rumination 4

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As a prelude to, I’d like to share with you the fifth and last short rumination about Sit Ozfårs Wysr, a new project by macompagnie and the ensemble 101 based, very loosely, on several themes and ideas from Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 1939 MGM film adaptation.

While recently lamenting to a good friend that I have few people in my life with whom I can discuss composition, it occurred to me that perhaps by jotting down a series of disorganized thoughts about Sit Ozfårs Wysr, I could initiate a conversation with old, new and future friends about how and why music matters to us. I say this while fully acknowledging that writing about music makes as much sense as cooking about tennis. However, I hope all of us are honest enough to admit that we would at least be intrigued to watch someone cook about tennis, and by analogy, I hope that others have the same curiosity about the musings below.

Rumination 5 — K-CoreaINC.K

Trecartin's K-CoreaINC.K (Section A).

On April 30th 2011, while grading student finals in my office at the University of Florida, I received an e-mail from Thomas Royal that simply said "you have to watch this" with a link to K-CoreaINC.K by Ryan Trecartin. I put a hefty stack of unread papers to the side and fired up what I thought would be a short, irreverent video.

Fifty minutes later, after finishing K-CoreaINC.K, I knew that I was not the same person. All external signs of existence remained the same, but I experienced an internal paradigm shift that would make any Born Again jealous. I finished grading those papers, got on a plane to France, started composing music compulsively, and created the ensemble 101 in November of the same year.

Trecartin's The Re'Search (Re'Search Wait'S).

Trecartin's Any After, of which K-CoreaINC.K is one chapter, is a once-in-a-generation Gesamtkunstwerk that makes you thank all possible deities that you were born late enough to see it and early enough for it to be relevant to your day-to-day life. I am reticent to make any statements about why I love KCoreaINC.K because I feel that by making certain things explicit, they somehow gain more value than implicit or unsaid things, which paints a completely false and biased picture of my relationship to the video. However, for the purposes of framing the thoughts to follow, I will explicitly assert that I love KCoreaINC.K because it is broken. It is not fragmented, as there is no obvious object that it is fragmenting. It is not a collage, as it does not mix together disparate elements. It is inherently broken. It goes in 1,000 different directions, never finishing any of them and always focusing on things that seem entirely irrelevant or trivial. Its progressive stability around the character of Jennifer seems as arbitrary as the ultimate fate of the nameless main character in Kafka's The Castle.

One of my first post-Trecartin works, written in year 0 A.T., called j-sho.

Nothing I write here can possibly prepare you for KCoreaINC.K, so I encourage you to just watch it. I will say, though, that almost none of my friends share the enthusiasm I have for it. I remember showing it to Per Bloland at the 2011 International Computer Music Conference only to be met with a curious, but not fascinated, reaction. When I took Marie and Elsa to see it at Paris's Museum of Modern Art, they liked it, but they mostly enjoyed making fun of me for how gaga I was over it. Kant was right that aesthetic judgments of beauty are subjectively universal — I have no problem admitting that my reaction to the film is purely subjective, and yet I cannot understand how anyone could deny that it is the greatest film ever made.

Written around 1 A.T. (2012 in the Gregorian calendar), this piece is also heavily indebted to him: say hello to les demoiselles.

Below, I would like to talk about why I feel this way and how this feeling bubbles through in rain real come of Sit Ozfårs Wysr.

A short personal history of brokenness

Ryan Trecartin is one of many encounters I've had with brokenness in the arts. Though none have been as life-changing as his army of stubbly transvestites, all of them continue to shock me and provide limitless inspiration.

When I was fifteen years old, my grandfather gave me poster-sized chronology of classical composers assembled by WQXR New York and I decided to work from left (earlier) to right (later) in our local library. As my listening edged closer to the late-20th century, I couldn't help but feeling a giddiness about discovering my first piece of contemporary classical music. When I got to the only living composer on the chart, Philip Glass, I rented the library's lone CD of his: Einstein on the Beach. I was flabbergasted by what I heard — a disorganized catalogue of jumping, chaotic, hectic musical passages that sounded like a short-circuited machine. I listened to it for at least a week non-stop, at which point I convinced my parents to buy the opera's recording from Lincoln Center so that my listening could continue after I returned the CD. To my dismay, the recording bought in the basement of Avery Fisher Music Hall was much more tame and docile than the library's. It was certainly just as fresh, but lacked the rough edges and borderline-insanity of the first recording. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the library CD was irreparably scratched and that what I was listening to was a glitched version of Einstein on the Beach. I felt a lot of shame about my initial reaction and did not tell anyone about it so as not to seem like an idiot, but I still remember the exhilaration I felt at hearing something that felt truly new and yet intensely personal, like it was written for me.

Einstein on the Beach in its non-broken form.

Fast-forwarding to 2010, as I prepared to teach an undergrad composition seminar, I was making a listening list for experimental electronic music and stumbled upon a video by the VJ Ophios. In the great sea of septic garbage known as "YouTube poop" (one of the few pejorative monikers that was invented by the self-deprecating people who actually make the art (and who don't even see it as pejorative)), Ophios is high-class manure. I have shared his videos with most of my close friends and all of them recognize his objective genius. Like Trecartin or my scratched Philip Glass, one immediately feels the brokenness coming from the lack of linear anything coupled with the massive hacks of the game Half Life. I find multiple things remarkable about these works:

  • I have a heightened awareness of their forms that I do not feel with other pieces.
  • They develop a lexicon of brokenness that acts as a language of expression.
  • One is not even sure what "whole" universes they would represent were they not broken — their brokenness seems like an intrinsic quality that is non-referential and without which the work would make no sense.
Ophios's Glitchcore.

I do not know where this fascination comes from. I have led a privileged life relatively free of conflict, I have never felt like a broken person, and yet I feel an immense sense of brokenness [1] that goes beyond a simple intellectual crush and that I do not know how to express through any other medium than music. Legend has it that, in a composition seminar, John Cage rejoiced when his student Morton Feldman defended one of his early compositions by simply stating that it was beautiful without being able to justify why he felt that way. This is how I feel about broken things.

[1] The brokenness I feel is quite positive and a source of self-worth. It is for this reason that brokenness is perhaps not the right word, but as I do not have a better one, I'm sticking with it.

rain real come

rain real come, a broken ode to Over the Rainbow, is the first piece I wrote for Sit Ozfårs Wysr and has become the show's musical ambassador. The way I made it is the product of a technique I have incrementally perfected over the years and that I would like to present below.

As an intern at Bill Hare's recording studio, where I used to sleep on the couch from 3AM to 7AM before class (on one occasion, I threw up twice during a final from sleep deprivation due to this insane schedule), I learned that recording is a giant lie. Everyone who knows a little bit about recording knows this, but for those who have never mixed a track, almost everything that you've ever heard that sounds in any way organic is likely the product of many spliced-together takes and various effects slapped on them. This is, of course, a vector of creativity that Bill still uses with immense artistry.

Bill Hare chilling in his studio overlooking bucolic Norther California.

Throughout my time at the University of Florida, I put my skills in action by writing incredibly complicated, unplayable pieces and then faking their recordings, leading to several undeserved prizes and performances. On one memorable occasion, I spliced together broken takes of millisecond-long phrases from virtuoso trombonist Moisés Paiewonsky's recording of my piece The hive to create five minutes of "legato" playing.

the hive, recorded by Moisés Paiewonsky's.

I found myself throwing out lots of fantastic improvisations that Moisés did just to get the recording to sound the like the score, and I longed to use instruments in a more spontaneous way that freed them from the confines of writing. At the same time, I generally disliked the lets-throw-stuff-into-a-bunch-of-tracks-and-see-what-sticks process that, while useful for many artists, felt like it lacked the rigor I need as a psychological purgative to create. My compromise solution was to record hours of Jorge Variego improvising on clarinet, ordering these sounds into neat categories and arranging them into something that could conceivably be played by a clarinet nonet, meaning that everything needed to be idiomatic, breathable, bereft of fast instrument changes and never more than nine parts at once. I thought this experiment in writing the score after arranging broken bits of recordings would be a one-off, but it stuck: I have more or less exclusively worked this way for eight years now.

Una passeggiata per la Piazza San Marco was my first truly broken work thanks to a series of unorganized recording sessions with the brilliant clarinetist and composer Jorge Variego.

The piece was played a few times to generally positive reactions, and I decided to compose a work that took this process to an extreme — a multi-movement string quartet comprised of over 10,000 separate sounds, each of which was categorized by different descriptive tags using software that I wrote. These threads were spun into increasingly larger sections based on constraints I fed the computer. At the end, all of this was painstakingly transcribed into a simulacrum of a string quartet. In spite of its rough edges and surprising left turns due to its brokenness, I feel that aux Eppes is the most lyrical, coherent, surprising work I have ever written. It was through this work that I realized how much I loved broken things and how much I felt they resembled me. aux Eppes jolts and jerks in the same way I do when I fail to finish a sentence with thirteen commas or take five minutes to put on my coat and shoes because I alternate between fastening buttons and guiding laces through eyelets. Perhaps the work's greatest quality is its humor, a staple of my personality that comes from incredibly funny parents and grandparents as well as a defense mechanism for my various scatterbrained quirks.

My fake string quartet aux Eppes — a severely broken work that, while a failure by most metrics having to do with longevity and listening, was an important step for me.

By the time I got to composing rain real come in Sit Ozfårs Wysr, I had already honed my broken writing technique via thousands of hours of work. Interestingly, the piece's original sketches aimed to avoid this tendency, but after a series of failed starts I ultimately drifted towards the same type of sound world as the string quartet. What made the piece challenging was its oblique reference to Over the Rainbow as well as its indebtedness to tonality, which amplifies and contextualizes brokenness much more than the language of aux Eppes. From ten hours of recorded improvisations on riffs based on memories of Over the Rainbow, which I had not listened to actively for ten years and still avoid so that my impressions remain vague, I made rudimentary transcriptions that I cut up and pasted on cardboard in different orders [2]. I would then sightread these cobbled-together passages and improvise around them, creating even longer passages that would become potential sections of the work. Once I had a basic structure, I transcribed it all with scant harmonizations and realized that the work modulated through a dizzying array of keys without any logic, surprising me at times but also lacking the clarity that supports a large form. Enter a small hack I wrote in LilyPond to flatten modulations and recast them enharmonically in one key, which allowed me to read the entire piece in B-Major.

[2] I stole this trick from Elliott Carter, who himself learned this from Stravinsky during a party. It was also Stravinsky who, in another context, famously said "Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal."

Exhibit A is from the version in one key, which was ultimately my final working document. Exhibit B is from the version that modulates at each fragment, which I find impossible to read but the singers prefer. Yet another data point to prove that I am not a singer.

This ease of switching between modulating and static versions of the score was a major conceptual aid for me, as I quickly saw what was jarring versus well-prepared. I started writing out small transitions and cutting down oblong fortspinnung, constantly switching between the two different scores to change how I saw musical information. The work's first draft was done when I was able to sing it end-to-end without improvising and without reading the score. I had internalized its brokenness, or rather, I had found a version that was a true manifestation of my internal brokenness and my non-broken rendition confirmed this.

The ensemble 101 sings rain real come.

Many tweaks were made to get the work performance-ready — recording it with Mirjam Solomon led to a barrage of changes, recording it with the ensemble 101 even more, and the last major change came from Elsa Dreisig's ruthless scythe that has no tolerance for musical overgrowth.

A recording of rain real come made in Nevers in 2013.

Having gotten adept at creating broken works, I can now improvise them in almost one piece. The work les amants for the show OVERTIME came from a single recorded take that was subsequently retouched and repitched but still resembles its raw backbone.

In more recent works, like les amants, broken has taken a turn towards a glitch aesthetic.

Interestingly, at the end of this six-year arc in music making, works that sound increasingly broken come from a reflection that is increasingly whole. It is for this reason that I feel brokenness is my stable internal state. Beyond being something that I find beautiful, it has become a universe in which I compose with alacrity, facility and coherence.

The center of the broken self

Ever since I accidentally stumbled on Jean Piaget's La représentation du monde chez l'enfant and Vladimir Jankélévitch's La mort next to each other in Rennes's Champs Libre library, I have been interested in the two opposite poles that these books represent — childhood, rich in ontology (we think the whole world is one indivisible object) and poor in epistemology (we know nothing), versus death, rich in epistemology (we know a lot of things about death, dying and dead people) and poor in ontology (few living people can say that they have been there). Let's focus on our steady progression towards the latter: imagine life as a bombardment of information that we hopelessly try to assimilate into categories only to be presented with new information that contradicts any previous conclusions. Our own certitudes become increasingly malleable, and we give up trying to reconcile all of the thoughts and inspirations that we have gleaned over time. Voilà my (and perhaps others') inherently broken state: a web of ideas that cannot be explained away by some central, federating theme. This is, incidentally, how I interpret the Jewish religion into which I was born: an ornate patchwork of contradictory and mostly nonsensical traditions that ensure endless, futile searches for some notion of a teleological fulcrum or a "way," affirming the religion's core principle that God exists everywhere, meaning that there is no center, just brokenness.

The broken self is an endless source of half-truths, contradictions, misinformation, odd perceptions, and false convictions that, for me, are communicated through musical nuance. I segment, package, refine and ship assorted bits from this ideosphere as creative works. But just because I've abandoned finding a source from which these ideas come does not mean that I can't imagine what it looks like or how it operates. The most appropriate metaphor I know for this source is Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. Many speculate that the tree, which lovingly gives all of its riches to a selfish man as he grows older and has different needs, represents an unhealthy parent-child relationship. For me, the book is an allegory for our communication with the part of our brain that generates thought and feeling. We are often abusive or cruel to it, we give it little or no recognition (we don't even know how), we constantly come back to it in need, and yet it is fundamentally generous and giving. This generosity is the animus of life, the reason that we get out of bed, that which allows us not to be crippled by our own imperfections and the basis for my unflagging, categorical optimism.

They IS 2You Equals=

Everyone, is,- What They IS,
Saying —IT- doesn’t make you=     _More IS._

Mexico Korea from Trecartin's
K-CoreaINC.K (Section A)

Halfway into K-CoreaINC.K, Mexico Korea expresses a depressing truism about (wo)man's brokenness. We seek to define and discover ourselves by saying things, but these things have no incidence on who we are — our "IS" remains unaltered, and only others' perception of our "IS" changes. Saying something nice may make me more liked, but describing my IS to my friend will not make me more IS. Even regarding communication with oneself, I can hope that Freud's talking cure will teach me to be happier, smarter, more sensitive or more personable, but I can never hope that it will make me exist more. In Trecartin's film, Mexico Korea is referring to the Koreas collective failure to assimilate Jessica, who they decide to call Cindy. Jessica/Cindy embraces her new identity immediately, but Mexico Korea reminds us that nothing she says about herself can act on what she actually is — an outsider that will never be another Korea. We are broken because we can never meaningfully "say" anything about our IS, nor can saying these things act on our immutable existence. I feel an anxiety about the immutability of existence that translates into yearning to somehow exist more without being able to equate "more" to an augmentation of the receptors (taste, smell, thought, feelings) through which existence is exercised. This frustration is undoubtedly social, likely stemming from a false perception of others' contentment coupled with a futility of understanding how I exist, which is a much more interesting question than the intellectual cul-de-sac of why I exist. Otherwise said, the brokenness we feel is a knowledge gap between our thoughts, sentiments and sensations on one side and the existence that is the progenitor of these elements on the other.

Even worse is when, in taking about our IS, we realize that our IS is no longer what it was.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres-
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholy new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Saying anything about ourselves paradoxically moves us farther away from our IS, which creates a different type of anxiety. It results in a sense of loneliness, as one realizes the absurd nature of self-referential statements — that right after one says something, it is attributed to a person that they no longer are. As a salve to this, I think of Steve Martin's introduction to Born Standing Up.

This book is not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes they seemed to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream.

Steve Martin, Born Standing Up

While we can never engage in auto-biography, we are privileged biographers of ourselves. This is my response to Mexico Korea's assertion and my way out of T.S. Eliot's morose predicament. We are all radically alone with the thoughts and feelings that are ejected by our IS into the chaotic pinball machine or our minds, but we can observe, document, fantasize about and fictionalize particularly fruitful collisions of these satellites.

This is a video of a baby monkey riding on a pig. I have no clue why I put it in this blog.

Marie Vernhes, our costume designer, once remarked that I make a lot of references to music or literature in both my speech and my compositions. I am not sure why I am this way, but one side effect of being obsessionally referential is that it helps me be a better musical biographer of myself. Self-biography (à la Martin, meaning not auto-biography) is a fantastic response to one's brokenness. It alleviates the anxiety of wanting to be "more IS" by making us sleuths of what was. Our job is similar to that of a documentary editor: from a disparate set of material, we are forced to make a compelling narrative that reveals what we think if not who we are. It is perhaps for this reason that I am so attached to rain real come. More than other works in Sit Ozfårs Wysr, it is a musical metaphor for the broken self: from a central reference that I intentionally ignore and misremember comes a flurry of broken thoughts that, when projected into time, show my own sensibilities about form, comedy and harmony.

Ending with a beginning, I'm reminded of the first line of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

Все счастли́вые се́мьи похо́жи друг на дру́га, ка́ждая несчастли́вая семья́ несчастли́ва по-сво́ему.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Of course, we are only interested in the broken families: happy ones are boring and undeserving of hundreds of pages of late 19th-century realist prose. Everyone is broken "in her own way" and thus has the capacity for originality. The artist has a knack for the cultivation of this brokenness coupled with a need to explore and document its unique qualities. People find the artist's gesture interesting or meaningful because it provides both the map of the broken self and the catapulting impetus for a journey through this emotional space, convincing us, just for a second, that we can exist more — that we can be _More IS_.

A postlude

I leave the reader with an excerpt from a very soft passage of music at the end of a swing number towards the middle of the show. The passage is never sung in full as it serves as a transition, but its intentional incompleteness is, for me, precisely that which is of interest. Such is life, or at least such is mine — glimpses of unfathomably rich spaces of fantasy and wonderment that, like the Holy of Holies, will always remain inaccessible. I feel that this is the closest I will ever get to Kierkegaard’s notion of faith, albeit a personal, non-ecclesiastical one — a modicum of serenity with respect to one’s brokenness coupled with an absurd belief that one can be whole.

Oh Joy \ What jubilation we are showing \ What paucity of doubt and glee \ that's flowing in our marrow \ with a terrifying rage \ that magnifies happiness \ What great cornucopia of pleasance \ that escapes my veins \ and covers me with \ effulgent light \ It penetrates evry hole that I've made in you \ And burrows unremitting like a \ maggot through my weather beaten skin \ What felicity \ What exhilarating cheer \ Unbridled relentless mirth \ I categorically endorse this gay predicament \ This other way \ This absence of a self \ This horrible intrusion \ This pandemonium that burns my face \ Extraordinary candor stroking my trembling thighs \ Feeling playfully quizzical \ Fear energizing sentimental moods and \ tapping on my forearm \ Unlike the killing of a dolphin \ This dream is euphoric \ Smearing all the colors of my bright spirit \ A genuine re shaping of my lungs \ And of my feet \ Ecstasy siphoning the nectar of my spine \ Such generosity \ Such overwhelming hope \ Radiate, shine, and flicker like a burning wad of flesh \ Murder me with intransigent verve \ Render me impotent with titillating lust \ Fondle me roughly like a buck \ Wonder and curiosity \ Pouring out of my mouth \ What singular miracle \ Ravaging my sedentary lips \ Deflowering my ancillary hairs \ Utterly incredulous \ Festive if not exuberant \ Winsome is how I'd categorize this merry energized state