within the larger momentum, feel like an element within the body of sound. Or perhaps you the listener are the very thing that anchors this momentum to the world.
For many years, I thought I was not interested in dealing with time in my work. This is because I felt I did not have a grasp and understanding of how time functions in music. For working within an explicitly temporal medium, I felt like I was missing something fundamental about how, as a composer, I should be able to work with time, shape time. In every piece I wrote, meter never seemed to group music into temporal units in any meaningful way, and tempo, especially tempo changes, never seemed to impact the quality of temporal flow in the slightest. For a while, I got around this by stating that my music wasn’t about time, it was about space. Eventually, I stopped using standard musical temporal tools altogether: rhythm, meter, and tempo were all abandoned and replaced by a proportional, time=space approach to notation, which I still use today. Working away from measured, subdivided units of time was really freeing, but it wasn’t until my work started to shift its sense of scale that a personal understanding of time started to emerge through this notational solution.
I now realize that my problem with time was actually a reluctance to snap such a physical, elemental sonic language to the grid of counted time. My work tries to make the temporal dimension of a piece as intertwined with the act of sound creation as possible. I do this primarily through notation: without the imperative to translate musical events and physical gestures into a metric, rhythmic language, I am able to notate them as simply having certain durations. Instead of expressing fundamentally corporeal information through mathematic, cerebral rhythmic information, the notation allows events and gestures to simply take the amount of time they need; it suggests rhythm without prescribing it. The notation is still pretty specific in relating the durations and temporal proportions of and between musical events, but it also gives room for the performer to respond to their own physicality as it relates to time (for example, how breath might effect the durations of certain events).
Another element of the notation that aids in the collective shaping of time: the explicit charting of inter-ensemble communication. Within an unimposing boundary of temporal framing, musicians keep together through a network of triggers. These cues are sonic events in the music itself. It is de-hierarchized, with every performer being capable of both giving and receiving cues. Cues are organized in such a way that temporal decisions made by one performer will have a rippling effect throughout the ensemble, but shouldn’t damage the network of communication that is happening.
While the time=space notational system has replaced things like tempo, meter, and rhythm, this system of inter-ensemble communication is what has replaced any external time-keeping operator, like a conductor, clicktrack, or stopwatch. Each musician is guided by their own internal sense of what a second is, or what ten seconds feels like (10 seconds being the common grouping on the page of these scores). Their sense of these time spans is also shaped by that of the other performers. The time of these pieces is thus a felt time, not a counted or metered time, and this allows for an elasticity of time as the musicians create larger-order musical forms together.
Somewhere between the musicians’ generation of an elastic sensation of time and the piece’s saturating, expansive, geologically-scaled sound world is the listener. My hope for the listener’s sensation of time within these pieces is pretty simple: I want a listener’s sense of time while listening to my work to be specific to the work. I hope that a listener, in attuning their listening to the piece’s geologic scale, completely forgets what a counted second feels like. In fact, I hope they forget that time can be counted at all.
Closeness, the idea or sensation of being close to something, is something that has emerged relatively recently as maybe the most important part of my project, and what ties everything together. Closer to the sounds; closer to each other, as listeners or as performers; maybe most importantly, closer to yourself, somehow… perhaps through listening, feeling centered and intentional inside your own body, just as the musicians must be when performing these particular sounds (…proprioception…). Closeness as distinct from intimacy: I’m not offering a tender moment, I’m hoping to invite people into a meaningful place.
Closeness is what drew me to physicality in the first place - the idea that a music built on an intense physical relationship between a performer and their instrument could elicit a response from a listener through physical empathy (we can imagine in our bodies what it must feel like for the performer to use their bodies in such a way). Physicality as it is expressed in my music now is all about bringing the performer closer to their own body and sense of bodily awareness. My interest in instrumental mechanism is at service to the desire to write from inside the sound, to bring me closer to understanding how a sound behaves through time. The re-scaling of the rate of movement in my work - the geologic scale - brings us so close to these sounds that our listening changes and, perhaps, opens up to a different type of momentum and a different sensation of time.
Perhaps most important is the network of communication happening between the performers. Of course many types of music require performers to communicate with each other in various ways. In my work, I’ve tried to make the process of communication an actual material in the piece, without which the piece literally cannot happen. The form of communication prioritizes listening, and has all musicians sharing a responsibility towards each other. In keeping each other close in time, they become closer to each other, even if only for the duration of the piece. As a listener, we may be outside of this network of communication, but we feel the closeness, and hopefully we feel close to it. If it happens, it’s an emotional sensation.
Reflection & Conclusion
Before I end I want to talk briefly about one particular piece. In this presentation, I tried to chart how the most important frames through which I think about my work have changed, grown, or emerged during the eight years that I’ve been here. However, all of these developments actually happened more or less at once, in the first piece I wrote when I got here.
Listening through you actually are evaporating, a string duo I wrote in my first year but kept revising for an additional two years, is like listening to all the other 25 pieces I wrote here, chronologically and on fast-forward. In this piece, you can literally hear my sense of physicality shift from the level of gesture to the level of touch; you can trace the approach to mechanism become ever-more oriented towards the sounds themselves; beginnings and endings of sections emerge ever-more-clearly in the form; the entire piece is one slow elevation from a human to a geologic scale (or at least it attempts this); and our sense of time at the end is definitely not what it was at the beginning. As far as the idea of closeness is concerned, after working with Chris & Kevin on this piece & after hearing people’s reactions to it after their performance, I thought for the first time ever that maybe this music I write can actually offer something emotional and valuable. I call it the first piece I ever wrote with my heart. I wrote this piece as soon as I got here, and then spent the next seven years trying to figure out what it was.
As a listener of my own works, I most value the closeness to myself I feel within the saturated, expansive, enclosed sound worlds of most of these pieces. It’s that amniotic sensation I mentioned earlier, outside of time, elsewhere, but inside the sound. It’s become a bit hermetic, but not inaccessible. People are invited in.