24 MARCH 2005, 11:00AM - 12:00PM
INTERVIEW ON "THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN COMPOSERS' SYMPOSIUM" (RADIO ADELAIDE)
WITH ALICE KEATH AND LUKE ALTMANN
Alice: Good morning and welcome to The S.A. Composers' Symposium. I'm Alice Keath, in the studio with Luke Altmann and Alex Carpenter, and you're listening to Radio Adelaide, 101.5 FM, and worldwide on the internet. Alex is our special guest on the program today. For those of you who may have listened to this show previously, you'll know that Alex has been a bit of a favourite on this show as a guest. And he's brought in some of his music again today—some new pieces, and some pieces you may've heard already. This first piece actually has turned into a bit of a hit on this show, Alex. Rose Street Womb—it's definitely on our top-30 countdown.
Alex: High rotation.
Alice: Yes, that's right. High rotation on the S.A. Composers' Symposium.
Luke: When we say "high rotation", of course, for a modern piece of classical music, that means at least once a month.
Alice: So, for the first time "this month", Rose Street Womb. Can you actually tell us a bit about this piece?
Alex: Well, this piece is I think a good introduction to my music, and particularly my project Music of Transparent Means. I tend to work with two different approaches right now; one is to use multiple performers—and this piece is an example of that approach—playing mainly little phrases which are open to the performers to improvise around to a certain extent. One of the chief instructions they are given is to continually repeat and continually slow down. For the wind players, this involves occasional breaks—obviously they need to take breaths, regain their stamina and that sort of thing—but for the keyboard instruments and the guitars, they can keep going. Really the keyboards and guitars create the central drone around which the wind players perform. And this is I guess an example of my explorations into texture, and I could even say timbre.
It's funny—texture and timbre are two things which can't really be notated in traditional notation, and yet they are such vital elements of music, and two elements which contribute a lot to the creation of mood. I've always been interested in these elements, and sound quality, over and above say melodic development and that sort of thing. I think even when you take a recording of what you think is mainly a melodic piece, the sound quality of that recording secretly plays probably an even more important part than melody in terms of the type of mood it creates. And this is something I've been really interested in as a composer, and it's led me into a few dilemmas in terms of "how do you notate this sort of thing?"
In actual fact, one thing I was going to say about this piece Rose Street Womb, is that a significant part of the "composition" actually happens in the space. Because a lot of what needs to happen is setting up the amps correctly, and making sure the timbre is "right". You can't really do that just on a score. You need to be there, on location, and in rehearsal, really fine-tuning that aspect of it, which is to me the most vital part.
Alice: So is there any way as a composer that you can take control of these elements?
Alex: I'm gradually working out ways of doing it. And it puts me in a position where I'm in a way closer to using the approach of a band member, or band coordinator, instead of that of a composer.
The particular timbre I'm after in this I've found can be achieved through placement of performers. If the wind players for example are placed right next to an amp with a blasting drone coming from the keyboard, they play in a very different way. Like, their whole articulation and approach to playing that phrase is completely different to what it would be if they were in the distance, away from that sound. They're actually then [when close to the amp] playing more "into" the sound, fighting to be heard within the web.
I was talking to someone about this the other day, and it was suggested maybe it didn't matter where the performer was seated as the same result could be achieved by just instructing them to play "triple-forte". Certainly a fair comment from this person, who is extremely skilled in the craft of composition. But my response to that is: "yes, the volume would be the same, but the timbre wouldn't." And the tuning wouldn't be, either. There are certain desirable results in the way a wind player alters their intonation when they are right next to another sound source. And this just wouldn't happen if they couldn't hear that sound source. It's not something that can be approximated. It's physical.
Alice: I guess that's closely related to one of your interests, which is tuning systems, and—a lot of times it's the same with spectralist compositions, or compositions dealing with non-equal-tempered music—there are certain things that you can notate, and there are certain tuning and timbral fundamentals when you're playing an instrument that are just kind of innate. String players are always actually adjusting their tuning anyway, according to where they're sitting in a chord, or what they can hear around them—
Alex: —what they're tuning to.
Alice: Yeah, exactly. So I guess as a composer, you have to draw the fine line between taking control of these things, and just knowing what comes naturally to a player.
Alex: Yeah. It's a different sort of thinking about the whole process, too. Suddenly, being there in rehearsal is a huge part of the actual composition. It's not just a case where you have a score and everything is sort of secondary to that. You do need to think about what "this" or "that" performer is hearing, and predict how they're going to respond to it.
Alice: That's actually a very interesting issue, especially in our increasingly litigious society. I guess La Monte Young has faced problems with his rehearsal process, and there has been some dispute over who has rights to the music. How do you claim control over your work in a rehearsal process?
Alex: I think it's usually fairly clear that it's my project. I guess it could be an issue if I find some other performers who are equally as obsessed as I am with this sort of thing. But so far it's mostly been situations where I'm instructing people what to do. These tricks to do with performer placement - really they are underhanded ways of guiding what results; I'm never explicitly saying "listen to this amp". My hopes about what will result are kept pretty secret.
Alice: Yeah. I guess, again, that's going to have an affect on the way that they play, if they're conscious of altering the way they play.
Alex: Definitely. As far as they know they could've just been put in that spot by accident!
Alice: Yeah, or because they're wearing a green shirt and that goes well with purple shirt the drummer's wearing.
Alex: Well, that has to be considered as well, obviously.
Alice: Oh, of course! It's of paramount importance! Shall we listen to Rose Street Womb?
Alex: Yes. This is is an excerpt from one performance—one incarnation—of this piece. From the Music of Transparent Means season at last year's Fringe, at the Bakehouse. 21 performers playing in this version.
[EXCERPT FROM ROSE STREET WOMB]
Alice: Rose Street Womb, composed by our special guest today, Alex Carpenter. Alex, before we played that piece we were discussing ways that you take control over the rehearsal process in producing certain sounds. I guess if you had your way, you'd be able to take control of the way people actually listened to the pieces as well [laughs].
Alex: Ooo [laughing]. Sounds like such a terrible thing to say. In a way that's true, but I can clarify that by saying my interest in music has always been fueled by what I hear in sound that is kind of limitless, and totally part of a different world to the rational world of symbols and languages, which go towards maintaining this illusion of certainty we have in daily life. It's almost as though by listening to sound we can cut straight through that facade, and connect to this part of reality that is bigger than us, and beyond the limited perspectives we habitually fall into, and unthinkingly maintain.
And I found that the more continuously I was able to focus on particular, singular sounds, the easier that process of access was. And I was able to get to a point where the sounds weren't symbols serving a language anymore, but just the sounds themselves. So they were affecting me directly, not being diluted through some cerebral process of interpretation.
So I think I realised pretty early on that there were these two modes of listening, and they were very different. And I guess I wanted to share this alternative mode that I felt was harder to just stumble into. So I had to try and find a way of, not telling people how to listen, but certainly encouraging this more direct engagement.
And the answer for me was minimalism and repetition, because I personally always had that experience when I was given the opportunity to focus on one sound for extended periods of time. That was the key to me - having one sound either in isolation, or in a context where it was continually returned to. Again, I think what happens there is you remove the functionality of that sound. To take an arbitrary example, when you listen to the interval of a fifth in a piece by Bach, it is always in passing. For that music to function, the fifth needs to serve a role within the formal syntax of that piece.
Alice: I guess you're listening to the piece and what you're really waiting for the whole time is to come back to the tonic. And so the whole piece is in a sense going somewhere, and you know that as a listener. Even if you're not aware that you're moving through, you know, a "second chord" to a "four chord" to "five" and then to a "one", that's really how the whole piece is structured - to make you want to return to that tonic.
Alex: Right. So that "fifth", when it comes around - you don't hear it as a sound in itself, you hear it as an entity serving a function within a language. And that's sort of what I wanted to get away from, even though I love Bach and classical music in general. I just wanted to represent this other type of listening and encourage that. So yeah, the key for me was to reduce functional material and present single sounds—or continually returned-to sounds—over extended periods of time. I think this allows—and I do say "allows" because it doesn't guarantee that this will happen, but it allows—a person the space to perceptually delve into those sounds if they want to.
Alice: With reducing the material so dramatically, I guess you have to be fairly conscious—and I'd assume that you are—of the material that you end up choosing. Have you come across any particular predilections in this process, like in terms of harmony for example?
Alex: Hmm, interesting question. One thing I am interested in with harmony is how it really is fundamentally interconnected with timbre - and texture, and rhythm, and pitch. These elements are really all the same energy, but again our language tends to keep them pretty separate. It's not that these distinctions are false, obviously, but it's good to see the connections too. And one thing I tried to explore with this next piece is how rhythm sped-up can read as texture, in the same way that if you magnify a timbre it can really be a harmony.
The way timbre works is by different harmonics interacting to create what appears to be a single sound. But really what's happening is a complex interaction of harmonic components, which if you examine in isolation can look like the notes of a chord. And this is happening in pretty much every sound everywhere. And so you've got these worlds of harmony and timbre, which we tend to think of as totally separate—and "composers" often have to keep them separate—but on a certain level these distinctions are meaningless. And to get to a realisation of that within a piece can I think be beautiful.
Alice: Perhaps for those listeners who aren't musicians, would you like to just define what you mean exactly by timbre and texture and these different things that play such an important role in your music?
Alex: Timbre is another word for "sound quality", really.
Alice: And by "quality" we don't mean a value judgement, as in how "good" it is.
Alex: Right. "Quality" as in "characteristics" of a sound. Like, a certain sound might be "tinny" or "dead-sounding".
Alice: "Tone colour" I guess is another way of saying it.
Alex: Right. And so a "tinny" sound is going to contain more high harmonics than a "dead" sound. So these adjectives we use like "tinny" or "dead" are kind of inadvertently describing how a sound is structured microscopically.
Alice: And of course for those who don't know about harmonics [laughter], a "high harmonic" scientifically is a vibration that is beating faster, is that right?
Alex: That's right. If you were to strike a dinner plate for example, and you heard essentially just one tone, it's likely that that tone is actually the result of many instances of vibration combining together. The composite tone that is reinforced by all these components is what registers as "pitch", while any other audible vibrations go towards the overall timbral characteristics of that sound. Initially at least anyway; on longer exposure you might start to hear the multiple pitches.
Alice: And so is a sine tone something that has a single harmonic frequency?
Alex: Yes, that's right. You very rarely find a sine tone in "nature." It's something that you'd only really hear..
Alice: -over the airwaves when something's gone awry.
Alex: Or, you know, on a keyboard or something like that.
Alice: That's an interesting thing to consider. We're so used to saying as musicians, and as listeners, "okay, that's an A", or "that's an A-flat", or "that's a dominant chord", we don't actually think about all the different sounds that are going on in what we're hearing. And I guess that's what you're trying to explore.
Alex: There's so much more going on than simply what is "composed" and "played", and I think it's good to highlight the richness of this equation we're part of sometimes.
Just going back to a previous point, and also to lead on to this next piece, an example of a connection we might normally miss is that between rhythm and texture. We're so used to seeing these elements as separate. But sometimes we can have this realisation—intuitively, not just intellectually—that they really are fundamentally linked. And that's what I'm trying to explore in this next piece Mountain Piece 2, which involves several percussion players playing tom-tom drums. And by several I mean maybe 20 or something in this recording. Basically, they are speeding up their notes until the parts get so fast—and there are so many of them—that you lose any sense you initially had of the rhythmic element of the piece, and it really does become a texture. Then when they slow down again that texture becomes rhythmic again. I mean, it always was rhythmic (and it always was textural as well), but towards the end of the piece as the players slow down you start identifying rhythm again, and it returns as the focus, only hopefully more "transparently".
What we'll hear now is an excerpt which takes you from the middle of the piece, where everyone's playing at their fastest, to just a little way into the slowing-down. So you'll get a sense of what I've been talking about, hopefully.
Alice: Okay. Mountain Piece 2 by Alex Carpenter.
[EXCERPT FROM MOUNTAIN PIECE 2]
Alice: In case you've just tuned in, you're listening to the South Australian Composers' Symposium, on Radio Adelaide 101.5 FM and worldwide on the internet. I'm Alice Keath, and I'm sitting in the studio today with Luke Altmann and special guest Alex Carpenter, who's been talking about his music, and the ideas behind his music. We've so far played Rose Street Womb and Mountain Piece 2. And we're going to hear next a piece called Deep Golden Flourish. Does this explore any different compositional processes to the other pieces?
Alex: Only in the sense that it's not a multi-performer piece like the two pieces we've just heard. It's created with solo guitar and an array of guitar amps. Recorded in the studio rather than during a live performance. Basically, with this setup I feed the guitar through a network of delay pedals, and they create different length loops that are then fed to the different amps around the room and provide material to build from. In a way the CD is just an approximation of what it sounds like in the actual space, as obviously having multiple amps gives you a unique spatial element that can't really be represented on CD.
Alice: Anyone who's listening at home perhaps you might want to hop in your car, if you've got the four speakers, and drive around for Deep Golden Flourish. Then you might be able to relive the quadrophonic experience somewhat. [Laughter.] Otherwise it may be lost on your portable radio.
Alex: I should really mix it in 5.1, the DVD format that supports surround sound, but alas this is just stereo. But we'll just hear a little bit of this I think as I've got some other stuff I'd like to play you.
Alice: Okay, here it is. Deep Golden Flourish.
[EXCERPT FROM DEEP GOLDEN FLOURISH]
Alice: You've been listening to Deep Golden Flourish by Alex Carpenter, our presenter, programmer and special guest today on the SA Composers' Symposium. Now, let's launch straight into the next piece you've brought in. I believe this is an on-air premiere?
Alex: Yes, that's right. Everything you've heard up to now is actually available from my website transparentmeans.net, but this piece is so far unreleased. It's called Burial Music, and again it's a recording of a live performance. Keyboard through multiple delays and amps.
Alice: Burial Music by Adelaide composer, Alex Carpenter. Would you like to explain where that title comes from?
Alex: You probably heard there, the piece began quite melodically. It's probably one of the most melodic pieces I've written. But as the piece progresses, and the delays get more pronounced, it seems to me like what occurs is a burial of melody.
Alice: So it doesn't have any extra-musical meaning?
Alex: It does in a way. Actually this is the piece I use to accompany a video work involving time-lapse imagery of flowers opening. I find it interesting watching the flowers open, which represents kind of a "birth" and an "emerging of life", and at the same time hearing this music, which is quite literally enacting a burial. I guess here I was thinking a lot about the artificial separation we like to keep between life and death: two things which—much like rhythm and texture—are actually completely inseparable in reality! But, let's not go into all that because we'll be here forever!
Alice: And we're fast approaching "Jazz on the Terrace" at noon.
Alex: But please do visit my website transparentmeans.net where there's a lot of writing on these topics, as well as links to my CDs. You'll also find my email if you want to continue the conversation. Or just say hi.
Alice: Or say how much you've enjoyed this music. Let's now take us through to "Jazz on the Terrace" with Excavation Patterns, the last piece you've chosen for us. Would you like to briefly explain what this piece is all about?
Alex: Excavation Patterns is a 4-part work of mine using guitar and multiple delays and amps, also recorded in the studio rather than in performance. This particular track that we're going to hear is the second part of Excavation Patterns, called "Middle".
Alice: You've been listening to the SA Composers' Symposium on Radio Adelaide, 101.5 FM and worldwide on the internet. I'm Alice Keath and I've been in the studio with Luke Altmann, and special guest has been Alex Carpenter, whose music you're about to hear now.
[EXCERPT FROM EXCAVATION PATTERNS, PART 2: MIDDLE]