From Multiple Guitars and Trumpets to Tap Dancers
Frank J. Oteri: The idea of writing pieces for multiples of the same instrument has been a recurring theme in a lot of your music. Once upon a time, Villa Lobos’s Bachianas Brasilieras with the eight cellos was quite popular, and nowadays the Berlin Philharmonic’s cello section goes around playing all these pieces for 12 cellos. Julius Eastman had several pieces like this, Henry Brant has something for 80 trombones, and Mary Jane Leach has a bunch of “multiple” pieces. So there’s a whole tradition of this kind of music. You’ve said that writing for multiples has been a way of getting clarity with the sound.
Lois V Vierk: For me the idea of using multiples came from gagaku. My favorite pieces in gagaku are introductory pieces to dances; they’re often canons in free rhythm. For example, three flutes—I used to play the ryuteki flute—would be playing a canon, but it wasn’t a rhythmic canon. It was a melody, and you would have to listen to the flutist ahead of you and stay half of a phrase behind that player, and then the flutist next to you would have to stay half a phrase behind you. This type of canon happens also with the mouth organ—the sho—and the hichiriki, which is a double reed.
By the way, the hichiriki is supposed to be the loudest instrument per cubic centimeter in the world. It’s a tiny little pipe with a great big reed. I’ve heard hichiriki and bagpipe next to each other and matching each other in volume. But you might have the whole hichiriki section doing this canon in free rhythm, and it’s just this wall of sound. Very intense, but because it’s the same timbre, you hear every little slide, every little articulation, and that’s how I really got interested in writing for multiples of the same instrument, with that gagaku sound in my head. I don’t try to write gagaku. I don’t try to write Japanese music even though I have written pieces for gagaku instruments. But with whatever instruments are there, that kind of massive sound and clarity happens when you have the same timbre.
FJO: One of the most widely performed of your multiple pieces is Go Guitars which is for electric guitars. Perhaps because of people’s associations with that instrument, it almost has a rock and roll sound, which is very different from gagaku.
LVV: I’m just writing what I feel, what I have in me. Part of my training was working with Leonard Stein, who was an Arnold Schoenberg student. And Leonard had me analyzing all kinds of twelve-tone music, Schoenberg and Berg and Webern. But I also analyzed La Monte Young, who was one of Leonard’s students, as was Dean Drummond. So, I studied all kinds of scores of Western new music of the time—Stockhausen, Berio, Takemitsu, you name it. I was required to do a rigorous analysis of all of those things. In younger years I always had done a lot of analysis of other music that I loved, like Beethoven. I loved Beethoven when I was studying piano. I still love Beethoven. So, I don’t pull apart my own music anymore, saying, “Oh, this is because I studied Beethoven that I write this phrase,” or, “This is gagaku.”
FJO: So is Go Guitars at all a response to hearing rock music? And if so, what rock music?
LVV: I’ve listened to a lot of rock music. It’s not a conscious response, but boy, I love Jimi Hendrix. You know, I’m back from that generation. Frank Zappa, I listened to a lot of that. I never played it, but I listened to a lot. And by the way, Go Guitars was first written for classical guitar. Did you know that? It was written for classical guitar for John Schneider in Los Angeles.
FJO: As long as you’re talking about original intent, I wonder what your preferred format is for these “multiple” pieces, having one player multi-track all the parts or having each part done live in real time by a different person—I’ve heard it done both ways.
LVV: I wrote them to be played by 5 guitarists or 18 trombonists. That’s how I wrote them. It became economically unfeasible to do that, most of the time, so that’s how I got into recording.
FJO: Well, with “multiple” pieces there’s this notion of having all the same instrument. But by multi-tracking you actually take it one level further conceptually. It’s not just all the same instrument, but the same player playing that same instrument. Each player will have a slightly different sound, but having the same player will neutralize that to some degree. What is more ideal for you?
LVV: Wow, what a question. It depends. If you have a wonderful ensemble and they can rehearse a lot and try to match each other in every way, that’s the best. If it’s some group that has two rehearsals and then a concert, that’s pretty tough, because music is more than just playing the notes. Besides, my music has a lot of newer techniques to learn on the instrument, and making those phrases all sound alike from player to player is no easy matter. In the best of all worlds, with lots of rehearsal time, I prefer having all parts played live, because there’s a lot of phrasing where one part works off the other and you get a lot more if all the other parts are there for you to hear while you’re performing it. And live performance is so great. But it’s not always the best way, depending on the circumstances.
FJO: You’ve also been involved with creating music with tap dancers. While they’re not necessarily making the exact same types of sounds, as say a group of guitarists or trombonists would, they are operating from the same skill set as one another. So in a sense, it’s a form of a “multiple.”
LVV: To have the foot as an instrument resonates with my love of athletics and sports and moving. I remembered my early tap dance lessons when I was four years old. It’s just a gas to move the body and make these wonderful, exciting sounds. Sometimes as an adult working with my tap dance collaborator, I would try tap sounds out myself. There’s something very satisfying about stomping the foot down and shuffling it around and hearing the sound; it’s wonderful. Very visceral, and it really appeals to me.
My pieces with tap dance are made by two people, myself and Anita Feldman. Anita is a tap dancer and choreographer, and now professor. We had 10 years of active collaboration, and she by herself is incredibly musical. At one point, Anita had what she calls the Tap Dance Instrument (patented) built for her. It was made in collaboration with Daniel Smith, instrument builder on the West Coast. Anita had three wooden platforms, each about 6 feet by 6 feet, made out of different woods which have different resonances. The platforms are about half a foot high. Besides this, Anita had a marimba for feet built, and it has 7 keys, 7 pitches. There are also two platforms with tops that are made out of brass. They’re heavy, as you can imagine, and they ring like a bell. They’re different sizes, so one is higher pitched, one is lower pitched. Gorgeous. She worked that instrument for everything it was worth, and I helped her find what attacks of the foot worked well on the different parts of the instrument. It was just like working with any instrument—you ask the instrumentalist to play this, play that, make it louder, make it softer, make it faster, make it slower. It’s the same thing when I work with a cellist, only this was the foot. Anita Feldman and I made 6 pieces together.
FJO: In terms of notating for the dancers, were you using things like Benish or Labanotation?
LVV: Well, no. The body movements are not well notated; choreographers these days depend on videos. But all the tap sounds are notated with regular music notation.
FJO: Have you ever done anything for the voice? I’ve never heard any of your vocal music.
LVV: There’s one piece called Swash for two female voices and two tap dancers. Some of tap pieces have been audio recorded, but that one is not. We started to record it and did not finish. It’s difficult because not that many tap dancers can do what Anita wants them to do, and it’s a big process of having either Anita or one of her protégés teach somebody.
FJO: Is that the only piece of yours that incorporates the voice? It sounds like a lot of the things that you’ve been describing about music—certainly the freedom of pitch and the whole physical process of making music—are so natural to the voice. It would seem like the perfect medium for you.
LVV: You know, it’s funny. I have one very early piece for six male voices. The beginning of the piece has lots of glissandos—people have described it as sirens—going up and down, and then it becomes a very rhythmic counterpoint. But that’s about it for voice. I have to tell you that at a point, there were lots of commissions coming in, and I was just writing for whomever would pay me. [laughs] And there weren’t many singers coming after me.
FJO: I was wondering if part of the reason you haven’t explored vocal music was that you were concerned about having language as a separate, additional layer. Most vocal pieces use texts, but maybe a text would somehow get in the way.
LVV: Yeah, I probably wouldn’t have used text.
FJO: Perhaps the most conventional ensemble you’ve written for consistently is string quartet. But on some level, the quartet is something of a multiple ensemble, at least in terms of timbre. I’ve only heard two of them, but I thought I’d read about a third.
LVV: Sometimes I retire pieces.
FJO: What would make you retire a piece?
LVV: When it doesn’t work so well. It’s OK to make a piece and then decide you don’t like it.
FJO: Would you decide that immediately after a performance or could it have a life for a while and maybe five years later you’ll say “no.”
LVV: Usually what happens is that after a performance, I’ll revise. So I haven’t retired that many pieces, but there have been a few and I usually decide on it right away. An example of ongoing revisions is Io, which is getting some play these days. It’s for flute, electric guitar and marimba. I’ve been revising this piece ever since the day I stopped writing it. Every time I have a rehearsal, I make some changes. I’ve done things like add phrases here and there, change articulations, refine dynamics, things like that.