Notes on my Soundtrack to Laird Hunt’s The Impossibly
September 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
I began thinking of composing music for The Impossibly with the following question: how does a melody contradict itself? I was originally after the speaker’s syntax which twists the reader, complicating memory through contradiction, erasure and uncertainty. I still have not answered that question. Laird asked me to put together some music for a reading tour, and the more I thought about it, direct melody would be a distraction from someone reading the text over the piece. I began trying to provide a spatial account of uncertainty and memory. In a way, the book itself exists as a deposition of an un-subject captured in text and narrative. I began to think of something more impersonal than melody. I think that’s where I came up with the idea to use a sequence of some sort.
In the middle of an oppressively humid night in an undergraduate dorm on the Cornell campus, drifting in and out of sleep, I had been reading Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes and thinking about an Oulipo tutorial I had taken from Laird as a graduate student. Something about constraint-based writing triggered the thought about using a sequence of notes. Sequences are formal constraints. They freed Schoenberg from traditional harmony. I wondered: what if I make a sequence that is a code for “impossibly.” I only had an acoustic guitar with me, so I got out of bed and simply named the notes on the neck according to letters of the alphabet, beginning with low E (A) and, giving each letter a half-step, ended two octaves above with F (Z). I-M-P-O-S-S-I-B-L-Y = (conveniently beginning on middle C) C-E-G-F#-A#-A#-C-F-D#-E (up one octave).
So, now I had an unconventional scale made up of ten notes with a perfect fourth, raised fourth and a dominant seventh, but also a perfect fifth and a major third. The chromatic density of E-F-F#-G was quite useful and the sequence liberated me from traditional harmony. I then began playing with chord scales built on my “found” scale. You hear this in the arpeggio guitars in track two and the chromatically whirling synthesizer melody and bass line. This section was my first large experiment. I recorded it at home.
Happy with the progress of musical trickery, I began focusing on the feel of the book. The music was feeling dense, overly dense and dark, and I had to remind myself I wasn’t composing music for a Dostoyevsky book, even though he likes idiots too. I wanted to get at the detective / noir elements and the buffoonery of the book. Some of this came out in my choice of synthesizer sounds, obviously inspired a bit by the Angelo Badalamenti / David Lynch / Julie Cruise soundtrack for Twin Peaks. I was also thinking of the cartoon sounds used in John Zorn’s Cobra game piece. I have an old Casio keyboard and began clicking around on it trying to find cheesy sounds and beats to become kind of a character motif. The descending chromatic scale and the “classical wisdom” sequence were built-in functions on the keyboard. I also used a bunch of transistor radio sounds to convey that disturbing Conet Project spy-tech feel.
I took this large section into the studio for mixing help from Colin Bricker, who is my alter ego with these things and way faster than me. I didn’t want it to sound too much like me so I brought in my friend Janet Feder to play prepared guitar and James Han to play piano. I had them play on top of my original recording and then move into a free section. I gave them constraints of the “impossibly sequence” and recorded a number of versions of them where I said, “you can play notes as long or short, soft or loud as you want so long as you play them in this order. In other places I asked them to just improvise from the scale. At one point there was a sequence that spelled “Laird Hunt” too, but I’m unsure if I used much of that in the end. To convey the noir detective feel I brought in the wonderful sax player, Mark Harris, the following day to play on top of Janet, James and myself. I gave him similar instructions but allowed a more liberal approach to the rules. I later removed Janet and James from an improvisation but left Mark and the MIDI sounds from the piano. You hear that in the penultimate track.
I then took all the tracks home and began reshaping them into one larger piece. I had read the novel again while teaching it in a writing class and felt like I wanted more literal references. I was particularly attentive to sound and honed in on buzzing bees, sizzling flesh and pan searing. I had sent Laird roughs that had studio banter and he asked if I could insert a woman’s voice with barely audible words into the background, so I convinced the poet Jennifer Denrow and songwriter Joe Sampson to let me record a conversation of theirs. I cut it up, mostly centering on Jennifer’s voice. I mixed the sections I cut haphazardly onto to separate tracks, spacing one more to the right and one more to the left to obscure content. We did some EQ stuff as well to distort the voices. I think of the beginning section as a prelude to the content of the novel rather than as a narrative, although of course it begins with a stapler.
The one narrative part is the song “O Robin,” which was written by my friend Natalie Winslow and recorded when she was maybe 19, twelve years ago or so. She had put it on a mix CD for me years ago, and I love it. It came to mind when trying to convey the singing woman during the chase scene before the interrogation. I foreshadow the interrogation and burning flesh affair with sizzling sounds at the end of the song over the footsteps that go throughout, but even the music is meant to comment on this rather ridiculously cartoonish chase. This then moves into the more ambiguous improvisations that remain. I wanted to leave a lot of space for Laird to read over, and here is where I really feel like the reader develops more of an ache for the loveable main character. I wanted to convey the not-sure-it-happened and not-sure-I’m-here quality of the latter half of the book.
The final section is a reworked series of melodies from the scale sequence written out similar to Terry Riley’s In C, where musicians move their way through little rhythmic cells at their own pace. You actually hear another version of the piece in the MIDI sounds behind Mark’s solo if you listen closely to the electronic ringing. I used James and Janet’s first read through what I had written out and kept the mistakes because it seemed to fit this character who is not quite all there.