Rituals Pt. 1

(So for this post, I’m going to begin talking about some routines I’ve picked up and how I experience daily life and how it folds into my mindset and artistic output.)

Morning

So the ritual is this:

I wake up, am usually in one of a few mental states: 1) Well slept and continuing thoughts that were forming as I was closing my eyes the night before. 2) Unrested, emotionally exhausted, unsure of how of which thoughts to listen to. 3) Hungover. Survival mode. Assuming thoughts will come.

Assuming I have woken up on time, I roll out of bed (literally, it’s fun and gives me some mechanical momentum that prevents the dreaded second sleep), pull some clothes out of the closet, walk down the hall and shower. Regardless of how late or early I am, I try to do this quickly, like an athlete before a game.

After the shower, I walk quickly or slowly downstairs, put on a jacket and possibly a heated vest, grab a boiled egg from the fridge, sling my bag on and exit the house at the briskest pace I can manage. I will listen to one of the following: my brother’s podcast, my latest project in progress, some new music, silence.

I begin walking to work, and stop at the first coffee shop on the way. I have been permitted to pour my own espresso. I drop my bag and, depending on the timing, my jacket and step behind the bar. I grind the coffee, start the shot pouring, turn to the register and pay while the shot is filling up. If I have done my job right, I can get everything into the POS system and turn around just in time to stop the pour. I do this partly because it’s fun, and partly to test my motor skills for the day. If everything goes smoothly, I know things are going to be fine the rest of the day. If not, I know I have another mile and a half to figure it out.

If the person working is having a bad day, I will usually leave a tip.

I leave the shop and turn northwest toward the center of town. I drink the espresso within one to three blocks, depending on how cold it is. Within the next mile, I dispose of the cup, and begin the process of peeling the boiled egg on the move without dropping shell everywhere. I’m getting good at it.

Eventually I get to work. The day starts.

Fighting for Self Through Performance: WM V 6

At this point my life feels like a multidimensional struggle to actualize the version of myself that can look at almost any situation and handle it with a relatively low amount of metacognition about the meaning of things I’m doing or their long term implications. In other words, I am striving to be better in most practical respects and, more importantly, to be more present in my daily activities, art, and my relationships with others. For me, being present and getting out of my own head is a constant project that involves forcing myself repeatedly out of my comfort zone, which in turn usually expands the boundaries of said zone, which forces me to adopt greater discipline and venture further, and so on and so forth ad lassitudinem. It’s been a weird, intense way to live life recently, but it does have benefits. In the last nine months, I’ve lost fifty pounds, collaborated with some of my favorite musicians in Indianapolis on a bevy of projects, found new wells of intellectual and emotional growth from revived hobbies and interests, and am currently in the process of buying a house. This recent period of self-work was long-overdue, and at times life feels very much like I’m trying to catch up to myself.

I’ve also ground down any social anonymity in my neighborhood to a fine dust and often find myself paradoxically experiencing both deep loneliness and a strong desire for true solitude in the world. Don’t get me wrong, the community I’ve found myself in, from my roommates and outward into the neighborhood, is something I deeply cherish and count myself lucky to be part of. That doesn’t stop me from fantasizing about the possibilities of remote existence, in a yurt somewhere, perhaps.

For me, performance has become one of the few things that allows me to feel well and truly alone, present, and alive, even though it tends to happen in front of a bunch of people. In fact, it is that very aspect that I think separates performance from rehearsal in the sense that I get a built in buffer against the outside world, as well as a chunk of time that simply doesn’t have room for me to overthink things to death. I’ve made it part of my performance practice to leave almost every decision to the absolute last minute, everything from instrument choice to computer setup happens in the moment as much as possible.

Sunday night I played a concert in Chicago at Century Mallet, which is housed in the old Deagan factory. I brought a sl0ugh of instruments with me and no particular plan. Emotionally, I’ve been riding waves of indecision, cold feet in the face of my impending house purchase, and a general feeling of uneasiness with how much I’ve been asking of myself in all aspects of my life. (Honestly, if I was a more rational, understanding person in regards to myself, all of these areas of self improvement would have happened piecemeal over the course of many years, not all at once, but here I am, working on writing, a passion that laid dormant for the better part of a decade in the wake of the particular hangover that comes with studying philosophy.) In getting ready for the performance, I was struck by the fact that I hadn’t played to an audience in two months, and started to wonder whether or not I had anything left to say musically. (This was a profoundly stupid thought, but I think acknowledging these moments of insecurity is key to showing how I move through the world.)

And this brings us to Battle, Chicago. Aside from the sentiments above, the moments leading up to a performance often feels like preparing for a fight. In this case, having not performed for such a gap, the fight seemed to be to prove to myself that I know what the hell I’m doing. The first few moments of performance were definitely me getting my sea-legs back, but once the the boat was moving, I couldn’t help but to start captaining the damn thing. For me, the performance was a stark reminder of why I love performing at all, and brought about moments of discovery, recontextualization of certain instruments, and a feeling of peace that I can’t really find quite the same way anywhere else these days. The arc and language of the piece is suffused with the intense emotions I’ve been grappling with, and seems to me to be a slow push through areas of sonic discomfort.

The next few posts are going to get a little more granular about the instruments I’m using and a little less diary-adjacent. On this recording, though, is a music box, metal tongue drum, a clock coil box/kalimba, the stupid thing, and my trusty tuning forks.

 

So where did you think you would end up? (WM V 5: Emergent Identity)

Ok, I’m going to keep this one brief! For this volume of Walking Music, I journeyed back to some of my musical roots, and came back to a space that has been a theme in my life as of late, namely continuity of identity. Making a conscious effort to be present in your life and embrace the barrage of change and challenge that comes with reconciling your current life against the life you want to live or, at times, the life you project to others, can be a daunting task. For me, as the weight of others’ expectations of me from youth has lightened, I feel more room to really look at myself and see how things are going from my own standards. Emergent Identity is a direct result of that in a musical sense.

The music below was composed and performed in the realm of the space between my ears, with relatively little expectation or ambition to how it will react in other situations. This is how I used to compose music before I shared it with other people, and is in some senses a report card to my former self. The piece itself follows a loose formula I used to exploit to death: long drone, intermittent events on top. There are several layers of a recording I made with a metal tongue drum as well as some vibraphone and synthesizer. The compositional methods employed involve using the same recording several times, time-stretched to different scales, and a gesture at the end that is simply a fancy way of presenting a slowly ascending scale over a drone, which is one of my favorites.

As for what my former self would have thought about this music, I imagine he would ask me lots of questions, which is a good thing.

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.