|Four Innovative American Composers Sound Off|
|Reprinted from The New York Times|
|ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MARCH 29, 2007, in TimesSelect|
|Bringing in the Noise|
|By ANNIE GOSFIELD|
Some call it noise, I call it inspiration.
It’s all raw material to me: the random banging of the radiator, a wildly oscillating car alarm, or the hypnotic churn of a cement truck. Other kids may have loved sing alongs and nursery rhymes, but my cherished childhood musical memories are of broken pianos, Steve Reich, audio collages, and the gentle static hum of a radio drifting out of tune.
The composer looks skyward for sonic inspiration. (Photo: Josh Gosfield)
I have always loved to listen intently to things that aren’t music, such as the radio tuned between stations, television static, and white noise. Machine sounds, ambient noises, and deteriorating instruments have had as much of an influence on my work as any composers or teachers. Over the years, figuring out how to integrate these ideas into my work has been an important part of discovering my own voice as a composer.
As a very small child, I remember my older brother (Josh Gosfield, now a terrific photographer) putting his head between two speakers to listen to Steve Reich’s seminal tape piece, “Come Out” — his listening experience was enhanced by psychedelics. (“Come Out” is constructed of loops of taped speech that repeat and gradually go out of phase, in a way that is both mesmerizing and disturbing.) This ominous, dangerous, mysterious world of sound showed me that all kinds of music could be beautiful. I like to think that Reich’s attention to detail and craft in “Come Out” was an eventual influence on my own work, but that could be attributing a little too much to a 6-year-old’s ears.
Another unusual early memory is of my mother and father listening to “Radio Programme No. 1: Audio Collage,” a Folkways LP of musique concrète and tape manipulation by Henry Jacobs, a legendary friend of the family who introduced my parents to each other in the 1940s.
I discovered tape manipulation for myself at age 12, when I found an abandoned reel-to-reel tape recorder at my parents’ house. The transport was broken, so I used two pencils to rotate the reels. I quickly learned the ins and outs of manipulating the tape so I could control it to play backward and forward, which revealed the sounds of a couple having sex, recorded by a couple of hippie pranksters at a communal farm in Vermont. I spun the reels at different speeds to alter the pitch and speed of the moans and groans, experimenting with musique concrète techniques without even knowing it.
I became fascinated with detuned sounds a couple of years later on a riverboat in New Orleans. The sheer power of a wildly out of tune calliope blasting out “Basin Street Blues” and “Do You Know What it Means To Miss New Orleans” gave those old standards a new life for me. The giant old calliope sounded as if it had been left to decay on that boat for decades: its odd, dissonant intervals stretched the melodies to new limits, and the wild card tunings tempered the music’s sentimental clichés.
Being exposed to these unusual sounds as a child instilled an enduring link in my mind between music and noise. I became captivated with the everyday sounds around me. Nothing in my traditional musical education prepared me to incorporate such sounds into my music, so I had to find my own way.
There’s nothing like the raw beauty of a beat-up old upright piano, and the strange tunings and random imperfections that it acquires after years of abuse in a smoky barroom. But in concert halls, grand pianos are well-maintained, and tuned on the day of a concert. What’s an out-of-tune upright-loving composer to do?
When I wrote “The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory,” I used technology to bring destroyed pianos from the trash heap to the concert hall. Part I is a fantasy of what four out-of-tune, broken, and prepared pianos would sound like all playing together - almost like a quartet of derelict player pianos gone mad. It is one of the first of my pieces inspired by these sounds; newly affordable sampling technology helped me realize this dense tangle of notes. (A sampler is basically a digital recorder attached to a piano-style keyboard, I can load in any sound and then play it back at any pitch.) Thank god for the sampler — no club or concert hall would ever let me inflict the damage to a piano that I can inflict electronically with my instrument. I happily detune, prepare, layer, and mutilate my beloved piano sounds, load them into my sampler, and then perform them all over the world with the press of a button.
Like many children, I loved to fall asleep while listening to the radio. But I preferred the radio to be tuned between stations, so I could listen to shifting white noise, faraway voices, and mysterious random sounds. “Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites” is inspired by those unpredictable, distant radio transmissions.
This story of man and machine provided a perfect point of departure for a composition for violin, performed by a man, and satellite sounds, generated by a machine. I created a recorded track that combined old satellite sounds, shortwave transmissions, white noise, electronics, and a shot of machine sounds. I worked closely with George to develop a violin part that uses both traditional methods and extended instrumental techniques that blend with, contrast, and complement the satellite sounds. In performance, the violinist follows a score that accompanies the satellite sounds and electronic flotsam and jetsam on a CD, so the piece can be played anywhere, with just a violin and a CD player.
In the score, there are often two different approaches to achieving the same sound: looser directions (“becoming more noisy, like a radio losing reception”), as well as specific performance indications (“poco a poco sul ponticello, increasing pressure and losing pitch without scratching”). Every violinist who performs “Lost Signals” can interpret the piece in his or her own way, and find the melodies and beauty within the noise, just as I imagined those watching Sputnik did in 1957. Like a radio that is gradually losing and gaining reception, the music shifts between two worlds, hovering between notes and noise, and ultimately drifts into faraway static.
When I was writing “Lost Signals,” and immersed in the abstract wash of radio sounds, I imagined composing a larger work for an ensemble of voices, instruments, and electronics, that would expand on the idea of radio waves intermingling with live musicians. I was also digging deeper into the history of radio transmissions, which led me to my pursue my next project, an opera based on the encrypted radio transmissions of the Danish Resistance in World War II. I loved the abstract qualities of shortwave transmissions, and learned how the Danish Resistance broadcast surreal poems as coded messages. These elements sounded like the perfect musical match for me. The surreal, lyrical messages will be used as text, both in their pure form, and altered, as if broadcast via shortwave or Morse code. The actual texts and recordings will act as a sort of disembodied narrator, providing a plot that unravels in a series of intertwined characters and stories.
I never would have guessed that one short piece for violin might lead to an opera. But one idea builds on another, and now I am developing a dream project that blends the beauty of abstract sound with the power and versatility of a large ensemble.
My love of noise has inspired me to listen more thoughtfully to everyday sounds, and to consider a sound world outside of traditional instrumentation and techniques. Not every piece I write incorporates out of tune pianos or radio transmissions, but these odd sounds have, in a sense, opened my mind to find beauty in sound everywhere, and taught me that sometimes a less conventional approach to music can be the most compelling.
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|The Score is a series of articles by composers published on TimesSelect
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