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.