Despite his fascination with extremely dense structures, California-based composer Chris Brown is surprisingly tolerant about loosely interpreting them. Chalk it up to being realistic about expectations, or a musical career that has been equally devoted to composing and improvising, but to Brown “the loose comes with the tight.” That seemingly contradictory dichotomy informs everything he creates, whether it’s designing elaborate electronic feedback systems that respond to live performances and transform them in real time or—for his solo piano tour-de-force Six Primes—calculating a complete integration of pitch and meter involving 13-limit just intonation and a corresponding polyrhythm of, say, 13 against 7.
“I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer,” Brown admitted when we chatted with him in a Lower East Side hotel room at a break before a rehearsal during his week-long residency at The Stone. “It’s so exciting and fresh to be at that point where you have this experience that is new. It’s not easy to get there. It takes a lot of discipline, but actually to have the discipline is the virtue itself, to basically be following something, testing yourself, looking for something that’s new, until eventually you find it.”
Yet despite Brown’s dedication and deep commitment to uncharted musical relationships that are often extraordinarily difficult to perform, Brown is hardly a stickler for precision.
“If you played it perfectly, like a computer, it wouldn’t sound that good,” he explained. “I always say when I’m working with musicians, think of these as targets. … It’s not about getting more purity. There’s always this element that’s a little out of control. … If we’re playing a waltz, it’s not a strict one-two-three; there’s a little push-me pull-you in there.”
Brown firmly believes that the human element is central and that computers should never replace people. As he put it, “It’s really important that we don’t lose the distinction of what the model is rather than the thing it’s modeled on. I think it’s pretty dangerous to do that, actually.”
So for Brown, musical complexity is ultimately just a means to an end which is about giving listeners greater control of their own experiences with what they are hearing. In the program notes for a CD recording of his electro-acoustic sound installation Talking Drum, Brown claimed that he reason he is attracted to complex music is “because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a sound field.”
Brown’s aesthetics grew out of his decades of experience as an improviser—over the years he’s collaborated with an extremely wide range of musicians including Wayne Horvitz, Wadada Leo Smith, and Butch Morris—and from being one of the six composers who collectively create live networked computer music as The Hub. Long before he got involved in any of these projects, Brown was an aspiring concert pianist who was obsessed with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto which he performed with the Santa Cruz Symphony as an undergrad. Now he has come to realize that even standard classical works are not monoliths.
“Everybody in that Schumann Piano Concerto is hearing something slightly different, too, but there’s this idea somehow that this is an object that’s self-contained,” he pointed out. “It’s actually an instruction for a ritual that sounds different every time it’s done. Compositions are more or less instructions for what they should do, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.”
Chris Brown’s first album was released in 1989, ironically the same year as the birth of another musical artist who shares his name, a Grammy Award-winning and Billboard chart-topping R & B singer-songwriter and rapper. This situation has led to some funny anecdotes involving mistaken identity—calls to his Mills College office requesting he perform Sweet Sixteen parties—as well as glitches on search engines including the one on Amazon.
“These are basically search algorithm anomalies,” he conceded wryly. To me it’s yet another reason to heed his advice about machines and not to overly rely on them to solve all the world’s problems.
Frank J. Oteri: Once I knew you were coming to New York City for a week-long residency at The Stone and that we’d have a chance to have a conversation, I started looking around to see if there were any recordings of your music that I hadn’t yet heard. When I did a search on Amazon, I kept getting an R & B singer-songwriter and rapper named Chris Brown, who was actually born the year that the first CD under your name was released.
Chris Brown: Say no more.
FJO: I brought it up because I think it raises some interesting issues about celebrity. There is now somebody so famous who has your name, and you’ve had a significant career as a composer for years before he was born. But maybe there’s a silver lining in it. Perhaps it’s brought other people to your music who might not otherwise have known about it—people who were looking for the other Chris Brown, especially on Amazon since both your recordings and his show up together.
CB: These are basically search algorithm anomalies, but the story behind that is that when the famous Chris Brown started to become famous, I started getting recorded messages on my office phone machine at Mills, because people would search for Chris Brown’s music and it would take them to the music department at Mills. They would basically be fan gushes for the most part. Sometimes they would involve vocalizing, because they were trying to get a chance to record. Sometimes they would ask if he could play their Sweet Sixteen party. There were tons of them. At the beginning, every day, there were long messages of crying and doing anything so that they could get close to Chris Brown in spite of the fact that my message was always a professorial greeting. It didn’t matter. So it was a hassle. Occasionally I would engage with the people by saying this is not the right Chris Brown and trying to send them somewhere else.
It’s a common name. When I was growing up, there weren’t that many Chrises, but somehow it got really popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Anyway, these days not much happens, except that what it’s really meant is kind of a blackout for me on internet searches. It’s hard to find me if somebody’s looking. Since I started working at Mills, the first thing that David Rosenboom said to me when I came in is there’s thing called the internet and you should get an email account. Everybody was making funny little handles for themselves as names. From that day, mine was cbmuse for Chris Brown Music. I still have that same email address at Mills.edu. So I go by cbmuse. That’s the best I can do. Sometimes some websites say Christopher Owen Brown, using the John Luther Adams approach to too many John Adamses. It’s kind of a drag, but on the other hand, it’s a little bit like living on the West Coast anyway, which is that you’re out of the main commercial aspect of your field, which is really in New York. On the West Coast, there’s not as much traffic so you have more time and space. To some extent, you’re not so much about your handle; you still get to be an individual and be yourself. I could have made a new identity for myself, but I sort of felt like I don’t want to do that. I’ve always gone by Chris Brown. I’ve never really attached to Christopher Brown. Maybe this is a longer answer than you were looking for.
FJO: It’s more than I thought I’d get. I thought it could have led to talking about your piece Rogue Wave, which features a DJ. Perhaps Rouge Wave could be a gateway piece for the fans of the other Chris Brown to discover your music.
CB: I don’t think that happens though. That was not an attempt to do something commercial. I could talk about that if you like, since we’re on it. Basically, the DJ on it, Eddie Def, was somebody I met through a gig where I was playing John Zorn’s music at a rock club in San Francisco and through Mike Patton, who knew about him. He invited Eddie to play in the session and he just blew me away. I was playing samples and he was playing samples. I was playing mine off my Mac IIci, with a little keyboard, and he was playing off records. He was cutting faster than I was some of the time. Usually you think, “Okay, I’ve a got a sample in every key. I can go from one to the other very quickly.” He just matched me with every change. So we got to be friends and really liked each other. We did a number of projects together. That was just one of them. He’s a total virtuoso, so that’s why I did a piece with him.
FJO: You’ve worked with so many different kinds of musicians over the years. From a stylistic perspective, it’s been very open-ended. The very first recording I ever heard you on, which was around the time it came out, was Wayne Horvitz’s This New Generation, which is a fascinating record because it mixes these really out there sounds with really accessible grooves and tunes.
CB: I knew Wayne from college at UC Santa Cruz. He was kind of the ringmaster of the improv scene in the early ‘70s in Santa Cruz. I wasn’t quite in that group, but I would join it and I picked up a lot about what was going on in improvised music through participating with them in some of their jam sessions. Wayne and I were friends, so when he moved to New York, I’d sometimes come to visit him. Eventually, he moved out of New York to San Francisco. I had an apartment available in my building, so he lived in it. He was basically living above us. He was continuing to do studio projects, and this was one of them. He had his little studio setup upstairs and one day he said, “Would you come upstairs and record a couple of tracks for me?” He played his stuff and he asked me to play one of the electro-acoustic instruments that I built, so I did. I didn’t think too much more of it than that, but then it appeared on this Electra-Nonesuch record and there was a little check for it. It was my little taste of that part of the new music scene that was going on in New York. Eventually Wayne moved out and now he lives in Seattle. We still see each other occasionally. It’s an old friendship.
FJO: You’ve actually done quite a bit of work with people who have been associated with the jazz community, even though I know that word is a limiting word, just like classical is a limiting word. You’ve worked with many pioneers of improvisational music, including Wadada Leo Smith and Butch Morris, and you were also a member of the Glenn Spearman Double Trio, which was a very interesting group. It’s very sad. He died very young.
FJO: So how did you become involved with improvised music?
CB: Well, I was a classically trained pianist and I eventually wound up winning a scholarship and played the [Robert] Schumann Piano Concerto with the Santa Cruz Symphony. But I was starting to realize that that was not going to be my future because I was interested in humanities and the new wave of philosophy—Norman O. Brown. I got to study with him when I was there, and he told me I should really check out John Cage because he was a friend of Cage’s: “If you’re doing music, you should know what this is.” So I went out and got the books, and I was completely beguiled and entranced by them. It was a whole new way of listening to sound as well as music, or music as sound, erasing the boundary. So I was very influenced by that, but almost at the same time I was getting to know these other friends in the department who were coming more out of rock backgrounds. They were influenced by people like Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the free jazz improvisers. These jam sessions that Wayne would run were in some way related. There were a lot of influences on that musical strain, but that’s where I started improvising.
I was also studying with Gordon Mumma and with a composer named William Brooks, who was a Cage scholar as well as a great vocalist and somebody who’d studied with Kenneth Gaburo. With Brooks, I took a course that was an improvisation workshop where the starting point was no instruments, just movement and words—that part was from the Gaburo influence. That was a semester of every night getting together and improvising with an ensemble. I think it was eight people. I’d love if that had been documented. I have never seen or heard it since then, but it influenced me quite a bit. To me, improvisation seems like the most natural thing in the world. Why wouldn’t a musician want to do it? Then, on the other side of this, people from the New York school were coming by and were really trying to distinguish what they did from improvisation. I think there was a bit of an uptown/downtown split there. They were trying to say this is more like classical music and not like improvisation. It’s a discipline of a different nature. Ultimately I think it’s a class difference that was being asserted. And I think Cage had something to do with that, trying to distinguish what he did from jazz. He was trying to get away from jazz.
I didn’t have much of a jazz background, but I had an appreciation for it growing up in Chicago. I had some records. At the beginning I’d say my taste in jazz was a little more Herbie Hancock influenced than Cecil Taylor. But once I discovered Cecil Taylor, when I put that next to Karlheinz Stockhausen, I started to see that this is really kind of the same. This is music of the same time. It may have been made in totally different ways, and it results from a different energy and feeling from those things, but it’s not that different. And it seems to me that there’s more in common than there is not. So I really never felt there was that boundary. So I participated in sessions with musicians who were improvising with or without pre-designed structures. It was just something I did.
The first serious professional group I got involved with was a group called Confluence. This came about in the late 1970s with some of my older friends from Santa Cruz, who’d gone down and gotten master’s degrees at UC San Diego. It was another interesting convergence of these two sides of the world. They worked with David Tudor on Rainforest, the piece where you attach transducers to an object, pick up the sound after it’s gone through the object, and then amplify it again. Sometimes there’s enough sound out of the object itself that it has an acoustic manifestation. Anyway, it’s a fantastic piece and they were basically bringing that practice into an improvisation setting. The rule of the group was no pre-set compositional design and no non-homemade instruments. You must start with an instrument you made yourself and usually those instruments were electro-acoustic, so they had pickups on them, somewhat more or less like Rainforest instruments. The other people in that group were Tom Nunn and David Poyourow. When David got out of school he wanted to move up to the Bay Area and continue this group. One of the members of it then had been another designer, a very interesting instrument maker named Prent Rodgers. And he bailed. He didn’t want to be a part of it. So they needed a new member. So David asked me if I’d be interested, and I was. I always had wanted to get more involved with electronic music, but being pretty much a classical nerd, I didn’t really have the chops for the technology. David, on the other hand, came from that background. His father was a master auto mechanic, from the electrical side all the way to the mechanical side. David really put that skill into his instrument building practice and then he taught it to me, basically. He showed me how to solder, and I learned from Tom how to weld, because some of these instruments were made out of sheet metal with bronze brazing rods. I started building those instruments in a sort of tradition they’d begun, searching for my own path with it, which eventually came about when I started taking pianos apart and making electric percussion instruments from it.
So, long story short, I was an improviser before I was a notes-on-paper composer. That’s how I got into composing. I started making music directly with instruments and with sound. It was only as that developed further that I started wanting to structure them more.
FJO: So you composed no original music before you started improvising?
CB: There were a few attempts, but they were always fairly close to either Cageian influence or a minimalist influence. I was trying out these different styles. Early on, I was a follower and appreciator of Steve Reich’s music. Another thing I did while I was at Santa Cruz was play the hell out of Piano Phase. We’d go into a practice room and play for hours, trying to perfect those phase transitions with two upright pianos. I was also aware of Steve’s interest in music from Bali and from Africa. These were things that I appreciated also.
FJO: I know that you spent some time in your childhood in the Philippines.
CB: I grew up between the years of five and nine in the Philippines. It wasn’t a long time, as life goes, but it was also where I started playing the piano. I was five years old in the Philippines and taking piano lessons there. I was quite taken with the culture, or with the cultural experience I had let’s say, while I was there. I went to school with Filipino kids, and it was not isolated in some kind of American compound. I grew up on the campus of the University of the Philippines, which is a beautiful area outside of the main city, Manila.
FJO: Did you get to hear any traditional music?
CB: Very little because the Philippines had their music colonized. It exists though, and later I reconnected with musicians at that school, particularly José Maceda, which is another long story in my history. I’ve made music with Filipino instruments and Filipino composers. One of the nice things about being an improviser is that collaboration comes much easier than if you’re trying to control everything about the design of the piece of music, so I’ve collaborated with a lot of people all over the place, including performances before we really knew what we were doing. It’s an exploratory thing you do with people, and it’s a great way to get into a cultural interaction.
FJO: I want to get back to your comment about your first pieces being either Cageian or influenced by minimalism. I found an early piano piece of yours called Sparks on your website, which is definitely a minimalist piece, but it’s a hell of a lot more dissonant than anything Reich would have written at that time. It’s based on creating gradual variance through repetition, but you’re fleshing out pitch relations in ways that those composers wouldn’t necessarily have done.
CB: I’m very glad you brought that up. I think that was probably the first piece that I still like and that has a quality to it that was original to me. From Reich I was used to the idea of a piece of music as a continuous flow of repetitive action. But it really came out of tuning pianos, basically banging on those top notes of the piano as you’re trying to get them into tune. I started to hear the timbre up there as being something that splits into different levels. You can actually hear the pitch if you care to attend to it. A lot of times the pitch is hard to get into tune there, especially with pianos that have three strings [per note]. They’re never perfectly in tune. They’re also basically really tight, so their harmonic overtones are stretched. They’re wider than they should be. They’re inharmonic, rather than harmonic, so it’s a kind of a timbral event. So what I was doing was kind of droning on a particular timbre that exists at the top of the piano, trying to move into a kind of trance state while I was moving as fast as I can repeating these notes. The piece starts at the very top two notes, and then it starts widening its scope, until it goes down an octave, and then it moves back up. It was a process-oriented piece. There wasn’t a defined harmonic spectrum to it except that which is created when you make that shape over a chromatically tuned top octave of the piano. It didn’t have the score. It was something that was in my brain. It would be a little different every time, but basically it was a process, like a Steve Reich process piece, one of the earliest ones.
FJO: So when did you create the notated score for it?
CB: Well, I tried a couple of times, but it wasn’t very satisfactory. I made the first version for a pianist who lives in Germany named Jennifer Hymer. She played it first probably around 2000. Then 15 years later, another pianist at Mills—Julie Moon—played it, and she played the heck out of it. So now there is a score, but I still feel like I need to fix that score.
FJO: I think it’s really cool, and I was thrilled that there was a score for it online that I could see. You also included a recording of it.
CB: I just don’t think the score reflects as well as it could what the piece is about. I always intended for there to be a little bit of freedom in it that isn’t apparent when you just write one set of notes going to the next set of notes. There has to be a certain sensibility that needs to be described better.
FJO: Bouncing off of this, though it might seem like a strange connection to make, when I heard that piece and thought about how it’s taking this idea of really hardcore early minimalist process music, but adding more layers of dissonance to it, it seemed in keeping with a quote that you have in your notes for the published recording of Talking Drum, which I thought was very interesting: “I favor densely complex music, because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a sound field.” I found that quote very inspiring because it focuses on the listener and giving the listener more choices about what to focus on.
CB: I think I still agree with that. I’m not always quite going for the most complex thing I can find, but I do have an attraction to it. Most of the pieces that I do wind up being pretty complicated in terms of how I get to the result I’m after, even though those results may require more or less active listening. I was kind of struck last night by the performance I did of Six Primes with Zeena Parkins and Nate Wooley. The harmonic aspect of the music is much more prominent and much more beauty-oriented than the piano version is. When I play the piano version, it’s more about the intensity of the rhythms and of the dissonance of the piano, as opposed to the more harmonious timbre of the harp or the continuous and purer sound of the trumpet; the timbre makes the way that you play the notes different.
FJO: But I think also that this strikes to the heart of the difference between composition and improvisation. I find it very interesting that you’ve gravitated toward these really completely free and open structures as an improviser, but your notated compositions are so highly structured. There’s so much going on, and in a piece like Six Primes, you’re reflecting these ratios not just in the pitch relations, but also in the rhythmic relationships. Such complicated polyrhythms are much harder to do in the moment.
CB: Of course. But that’s why I’m doing it. I’m interested in doing things that haven’t been done before. I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer. Sometimes that motivation is going to get warped by the marketing of the music or by the necessity to make a career, but that was always what I was attracted to about it. From the first moment that I heard Cage’s music, I said, “This is an inventor. This is somebody who’s inventing something new.” It’s so exciting and fresh to be at that point where you have this experience that is new. It’s not easy to get there. It takes a lot of discipline, but actually to have the discipline is the virtue itself, to basically be following something, testing yourself, looking for something that’s new, until eventually you find it.
This is the third cycle of me learning to play these pieces. At first, I just wanted to know it was possible. And next, I wanted to record it. This time, I’m looking to do a tour where I can perform it more than once. Each time I do it, it gets easier. At this point, I’m finally getting to what I want, for example with 13 against 7, I know perfectly how it sounds, but I don’t have to play it mechanically. It can breathe like any other rhythm does, but it has an identity that I can recognize because I’ve been doing it long enough. It seems strange to me that music is almost entirely dominated by divisions of two and three. We have five every once in a while, but most people can’t really do a five against four, except for percussionists. There are a lot of complex groupings of notes in Chopin, but those are gestures, almost improvisational gestures I think, rather than actual overlays of divisions of a beat. Some of this is influenced by my love and interest for African-based musics that have this complexity of rhythm that is simply beyond the capability of a standard European-trained musician, actually getting into the divisions of the time and executing them perfectly and doing them so much that they become second nature so that they can be alive in performance, rather than just reproduced. It’s a big challenge, but I’m looking for a challenge and I’m looking for a new experience that way.
FJO: So do you think you will eventually be able to improvise those polyrhythms?
CB: Maybe, eventually, but I think you have to learn it first. The improvising part is after you’ve learned to do the thing already. Yesterday I was improvising some of the time. What you do is you start playing one of the layers of the music. In Six Primes part of the idea is you have this 13 against 7, but 13 kind of exists as a faster tempo of the music, and 7 is a slower one. They’re just geared and connected at certain places, but at any one time in your brain, while you’re playing that rhythm, it might be a little bit more involved in inflecting the 13 than the 7. Sometimes, when things are really pure, you get a feeling for both of them and they’re kind of talking to each other. As a performer, I would say that that’s the goal. It’s probably rarer than I wish at this point. But the only way you can get there is by lots of practice and eventually it starts happening by itself. I think it’s the same as if you’re playing the Schumann Piano Concerto. You’re not aware of every gesture you’re making to make that music. You’ve put it into your body, and it kind of comes out by rote. You know you’re experiencing the flow of the music, and your body knows how to do it because you trained it. So it’s the same with Six Primes, but it’s just the materials are different and the focus is different.
FJO: And similarly to listen to it, you might not necessarily hear that’s what’s going on. But maybe that’s okay.
CB: Yes, that goes to the quote that there’s a multi-focal way of listening that I’m promoting; the music isn’t designed to have one focal point. It’s designed to have many layers and that basically means that listeners are encouraged to explore themselves. It’s an active listening rather than that you should be listening primarily to this part and not aware of that part.
FJO: In a way, this idea of having such an integral relationship between pitches and rhythms is almost a kind of serialism, but the results are completely different. I also think your aesthetics, and what you’re saying about how one listens to it, is totally different.
CB: I wouldn’t say it’s modeled on that, but I do like the heavy use of structure. It’s a sculptural aspect of making music. I do a lot of pre-composition. This stuff isn’t just springing out of nowhere. Six Primes actually has a very methodical formal design that’s explained in the notes to the CD. The basic idea is that you have these six prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13. Those are the first six prime numbers. They’re related to intervals that are tuned by relationships that include that number as their highest prime factor. I know that sounds mathematical, but I’m trying to say it as efficiently as possible. For example, the interval of a perfect fifth is made of a relationship of a frequency that’s in the ratio of 3 to 2. So the highest prime of that ratio is a 3. Similarly, a major third is defined by the ratio of 5 to 4. So 5 is the highest prime. There’s also the 2 in there, but the 5 is the higher prime and that defines the major third. There are other intervals that are related to it, such as a 6 to 5, which is a minor third, where the 5 is also the highest prime. And 5 to 3, the major sixth, etc. Basically Western music is based around using 2, 3, and 5 and intervals that are related to that. Intervals that use 7 as the highest prime are recognizable to most western music listeners, but they’re also out of tune by as much as a third of a semi-tone. Usually people start saying, “Oh, I like the sound of that. I can hear it. It’s a harmony, but it sounds a little weird.” Particularly the 7 to 6 interval, which is a minor third that’s smaller than any of the standard ones that Western people are used to, is very attractive to most people but also kind of curious and possibly scary. When you take it to 11, you get into things that are halfway between the semitones of the equal tempered chromatic scale. And 13 is somewhere even beyond that. Okay, so there are all these intervals. The tuning for Six Primes is a twelve-note scale that contains at least two pitches from each of these first six prime factors, which results in a total of 75 unique intervals between each note and every other one in the set.
FJO: Cellists and violinists tune their instruments all the time and since their instruments have an open neck, any pitch is equally possible. The same is true for singers. But pianists play keyboards that are restricted to 12 pitches per octave and that are tuned to 12-tone equal temperament. And since pianists rarely tune their own instruments, 12-tone equal temperament is basically a pre-condition for making music and it’s really hard to think beyond it. As a classically-trained pianist, how were you able to open your ears to other possibilities?
CB: It was hard. It was very frustrating. It took me a long time, and it started by learning to tune my instrument myself. The first thing was what are these pitches? Why do I not understand what everybody’s talking about when they’re talking about in tune and out of tune? I’m just not listening to it, because I’m playing on an instrument that’s usually somewhat out of tune. Basically pianists don’t develop the same kind of ear that violinists have to because they don’t have to tune the pitch with every note. So I was frustrated by my being walled off from that. But I guess not frustrated enough to pick up the violin and change instruments.
While I was an undergraduate and started getting interested through Cage in 20th-century American music, I discovered Henry Cowell’s piano music, the tone cluster pieces, and I loved them. I just took to them like a duck to water, and I got to be good at it. I had a beautiful experience playing some of his toughest tone cluster pieces at the bicentennial celebration of him in Menlo Park in 1976. I really bonded with that music and played it like I owned it. I could play it on the spot. I had it memorized. The roar of a tone cluster coming out of the piano was like liberation to me.
FJO: And you recorded some of those for New Albion at some point.
CB: That came out of a concert Sarah Cahill put together of different pianists playing; it was nice that that came out.
FJO: It’s interesting that you mention Cowell because he was another one of these people like Wayne Horvitz who could take really totally whacked out ideas and find a way to make them sound very immediate and very accessible. It’s never off-putting, it’s more like “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” It might consist of banging all over the piano, but it’s also got a tune that you can walk away humming.
CB: I like that a lot about Cowell. He’s kind of unaffected in the way that something attracted him. He wrote these tunes when he was a teenager, for one thing. But he wrote tunes for the rest of his life, too. Sometimes he wrote pieces that have no tune at all. The piece Antimony, for example, is amazingly harsh. There’s definitely some proto-Stockhausen there, but it’s not serial. I think that the ability to not feel like you need to restrict yourself to any particular part of the language that you happen to be employing at the moment is something that is really an admirable achievement. There’s something so tight about the Western tradition that once you start developing this personal language, you must not waver, that this is the thing that you have to offer and it’s the projection of your personality, how will you be recognized otherwise? I think that’s ultimately a straightjacket, so I’ve always admired people like Cowell and Anthony Braxton. Yesterday I was talking to Nate Wooley about the latest pieces that Braxton is putting out where he’s entirely abandoned the pulse; it’s all become just pure melody. He’s changing. Why do we think that’s a bad idea? Eclecticism—if you can do it well and can do it without feeling like you’re just making a collage with stuff you don’t understand—is the highest form, to be able to integrate more than one kind of musical experience into your work.
FJO: It’s interesting that you started veered into a discussion about discovering Cowell’s piano music after I asked you about how you got away from 12-tone equal temperament. Most of Cowell’s music was firmly rooted in 12-tone equal, but he did understand the world beyond it and even tried to explore synchronizing pitch and rhythmic ratios in his experiments with the rhythmicon that Leon Theremin had developed right before he was kidnapped him and brought back to the Soviet Union.
CB: I was definitely influenced by [Cowell’s book] New Musical Resources. As I read about the higher harmonics and integrating them into chords, I would reflect back on what it sounds like when you play it on the piano. It is very dissonant because of the tuning. And I realized that. So I thought, “Well, okay, he just never got there. He didn’t learn to tune his own piano, maybe I should do that, you know.” I get that some in Six Primes, I think, because there’s an integral relationship between all the notes. Even though the strings are inharmonic, there’s more fusion in the upper harmonics that can happen. So these very dissonant chords also sound connected to me. They’re not dissonant in the same way that an equal tempered version of it is. They have a different quality.
I’m also noticing from the other piece we played the night you attended that was using the Partch scale, if you build tone cluster chords within the Partch scale, you get things that sound practically like triads, only they buzz with a kind of fusion that you can only have when the integral version of major seconds is applied carefully. You get all kinds of different chords out of that. It’s wonderful.
FJO: Now when you say Partch scale, we’re basically talking about 11-limit just intonation, in terms of the highest primes, since the highest prime in his scale is 11.
CB: Right, but it’s more than that. He did restrict himself to the 11-limit, but he didn’t include everything that’s available within that. He made careful, judicious selections so that he could have symmetrical possibilities inside of the scale. It’s actually more carefully and interestingly foundationally selected than I knew before I really studied it closely.
FJO: But he worked with his own instruments which were designed specifically to play his 43-note scale whereas you are playing this score on a standard 7-white, 5-black keyed keyboard.
CB: I took an 88-key MIDI controller and I was using it to trigger two octaves of 43 notes. So I’ve mapped two octaves to the 88 keys. It winds up being 86, but it is possible to do that. I’m thinking in the future of figuring out a way to be able to shift those octaves so I’m not stuck in the same two-octave range, which I haven’t done yet, but that’s kind of trivial programming-wise.
FJO: Of course, the other problem with that is the associations the standard keyboard has with specific intervals.
CB: You have to forget that part, and that’s why I didn’t do it in Six Primes. And also, if I’d done it on an acoustic piano, it really messes up the string tension on the piano.
FJO: Julian Carrillo re-tuned a piano to 96 equal and that piano still exists somewhere.
CB: Yeah, but you can’t re-tune it easily, let’s put it that way. And it loses its character throughout the range because the character of the piano is set up by the variable tension of the different ranges of its strings.
FJO: But aside even from that, it changes the basic dexterity of what it means to play an octave and what it means to play a fifth. Once you throw all those relationships out the window, your fingers are not that big, even if you have the hands of Rachmaninoff.
CB: It becomes a different technique for sure. I’m not trying to extend the technique. What I’m doing with this is essentially I’m making another chromelodeon, which was Partch’s instrument that he used to accompany his ensemble and to also give them the pitch references that they needed, especially the singers, to be able to execute the intervals that he was writing.
FJO: Well that’s one of the things I’m curious about. When you’re working with other musicians obviously you can re-tune the keyboard. You can re-tune a piano, you can work with an electronic keyboard where all these things are pre-set. But the other night, you were working with a cellist who sang as well and an oboist. To get these intervals on an oboe requires special fingerings, but most players don’t know them. With a cello there’s no fretboard, so anything’s possible but you really have to hear the intervals in order to reproduce them. That’s even truer for a singer. So how do those things translate when you work with other musicians, and how accurate do those intervals need to be for you?
CB: Those are two questions really. But I think the key is that you’ve got to have musicians who are interested in being able to hear and to play them. You can’t expect to write them and then just get exactly what you want from any musician. Until we wake up 150 years from now and maybe everybody will be playing in the Partch scale so you could write it and everybody can do it! That’s a fantasy, but I think we’re moving more in that direction. There are more and more musicians who are interested in learning to play these intervals and all I’m doing is exploiting what’s there. I’m interested in it. I talk to my friends who are, and they want to learn how to play like that and that’s what’s happening. It’s a great thing to be able to have that experience, but it’s not something you can create by yourself. You have to work with the people who can play the instruments. For example, you mentioned the oboe. I asked Kyle [Bruckmann] what fingerings he’s using. “Shouldn’t I put this in the score?” And he said, “Most of the time what I’m doing is really more about embouchure. And it’s maybe something that’s not so easily described.” So it comes down to he’s getting used to what he needs to do with his mouth to make this pitch come out; he’s basically looking at a cents deviation. So I’ll write the note, and I’ll put how many cents from the pitch that he’s fingering, or the pitch that he knows needs to be sounded. He’s playing it out of tune with what the horn is actually designed to create and he’s limited in the way that notes sound. He can’t do fortissimo on each of these notes. He’s working with an instrument that’s designed for a tuning that he’s trying to play outside of. It’s crazy. But so far, I would say it’s challenging, but not frustrating so much if I’m translating his experience correctly. He seems to be very eager to be able to do it, and he’s nailing the pitches. Sometimes I test him against my electronic chromelodeon and he’s almost always right on the pitch. He’s looking at a meter while he’s playing. It’s something that a musician couldn’t have done 10 or 15 years ago before those pitch meters became so cheap and readily available.
FJO: James Tenney had this theory that people heard within certain bands of deviations. If you study historical tunings like Werckmeister III, the key of C has a major third that’s 390 cents. In equal temperament, it’s 400 cents which is way too sharp since a pure major third is 386. You can clearly hear the difference, but a third of 390 is close enough to 386 for most people.
CB: I always say when I’m working with musicians, think of these as targets. If you played it perfectly, like a computer, it wouldn’t sound that good. For example, last night, we had to re-tune the harp to play in the Six Primes tuning. Anybody who knows about harp tuning realizes there’s seven strings in the octave and you get all the other notes by altering one semitone sharp or flat on one of those strings. So it was a very awkward translation. Basically we had a total of 10 of the 12 Six Primes pitches represented. Two of them we couldn’t get. And the ones that we had were sometimes as much as 10 cents out, which is definitely more than it should be to be an accurate representation. But again, this is where the loose comes in with the tight.
In certain cases that wouldn’t work, but in a lot of cases it does. A slight out-of-tuneness can result in a chorus effect as part of the music, and I like that; it gives a shimmer. It’s like Balinese tuning. If that’s what we have to accept on this note, well then so be it you know. It actually richens the music in a way. It’s not about getting more purity. That’s what I feel like. There’s a thing I never quite agreed with Lou Harrison about, because he was always saying these are the real pure sounds. These are the only right ones. But they can get kind of sterile by themselves. He didn’t like the way the Balinese mistuned things. But from all those years of tuning pianos, I love the sound of a string coming into tune, the changes that happen, it makes the music alive on a micro-level. It’s important to be able to hear where the in-tune place is, but to play around that place is part of what I like. I don’t expect it to be perfectly in tune. Maybe it’s because I play a piano and on the extreme ranges of the piano, you can’t help that the harmonics are out of tune. They just are. There’s always this element that’s a little out of control, as well as the part that we can master and make truly evoke harmonic relationships.
FJO: Now in terms of those relationships, is that sense of flexibility and looseness true for these rhythms as well? Could there be rubatos in 17?
CB: Yeah, I think that’s what I was saying about being able to play the rhythm in a lively way. They can shift. They can talk to each other. Little micro-adjustments to inflect the rhythm. If we’re playing a waltz, it’s not a strict one-two-three; there’s a little push-me pull-you in there. That’s how you give energy to the piece. I think that it’s hard to get there with these complex relationships, but it’s definitely possible.
FJO: So is your microtonal music always based on just intonation? Have you ever explored other equal temperaments?
CB: I’ve looked at them, but they don’t interest me as much because I’m more attracted to the uneven divisions than to the even ones. Within symmetrical divisions, you can represent all kinds of things and you can even make unevenness out of the evenness if you like. But it seems like composers get drawn to the kind of symmetrical kinds of structures, rather than asymmetrical ones. Symmetry is fine, but somehow it reminds me of the Leonardo figure inside the triangle and the circle. It’s ultimately confining. I like the roughness and the unevenness of harmonic relationships.
FJO: We only briefly touched on electronics when you said that you had a rough start with it as a classical music nerd. But I was very intrigued the other night by how Kyle Bruckmann’s oboe performance was enhanced and transformed by real-time electronic manipulations the other night in Snakecharmer, and was very curious after you mentioned that you had figured out how to make this old piece work again. I know the recording that Willie Winant made of that piece that was released in 1989, but to my ears it sounds like a completely different piece. I think I like the new piece even more because it sounds more like a snake charmer to me this time; I didn’t quite understand the title before.
CB: There are three recorded versions of that old piece.
FJO: That was the only one I’ve heard.
CB: They’re on the Room record.
FJO: I don’t know that record.
CB: Okay, that was rare. It was a Swiss release. But that’s kind of an important one for me in my development with electro-acoustic and interactive music. I should get it to you. Anyway, the basic idea is any soloist can be the snake charmer, the person who’s instigating the feedback network to go through its paces and sort of guiding it. Probably the strangest was when Willie did it because he can’t sustain. He’s basically playing percussion, and he’s just basically playing whatever he hears and interacting with it intuitively. But another version of it was with Larry Ochs playing sopranino saxophone so that’s probably closer; you might hear the relationship there. It’s more the traditional image of the snake charmer. It sounds an awful lot like a high oboe; that was a good version. There’s also the version that I performed, singing and whistling as the input. Those were three different tracks, but they all start out in a similar way. Basically the programming aspect is that it goes through a sequence of voices. And each of those voices transposes the input that it’s receiving from the player in different intervals as the piece goes on. So there’s a shape of starting with a high transposition going down to where it’s no transposition and below and up again. It’s a simple sinusoid-type shape. The next voice comes in and does the same thing with a slightly different rhythmic inflection, then two voices come in together and fill out the field. That’s the beginning of Snakecharmer in every version so far. There are about six different voicing changes which are in addition to transposing in slightly different ways to provide rhythmic inflections. They only respond on the beat. Whatever sound is coming in when it’s time for them to play, that’s the sound that gets transposed. There are four of these processes going on at once. Once again, it’s that complexity going on in the chaos created by these different orderings, transpositions of the source. The other thing is the reason it’s a feedback network is that there comes a point where the player is playing, the sound responds to it, and then the sound that it responds with is louder than what the player’s doing, and that follows itself. So you start getting a kind of data encoded feedback network that I think of as the snake, an ouroboros snake that’s eating its own tail.
FJO: How much improvisation is involved?
CB: Quite a bit. I’ve never provided a score. I just tell the person what’s going on and ask them to explore the responsiveness of the network. Usually I’m tweaking different values in response to what they’re doing, so it’s a bit of a duet.
FJO: Taking it back to Talking Drum, you have these notes explaining how people are walking around in this environment. There are these field recordings, and then there are musicians who are responding to them. I can partially hear that, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m hearing. Maybe that’s the point of it to some extent.
CB: That’s not quite right. We have the recording called Talking Drum. That is a post-performance production piece that uses things that were recorded at different Talking Drum performances. That uses field recordings. In a performance of Talking Drum, there are no field recordings. Basically, the idea is that there are four stations that are connected with one MIDI cable. That cable allows them to share the same tempo. At each of the stations is a laptop computer, and a pitch follower, and somebody who’s playing into the microphone. So, the software that’s running is a rhythmic program I designed that I can give a basic tempo and beat structure to that can change automatically at different points in time, but that also responds to input from the performer, the basic idea being that if the player plays on a beat that’s a downbeat, that beat will be strengthened in the next iteration of the cycle. It basically adjusts to what it hears in relationship to its own beat cycle. The idea of the multiplicity of those stations where that’s happening, is that they are integrated by staying on the same pulse through the cable. The idea is that the audience is moving around the space that this installation is in and the mix they hear is different in each location. As they move, it shifts. It’s as if they were in a big mixing console, turning up one station and then turning down the other. What I was trying to do was to create a big environment that an audience can actively explore in the same way that I’ve talked about creating this dense listening environment and asking people to listen to different parts on their own. That actually came about from the experience of going to Cuba in the early ’90s, and being at some rumba parties where there were a lot of musicians spread out in different places. I wandered around with a binaural recorder and I recorded the sound as I was moving. Then when I listened to the recording, I was getting this shifting, tumbling sound field and I thought: “There’s no way you could ever reproduce this in a studio. It’s a much richer immersive way of listening. Why can’t I use this as a way to model some experience for live performance or for live audiences?”
FJO: It actually reminds me of when I first heard Inuksuit, the John Luther Adams piece for all the percussionists. It was impossible to hear everything that was going on at any one moment as a listener. That’s part of the point of it which, in a way, frustrates the whole Western notion of a composition being a totality that a composer conceives, interpreters perform, and listeners are intended to experience in full like, say, the Robert Schumann Piano Concerto. Interpretations of the Schumann might differ and listeners might focus on different things at different times, but it is intended to be experienced as a graspable totality, and a closed system. Whereas creating a musical paradigm where you can never experience it all is more open-ended, it’s more like life itself since we can never fully experience everything that’s going on around us. But I have to confess that as a listener I’m very omnivorous and voracious so it’s kind of frustrating, because I do want to hear it all!
CB: Sorry! I think that’s part of the Cage legacy, too. You don’t expect to have it all and what you have is a lot. Everybody in that Schumann Piano Concerto is hearing something slightly different, too, but there’s this idea somehow that this is an object that’s self-contained. It’s actually an instruction for a ritual that sounds different every time it’s done. But I think the ritual aspect of making music is something that really interests me and I would hate to be without it. Compositions are more or less instructions for what they should do, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time. Maybe some of them think they do, but I don’t think performing artists do that really. It’s mostly about making something that’s appropriate to the moment even if it’s coming from something that’s entirely determined in its tonal and rhythmic structure. That to me is what makes live music always more interesting than fixed media music. It’s actually not an object. It’s not something that doesn’t change as a result of being performed. Of course, fixed media depends on how it’s projected.
FJO: Perhaps an extreme example of that would be the kinds of work that you do as part of the Hub—electronic music created in real time by a group of people who are physically separated from each other yet all networked together but it’s really there’s no centralized control and that’s kind of part of the point of it.
CB: That’s right. The idea is to set up the composition process, if you can call it that. It’s not really the same as composing, but it’s a designing. You’re designing a system that you believe will be an interesting one for these automated instruments to interact inside of. What we do is usually a specification; each piece has verbal instructions about how to design a system to interact with the other systems. Then we get it together and get them working and they start making the sound of that piece which is never the same exactly, but it’s always recognizable to us as the piece that it is, because it’s a behavior. I would say within our group we get used to the kinds of sounds that everybody chooses to use to play their role in the piece, so it starts to get an ad hoc like personality from those personal choices that each person makes.
FJO: In terms of focusing listening, and perhaps you’ll debate this with me, it seems that, as listeners, we’re trained to focus on a text when a piece has a text. If someone’s singing words, those words become the focal point. I hadn’t heard much music of yours featuring a text, but I did hear your new Jackson Mac Low song cycle the other night.
CB: I don’t write a lot of songs, but when I do I find it’s usually a pleasure to work with a pre-set structure that you admire; it’s like you’re dressing up what’s already there rather than having to decide where it goes next. Of course, you’re making decisions—like what is this going to be, is it going to be different, how is going to be different, how is it going to be the same?—but it’s nice to have that kind of foundation to build on. It’s like collaboration.
FJO: I thought it was beautiful, and I thought Theresa Wong’s voice was gorgeous. It was exquisite to hear those intervals sung in a pure tone and her diction was perfect, which was even more amazing since she was simultaneously playing the cello. But, at the same time, the Stone has weird acoustics. It’s a great place, but it’s a hole in the wall that isn’t really thought out in terms of sound design so it was obviously beyond your control. I was sitting in the second row and I know Jackson Mac Low’s poems. So when I focused in, I could hear every word she was pronouncing. But I still couldn’t quite hear the words clearly, as opposed to the vocals on Music of the Lost Cities where I heard every word, since obviously, in post-production, you can change the levels. But it made me wonder, especially since you have this idea of a listener getting lost in the maze of what’s going on, how important is it for you that the words are comprehensible?
CB: Maybe it’s just me, but even in the best of circumstances, I have trouble getting all the words in songs that are staged. Maybe it’s because I’m listening as a composer, so I’m always more drawn to the totality than I am just to the words. Most regular people who are into music mostly through song are very wrapped up in the words. But I’m not sure Mac Low’s words work that way anyway. I think they are musical and they are kind of ephemeral in the way that they glow at different points. And if you don’t get every one of them, in terms of what its meaning is, it’s not surprising. It’s kind of a musical and sonorous object of its own. So I guess I’m not exceptionally worried about that, although in the recording, I probably do want a better projection of that part of the music than what happened at the Stone. I was sitting behind her and I was not hearing exactly what the balance is. In the Stone, there are two speakers that are not ideally set up for the audience, so it’s not always there the way exactly you want it to be.
FJO: So is this song cycle going to be on the next recording you do?
CB: I hope we’re going to record it this summer, actually. It’ll be a chance to get everything exactly right. I’m very pleased that people are recognizing the purity of these chords that are being generated through the group, but there hasn’t been a perfect performance yet. Maybe there never will be. But the recording will get closer than any other one will, and that’ll be nice to hear, too.
FJO: It’s like the recording project of all the Ben Johnston string quartets that finally got done. For the 7th quartet, which was over a thousand different intervals, they were tuning to intervals they heard on headphones and using click tracks in order to be able to do it. And they recorded sections at a time and then patched it all together. Who knows if any group will ever be able to perform this piece live, but at least there’s finally an audio document of what Ben Johnston was hearing in his head.
CB: I think that’s really a monumental release. Ben Johnston’s the one who has forged the path for those of us trying to make Western instruments play Harry Partch and other kinds of just intonation relationships. It’s fantastic. But I think the other thing that seems to be true is that if you make a record of it, people will learn to play it. For example, Zeena and Nate the other night, in preparation for that performance, I was sending them music-minus-one practice MP3 files so that they could basically hear the relationships that they should be playing. It helps a lot. Recordings also definitely help to get these rhythmic relationships. I often listen to Finale play them back, just to check myself to see if I’m doing them correctly. A lot of times, I’m not. It drifts a little bit.
FJO: But you said before that that’s okay.
CB: But I want to know where it’s drifting. I want to know where the center is as part of my learning process. I use a metronome a lot, and I use the score a lot to check myself, and get better at it.
FJO: You’ve put several scores of yours on your website. Sparks is on there. Six Primes is on there. And there’s another piece that you have on there that’s a trio in 7-limit just intonation—Chiaroscuro. Theoretically anybody could download these scores, work out the tunings for their instruments and play them.
CB: Sure. Go for it. But they’re published by Frog Peak, so they can get the official copy there. I would like to support my publisher. Because of the way that my compositional practice has developed, a lot of my scores are kind of a mess. I had a lot of scores, but I haven’t released them because they’re kind of incomplete. They often involve electronic components that are difficult to notate, and I haven’t really figured out the proper way to do that. Where there are interactive components, how do you notate that? I’m not that interested in making pieces for electronics where the electronics is fixed and the performer just synchs to it. There’s only one piece I’ve played where I really like doing that and that’s the Luc Ferrari piece Cellule 75 that I recorded where the tape is so much like a landscape that you can just vary your synchronization with it.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that because back in 1989, you said…
CB: Okay. Here it comes.
FJO: “I want electronics to enhance our experience of acoustics and of playing instruments. Extending what we already do, instead of trying to imitate, improve upon, or replace it.”
CB: Yeah, that was important. That came out at a time when the industry was definitely moving towards more and more electronic versions of all the instruments, usually cheap imitations. Eventually those become personalities of their own, but it seems to me they always start like much lesser versions of the thing they’re modeled on. Maybe it has something to do with this idea of models. We’re moving more and more into a virtual reality kind of world and I think it’s really important that we don’t lose the distinction of what the model is rather than the thing it’s modeled on. I think it’s pretty dangerous to do that, actually. The more people live in exclusively modeled environments, the more out of touch they’re going to get and probably the sicker they’re going to get because a model is never a complete reading of the world. It’s a way to try to understand something about that world. If you’re a programmer, you’re always creating models. In a sense, a synthesizer is modeled on an acoustic reality. But once it comes out of the box into the world, it’s its own thing. It’s that distinction I’m trying to get at. I think we’re often seduced by the idea that the synthesized thing will replace the real thing rather than the synthesized thing just becoming another reality. That’s why I’m interested in mixing these things: singing with the synthesis. Becoming part of a feedback system with a synthetic instrument embraces that into a space and into a physical interaction. That seems to be more of a holistic way of expanding our ability to play music with ourselves, with our models of ourselves, with each other through models, or just seeing the models execute music of its own. The danger comes when you try to make them somehow perfect an idea of what reality is and it becomes the new reality instead of becoming just a new part of the real world.