An interview at 15 Questions
An interview at WAMU
An interview at Oblique Musique
About Oblique Colors of Discontinuity in Time
Oblique Colors of Discontinuity in Time—its name at once a parody of and an homage to Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio— is a work for acoustic ensemble premiered by The Let X ≠ X Ensemble. The piece was conceived as an acoustic prelude to a longer work J.S. Adams composed for the electronic/electroacoustic Sloth Ensemble, of which he is artistic director. Both pieces were components of an all-drone program curated by Chris Videll for Sonic Circuits.
Drone music frequently takes of the form of heavy electronics—as indeed it would that evening–so the challenge was to come up with an approach to drone for an all-acoustic ensemble. At this point a structural question suggested itself: What is the sound of a drone when some variables change and others don’t? The answer in this case was to leave pitch as the unwobbling pivot around which other musical elements could turn, and indeed to keep them turning.
All drone music is to a greater or lesser extent an elucidation of monotony. This piece is quite literally mono-tonic, the only tone it contains being a concert D and its octave transpositions. Reduction of music to one tone is in effect a reductio ad fundamentum, but one which has the capacity to reveal underlayers of complexity. The single tone has an internal structure of partials of varying degrees of salience; the harmonic structure of the same tone will differ from instrument to instrument and from performer to performer. These differences—essential, timbral differences—or discontinuities provided the ultimate content of the piece. (There is another layer of discontinuity to be mined in the incremental tonal slippages produced by microtonally “off” harmonics, fluctuations in bow weight and wind pressure, or the choric effect of the slight differences in intonation that are inevitable in any multi-player situation.)
The artistic aim of the piece was thus to explore the implications of holding a pitch class constant—in this case, concert D—during continuous changes of timbre. The result would be subtly changing timbral objects as produced by rapidly shifting orchestration and the use of various instrumental techniques both conventional and extended. Hence the name of the ensemble: For the variable “X” substitute “concert D” understood as pitch + timbre; through shifts in instrumental color D ≠ D.
The instrumentation–two flutes (Erica Benay Fallin and Dani Seiss); oboe and cor anglais (Jeff Kahan); trombone (Curt Seiss); bass recorders (Tom Wall); and double bass (myself)—was chosen on the basis of its potential for blend and contrast not only of timbre but of compass. The double bass is especially rich in lower partials, while the flutes are virtually devoid of overtones; the oboe’s bright, penetrating voice is something of a mirror opposite of the bass recorder’s low, muted sound. In order to elicit the greatest variety of color, dynamics and range the instruments were scored in combinations that changed every fifteen seconds. Performers were instructed to play a concert D in any octave using conventional or extended techniques as desired, with such parameters as dynamics and duration also left to the discretion of each player.
Although the piece is titled after a sculpture depicting a constancy of form throughout changes in time, I envisioned it as being analogous to a Divisionist painting: Daubs of pure hues juxtaposed and rubbing up against each other and from which, when perceived at the right distance, a single figure emerges. Perceived again from a different distance, the figure dissolves into separate points of color.
Notes on Augmented Landscapes
Augmented Landscapes was a project that paired recordings of solo double bass performances with unrelated field recordings. One of the artistic goals of the project was the creation of an illusion of spatial depth through sound, much as one would create the illusion of spatial depth in an abstract painting through visual forms.
The creation of spatial depth in painting is the product of formal organization—the placement of areas of color of varying size, shape, hue, tint, shading, etc. The interaction of these elements with each other and with open, or negative, spaces on the canvas creates a visual tension that in turn creates an illusion of spatial depth.
As with painting, so with the work of sound art. The major source of depth-creating tension in Augmented Landscapes is found in the interaction between the two planes of sound—the field recordings on the one hand, and the double bass performances on the other. By itself, a field recording may create an illusion of spatial depth largely through the occurrences of sounds that appear to be closer or farther from the listener and/or from each other. But the addition of formally organized sound from the bass introduced a layer of structured sonic variables to interact with the spontaneously organized sounds of the field recordings.
Having the two layers rub up against each other produced an overall texture of varying densities, frequencies, dynamics and timbres, creating a sonic tension analogous to the depth-producing visual tension in an abstract painting. The variable overlapping of positive and negative spaces of each layer made for an often unpredictable integration and separation of sound events; coincidences of sounds and changes in intensity of different sounds occurring simultaneously or in juxtaposition in turn made for a hint of distance, both from each other and from the listener.
The variable most conducive to creating the illusion of spatial depth was perhaps the double bass itself. The darker, lower registers have a tendency to define an apparent space behind and below the apparent space defined by the field recordings, while the upper registers tend to push to the front. Modifying the instrument’s sound with preparations and granular synthesis allowed further latitude for modeling spatial effects.
In the end, Augmented Landscapes was an experiment in aural plasticity—in the mutual influence of sound qualities pushing against and pulling at each other in order to create the appearance of a sonic synthesis in an apparent three dimensions.
Some Notes on the Listening Situation
My work consists in the arrangement of tones, sounds and stillnesses in a given environment. In doing this I’m concerned not only with the materials I use or the physical conditions pertaining to them, but with the situation of the listener as well. In other words I’m interested in creating—in addition to a composition or a performance—a listening situation.
The Listening Situation is the synthesis of sound and space within the listener’s flux of perception.
What makes the listening situation a situation per se, rather than simply an inert condition, is the participation of the listener. It is by virtue of the listener’s synthesis of perceptual stimuli into cohesive gestalts that sound and space are transformed from inert material facts into a situation—that is to say, something experienced by a concrete being situated in a given time and place. This synthesis of sound and space emerges from the integration of the modalities of sound—pitch, timbre, amplitude, duration and silence—into the surrounding framework provided by the environment in which sound is apprehended.
The listening situation is thus a phenomenological fact, that is, a fact that arises from the world as we take it rather than from the world as it is given.
The listener inhabits the perceptual field in which sounds are or are not.
Some of my recent work, such as after 30 x 12, Not One Nor, Eighteen Events for Double Bass, and x-(y+z)=0 takes as its focus the phenomenological structure of the listening situation. These works attempt to represent or create an image of the zero point at which the perceiver interfaces with the world through an opening inhabited by the flux of perception.
In the context of the performance, the listener’s attentiveness to the work’s internal and external relationships is bound together in a complementary way.
The sense of intimacy, of a being-with oneself, is something fostered by music attuned to the alternation of sound and stillness. The experience of listening leads the listener to a sense of intimacy with his or her perceptions–their objects and processes and contexts, whether the latter is understood as the body in its physicality or the environment in which these perceptions arise.