WIP: Nostalgia Instrumentation

I've been thinking this week about the instrumentation for this work on nostalgia. When the idea first presented itself to me I'd thought of writing for a string ensemble. Probably as I was working on a string quartet at the time. I'm still attracted to the idea of using traditional strings, but I wonder if an ensemble consisting of more iconic instruments from the various musical movements from which I'll be drawing my source material.

I also wonder if, should I choose to use the guitar in the ensemble, if I should consider myself as the person to perform in the ensemble. The composer as member of the performing ensemble is pretty well established at this point in Western concert music, but I question whether or not I would be able to bring sufficient energy as a performer, conductor and composer. Much less art director, promoter, publicist, etc....

Right now, I'm mulling over the use of a live percussionist verses someone using a sampler or laptop (laptopist, samplist, ??). I love the modern drum kit, but I don't want the work to be perceived as pop or rock music. It will certainly have elements of both, but I'm not interested in contributing to the garbage heap of either genre, and certainly not interested in more "arty" forms of either. That perception may be unavoidable if there's a drum kit and a guitar.

I watched this interview with John Zorn last night. I've always found his focus on working in a community to be interesting. At one point he talks about a piece he'd written that wound up being orchestrated and performed in numerous ways before he found what he considered the proper instrumental combination. I wonder if I shouldn't just start writing and wait to see who actually wants to participate in the work. This could prove an interesting approach.


WIP: Work update

This is just a quick entry, mostly for my benefit, to keep my momentum going. Starting this blog has certainly helped me focus my ideas for this work. I gave myself a goal of writing here at least once a week. It's amazing how a simple task like that reap such great rewards.

So on to the work... I think that the ideas about performing in geographically diverse areas is one that should be put on the back burner. If this idea comes to fruition and my interest doesn't wane, I may revisit the idea. I also think that using visuals may prove to be more distracting from the intent of the piece, as my focus is on exploring and (hopefully) eliciting nostalgic responses through music. However, I'm becoming more comfortable with the idea of using sampling and other technologies.

I was speaking with a friend about this project and he brought up an interesting potential for the piece. He thinks that this has the potential to prove, in some ways, how separate we all are from each other. We were talking about how unique the American culture of the past fifty years has been. For the first time, perhaps, we have people from completely different generations, locations and cultures that have consumed the same art and entertainment. My example being the fact that my parents' generation grew up with the Beatles and their music often elicits strong nostalgic responses. And just as that music was a soundtrack for their lives, so it has been for the succeeding generations. So, it's possible that members of both generations could have nostalgic responses to the same music. Now, this was possible before, but not to the same degree.

Audio and visual recording technologies have made this possible. Now a musical piece is no longer confined to the span of its initial performance and those witnesses. However, what I find truly interesting is that subsequent generations can experience the same events almost as if they were happening now. For instance, my mother saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. So did I, in reruns and documentaries. To my mother, the Beatles were a group of young men from England that played rock 'n' roll music. And they were to me as well. When I was a child, without the benefit of television and film, rock 'n' roll would have been my parents music and the music being created by my peers would necessarily be labeled something else (and quite possibly sounded completely different). I wouldn't want anything to do with rock 'n' roll as that would be 'old people' music. So, in some ways, my relationship to the Beatles is much the same as my mothers.

I find this interesting, also, in light of the essay on music as 'Time Travel' which I wrote about previously.

P.S. - My mother didn't really like the Beatles, so our relationships to the Beatles are fundamentally different. But I think you get the point.


WIP: Nostalgia Ideas, part deux

have we had to invent Eden, to live submerged in the nostalgia of a
lost paradise, to make up utopias, propose a future for ourselves?
-Julio Cortazar

  • Performance in a public space. Musicians could be stationed at specific locations or, if able, could be in motion. Their route could be personally chosen, plotted or determined by a set of rules (e.g. turn 90-degrees to your left when a dog crosses your path). This could also be done in a private space, but a certain amount of randomness is lost in a controlled environment.
  • Work is divided into N parts. Each part is performed in a different location. This could be adapted to small spaces (e.g. the hallway, the bathroom, the stage) or to almost any larger scale, although in different cities/states/countries could prove extremely difficult to stage (or experience in totality by any one person).
  • Video or stills projection of locations with great cultural importance (e.g. Berlin Wall, Ground Zero, Kent State, Perl Harbor, etc.) could be either viewed on a screen on stage or in various locations in the performance space.
  • Use of amplification and signal processing could be used to affect the perception of location (e.g. reverb to create a sense of distance, monitors located about the performance space).
Experience and Identity Narrative
  • Setting could recreate a "common" event for which people are nostalgic (e.g. Thanksgiving dinner, a birthday party).
  • Audience participation: a set of cues could be devised from common actions (e.g. someone coughs, turns to their left, etc.).
  • Audience members could be queried for songs that evoke nostalgia. Performers could then improvise renditions or play in the styles of.
  • A game of "Memory" could be devised as part of the piece a la Zorn's game pieces

WIP: Location and Nostalgia

It is a curious emotion, this certain homesickness I have in mind. With
Americans, it is a national trait, as native to us as the
roller-coaster or the jukebox. It is no simple longing for the home
town or country of our birth. The emotion is Janus-faced: we are torn
between a nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and
strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have
never known. 
-Carson McCullers

I wrote a little (probably too much) about the hyperreality in which we live today in my last post. As I'm dissecting my own idea of nostalgia into manageable parts (memory, identity, triggers), I began to think more about location and its relation to things nostalgic and musical. I mentioned iPods and the origins of the string quartet, and begun thinking about how location affected musical experience. If you wanted to hear more viola, you had to move closer to the viola. The invention of recorded sound and amplification both altered this relationship fundamentally. No longer do we have to attend a concert in order to experience music, nor do we have to be particularly concerned with where the best seats are in the performance venue. Now the best seat in the house is our own recliner or whatever seat we take on the bus. In fact, location is almost superfluous to musical experience. Much of the music we hear that is written today is composed by a person at a computer, alone in a studio with headphones on. It's experienced in a film, a television ad, at the mall or through earbuds while jogging on a treadmill.

But how does location relate to nostalgia? I know from my own experiences that my feelings of nostalgia are often tied to a location, specific or general.
I recall fondly my experiences living in the South in spite of the fact that those were some of the most painful and tumultuous years of my life. Or The Dorothy Heralds' rehearsal room in Beeftone studios, Angie Plant's kitchen in Minneapolis, my apartment in Evanston. Each location represents a different time that evokes feelings of nostalgia for me. Of course, experience is tied to location and nostalgia a function of experience. So, if location is no longer inexorably linked to musical experience, but is a component of nostalgia; how then to deal with location in a musical work about nostalgia?

Location has been the subject of much thought in music performance and composition over the past century. A small forest has probably been dedicated to papers decrying the social limitations of the concert hall and its roots in cultural imperialism and classism. Ives used musicians located in the audience to mimic the everyday American experience. John Cage's infamous 4'33'' was conceived as a call to experience one's environment as music. Laurie Anderson recently debuted a work in which the listener can hear the music only when standing in a very specific location.

WIP: Technology and Time Travel, Memory and Nostalgia

"Time is what prevents everything from happening at once." - John Archibald Wheeler

I came across an essay this evening that has provided me with even more considerations for this work on nostalgia. In the essay the author describes the act of composition as "fixing -to a greater or lesser degree- the internal life of an abstracted period of time". Time Binding, he calls it. And the score or recording becomes a Time Capsule. He then discusses the varying degrees to which time may be bound and the dimensions that can be bound (timbre, harmony, rhythm, etc.).

The author supposes the Time Capsule can be manipulated. It can be performed verbatim, or altered by playing divisions of the Time Capsule in a different order either planned or arbitrary. This manipulation of the Time Capsule is mimetic of memory. Psychology and experience tell us that every time we revisit a memory it is altered. And, in actuality, that memory doesn't exist until we recall it and therefore that memory is created in the process of recall. This begs the question in music, what is Beethoven's 5th Symphony? Is it the London Philharmonic recorded performance from May of 1983, or the Portsmouth Sinfonia's incompetent performance last spring, or is it the score (Time Capsule) itself?

Memory and it's unreliability are indelible aspects of nostalgia. Is the "golden haze" of memories long past possible if time were encoded in Hi-Def from all available perspectives and available at will? Doesn't this potential exist in our hyper-real world of iPods and YouTube (or radio and television)? Forgetting has been called "the one kindness that time affords". How does this new inability to forget affect the forging of identity narratives?

It seems that any work on nostalgia would have to address the dimension of memory and the affects of technology on our personal narrative, for what is nostalgia but an expression of that narrative. And as we forge our identities, memory and forgetting play powerful roles. And our collective memory plays a similar role in the narratives of our families, communities, nationalities and races.

I'm beginning to wonder how a string quartet or piano solo could possibly address the subject of nostalgia in any meaningful or poetic way. Our daily lives mimic the hyperreality of the movies (and many of us are the subject of "films" e.g. YouTube) and television. We are surrounded by music wherever we go. We can access the events of the world in near real-time regardless of our geographic proximity. String quartets were originally written as parlor entertainment on a Saturday night. Dad would pickup the latest piece on his way home from work and he, Mom, brother and sister would perform it that night after dinner. Would writing a string quartet about nostalgia then become an act of fundamentalism? A cry for the wholesale return to "Family Values"?



WIP: Nostalgia and Technology

I've been thinking about the implications of using sampling in this series. I asked a good friend who has close ties to the electronic/dance community here in Madison (and throughout the world) about my conundrum. He felt that the use of the terms "remix" and "mash-up" refer to techniques that are essentially the same as re-arrangement, juxtaposition, and re-composition. I'm inclined to agree with him as I see no difference in the product aside from the means of production.

This presents an opportunity and a challenge for me. I feel freed up to exploit samples and loops in a way I didn't previously. But, I'm unfamiliar with how to exploit these technologies in any way aside from improvisation. This means that if I choose to include these technological developments I will have to do more research.

As an aside, (not completely unrelated) I came across an interview with Marc Ribot recently in which he said something particularly appropriate to this puzzlement. "Everything is a function of [sic]the available technology, because it’s hard to conceive of what is completely unavailable."

The Problem with Post-Punk

I went to see the United Sons of Toil show at the Frequency on Friday. Great show. The opening acts, Disguised as Birds and Ampline were both very good. However, USoT definitely grabbed me the most. They played one of the best sets I've seen here in Madison since I relocated here six years ago.

Yet, I'm uneasy about the whole experience of hearing them for the first time. They've garnered a lot of really good press here in Madison. And they deserve twice that which they've received. The thing that concerns me is that the music and the show were both so referential that I found myself comparing every musical phrase and every convulsion to some other group. Whether it be Tortoise, DNA, Fugazi, Dinosaur Jr. or Gang of Four. I was reminded of something Marc Ribot said, "The problem with post-punk is that it's hard to dress the wound for all the screaming". (I'm paraphrasing)

From what I've read, and certainly from the lyrics and other text the band produces, they've got a bone to pick. A particularly far-left bone at that. I don't have a problem with this whatsoever. I'm the sort that doesn't talk about politics for fear of being accused of sedition. Yet, from a musical standpoint, I have to wonder if aural assault is too referential to be effective.

Regardless, it was refreshing to actually hear a band so dedicated to what they're doing. I love the volume, the feedback, the aggression and the compositions. I'll definitely be keeping my eye on this group.


WIP: Nostalgia Ideas

At this point, most of my thoughts about this series center around using popular songs from the post-WWI era as source material. Although I'm aware of certain works in the classical/Western Art Music/Folk traditions that could be relevant (e.g. Recuerdos de la Alhambra), I think that manipulating modern songs using a combination of modern harmonic/rhythmic techniques (and potentially technologies) would produce the best results.

As I've been researching the topic I've started to think in terms of hip-hop/electronic music. Instead of "collage" or "polymeter", terms like "mash-up" and "remix" have consistently surfaced. However, I'm skeptical that these techniques can be applied to composition that doesn't take advantage of sampling technologies. If, for no other reason, that the unique timbre of a recorded performance can't be reliably recreated without the sample itself. Yet I still wonder if it's possible to tap into the musical developments of the past 30 years without using the technology that enabled them.

So, some ideas...
  1. Recompose popular songs using modern harmonic/rhythmic techniques such as matrix operations
  2. Using sections of disparate songs to create a pastiche
  3. Layering different voices from disparate songs a la Ives or Zorn
  4. Apply the rhythms of one song to the melodic/harmonic voices of another
Of course, all of these ideas could be applied to older, and possibly more importantly, public domain material. During this time I've also begun to explore my own culture through the music of my distant ancestors, and the idea of "mashing up" the folk melodies of Norway and Scotland with modern popular song is interesting. However, I'm not sure that it's possible to do this without the results sounding like a Wal-Mart "Jazz Loon" sampler.