Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I’ve heard many composers describe a routine in which they write for a few hours every day, often at a specific time each day. All power to them but that has never worked for me. Whether I’m doing something mundane like yard work or composing, I tend to throw myself completely into it and let the process finish whenever it’s finished… or when I just have to stop. So, when I compose, it’s often all-consuming for weeks or months at a time and I try to clear as much time as I possibly can for it. It’s an exhilarating but intense process, and I’m usually ready for a break to refresh after that.
When I’m not actively composing a piece, though, I do tend to spend a little time most days doing pre-compositional work. This could involve recording an improvisation, tinkering with some gear, making some homemade instrument, or imagining a sound I might like to try to write someday. And, so when it comes time to actually sit down and write a piece, all these little musical activities I’ve been doing usually help me hit the ground running.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
In 2011, I wrote a piece called Clunker Concerto that was a significant step in my career as well as a piece that got me thinking and composing very differently. It’s written for a percussion quartet on junk car parts and orchestra. The American Composers Orchestra in New York had a call for proposals called Playing it UNsafe in which they solicited ideas for pieces that were unfeasible or too risky to be programmed on a normal orchestra concert. One selection ended up being a piece that involved extensive improvisation by Henry Threadgill, another involved the orchestra members spread throughout the hall by Joan La Barbara, and mine featured a percussion quartet (Line C3 Percussion) breaking down a mock “car” over the course of the piece, revealing all sorts of new sounds and instruments in the process.
I’d always been interested in using invented instruments and unorthodox playing techniques in pieces but had never gone very far with it. When, to my surprise, I found out the orchestra was actually going to commission me, I knew that my composing process for this piece would have to be completely different from what I normally do… that was both exciting and scary, especially since it was going to be my Carnegie Hall debut and so I aspired for the piece to not be a complete mess.
My first step was going to New Jersey junkyards armed with percussion mallets and a violin bow and buying anything that seemed to have sonic potential. I then set up all of the junk in my apartment (rims, hubcaps, exhaust pipes, brake rotors, coil springs, and the pièce de résistance, a 1992 Toyota Corolla fender) and spent several weeks hitting and bowing them in every conceivable way to make a palette of all the possible sounds they could produce. Only after I did that did I actually start coming up with musical ideas for the orchestra.
Writing this piece really got me thinking about how fuzzy the boundaries between timbre and harmony can be. It also showed me that starting a piece with an oddball and restrictive compositional premise can help me come up with ideas I would never come up with otherwise, and this kind of approach has come up in many of my subsequent works. For example, in the third track of Before and After, “Spread,” I ask Mark, the guitarist, to play with a metal dowel between the strings and the fretboard, which produces all sorts of strange-sounding slides and chords that no one could ever grab with their hand. Though that idea just came out of me messing around on my guitar looking for new sounds, it ended up becoming a big portion of that piece, and one that ended up defining the harmonies, rhythms, and textures I wrote for the rest of the ensemble.
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?
I find it helpful to trick myself into getting started on a composition. Many composers talk about the “tyranny of the blank page” and that’s certainly a real thing if you begin to fret about your first bar having to be good enough to justify writing a second. I try to avoid that headspace by getting myself into writing with an activity that’s fun, open-ended, and low stakes. Usually, this involves improvising at an instrument, whether it’s one I play (like piano) or one I don’t really play, like violin or saxophone. Sometimes, the instruments I’m playing are also the instruments I’m writing for, but other times not… I’ve definitely come up with ideas for an orchestra piece while playing on an effects-laden electric guitar. I might mess with the instrument (say, change its tuning or put some preparations on it that affect its behavior). And then, I’ll improvise in a certain direction, not very critically, and let my phone record it all.
As a first step, that initial act is enough to make me feel I’ve done something useful, and I usually end up feeling that I’ve generated something worth exploring further. At that point, once I’m excited about an idea, I can get much more detailed and critical in my thinking about it as I work to flesh out all the possible paths it could take and which one seems best for what I want the piece to be. But even when I’m deep into composing a piece, I try to keep the lines of communication open between my intellectual and intuitive sides, between planning a piece like an architect and rooting around like a dog on a scent.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I love that music can do all these things. I find that almost anything that’s expressed clearly and with intention has the capacity to transform the listener in a positive way, even if it’s the expression of something dark. When I listen to music, I get most turned on when I feel like I’m hearing a new perspective, expressed genuinely and articulately. If it’s something that makes me feel exalted, or something that makes me feel that existence is heartbreakingly hollow… well, I’d count either as an experience I was glad to have. Put simply, to find that an artist was able to capture any emotion that I have felt deeply gives me a profound sense of connectedness and validation. The only music that makes me suffer is the stuff that feels disingenuous and manipulative.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
One of the problematic aspects of distinguishing between respectful cultural exchange and appropriation is that it seems to be asking us to interrogate an artist’s intentions. This is notoriously tricky – some artists don’t describe why they do things, others are provocateurs, others lie, and many just don’t know. But more importantly, I don’t think it’s particularly valuable to know what an artist says about their own work. It’s up to the audience to decide what meaning and expression they find in it.
Robust cultural exchange is necessary for the vitality and development of most musical languages. While there are certain genres that have achieved great heights in a cloistered environment (say, gagaku), most genres stay alive through constant intermingling with others. Red flags are always raised for me when I hear music in which I feel the artist desires the cultural signifiers of another kind of music and not much else – that referencing the “other” offers them some kind of hip factor, credibility, social relevance, or authority they’re otherwise lacking. In music like that, it seems that the major expressive goal is nothing more than for the listener to recognize the reference. This, to me, is appropriative and shallow: it transforms the thing being borrowed from a complex and ever-evolving combination of musical, cultural, and economic influences into a caricaturish gesture without nuance or context. I find that the more fluent musicians are in other musical cultures, the less they tend to wear the signifiers of those cultures on their musical sleeves.
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?
Perhaps the most common kind of this synesthesia are associations between musical tones and color. I’d be interested in experiencing that but that doesn’t seem to be how my brain works. For me, I do have sensations of texture and types of physical motion when I’m listening to or writing music. I always take it as a good sign when music is doing that to me, as it suggests it’s accessing something that my brain can make sense of on multiple levels.
In our day to day lives, we’re constantly engaging all of our senses to give us as complete a picture of the environment as we’re able… we may only be actively paying attention to one sense at a time, but we’re using all of them. It’s only in these rarified arenas, like in the experience of art, in which we tell ourselves that we really should only be using one sense. All of this is a reminder that our brain is always trying to make sense of the stimuli it’s presented with; the information it gives us is never the “real” thing that exists in nature, but is rather an interpretation through our limited sensory capacities.
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?
We’re all inescapably a product of our time, and so in more or less direct ways, what’s happening in our personal and collective lives will affect our writing. As a composer, I think of music as perhaps the most powerful form of communication but also the least specific. That is, many kinds of semantic meaning are far better suited to being clearly expressed through language than through music. For that reason, I look at music as being very useful for directing our attention, our emotions, toward certain things without being prescriptive about what exactly the listener ought to think or do about them. It can be a catalyst for change but one that requires interpretation and thought on the part of the listener.
For example, Before and After is an album that ruminates on the rise and fall of civilizations and issues associated with that: growth and progress run amok, our nostalgia for halcyon days, our idealized notions about the beginnings of civilization, and the ominous feeling that humans may have crossed some threshold we really shouldn’t have. Though I have many associations with the music I’ve written, even I find that its meaning can be multifaceted and even conflicting for me. I’m sure that where some listeners will hear parts of the music as optimistic and heartfelt, others will hear it as an expression of futility and melancholy – I love that music can exist in this kind of state where it’s expressing one or the other, or both at the same time, and I wouldn’t want to take that experience away from a listener.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
We all sometimes struggle to understand and communicate what we feel in words. I think it’s also common to have a bias toward feeling that things aren’t concrete until they’re described in language, even though that’s often not possible or helpful. Music requires you to let go of that notion. It has an ability to bypass language to an even more direct, nuanced, and visceral kind of communication. I think that directness has something to do with its pre-lingual quality – even though music can be sophisticated and even overwrought in its construction, it can also cut directly through all higher level thinking and penetrate the psyche in a primitive and profound way. Music has the uncanny ability to make us feel we’re being reminded of some primordial, existential thought that’s been with us all along. In that sense, it can help us access our feelings about these overwhelmingly cosmic topics like life and death without sullying them with the inevitable inadequacies of language. The specificity of language, which makes it so useful for communicating so much, is also what makes it feel inadequate when trying to describe the most awe-inspiring things. But if I were a poet, I might feel differently.