>Notes On the "Soothing Sounds" Typing Composition at the Belmar Lab
January 10, 2007 § Leave a comment
>In July of 2006, the Belmar Laboratory of Art and Ideas (belmarlab.org) commissioned me to write a large piece of music using electric typewriters for its grand opening celebration. The aim of the piece was to recontextualize the once familiar sound of the typewriter. In my discussions with Adam Lerner, founder of the Belmar Lab and mentor during my writing process, we talked about the nature of typing as a lost art. He said, “When we type now, using computers and word processors, we edit as we type.” Typists of the past share many of the same responsibilities as performing musicians. So-called real time holds them to a certain kind of accountability of engagement. Mistakes, for better or worse, are part of that moment. Indeed, sometimes the unintentional acts crystallize into enlightening meaning upon reflection.
But while in a certain sense, this engaged time is part of our cultural performance rubric, especially in improvised music (as well as meditation), we also know that our minds don’t necessarily follow one set meter. In fact, much twentieth-century music deals with more ambiguous parts of being, both in formal and tonal ambiguity. For example, Charles Ives pioneers simultaneity, or the superimposing of formal structures on one another. Indeterminacy deals with the collision of intentions and chance – the way that chance imposes facticity. And of course, avant-garde jazz explores an intensified engagement in self-presentation and accountability by removing form and relating directly to the creative process.
It is possible to thematize much recent music, popular or unpopular, as the recognition of the problem of otherness. The ethics of pluralism can be found in the poly-rhythms of current dance and hip-hop accompanied with the demand for multicultural inclusiveness. We criticize the way we fetishize otherness, we relish in the exotic until it becomes familiar, then search for more. Think of Paul Simon’s Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints – two beautiful albums that are unfashionable now. It takes either a post-critical or a naïve approach to enjoy them. The metaphysical nature of the material has disappeared as it has become familiar.
Otherness cannot be reduced to a subject-object split. It is not mental gymnastics alone that determines our presence in the world. Our comportment is beyond consciousness. However, there is something to be said about the locale of our point of view. And, for me, consciousness is not a bad thing. It is a way of being, a mode. It gives rise to the notion of ethical conduct, even if ethics, as Emmanuel Levinas would say, precedes conscious awareness of self.
I find the similarity between social progress and spiritual progress fascinating. I see it in the life and work of John Coltrane. Progress seems part of consciousness, and even if consciousness is not all – the finality of death escapes me – progress is part of judgment, part of consciousness. And beauty arises in that space.
Beauty may exist like language, outside me. But I recognize it; I enjoy it privately. It exists partly in the way I filter the world. And when I seek to produce as an artist, I contemplate my previous experiences with the beauty I love. That’s why my typewriter piece naturally contains a lot of historical content beyond the machines themselves.
My typing project is, in a sense, a gathering of expressive techniques. It is not as experimental in content as it is in its presentation. It is an attempt to synthesize compositional techniques within one work. Therefore, it’s made up of classically notated sections interspersed with free improvisation. Sometimes musicians improvise over forms, as with the waltz section. The typists work as individuals and as a collected texture. The texture they produce is super-imposed on the musicians’ musical structures.
A select group of typists are a percussion section. They combine two separate ideas I first saw in the work of Anthony Braxton and Terry Riley. Braxton uses “rhythm tracks,” which are short, composed figures that can be used in different pieces. They are aspects of Braxton’s musical vocabulary, and they are used in different places for different effects, just as we use the same words to convey different thoughts. Terry Riley’s famous composition “In C” is also made up small cells containing melodic figures with specific rhythms. As musicians move through these figures at their own pace, the figures work against each other in unique ways while creating a tonal texture based on the key of C. I blended the two ideas by giving each percussionist a set of ten different rhythms and asking them to play them against each other at their own pace until they had played all of them. Unlike Riley’s piece, the typists do not have to move through the rhythms sequentially, they can play through them in any order they wish.
I employ Anthony Braxton’s recycled track method with the use of cue cards, an idea I took from John Zorn’s Cobra. If the conductor wants to present a specific rhythm, he or she can cue all of the percussionists to the assigned rhythm by holding up the card and giving them a downbeat.
Zorn’s use of cards is particularly appealing to me in the communication potential it provides between the conductor and the musician. The conductor still conducts, but he or she is able to react to musicians who are improvising and direct collected efforts toward different musical spaces. The cards also work as a sort of secular communication device for many of the typists, who are non-musicians either typing thoughts from the top of their heads or re-typing books on tape. (I particularly enjoyed reading the thoughts of the typists who composed their own thoughts during the piece.)
As recent composed music has engaged with the ethical nature of using other bodies as a vehicle for personal expression, much music of the past sixty years has tried to give the performers more say by allowing them to improvise. The composition in this way becomes less “totalitarian.” But the question of intellectual property comes into question. Whose piece is this anyway? If it’s improvised, surely the performers also own it. Is the composer lazy? A charlatan? Insecure? Is it just a matter of individual style? In that case wouldn’t the composition die with the composer?
These questions, thought provoking or inane, are in the current air. I do, however, believe that my composition belongs to my performers as well as to my audience. To publish is to relinquish something, to be exposed. As a space devoted to the meeting of public, artistic, and scholarly, I believe The Laboratory of Art and Ideas was the perfect place to premiere a composition like mine. I am extremely grateful for the invitation to explore my ideas in that space. And I am grateful to all performers, sound technicians, and audiences past and present for participating in the existence of my music.
Roger K. Green