USC Experimental Music Workshop Tour

I spoke with Greg Stuart on August 27th about his upcoming East Coast tour with the University of South Carolina Experimental Music Workshop and Michael Pisaro. It’s such a promising series of events, and I’m going to travel to the first two of them in Gettysburg and New York. Take a look at the cities to see if there’s one that you can attend as well. The interview starts after the poster.

How did the project come about, and what were some of the steps leading into it?

The performance in New York and associated tour is really an outgrowth of a project that my students did here in Columbia, South Carolina this past April, where we recorded a CD of Jürg Frey’s music with violinist Erik Carlson. The editing process for that just finished the other day and it sounds fantastic. The CD, Ephemeral Constructions, has three new pieces by Jürg and will be out early this coming year on Wandelweiser. The students and I loved working with Erik and Jürg.

I’ll definitely look for that.

Thanks. The South Carolina Honors College, which is one of the great programs here at USC, has been just unbelievably supportive of me and my work. They were instrumental in creating a situation where we could bring Erik and Jürg in to do a concert, a recording session, and to put the CD out on Wandelweiser. As a possible outgrowth of that project, I talked to them about doing a trip with the class to do a performance, not necessarily to New York, but somewhere outside of South Carolina. And then the opportunity to perform with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) popped up. That’s when the School of Music got involved, which has been a major help on the planning side of things. The students performing on the tour are from both schools: fifteen undergraduate students from my Experimental Music Workshop in the Honors College, and five graduate students from the School of Music. I couldn’t be more excited about the two schools collaborating in this way.

So not everyone is a percussionist?

Yes, but the students in the Honors College all function as percussionists on this project, so there is a lot of percussion. It obviously changes from semester to semester, but the Honors College students are majors from all over the university, anybody that wants to take the class. Occasionally, I have honors students who are also music majors, but it’s really quite varied. Everything from biology to vis-art majors. It’s a perfect group to play experimental music with because there’s a wide range of interests and musical backgrounds. What I can’t do though, is go in there and say, “I need somebody that plays the clarinet” because there is no way to guarantee who enrolls. We therefore typically look at scores that have a wider tolerance for what an instrument might be and so forth. For the upcoming project with ICE and our tour, the undergraduate students are all playing percussion. But it’s percussion playing in the sense of Michael Pisaro, right? So it’s rice falling on objects and sandpaper on stone and clicking small objects together and other non-standard techniques.

Things that people have familiarity with as humans in the first place.

Exactly. No one is being asked to perform Stockhausen’s Zyklus.

That would be a different kind of experiment.

That will be the final exam! And they will need to be able to start from multiple points in the score, Max Neuhaus style.

You talked about its being a sort of an experimental music boot camp. What are some of the components of that that you’re planning on?

Well, this semester is really quite different. Normally, like we did last spring with Erik and Jürg, I like to build towards a larger project at the end of the course. We start slow, I introduce new pieces each week, and our daily performances build towards the larger project at the end. There’s been no slow introductory phase this time around, because the tour is in the fifth week of class! I normally don’t even play music for the first couple of class sessions, where we typically spend some time listening, reading, and discussing as we start the process. But we have very, very little time this fall before these concerts. So on the first day, I just explained in broad outline what we needed to do, and we started working on ricefall.

So this has already started.

Oh yeah. We started on August 18th. This coming week is the third week of class. We have this coming week, the next week, and then Michael shows up and then we leave. There’s really no time to even stop and think. I sort of feel like what’s going to happen is we’re going to do all these concerts, and then the rest of the course is going to involve unpacking what happened, unpacking this intense experience and trying to put it into some kind of larger context. It’s at that point that we’ll start looking at your book. I don’t know exactly how we’re going to use the book yet. I told them, just go ahead and get it. The students are starting from zero, and very quickly, they’re playing six concerts in six days! Normally, the class would do one concert. We’ve never traveled before. It’s a lot!

I can’t imagine a better introduction.

Yeah. It will be a lot fun. And for them to be able to work with Michael for that long is incredible. The way they will experience this music is going to be so different from the beginning to the end of the course. It will be really interesting to see how things evolve.  

It’ll be amazing if you can get some written reflections on that before, during, and after. It could be interesting to see that evolution.

Yeah, there will definitely be some writing involved with the reading of your book. And there will be a place in that for people to write about their own experiences. It’s been tough to think about this as a regular class though. You know, a class has “assignments” and “grades” and all that.

It’s sounds like it’s more of a shared experience.

Exactly. And I’m thinking of it in the same way that I think of any concert: we have these concerts to play, here’s the repertoire, we have to work up the material, etc. I’m not thinking “these are student concerts.” They’re concerts.

I don’t know if you can talk too specifically, but have there been surprises in the process so far, in these first couple weeks as far as how it’s going?

Probably the biggest thing is that I just keep discovering how many things there are to do! And a lot of those things are not related to playing the music.

Admin stuff.

Yeah, lots of logistical things that I never would have thought of to make it possible to move a group of 20+ people around smoothly. Musically, there have been many things that I realize I take for granted because I’m more familiar with this way of working. Also, I’m just trying to give the students as much support and clarification as I can, so that when we do these concerts, they feel confident in what they’re playing. And of course there has been just tons of discussion with Michael on the finer points of how the pieces are put together, if there’s something problematic in a score or whatever. There’s been lots of back and forth on those kinds of issues, everything from sine waves to pine cones. I don’t know if you know that for the ICE performance we are doing ricefall (2). So it’s the same piece that—

That you recorded, right?

Yeah, that I recorded for Gravity Wave, and what you hear on the recording is a particular reading—

It’s multi-track.

Yes, it’s multi-track. It’s a particular reading of the score, a maximalist one where you have all 64 parts present. That’s not necessary to do the piece; the minimum number of people you need is 16, and we will have 16 people doing that in New York with ICE. But for this performance, there will be two additional layers: a layer of electronic sound in the form of sine waves, and an instrumental layer consisting of sustained tones. The sine waves and the instruments will provide a kind of harmonic context for the more noise-based sounds of the rice falling on the objects. The combination of these three layers—rice, sine waves, and instruments—is new. Michael and I talked a lot about the addition of the harmonic component in terms of what we thought would work best for this particular concert.

performance chart for ricefall (1)
[stage layout for ricefall (1)]

So it’s sort of approaching ricefall (3), it sounds like.

Sort of. We actually discussed, when we were in Australia last October with Speak Percussion doing A wave and waves, a lot about possible future projects, and one of them was a potential ricefall (3). If I remember correctly, we wanted to have these sculptures that would mechanically drop rice or perhaps there would be a performer doing it from the sculpture. We wanted a situation where the audience was sitting in a giant grid where the rice was falling from up high in the performance space. The instrumental parts for that were mostly vocal, a large choir. The performance with ICE is really ricefall (2), but with these additional layers. Michael sent me a chart of sine tone frequencies used in the first section the other day.

Of the version you’re about to do?

Yeah, the frequencies for the first section of the ICE performance. I believe that the sine waves come in six minute blocks. So in each section of the piece, there will be three collections of frequencies. Michael mentioned trying to approach noise with harmony. So you have this chord, or chords, of sine waves, and then the instruments are filling in additional spaces in that mass. And then you have the noise from the sound of the falling rice happening. I don’t really know what this will all sound like when it all comes together, but I can’t wait to hear it. The performance will also be amplified.

This has been a lingering question for a while, and it’s the first time I’ve thought to ask either you or Michael about it, but it seems to me like ricefall was a kind of turning point in his work. I came across it right around the time that I was writing my dissertation, I think. I forget what year he did it, but it was like, oh, this is something different. And then since then, there’s a lot that’s moved further in that direction.

Yeah, I can’t speak for Michael, but I can say that when I first saw the score, which is from 2004, my reaction was: Michael wrote this? It didn’t seem at first glance at all like the music of his that I had gotten to know in the mid-90s. It just didn’t seem to have anything in common with that music. I was genuinely surprised that it was his piece. At the same time, I was totally captivated by it. Here was a way of doing percussion that completely subtracted itself from the gestural language, physicality, and the sounds of more standard playing. After seeing the score, I just had to hear what it sounded like. I arranged a performance, the world premiere, I believe, in San Diego with Red Fish, Blue Fish, in 2006. At that point, I don’t know if Michael had given me scores to the harmony series pieces yet, or if it was at the same time, it’s hard to remember. But that performance—I just remember sitting on stage thinking that it was just so cool. Immediately after that concert I felt like it wasn’t long enough. That was my first reaction—I would have liked to have done that for a lot longer.

How long was the performance?

Ricefall (1), which we’re playing on our non-New York shows, is 18 minutes.

No, that’s not long enough.

Yeah, and that was the impetus for Michael writing ricefall (2), which at 72 minutes, is 4 times as long, and I made a recorded version with all 64 parts. At the time, I was very curious about what happens in these situations of extreme density, and the piece really explores that. So yes, encountering ricefall was a real change in direction for me. It had all of these things that I was looking for but did not know how to articulate. And I probably wouldn’t have found them on my own. At the same time, I don’t think Michael was thinking that somebody would really want to do all that, to spend all the time recording the piece in that way. It’s one of the very early pieces that we really worked on together, where the collaborative process really came into focus. It’s hard for me to overstate what the piece and making that recording means to me. That’s why I’m so happy to be performing it with my students from USC, Michael, and ICE.

I feel like that piece opened up a whole lot for me too, and it’s been really important for me as well. And I’m so glad that you latched onto it and ran with it, because I don’t know if a lot of these things would have happened without your doing that.

Yeah, you never know. It’s the same thing with teaching. You never really know what is going to light a spark for a student. They encounter something, and it could literally be some seemingly insignificant detail in a larger context. But it might just be the thing from which something genuinely new emerges. The next thing you know, they’ve made a decision or decisions that profoundly affects what they’re doing and it alters their trajectory. With ricefall, I suppose it could have been the kind of thing that someone else would have seen and just thought, oh, that’s nice, and moved on.

And so there’s the other piece you’re doing too, asleep, desert, choir, agnes.

Yes, this piece is brand new. We’ll be playing it on all of the same concerts where we do ricefall (1). We talked a lot about what the new piece would be, how it would work with the programming on the tour, and Michael decided that a new piece in this series would be best.

Oh yeah, the ones with “asleep” in the titles.

Yes. We played one of those before here in South Carolina at the Columbia Museum of Art, asleep, forest, melody, path. There’s also the great recording on Gravity Wave, asleep, street, pipes, tones, and there are a few others, I believe. The “agnes” here refers to Agnes Martin. The piece imagines sonic fragments from the deserts of New Mexico—where Martin lived from 1967 to the end of her life—but not so much as how they “actually” sound but as if one placed a trace of that desert environment into one of her paintings. The piece has a 16-player percussion ensemble, made up of four quartets of similar materials arranged in a 4×4 grid. So you have four people that each do a similar kind of thing. All of the players in the percussion ensemble make sounds with the voice, with one of the quartets doing some singing. The other vocal parts are combinations of whistling, filtered air, and humming. I can’t remember the exact breakdown for all the other instruments in terms of the quartets, but it’s things like stones and sandpaper and branches and leaves and resonating chambers and other sorts of found objects and materials. This piece also has a quartet made up of sustaining instruments, that in our version will be made up of two flutes, a saxophone, and a French horn. The final two layers are a duo for electric guitar and percussion/melodica and a pre-recorded track of stereo electronics made up of various desert sounds and sine waves. 30 minutes. 22 players.

That sounds gorgeous.

Michael just sent me the electronic part this morning. It’s inspired by Martin’s painting With My Back to the World. It’s one of those that has the alternating bands of color (red, yellow, and blue, in this case). The form of Michael’s piece is a kind of altered palindrome of the different colors with sine tone interludes between each band of color. The red sections are called “bristles,” yellow “surfaces,” and blue “choir.” On an independent trajectory is the instrumental quartet. They only play sustained tones at regular intervals throughout the piece. And there’s the duo for percussion and electric guitar, which mostly play in alternation, but play together for the last four minutes of the piece, chords made up of combinations of guitar and melodica.

Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World
[Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World]

It sounds really beautiful. Are there different sorts of skills and techniques that you’re finding you’re using for each of the pieces?

Yes, the techniques in this piece are diverse. In ricefall, it’s just dropping rice, and all you do is vary the density. But here, you can have combinations of many different kinds of techniques: rubbing a hard bristled brush on a resonant metal object, moving leaves around in a container, creating sounds from a large collection of pine cones, slowly rotating an egg shaker, humming, etc. Lots of stuff going on.

A lot more material diversity.

[the sections of asleep, desert, choir, agnes]

Each person has a set of three different things that they do. Everyone does not play all the time, like they do in ricefall. So it’s quite different, and I’m super happy that we structured the tour this way with ricefall (2) only happening in New York.  Because it’s 72 minutes long, and it takes a lot of focus and patience to do that. A super high level of concentration. So to do ricefall (1), which is 18 minutes, and then this new piece at 30 minutes, which has a greater variety of things that any one person does—we’re really happy about that programming. I think it will work well.

It gives people space to find their way into it more deeply.

Definitely. If we were just playing ricefall (2) six times, that would probably be too much.

That sounds well judged. So it’s six days of actual performances, but when does Michael get there and when do you leave, and when do you get back?

We leave early on Thursday morning the 15th, and play at Gettysburg College later that night. Michael arrives the Sunday before, which will allow us to have a couple good rehearsals with all of the musicians and the electronics before we leave. We get back late the following Monday, after a concert at UNC Wilmington. And then that Tuesday we have a concert here in Columbia, at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art on the 20th, which will be a great place to close things out.

It’s just so exciting.

Yeah, I really can’t believe it. I have to keep pinching myself. Are we really doing this?

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