A Conversation with ASN by William Ford (aka Atlanta Music Critic), October 2014
This conversation has been posted on William's YouTube page for some time, but I took it upon myself to transcribe it and make it available in text form. It can be more convenient than listening for half an hour. William had edited out some of his own questions in the video, which leads to some slightly awkward transitions. I've added a possible question that was asked in those instances (in [brackets], like my other edits). I've edited my speech to clean up filler words and clarify some statements. I hope whoever stumbles upon this finds it interesting and useful.
DESCRIBE TERMINUS ENSEMBLE
I co-founded [Terminus] two years ago with Brent Milam and Sarah Hersh, two other [Atlanta] composers. Our mission is to promote music by local composers. We're starting our fourth season next week. We'll be playing pieces by Laurence Sherr, who teaches at Kennesaw State; Nick Demos, who teaches at Georgia State; Connor Way, who just graduated from Georgia State; Jason Freeman from Georgia Tech; a piece by Nicole Chamberlain, who is also our flute player; a piece by me; and a piece by Zack Browning, who is originally from Georgia and now lives in Illinois.
Some of these pieces we've played before. We decided that we want to be a group that plays pieces the composers have heard before. So we're not necessarily looking for premieres. We're not opposed to premieres, but we're trying to help get more music out there. So that's why we're focusing on local composers.
We recently did a call for scores for composers from the surrounding states of Georgia, so we're going to have a more regional focus soon.
Our next concert's going to be October 17  at the Florence Kopleff Recital Hall at Georgia State. It's a fee concert and it starts at 8 o'clock.
HOW MUCH DOES A TICKET COST?
The concert is free, because we want to encourage as many people to come out as possible. We are trying to grow interest in contemporary music in general, but also [in] the art of people in Atlanta.
We have not settled on a date for our spring concert yet, but it will probably be sometime in April. We've sort of settled on a late October/November and late April/early May timeframe for our concerts.
HOW LARGE ARE YOUR AUDIENCES?
It's gone back and forth. We've had around 50 sometimes and more like 15 or 20 sometimes, depending. There was one performance where it was storming and Obama was in town, so that one was really lightly attended. We're trying to get better about advertising and posting in more places so more people know about it. We have found people say "I didn't even know it was happening." As much as you do, it's never quite enough to let everyone know.
HOW DO YOU CHOOSE PIECES OR COMPOSERS TO PLAY?
So far we have solicited pieces from people we knew. We liked their music and we wanted to see what would fit with our instrumentation. Often times the actual selections from whatever they gave us came down to practical reasons -- [for example] one player could only commit to doing a certain number of pieces, so we said "ok, let's do this trio, this duo, and this quartet."
For our next concert, we have [selections from] our call for scores for regional composers. Every composer was allowed to submit 2 pieces. So we had 56 composers, most of whom submitted 2. So almost 100 pieces there.
Brent, Sarah, and I sat down at Brent's house 3 weeks in a row and listened to a lot of music, [then] said "yes, let's pass this on to the next round" or not. Now we're each listening individually, a little more thoroughly, to the 30 we whittled it down to, to figure out what are the pieces we're going to program, and what are some we might save for another day.
We asked them to send a score and a recording, if available. Even MIDI was ok. Obviously no one prefers to listen to MIDI mockups, but if that's all they had, then that's ok. We wanted to see what was out there, because we found a lot great composers we had not heard of. I know a lot of people in the region, but [we kept saying] "that piece was great! where does she live?"
We specified in the call for scores that we will select a few pieces and play them in the spring. We may reserve some for future performances. We would love it if they could come, but we're a shoestring operation. We'll put on a concert, and if they can come down from Charlotte or Birmingham or wherever, that's great.
HAVE YOU PARTICIPATED IN SUCH A CALL FOR SCORES YOURSELF?
As a composer, I'm sending music out to these kinds of calls all the time. You send your best piece and hope they like it. I'm sure every group was inundated like we were. We even narrowed it down to a few states. Some people have national or international calls, and it can get overwhelming. It was a lot for us to sit down and -- we had to be ruthless, frankly -- and say "nope, didn't grab me. Let's look a little further. Yeah, looks about the same. Next!"
We generally started with looking at the score. Not looking for style at all, just looking for "does this look competent?" And if we saw some really egregious mistakes, we would immediately be skeptical. But we would still listen to a little bit of everything. And sometimes, some of those pieces [we'd say] "well, it actually sounded pretty cool" [and] we would pass it on to the next round. But it usually went hand-in-hand that if the score looked really professional, then the piece was really good.
WHY DOES TERMINUS HAVE THREE ARTISTIC DIRECTORS?
Well, that's so we can spread the duties, for one. Part of the history of it: Brent and I did our Master's together at Georgia State, and we had wanted to work on some kind of project for years. But I lived in Ireland, and New York, and when I moved down to Florida I thought, well, I'm 5 hours away, it's close enough that we can do something. At least if it's only twice a year, like we've been doing.
I met Sarah -- she had just finished her Master's at Florida, but she hung around my first year because her husband was finishing his law degree. He got a job up here, and she got a job up here, and we were kind of talking and I said "I want to get you hooked into the new music scene." And through all three of our conversations, we said "maybe we should start a new ensemble that does local music -- that hasn't really been done." And I had a lot of other performer friends -- many from Georgia State or we knew each other through other people. We found the standard "Pierrot Ensemble" instrumentation. And everyone was interested in playing, so we started planning things.
DESCRIBE YOUR BACKGROUND
I am originally from Atlanta -- one of the proud, few natives. I went to Georgia State University, did my Bachelor's in music technology, then I went back and did a Master's in music composition. Following that I did a Master's in Sonic Arts at Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland. Then I had 2 years of being a starving artist in New York City before I began my PhD at the University of Florida, which I just finished this spring. My PhD was in music composition, and I did a cognate area in media studies.
WHAT'S A MODERN COURSE IN COMPOSITION LIKE?
A course in composition is usually private lessons with a "senior" composer. So generally today, you'll bring in your music and the composer will comment on what could be improved, what music you should listen to that your music resembles (that might help you figure out how to [improve] things). Composition courses are sometimes more of a seminar, where there might be a topic on a certain aspect of history. I took one on postmodernism, for example -- thinking about the idea of pastiche in music and doing some pieces using existing material -- which is not something I usually do. So sometimes there are actual courses [intended] to stretch you a little bit.
SORT OF SOUNDS LIKE SAMPLING
Well, one piece I did for that course used sampling. I think I used about 30 different pieces -- some were classical, some were pop, some were jazz. I was trying to make it as eclectic as possible, but I also looked at what keys the pieces were in and tried to structure it in sort of a sonata form. So it starts in D minor, then moves to A and some other areas, before moving back to D Major.
WHICH COMPOSERS HAVE YOU WORKED WITH?
At Georgia State I primarily studied with Robert Scott Thompson, but I also worked a little bit with Nick Demos. On the side I studied a little bit with John Anthony Lennon, who teaches at Emory. At Queen's University Belfast, my advisor was Pedro Rebelo, and at the University of Florida I worked with all three faculty [members]. James Paul Sain was my advisor, Paul Koonce was also on my dissertation committee, and I also studied with Paul Richards.
[WHAT IS A COMPOSITION DISSERTATION LIKE?]
My dissertation was partially a theoretical document and partially a composition. The composition was a piece called "Keys" for piano, percussion, and electronics. Both players also doubled on other instruments, like toy piano and typewriter. So everything I could think of that used keys went into that piece.
The theoretical document is called "Buy, Build Break: Composers and Objects." This is looking specifically at practices in experimental music that are centered around a particular object. So, the idea that you want to write a piece about toy piano. Or maybe you want to write a piece where you need to build an instrument first, before you can make that piece. The "breaking" part is the idea of modifying an existing instrument. For instance, I'm interested in "circuit bending," in which you take an existing electronic toy and short-circuit it on purpose to make interesting glitches, change the pitch, and things like that. So I'm trying to see how object influence how we make music.
GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF AN ELECTRONIC CIRCUIT THAT YOU MODIFIED
One of these circuit-bent instruments is a "Speak & Read" -- this came from the Speak & Spell line by Texas Instruments in the 1980s. These have great electronic voice synthesis. Older toys like those have a lot of exposed circuits inside. Newer toys are all based on microcomputers, so there's not as much you can do. But these older toys from the 80s, you have a lot of points you can put together that will do something unexpected. There's been a lot of documentation; these are very popular toys to use. So you know that you can put these points together and add a resistor and drop the pitch, for example. They give you a lot more flexibility to perform with. I do a lot of free improvisation and it's a lot of fun to play with a toy like that. I have some other toys that I've jimmied that maybe I can make do two different things. So they might be fun if I have 10 different toys around, but they're not as effective as instruments in themselves.
[HOW DO YOU BEGIN A COMPOSITION?]
I often think about the instruments I'm going to use. This goes along the lines of my dissertation research, actually. I'm very interested in showing the inner life of an object. An object could be a particular ensemble, or it could be a particular instrument. So I think about what those instruments do well, what interesting techniques they might do, and I usually try to pick two or three of those to focus on. It might be the harmonic series, or whatever its lowest note is, or a certain way of producing harmonics, or something like that. And I try to center the piece around that. And then it kind of grows organically. Sometimes I will think of a structure ahead of time, I'll use random number generators to figure out when things will happen, and then hone it from there. Each piece sort of works differently. I put them together differently, anyway.
DO YOU COMPOSE FOR TRADITIONAL ORCHESTRAL INSTRUMENTS ALSO?
I am actually, right now, working on my first-ever orchestra piece. So yes, I do that sometimes. And while I have talked about these weird electronic instruments, on the next Terminus concert we're doing a quintet -- which is flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano -- that I just finished this summer. So yes, I do write for traditional instruments as well.
DO YOU USE CHANCE IN YOUR COMPOSITIONS?
I do use chance to figure out things while I'm making a piece. And I have written some very "free" pieces at some points. But it's hard to say. I think there's a continuum of chance. You might do something like me, where you use it a little bit to get [yourself] started or sometimes you might use it to make a whole piece. I'm interested in both. But I'm usually on that end of the scale -- use it some but not exclusively.
Every piece has some indeterminacy in it. Cage wrote about that in Silence. He said "even Art of Fugue by Bach doesn't specify any instrument or dynamics, so there's actually a lot of indeterminacy in it." I think that's beautiful. And that's why I leave a lot [open] for performers to interpret. I like to have a little dialogue with them as we rehearse a piece to see if, maybe, it would be better this way than what I originally thought. A lot of times it is.
Yes, this piece is scored in the traditional way. They'll play the same pitches each time, but the tempo and dynamics and all that might vary a bit -- and I think that's interesting because it gives [the piece] a little more life.
WHAT INSTRUMENTS DO YOU PLAY?
I played piano for a long time. I feel very rusty right now, but I'm actually playing [Andriessen's] "Workers Union" with Chamber Cartel at the end of the month -- playing keyboards. I play a lot of "found objects" and these toys we talked about. I used to play trombone, also. Maybe I [gravitated] to these weird instruments because no one knows what it's like to be an expert on those, so I can become an "expert," with different criteria than playing piano. [A sensibility stolen from Mark Applebaum]
WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO IN ADDITION TO COMPOSING?
[I think the question was more along the lines of "where do you see yourself headed?]
I like teaching also, very much. I like having the freedom to do experimental music. I don't really want to go into commercial music; working for Turner or something might be fun, but I don't think it's really "me." I would like to [continue the academic] route, but I'm also interested in Arts Administration, such as what I'm doing with Terminus. So that's another avenue I might be exploring as well.
[WHY NOT COMMERCIAL MUSIC?]
I was just never that interested in film scoring. A lot of people are, and it's great if you want to do that. I just know I'm more of an experimentalist-scholar type. So academia seems a better fit for me. But like I mentioned, Arts Administration is also attractive, because I'm running this ensemble, [and] I'm also Production Manager for the Charlotte New Music Festival in North Carolina.
[TELL ME MORE ABOUT THIS FESTIVAL]
The Charlotte New Music Festival is a 2-week festival up in Charlotte, NC. It takes place the 2nd half of June every year. It's a chance for student composers (mainly) to come together, share their work with each other, and have lessons and seminars with guest composers, and get a piece played by a professional ensemble.
Last year we brought down Iktus Percussion and loadbang from New York City. This year we're bringing in Great Noise Ensemble from Washington DC, as well as Freya String Quartet from Pittsburgh [Freya disbanded and Beo, also with first violin Jason Neukom, came instead]. And loadbang is coming back again. So every student composer will be commissioned to write a piece for one of those ensembles, rehearse it with the ensemble and hear it at the festival, as well as getting some lessons and seminars.
[WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON] MINIMALISM?
Minimalism is something I was into, then didn't listen to much of for awhile, and now I've come back to it. I would consider my music somewhat minimalist, but in a different way from "the big 4" -- it's not really based on pulses [neither is LaMonte Young's work, but you catch my drift]. I'm more interested in keeping static harmonies, but maybe not having the regular pulsation. More of the idea of "not much happens." More of what visual minimal art is like -- "this piece is about a thing" instead of "this piece is about a cell that slowly changes to something else."
SOME SAY THERE IS NOT MUCH "EMOTION" IN MINIMALISM, E.G. PHILIP GLASS. YOUR REACTION?
A lot of people do find "emotion" in his music. [Perhaps more so with] John Adams, since he's gone the more neo-Romantic route. A lot of the early minimalism is very strict and abstract -- and since some of it is four hours long, I can understand why some people might say "I gotta sit through that? I don't get it after the first minute, therefore it's unemotional!" People have these reactions and need to label it as something. So it's cold or intellectual or something -- that's their label for it now.
I like what you were saying, with minimalism, how you can drift away from it and come back, and then you might notice "oh that is a little different than it was before." I try to do that with my music, too. I want to create an environment where you can sit there and ponder these ideas with me, but if you're not following note-to-note, then that can be ok.
I'm influenced by ambient music, like Brian Eno, as well. The whole idea behind [ambient music] is it can be in the background, or you can listen to it intently, and either way is fine. It should be "as ignorable as it is interesting" is what [Eno] said.
He wants to make it interesting if you do want to pay attention to it. It should also be interesting. So it's not just one drone playing the whole time. There are repeated patterns and things like that, too. It just might take a longer time to develop than, [say], a piece of dance music.
I listen to that kind of thing a lot when I'm working. Even sometimes when I'm composing, just because I want to have something happening in the background. Not when I'm trying to figure out ideas. But when I'm copying over passages and I need to do that for 2 hours, I like to put on some kind of ambient recording.
WHO ELSE DO YOU LISTEN TO?
Recently I've been really interested in Taylor Deupree, who runs this label called 12K. His music, it can be a little noisier [than Eno] sometimes. So he has some very "pretty" elements but also some static and drone type things. There's an associated label called LINE, which is run by Richard Chartier, and he does very minimal [music]. There will be long stretches of silence and these little pops will come in. I like that too.
I wouldn't want to make a steady diet of any particular kind of music. But if I want to have an intellectual challenge and really be "in the music," I would listen to something modernist. But for times when I'm working, I might want to have some ambient music, so I can listen to it a little bit, [then] come back to what I'm doing.
IS EMOTION INHERENT IN MUSIC OR IS IT THERE BY ASSOCIATION?
Oh, my take is very much "it's there by association." We are conditioned through film and [other media] that certain sounds [represent] "terror" or "love" or whatever. I write very abstract music, and if people think it sounds sad, I'm ok with that, but I didn't go into it thinking "I'm going to write a sad piece."
Suspensions, for example. They always sound a little wistful or sad -- we did find at some point that [suspensions were] effective for making people feel that. So maybe there's something inherent there. But it seems like now, at the stage we're in, we know how to capture those [emotions] by doing these particular effects. So it seems to come back to that association idea. You want to write a sad piece? Put it in a minor key and add a lot of suspensions!
I think about more modal music, like eastern European music or Jewish music -- a lot of it is sort of "minor key" but it's played at parties and it can sound happy. So I think untrained people would think "it was a peppy song, so it must be Major." Well, technically, no. There are so many elements besides pitches: tempo, texture, timbre... All of that feeds into [our perception]. If you have an acoustic guitar arpeggiating slowly, that can sound fairly plaintive, no matter the key. And if you have a heavily distorted guitar, that's probably angry to most people.
One example I like to play for my students is My Bloody Valentine. It's an early '90s band and they had very distorted guitars, but it ends up sounding kind of beautiful because it's these big washes of sound. I always feel like it's a nice blanket of sound, even though it's heavily distorted. So again, it's all in the association, culturally, and within the music itself. So you can have these slow-tempo, Major-key things and it might sound somber. Or fast minor-key things might sound happy and peppy.
I've actually thought about it a lot, because I think a lot of my music will probably come off as "sad," and maybe that's in the back of my mind. But I really am trying to focus on the instruments. And what can be more concrete (and abstract) than "this piece is about horn and vibraphone." I will give titles to [provide] some kind of metaphor to think about that might allude to something [emotional]. Like, the piece I just mentioned, for horn and vibraphone, is called "Tearmunn," which is a Gaelic word that means "sanctuary." So someone might hear that and think "oh, this is a peaceful, meditative type of piece." Yeah, I did go for that "vibe" but I'm not trying to make you feel solemn.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO SAY THAT NEW MUSIC IS EMOTIONLESS?
My personal feeling on music -- emotions are associative. I don't see why we can't associate emotions with new music. I think a lot of contemporary composers are probably still thinking in that kind of Romantic "I want to convey an emotion" way. I might not be, myself. So I think it just comes down to unfamiliarity with techniques.
You really have to take each piece on its own terms. People aren't used to that. They like that Mozart's so predictable. They like that -- even if they're not literally counting -- they can feel the beats until a cadence happens or until a section ends. Contemporary music subverts that almost all the time. And maybe since it's so weird that means it's "cerebral" and "unemotional" to people. Because you have to think about it. But you can also let some of it wash over you and intuitively feel it.