The way I understood it, the LSI wasn't originally tuned in just intonation, but it has been for a long time now. What was the experience of playing the LSI like before that – in what I presume would have been 12 tone equal temperament? In terms of the actual experience of the music, what did the transition to JI change?
In my first iteration of the LSI I used an equal temperament tuner to randomly tune strings. I had the opportunity to make sounds with this installation for a month in 1983 during the Terminal NY show. I knew very little about harmony.
Soon thereafter David Weinstein explained the basics of Just Intonation to me literally on a napkin in a New York diner. We performed an improvisation together with the instrument tuned in Just Intonation in the 1984 New Music America festival. I didn’t compose any works until 1985 for the Echo Festival at Het Apollohuis.
In the early days I didn’t have much of an understanding of what I was hearing, I just knew that it made sense to work with intervals where the waveforms could syncronize into alignments. The instrument might have been tuned in equal temperament for maybe only one month. It was harder to appreciate purity in tuning because the timbre of my instrument was rougher at that time. My earliest composed works were studies on simple just intervals. My understanding of Just Intonation has slowly evolved over decades as I incorporate more extended harmony.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I find talking about structure and listening together and critiquing performances to be productive. Form and detail emerge through the process of repeated playing of a work.
In terms of working with other musicians – such as for example on Harbors, your recent recording with Theresa Wong - has the tuning of the LSI ever been a topic of debate or an issue?
On Harbors I tuned the LSI to the open strings of the cello, and to harmonics that occur on cello strings. I had tuned down to A 432 after reading esoteric information that this frequency is in tune with the resonance of the earth. We kept it that way since Theresa enjoyed the lower cello tone.
My tuning is flexible and I reconfigure the tuning from time to time, based on my musical interests. There is space for about forty strings total on two resonators, but designing the layout can be complicated taking into consideration my reach and hand size. If my tuning were an issue for a musician they probably wouldn’t be interested in collaborating with me anyway. Of course Just Intonation limits what instruments are workable choices. For example, piano is not good unless retuned and keyed reed instruments are very difficult although possible with multiphonics. A musician with great ears can work with Just Intonation intuitively, no matter what they are playing. After all, Just Intonation is natural tuning, based on the physics of vibration.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of Harbors, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
In 2009 both Theresa and I were awarded residencies at the Headlands Center for the Arts in the Marin Headlands, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. This place had a profound effect on us: a very short distance from urban areas, but a million miles away in experience. The park is so quiet, and the sky so dark at night that the Milky Way can be visible, on the rare occasion when there is no fog. The sounds at night are particularly haunting and beautiful: the shrieks of coyotes, barking of sea lions, hooting of great horned owls, along with foghorns and waves crashing at Rodeo Beach. The feeling of experiencing beauty and mystery in an environment was something that we hoped to convey in our collaboration.
We knew that we didn’t want either instrument to play a secondary role, that is, for the cello to seem superfluous, or for the LSI to serve as a backup drone for the cello to solo over. We decided to build the harmonic structure out of the tuning of the open strings of the cello and the extended harmonics from each string. The basis for this concept can be traced to ancient harmonic theory as represented in the Chinese guqin. We were interested in extending the pedagogy of the guqin to more remote partials and to invent new harmonies. We began by mapping out charts and diagrams in order to understand the system and composed with subsets from this large palette.
For the past decade, Theresa had been developing extended techniques for the cello using harmonics, pizzicato, and slow glissando. She applied this vocabulary to our collaboration and in addition, multiplied the cello voice into an ensemble sound through captured loops spatialized through a four-channel system. To counterpoint the pizzicato cello, I designed the “twine puppet” where fishing line is looped around four strings and dragged along, plucking in a random fashion. We each composed separately, using midi samples tuned in Just Intonation. Using midi gave me the opportunity to easily hear the results of my tonality tests before taking up the task of tuning strings on my instrument. The sampled LSI on a midi keyboard made composing for my instrument available to Theresa.
We were looking for not only interesting musical material but combinations that created the effect we call, “bloom”. Bloom can be described in this way: where previously unheard partials can be triggered to sound through sympathetic resonances with an introduction of a new tone into an existing chord, either from another instrument or on the Long String Instrument. It’s as if the instrument has gone into another mode, that it may remain in, even when the triggering tone is no longer playing. Like puffs of wind blowing at a candle flame, the instrument responds fluidly to manipulation and then rights itself into a different alignment of overtone projection. To the listener “bloom” may be difficult to pinpoint, but as a performer I feel it in my fingertips in the already energized strings set in motion. My touch becomes less forceful, more of a coaxing out of what the strings seem to want to do, resulting in a sweeter tone with more depth and complexity.
We had the opportunity to tour Harbors over a four-year period with rewrites along the way. We recorded the work in our home studio from January through February, 2019, continuing to make revisions until we were satisfied with the form.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Ideally the artist has what Agnes Martin called “the untroubled mind”. I enjoy writing in my notebook and have kept an artist’s journal for my entire professional life. This is a place to dream, to design and to help keep me on track with my goals. I feel practicing regularly is important, and doing it early in the day is preferable because it hangs over me until I do it – doing it early gives me a sense of relief. I use a timer set for thirty-minutes at a time. The timer really commits me. After playing I write about my experience or make notes.
My major distraction has been following the alarmingly chaotic news in American politics, but it seems now to be settling down and I am checking news less often. Whenever I worry about how bad things are, I model myself after a statement by Simone de Beauvoir where she said that during the Nazi occupation of Paris she fell into despair and was unsure of continuing to write. She decided to write anyway, just in case things worked out, because she didn't want to look back and to feel she had wasted her time.
I feel distractions are necessary too though. Studio work can be stressful, after all, creation is the process of confronting the unknown and there are many technical problems that arise along the way. Throughout the day I think it is helpful to step back and relax my mind so that I may come back to the work refreshed. I value the physical transformation from doing aerobic exercise daily, either running or biking, and I think it improves my brain chemistry. I feel that eating lots of very fresh vegetables from the farmer’s market improves my ability to concentrate. I am an avid coffee drinker too – inspiration in a cup – I even roast my own beans.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Each of these activities, playing, performing, writing and improvising, informs the other and are intertwined in my process. I compose through playing my instrument and by using midi tuned samples. Using a sampler can take me out of habitual sounds but doesn’t always successfully translate on the real instrument. Notation plays a key role in helping me to define a new work.
As I compose, I notate and revise, inventing new tablature and listening more carefully to define what I hear. My compositions leave room for responses in the moment to variations in timing and dynamics. All of my activities are directed toward composition, my central interest.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
The “sound” itself of my instrument is my composition. I shaped the timbre through instrument design and performance techniques. I am not satisfied to leave it at that, however. My intention is to craft compositional forms that emerge out of the material of the sound itself.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I can address this thought of sound at the outermost borders with my experience in microphone placement. In working with Theresa, who has very sensitive ears and a methodical approach, I have found a beautiful recorded sound this year that I think captures the authentic sound of my instrument better than it has ever been done before.
Theresa had a hunch that omni microphones might sound better for my instrument than the cardioids that I had been using since I began recording, after all, my music is about sound in space. We made many test recordings of the same program, moving microphones around, starting with course differences then zeroing in on an exact location. If I listened with my rational mind, it was difficult to distinguish the differences. I found instead that I needed to listen with my whole body: how did it make me “feel”? I was amazed that we could hear the difference of a few centimeters in width, height and distance on a pair of omni microphones.
Timbre is shaped by microphone placement. We found a location that sounds so natural that I feel for the first time no need for EQ or reverb.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Choosing the life of an artist, to feel compelled to pursue something that is not valued in a consumerist society and to live in (relatively) voluntary poverty is a political statement in and of itself.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I don’t think it is remarkable, music has always been essential to human culture. The fundamental basis of music is in the physics of sound, the harmonic series. Harmony became more abstracted with the development of equal temperament, where pitches “represent” intervals instead of actually being them. This dissonance can have a fatiguing effect. There seems to be more composers interested in natural tuning and I think this will lead to new directions in form.