In advance of A Far Cry's performance this Thursday, April 6, of its 2014 album, The Law of Mosaics, featuring The Companion Guide to Rome by Andrew Norman, and The Law of Mosaics by Ted Hearne, we're reprinting this interview from the original liner notes, in which the composers talk about their own music and each others'.
An Email Trialog with Ted Hearne, Andrew Norman and Ryan Dohoney
Ryan Dohoney (RD): Andrew, you talk about the Companion Guide as a set of translations from physical, visual, and architectural space into musical sounds—Would you talk about how the process worked for you in the composition of Companion Guide and the ways in which certain architectural and acoustic analogies became apparent to you?
Andrew Norman (AN): The process of translating architectural spaces into sound worked itself out differently in each movement of the Companion Guide. Some of the movements began with a very intuitive reaction to a particular space, as in “how does this building make me feel, and how can I write music that explores that feeling?,” and some of the movements began with a more objective act of transference, with taking hard architectural numbers and plugging them into various musical parameters just to see what they might sound like.
Pietro is probably the most literal example of taking architectural proportions and transferring them, one-to-one, into musical proportions. It’s inspired by Bramante’s Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio, a tiny little jewel box that is one of the first and most important examples of Renaissance architecture in Rome. The Tempietto was built at a time when people were rediscovering the classical idea of using simple, beautiful whole number ratios to determine the proportions of their buildings, and thus it has everything to do with Pythagoras and his explorations of simple, beautiful whole number ratios as expressed in the relationship of harmonic nodes on string instruments (hence my little piece being made entirely of open strings and natural harmonics). Pietro is also a mini isorhythmic motet, a nod to a particularly mathematical and abstruse form of liturgical composition that was in vogue at the time the Tempietto was built. I really like the idea that music can contain layer upon layer of reference, and that those references can add up to a potentially rich experience that goes beyond the notes and rhythms on the page. I think this is something I share in common with Ted, though I’m not using direct quotation and sampling to create that web of reference in the way that he does.
RD Also, you then seem to translate this acoustic composition back into spatialized sound with the staging and arrangement of the piece in performance. Do the two architectural situations have anything to do with each other in your mind, or is the point the difference?
AN The staging instructions in Companion Guide are only there to heighten the sense of multiplicity—of voices, materials, points of view, physical locations—within the piece. I wanted each movement to be a distinct world unto itself, and so performing them in different locations on stage is meant to emphasize this. I suppose the stage then becomes a metaphor for the city of Rome.
RD Ted, Law seems not to work through translation as much as it does extraction and magnification. I’m referring in particular to your references to “extracts,’’ “climactic moments,’’ etc. in movement titles. Your music amplifies and explodes musical fragments. How to you go about choosing what to extract/magnify and how to go about transforming it?
Ted Hearne (TH): I’m fascinated with quotation in music (and all other ways of referencing preexisting works and styles), because it is an aggressive action on the part of the composer to weave a dialogue with the past into the surface layer of the music. It’s the act of stealing a fully formed work, along with all the associations and meanings it has earned over time on its own merits, and coopting all of that history into your own story that is being written in the present. The choices of what to do with those histories (how to order and layer them, how to chop them up or otherwise distort them beyond recognition) speak volumes about who we are and where we are coming from, and they’re often more important to me than choices about what notes and rhythms to use.
Look at the production of almost any nonclassical recording artist and you’ll see that these choices define their sonic identity. The musicians I love the most combine their influences in ways that both respect and engage those sources’ histories.
To answer your question more directly, my “extractmagnify’’ choices were inspired by the ingenious way some of the hip-hop artists I love use sampling. Kanye West is a great example of an artist who understands the power of accessing history through a sample, and the endless gradations of dialogue that can come with that.
With Law of Mosaics, I wanted to play with sampling’s ability to access our shared histories in different ways. The second movement does this by extracting from a variety of pieces of music—some in a way that communicates very obviously to listeners familiar with classical music (a la Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves’’), and some in a way that are not at all easy to pick up on, even for one who is familiar with the source material. And by giving the movement an arbitrary formal restraint (“Palindrome’’), I hoped to create a space where the listener could hear each sample in a new context while still interacting with their historical ramifications.
I wanted to use a lot of classical music sources for manipulation. I loved the idea of a warhorse like Barber’s Adagio for Strings being morphed completely beyond recognition, because that process made me try to identify the precise line over which a piece of music has to cross before it could no longer be considered that piece of music. It made me examine the relationship between the actual sounds I was hearing and the contextual meaning I had ascribed to the music. In terms of what music I chose to extract, it was always first and foremost a sound I liked, and always from a source I like or at least one I have a deep relationship with.
RD Both of you speak to the possibility of using your music to explore a moment (be that a moment of music, a moment of feeling) through multiplicity and association. This, for me, is one of the most exciting things about your work. What kinds of feeling are you both particularly interested to explore? What sorts of emotions (from a space or another musical piece) grab you? And from a point of view of technique, how do you construct analogies between one kind of feeling and another—be that comparing types of musical feelings in say Barber or Vivaldi, or types of spatial feelings of Roman Churches into sound?
AN Feelings are so hard to talk about! But I suppose it’s only fair that you ask, as the Companion Guide is a piece filled with my own very personal feelings. In thinking back on the spaces that inspired the Guide, I keep returning to one feeling in particular which, for lack of a better word, I might call “wonder.’’ Wonder comes in so many shapes and sizes, and I’m not even sure I can accurately define what it is (part surprise? part mystery? part vulnerability and losing oneself in something else?), but I think it is in many ways is trying to capture—or perhaps portray or recreate—a moment of wonder from my time in Rome. As far as the technique of constructing relationships between the various feelings/moments/movements in the piece, I think those relationships happened very much on the fly during the writing process. I definitely wanted each movement to exist in its own self-contained world, but as the piece progressed it became clear that those worlds were in dialogue with each other in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
TH Andrew is touching on an idea that is important to both of our pieces, and I think to our music in general—namely that movements (or statements, feelings, or moments) exist as self-contained elements in a constellation, and that a big part of experiencing the piece as a whole comes from trying to fill in connections between them. It’s a question of how each explored moment—whether a disembodied shard or an intricate and polished crystal—relates to the larger web of associations. To me, this is directly related to our experience with the food of nonstop information in our lives. We all live in the same world with the same information, but there are infinite combinations of ways to curate, sort, filter, absorb, digest and process it. An individual perspective, then, comes from a particular collection of ingredients in a particular order.
I love the way Andrew explores this principle in Companion Guide. The piece is an omnivorous collection of sound-worlds and intricately constructed forms, many of which wouldn’t belong together anywhere else other than in the head of Andrew. It’s both rigorous and seemingly unencumbered by a need to be “unified” into a single coherent statement, yet I am completely convinced by each movement’s relationship to the larger whole. And I found myself asking: What is that magnetism that binds them together? Companion Guide inspired me to poke at whatever that mysterious thing was/is, and Law of Mosaics is the end product of that poking. (And this is the most important reason I think these pieces go well together on an album.)
Regarding the construction of analogies, one thing I learned from Andrew’s music was how convincing and provocative it could be to lay disparate artifacts next to each other without over-explaining them. Sometimes a preoccupation with creating totally rock-solid analogies can cause a composer to overdo it on transitional or “unifying” material.
I’m more interested in letting a loose or ambiguous relationship emerge by virtue of coexistence, and if all the connections don’t always make a solid equation at the end it doesn’t really matter to me as long as they’re authentic. (Real life is messy, I like it when music is too.)
RD I’m feeling much sympathy with and interest in how you both are talking about these ideas, though you both are basically giving me a sort of “well, isn’t that an interesting question” kind of dodge. What I’m trying to get at is something specific and technical about your musical languages, how you guys go on fabricating a feeling using your particular compositional practices to convey something of what “wonder” or “my complex relationship with Samuel Barber” feels like. Can you be baldly technical about it? Knowing that your way of fabricating a feeling in music may resonate completely differently with someone else, how do you go about constructing it in sound?
AN I can’t predict how anyone else is going to feel during my music, but I do have a sense of how music makes me feel—how certain gestures, timbres, harmonic shifts and rhythmic grooves move and excite me as a listener—and I draw on that experience all the time when writing. I find deep pleasure and satisfaction when I hear a piece of music break out of the frame it has set up for itself, be that a modulation from one key to another, or a change in rhythm, or texture, or range, or whatever. I plan these “break out” moments a lot in my own music because I know I will find them satisfying, and I hope my listeners will too.
The last movement of the Guide, for instance, spends nine minutes in strictly diatonic G Major. In its last three phrases the piece abruptly moves to an entirely different key, and this for me is a classic ’’break out’’ moment. Granted, this kind of modulation is like the oldest trick in the book, but it is one that I still find effective so I use it all the time. I think each movement of the Companion Guide might have a moment like this (not all having to do with pitch and key centers, of course). I haven’t stopped to think about it in quite these terms before, but I can see that this technique of the frame and the “break out” is something I often employ to recreate a bit of the wonder that initially inspired these pieces.
TH In Law of Mosaics, I wasn’t as motivated by setting up rules and finding poignant ways to break them as I was by finding the perfect way to juxtapose or overlay elements that didn’t “belong” together, then using them to create a compelling enough sound that listeners would be tricked into being comfortable (or at least continuously curious) in an uncomfortable context. So, achieving that was largely a matter of planning to find the perfect sound-worlds—ones that compelled me on a purely sonic level (as much as that’s possible). For instance, before I wrote the third movement I used Ableton Live to slow down recordings of the Barber and Vivaldi in a million different ways, found a few versions that I could bliss out on for a while, then finally picked the spots I would most want to immerse in sonically. After that, I experimented with different ways to layer them, ultimately settling on a scheme that would sort of pit them against each other tonally and timbrally (I chose some very senza vibrato clean cut Baroque arpeggios to clash with those climactic rising Romantic chords in the Barber). I wanted to scrawl on the source material enough that the original would only peek through once in awhile, so that was a big consideration when placing everything and figuring out which excerpts to use. And it wasn’t till all of that was done that I figured out how to write it down for an actual orchestra to play.
RD By way of conclusion, would each of you briefly reflect on the other’s music?
AN Ted’s music is fearless. I love the fact that I can always hear him pushing on something, be it me and my assumptions and desires as a listener, the players and the boundaries of their technique, or himself and his compositional safety zone. No one gets an easy pass in a Hearne musical experience, and I like that.
I also like that Ted’s music asks questions he doesn’t already know the answers to. It seems to me that his creative intent is not so much to show us something as to get us to think, to inquire, to probe a web of issues along with him in musical real time. That his work resists big conclusions and cathartic summations is proof—to my ears anyway—that he values the journey more than any one of its many destinations.
TH Andrew’s music is very expressive, very well crafted, and full of brilliant (but entirely non-academic) ideas, and the degree to which all these qualities are fused is mind-boggling to me. One never seems to be in service of the others. His extremely high level of skill often hides the fact that he is constantly asking his musicians to perform high-wire acts; I love that he tricks my ear like that. Even when his music sounds free and luxurious, he never gives his musicians room to zone out. I respect that immensely.
Sometimes I wonder how this music can feel so perfectly suited to the moment in which I’m listening to it (and thus contemporary), but also be steeped in such an unabashed love of classical music. Part of it may be that Andrew’s music often deals with the real relationship between a musician and their actual instrument, and you can hear a struggle and concord between them being worked out in live time. Finally, I really admire how naturally Andrew translates the ideas in his head to real sound in a real space. His connection to acoustics and the realities of classical instruments is so good that it can seem like a superpower, but he always applies it so simply and effectively that once you hear his music, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world. The definition of gifted.
Interview conducted throughout Spring 2014, then condensed and edited.