Walking Music Volume 4: Music for Urban Stargazing

Five posts in, and I’ve already talked about death. This post is a little more directly about music, and one of the ways I make it. Let’s talk about tuning forks, and theft: shameless, encouraged, and documented.

A few years ago, (Look, the last few posts have been long, this one won’t be, just let me give you a little frame.) I found this video. If I recall correctly, I was actually looking at possible grad school destinations, but what ended up sticking with me were tuning forks and woodblocks. I didn’t immediately rush out and buy a set of tuning forks or anything, but it was firmly planted in the back of my mind.

Apparently, according to my Amazon history, the itch to play with tuning forks hit me again on Feb 11th, 2019, and I placed an order for a diatonic set. Thinking back, the reason I bought them was an ill-fated idea that involved using them as tuned triangle beaters. I say ill-fated because their acoustic volume could never compete with the volume of the triangles themselves. After that, I started using them to play isolated pitches into my clock coil boxes during performances, juxtaposing discernible pitches against the low end rumble of the coils themselves. Like most ideas in my performances, it stuck around in various forms until I had a moment where their potential would be adequately realized.

I had been avoiding using a simple woodblock and contact mic setup out of respect for the original inspiration of my foray into the territory. Over time though, I realized I had an infrastructure to make a totally different kind of music with this setup, especially when loops and a harmonizer were introduced. The resulting setup, namely a Line6 loop pedal and an EHX HOG2, allowed me to fit a whole performance setup in a backpack without involving a computer, and to extend the range of the set several octaves. As the early and mid months of 2019 crawled on, I found myself gravitating to the forks more often.

Music for Urban Stargazing is named half-jokingly for an activity that feels near-futile. This line of near-futility is what drove me to try to make long, layered music using the tuning forks.

The set of pieces below was recorded in a single session of improvisations that took place on July 7th, 2019. From a performative perspective, they sit squarely in this territory I like to occupy between intention and accident. Using a looper and being forced to perpetually react on each pass to build a convincing musical world and caused gestures I initially deemed to be mistakes to become cornerstones of certain movements. For example, in “In the Right Place Pt. 1”, I didn’t predict that the slight stickiness of the gaff tape on the woodblock would add another layer of unpitched sound that would help form the timbral character of the piece. The development of a performative language revolving around the tuning forks was part and parcel of my pursuit to think and perform fluidly in longer intervals of time. As I continue to build my vocabulary, several instruments, invented and otherwise, will get an extended solo treatment.

Enjoy!

How full is your card dude? (Walking Music Vol. 3)

When I first started composing classical music, a dream of writing a large orchestral piece was appended to my list of life’s aspirations almost automatically. Works bending large musical forces to delicate ends, such as Persichetti’s O Cool is the Valley, or George Crumb’s Haunted Landscape, were hugely impressive on me and my initial attraction to the craft. However, a few years into making music, seeing my hopes of a linear progression through institutional music go belly-up during a bach-on-marimba-fueled nervous breakdown and strategic retreat to the world of basement shows and tape labels, that dream started to feel less like a dream I would convert to a goal at some point, and more like one that would live forever in puffs of proverbial pipe smoke. Even after returning to classical composition after a few years off, writing for orchestra seemed always to be just outside my grasp in terms of the opportunities I was encountering and the scene I was throwing my lot in with. Chamber music seemed to be the practical way for me to regularly make work and have it performed.

This past summer, while dredging the listings of calls for scores and proposals, I happened upon a project called Sound Webs run by conductor Rebecca Smithorn in Cincinnati which commissioned four new works, with performance locations in an historic library, a pedestrian walking bridge, and a parking garage. I applied for the project almost immediately, with my sights set on the parking garage, simply because parking garages often have massive reverb. To keep this part brief, after a very pleasant phone conversation and some correspondence, I was invited to compose a piece for a chamber orchestra to be played in the aforementioned garage.

The piece, Drones for Bob, was originally written with my grandfather, for who I was named but never met, in mind. Specifically, I was attempting to reflect on how we learn about certain people, and even come to know them in a way, almost entirely through their absence. In the case of my grandpa, I grew up gaining impressions of who he was through his workshop, which was located in my grandma’s basement, and through stories of him that would crop up from certain relatives. By all accounts, he was a clever tinkerer whose projects included a power strip that used open rails and could fit as many plugs as you could physically squeeze into the length of it, a sound system that he could reverse and use as a networked set of microphones around the house, and jewelry he made for various family members and friends. He was also a mechanic and ran the armory in Richmond, Indiana for the latter part of his career.

Thinking about death and absence in the abstract, as it mostly is with my grandpa, whom I never met in person, is a far cry from the real, immediate experience of death. The week the piece was due, my dear friend’s father passed away. Unlike my grandpa, this was a person that I grew up near, moving from the phase of getting yelled at for being irresponsible with fireworks to later getting to spend time with him and see him as a real person, something that often seems to take far too long with our parents and their immediate circle. Suffice it to say that the final push of the composition process for this piece was amidst one of the most emotionally trying weeks in memory for me. Being forced to spend a large chunk of time alone during a time where every instinct wants to pull those close to you closer and the importance of things like music or, any individual pursuit for that matter, is called into question and put on trial was an experience that will be with me for a long time.

By the time the premiere rolled around, I was feeling a bit more even-keeled, but still operating in the emotional neighborhood of my wit’s end. And so, while I would normally have made the journey to Cincinnati, or really any premiere, alone, I invited my friend Cinnamon along to join me. Being an artist herself, Cin proved to be the perfect person to bring on the trip. On top of having two long drives chock full of conversation and laughter, she allowed me to be totally present for the performance and even volunteered to take photos and video so I didn’t have to touch my phone. In the end, the piece was performed very well by the ensemble, and I was able to see the fulfillment of a dream that I had effectively shelved. It was and remains one of my favorite moments.

For many composers at my level of experience, new pieces often have a painfully short life of one or two performances, and in this case, the ensemble was assembled specifically for the occasion, so there was no chance the same performers would be reprising the piece any time soon. With that in mind, recording performances is an important part of developing a presentable portfolio, and is a duty that often falls onto the composer. This is especially true when a given performance takes place outside of a traditional concert hall, where recording tools are usually available. So, before the performance, I had set up my field recorder at what I felt was just the right angle, nestled on a piece of foam to isolate it from floor noises, and hit record as I walked up to give a characteristically scatterbrained pre-performance talk, and let it silently do its job through the performance. Alas, as the final applause started, I looked down at my field recorder and saw the message “SD CARD FULL!” It was a sort of stumble-on-the-finish-line moment I could only silently chuckle at as I said my thank you’s to the audience and the ensemble. In the end, I’m at peace with the idea that some experiences live fully only in memory.

So if you’ve read this far, you might be wondering, “did this guy really just spend a thousand words talking about a piece that I can’t even hear?” And, strictly speaking, the answer is yes, at least until I get good enough at audio repair to salvage raw cell phone audio.

The link below, Walking Music Volume 4: Memory Drones, features two pieces composed through processing and recontextualizing two recordings. The first is actually a version of the material from Drones for Bob. Namely, it features a slowed version of the second half of the original piece, which I was able to record during dress rehearsal, over which I have laid the whole piece reorchestrated for a cadre of arpeggiating pianos. The resulting piece, Orchestra, Cincinnati, is a sort of dialogue between two versions of the same material, with the original slowed recording trying to keep time suspended against the forward push of the pianos hammering incessantly away. In processing the material this way, I think I found a home for material that will likely never live again in its original form, allowing that original compositional experience to have a home and life beyond that first performance. It is also indicative of a trend in my work where one chunk of composed material will end up as a layer in a later piece in a different medium. (More on that later.)

The second piece on the record, Organ, Indianapolis, is a companion piece composed in a similar way, originating from a field recording of the inaugural playing of Goulding and Wood‘s latest organ, Opus 52, which is currently being installed in Knoxville, TN. The process for the piece was inspired by the process for Orchestra, but differs in that the recording is played against processed versions of itself on the same time scale, rather than cut up as in the first one.

On Avoiding Change in Appropriate Timescales: Walking Music Volume 2

In almost all aspects of my life, I am deeply troubled by and averse to change, especially when it comes to my personal life and the people and environments that I hold close to me. With this in mind, it struck me as deeply funny that slowing down changes is something I’ve had to consciously and deliberately work on in my music and performance over the last year. You would think that if the thought of moving addresses or adjusting my social environment is enough to keep me up at night, that I could apply that same anxiety usefully to delaying a chord change. Alas, life is not always so kind or intuitively coherent.

Speaking to this, after a particularly chaotic duo performance I played at the now defunct Pioneer one night in July, my friend John McCormick said to me, “You know, you could always not play.” And despite the immediate feeling of wanting to slug him in the arm, I ended up thinking about that comment for weeks afterwards. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a similar sentiment, but it hit me as a hard reminder of patience needed in music (and life for that matter).

I performed Music for a Public Square a couple months later, having taken some time to build in ways to really slow down and let ideas live without immediately trying to manipulate them. Being a solo performer using electronics, there is a compulsion to always be doing something on stage, to at least make a good faith effort at performance as a physical act, but time feels different to the one performing than it does for the audience. A short silence can feel like an eternity, and, by the same token, letting something repeat without adding a layer or changing it in some way can feel like a long time to stay passive in front of people.

In terms of this piece, rather than embrace silence as a literal way of not playing, I chose to work with some drones as a sort of safety net that could continue indefinitely without my intervention. Doing so allowed me the room to take stock of the arc of the piece in real time without having to actually take any action, and allowed me to find my normal baseline perception of time passing that can slip away during the excitement of improvising. Emotionally, this piece was directly tied to the time slot and venue in which I was performing, namely on my lunch break, in the middle of downtown, in a quiet corner of Lugar Plaza, which I had helped to start activating with arts events earlier in 2019. There is a sense of yearning in the pacing and timbral aspects of the piece that I think reflect the sense of undiscovered possibilities I have when thinking about that space. I also have to believe that the tone of the piece reflects some of the hopefulness I was feeling as the warm months were winding down. (This performance was in October, but it was still well over 70 degrees here at the time.)

I got a message today from my friend Jordan in California, and apparently I have won a rare endorsement from Nora the dog. You can see her testimonial below and find Music for a Public Square at the bottom of this page.

 

 

 

On Walking (Music) Pt. 1

This second post is about walking, music, and Walking Music.

According to my phone, in 2019 I averaged about 8.6 miles of walking a day, which, taken as canon (although almost certainly a little inaccurate), means that I walked about 3,030 miles over the course of the year. A love of long walks was something I developed, almost out of necessity (or perhaps under duress), while studying philosophy when I was younger. (Even as a kid I loved long hikes, but in my adult life I have never managed to keep up a steady stream of visits to the parks in my area.) Walking has been a way for me to work out problems and develop ideas in the abstract, away from their concrete media, and is a way for me to bodily step outside of the box, the box at times being a tricky musical question, a blank page, or a nerve-wracking deadline.

This past year, the routine of regular long walks was revived when having to make a decision about whether to pursue a doctorate in music composition, or stay in Indianapolis for the foreseeable future. The decision was not an easy or straightforward one, and forced me to reconcile the version of myself that I was against dreams I had always taken as foregone conclusions if offered as possibilities. I’ve had a long-running joke about getting a doctorate just to be able to get magazine subscriptions addressed to “Dr. Funkhouser”, but at the heart of the joke lies a hard truth that a lot of my life and how it was developing for several years were based around a hypothetical path through academia, and a concurrent departure from the community I found myself surrounded by. Giving up that path willingly, at least for the time being, was a heavy task, but also a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.

During this time, which was late April, a wise friend told me that if I was in any sense living provisionally, then I needed to root that out. That friend is a gentle and kind soul, and wouldn’t hurt a fly, but in the moment those words hit my ears, he might as well have dropped a sack of potatoes on my head. In framing the issue that way, he gave me the lens I needed to focus on the issues surrounding the feeling of inevitability regarding doctoral pursuits, and the ways in which I was putting distance between myself and the people around me. At the end of what felt like the longest week of my life, where I slept very little, talked even more than usual, and in which I averaged about 15 miles of walking a day, I ended up deciding to stay in Indianapolis and throw my lot in with the island of misfit toys that is the music and arts community here.

Making the decision to stay in Indianapolis, and replacing a hypothetical life with a very vibrant immediate one felt a lot like moving to a new place and finding that all of your friends have beat you there. It was a joy that was also tempered by the fact that I was now in a position to truly start working on things within myself and my art that had felt on hold pending some sort of realer life kicking in at any moment. The rest of the year, I walked and composed my way through a dizzying series of events (many of which I will reflect on later) and found my way back to long form ambient music and a sort of high-stakes improvisation practice.

Walking Music, as a whole, is largely populated by pieces that I think would be best used out on a walk or long reflective time, and will probably only work at very peculiar parties. The amount of material that is coming is probably irresponsible, and I really envision it as something to download, put in your back pocket, and break out when something new is needed to accompany an experience, rather than a series of records in the traditional sense of needing to be listened to linearly or with any sort of urgency.

Volume 1 in the series, A Long Time to Wake, is situated squarely in the middle of a phase of maturation in terms of my improvised performances. It is a direct recording of my set from a show at Square Cat Vinyl in October, and features a some fairly indulgent use of long reverbs and loops. The music itself was created using a set of tuning forks, a harmonizer pedal, a music box, for which I have punched a large body of melodies, and a woodblock. In time, I’ll go into more technical discussions of the tools I’ve been using lately, but for now, I’ll give you my thoughts leading up to the set:

The Resource Network, the band I followed the night the piece was recorded, ripped through one of the best, most energetic sets of music I had seen in a while. They were tight musically, performed their asses off on a stage that was probably a little higher than they were used to, and reminded me that music can and probably should be one of the single most fun things to do in the world. Seeing and hearing a band like that perform and having to follow it put me into a sort of fighting mood, pushing through thoughts of, “how the hell do you even follow that?” to “I’m going to make these tuning fork notes drop like pretty little bombs.” Right up to the last second, I was unsure how I was going to start the set, and was holding the music box when I started everything up. That first tuning fork note, struck against the brick behind the stage and amplified almost to the point of feedback through the popcorn tin that makes up the music box’s body was probably one of my single favorite musical decisions I managed to make last year. I think the rest went reasonably well, but you can find out yourself below.