Mary Ellen Childs
Mary Ellen Childs: Engaging All the Senses

Mary Ellen Childs: Engaging All the Senses

While the music of Mary Ellen Childs has a distinctive and recognizable sound, she has long been interested in engaging the other senses as well. Perhaps this is because, when growing up, she was actively involved in dance and theater in addition to playing the flute and piano. In fact, she was choreographing musicals at her high school before she ever composed a note because writing music, at the time, felt “too mysterious and too unattainable” to her. To this day, her experience as a choreographer informs both her own music and the advice she gives when teaching composition.

“I really feel like doing choreography were my first lessons in composition,” she says. “Although the materials are different, the general concepts are the same. When I teach composition, I take that point of view, too. We’re really looking at how to create something that has interest and coherence and surprise.”

Perhaps the area where Childs’s background in dance is most pronounced is in her music for percussion ensemble. She first got interested in composing for percussion as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. “I started to notice how interesting it was to watch percussion players when they played,” she remembers. “They always moved in really interesting ways. … Using movement with percussion is the easiest of all, if you’re going to really exploit movement, because percussionists’ playing technique is already very physical.”

But what Childs ultimately wanted from percussionists went even further than what they usually do. She wanted to them to perform in immersive pieces that are as much about sight and touch as they are about sound. Most of what she wanted couldn’t be effectively communicated through music notation so it needed to be learned through an intensive rehearsal process. So she wound up forming her own ensemble, CRASH, by initially hiring one percussionist and two dancers.

“The reason I wanted dancers was because I knew I was going to have to work in rehearsal and ask the players to remember what they did from one rehearsal to the next,” she explains. “I was worried that if I brought in three musicians that they might say, ‘Where’s my notation? Where’s my score?’ It worked really well because I had one percussionist who really knew how to work with rhythm, and then I had two dancers who really knew how to work with movement and how to work from memory, so I didn’t have to convince anybody of anything.”

CRASH’s idiosyncratic repertoire includes Hands, a piece performed exclusively by the players’ hands, and Click, in which the players navigate a series of movements across three sets of claves—playing their own as well as each other’s instruments. According to Childs, “Part of the rehearsal process is figuring out who’s the active strike and who’s the passive strike—where exactly in the air is that going to be so that you don’t end up either missing, or hitting someone’s knuckle, which is very painful and has happened. You want to minimize that because it’s not pleasant.”

Though Childs acknowledges that it was not very practical, the most unusual piece that CRASH performed involved a series of three exercise bicycles that were turned into musical instruments—the pipe-cercycle (which incorporates organ pipes), the xylo-cycle (in which triggered mallets strike a series of xylophone-like bars right above the handle bars), and the string-cercycle (in which the pedaling motion triggers a variety of strings, including a ukulele and a cello). She is currently reworking another piece originally created for CRASH called Sight of Hand which involves baseball coaching signals turned into percussion. If all goes according to plan, the piece will be performed at a minor league baseball park in August in between innings at a St. Paul Saints game:

The point is having the piece and the live game be part of the same event, then taking all that material and making a piece out of it that exists on video to put my baseball percussion movement into the context of real game plays happening.

Another idea she has been wanting to flesh out for years is a way to merge a musical experience with an olfactory one. Our discussion about the relationship between scent and sound got so involved that we will publish it as an independent post later this month.

However, while engaging other senses has been key to many of Childs’s compositional ideas, listening is still primary. Even though for the premiere of Dream House—her evening-length work for the string quartet ETHEL—incorporated projections on seven different video screens scattered around the space, Childs insisted that the sonic material was foregrounded. “Visual imagery can take over so easily and make music an accompaniment,” she opined to her collaborators. “How are we really going to keep this so that, if anything, the visual material is the accompaniment to what you’re hearing?” Similarly, when composing the music for Wreck, a full-evening dance piece choreographed by Carl Flink for the Black Label Movement, she insisted on creating music that would stand on its own rather than “shrinking violet music.” One of my personal favorite compositions of hers will always be Kilter for two pianos, a work I only know through a recording. Though from its title alone it’s clear that it is inspired by motion, it is sonically ravishing.

A conversation at New Music USA
May 6, 2016—2:30 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: The conversations we have with composers and interpreters for NewMusicBox are inevitably always about sound, because that’s primarily what people think of when they think of music. That’s what’s foregrounded, and certainly that’s pretty much the only aspect of music that people experience when they listen to a recording. But I still remember the first performance I saw of your ensemble CRASH during the Meet The Composer’s THE WORKS marathon in Minneapolis in 2002 and how mesmerized I was—not just by what I was hearing, but by what I was seeing, both of which were the result of the tactile connectivity of the performers. This body of work clearly aims to be about more than just sound.

Mary Ellen Childs: I’ve certainly written a lot of pieces that are concert pieces or that now primarily exist on recordings, and those are certainly first and foremost sound and pretty much only that. But I also think I’m very attuned to all the senses and to what the total experience is for someone, especially if it’s a live performance. If you’re there with the musicians, your ears are engaged, but your eyes are also working. All the senses are working. I don’t do so much anymore, but I produced a series of concerts where I thought about the whole experience for the audience from the time they walked in the door. Really paying attention to that, you make certain choices about what the lighting is like when people walk into the theater, how the musicians enter and exit the space, or what happens between pieces—what’s the pacing of that time so that things don’t sag in between and you lose the audience’s attention?

I think that’s just part of my makeup. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I grew up not only playing the flute and piano, but also dancing and working in the theater. In fact, not a lot of people know this, but I used to work as a choreographer before I was writing music. Then when I started writing music, it felt like there was a natural pull for at least some of my music to be in collaboration with choreographers. So I was still keeping one foot in the dance world, although this time as a composer. It was really from all that experience that I started writing movement into percussion pieces. That’s kind of the short arc of how all that came about. Using movement with percussion is the easiest of all, if you’re going to really exploit movement, because percussionists’ playing technique is already very physical. They’re already ready and willing to do all different kinds of things and play all different kinds of instruments. And, for the most part, percussionists are open to a new playing technique that they might learn for a specific piece. So working with percussionists has all those things built in. To write special sticking patterns or to setup the instruments in a certain way or set them up around the space and put the players on wheels—that’s all something you can do in the percussion world.

FJO: Most people play instruments before they start composing, but I had no idea that you had been a choreographer also. What made you decide that you wanted to write music?

MEC: In my heart of hearts I was always interested and curious about it, but it felt intimidating. It felt like you either just knew how to do it or you didn’t. It was like a channel. I grew up on classical music, and so the composers who were revered were often like Mozart, writing operas when he was a teenager. So it just felt too mysterious and too unattainable. On the other hand, choreography seemed like I could figure that out. I could figure out how to move and, with the somewhat limited dance background that I had, I could make things up. Why not? It felt like something anybody could do. And so I did.

FJO: It’s so funny to hear you say that, because to me choreography is perhaps the most mysterious art of them all. Maybe that’s because I’ve made up songs since I was nine, but I never knew how to move around properly. And the folks who think music notation is complicated probably have never seen Benesh notation or Labanotation, which seem more arcane than hieroglyphics. I don’t understand that stuff at all.

MEC: I don’t either, and most people don’t. That’s certainly not a part of being a choreographer for most people. But I don’t know why it felt so attainable to me. Maybe in part because I saw my older sister do it, so I thought, “Well, I can do that, too. Why not?” I also used to do things to get inspiration. I would go to the public library, which was right down the street from where I went to high school on the shores of Lake Michigan, and I would check out these big picture books of dance. I would look at a still photo and I would imagine how they got to that moment and what happened after that moment. I would just imagine from a still shot what the movement around it might be.

FJO: If you’re a dancer, coming up with your own movements makes sense. It’s analogous to playing the piano or the guitar and then improvising and creating your own music. From there it branches out. That’s certainly what happens for a lot of composers: they’ll play an instrument and eventually write something for themselves to play, and then suddenly they write something for other people. But when you write music, it seems like that can grow into something else. You can take a solo piece and then arrange it for string quartet or even an orchestra. But how do you go from one person moving to, say, people moving? As a spectator, I’m never sure what to watch when I’m watching dancers. If I focus on one person I’m losing the larger totality, but if I’m always looking at everyone I lose the details.

I really feel like doing choreography were my first lessons in composition. And I drew upon it when I started writing music, because although the materials are different, the general concepts are the same. When I teach composition, I take that point of view, too. We’re really looking at how to create something that has interest and coherence and surprise.

MEC: But it’s not that different for music. I really feel like doing choreography were my first lessons in composition. And I drew upon it when I started writing music, because although the materials are different, the general concepts are the same. When I teach composition, I take that point of view, too. We’re really looking at how to create something that has interest and coherence and surprise. I probably should tell you what kind of choreography I was doing. I wasn’t doing modern dance masterpieces that came out of nothing. When I started choreographing, I was choreographing the high school musicals and the swing choir. There was already a framework in which what I was doing had to fit, and I had a lot of information given to me when I was creating dance steps—something had to be communicated or something had to happen, and there was already music selected that this had to go with.

FJO: So I think I understand your transition to composing music and why you continued to be involved with dance as a composer, but I wonder when you realized that music itself could incorporate movement, that writing a piece of music could be more than just the notes.

MEC: Let me think about that. When I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois, I took a class in composing for percussion that was taught by a composer and a percussion instructor, both of them together. That’s when I started writing for percussion. I think somewhere around that time, I started to notice how interesting it was to watch percussion players when they played. Whether it was the timpani player or one of the other percussionists at the back of the orchestra or somebody in a new music ensemble, they always moved in really interesting ways.
But the very first piece that I wrote that had movement written into it is a piece called Still Life, which is for three drummers playing nine drums and gongs. The drums are placed in a palindromic line up, so that the center is a small drum—I think now I use a small tom—and then on either side of that, there’s a bass drum, but they’re placed vertically on stands, absolutely vertically, which is not how you’d ever see a bass drum placed for playing. Then moving outside of that on either side, there are two more toms of varying sizes, and on the end of the setup on either end, there’s a wind gong. So the players stand. Player one is in the center and plays the inside of the two bass drums and the center drum, then the two outside players have mirror image setups where they’re each playing the outside of each bass drum, two toms, and a gong. I was able to do things with sticking patterns that would require the outside players to move in one direction or the other direction, and I asked the inside player to do sticking patterns that might be crossing arms. When I was writing it, I was really thinking about how these sticking patterns are going to force the players to move in a certain way.

FJO: Does the music sound different than it would have if they weren’t moving around that way?

MEC: No. In fact, I had written out the diagram and when I went to the first rehearsal, they had already rehearsed a bit. The players had taken the bass drums and laid them flat. They said, “Oh yeah, we put them flat because it’s easier that way.” And so I had to say, “Well, this is not just about the ease of playing, but it’s about how it looks.” We had to have a little discussion, and we turned the bass drums up and of course it’s very, very, very different.

FJO: Sure, but in terms of the question of it sounding different, they might be able to get it to sound the same way doing something else, but certainly the perception of the person watching it is going to be different, and that’s where the other senses come into play.

MEC: The way a piece sounds and how the listener will absorb it is actually different depending on what they’re seeing, even though the sound doesn’t change. If you were listening to an audio recording, that might change. But if you’re live in the performance space and watching it, you actually absorb it differently based on whether it’s under fluorescent lights or whether it’s in a little intimate pool of light that’s really a bit dim. And it’s different based on how the performer is moving. So I do think that makes a huge difference.

FJO: And you use the word palindromic, which is a word that I love and a structural concept that I frequently gravitate toward, so I’m already fascinated by this. You know, composers have created musical palindromes for many centuries, but most of the time you can’t hear that the pieces are palindromic. That famous Machaut motet, Ma Fin est Mon Commencement—My End is My Beginning—is the exact same music whether you play it forward or backwards, but if you weren’t told that and didn’t examine the score with your eyes—

MEC: —You wouldn’t hear it. Right.

FJO: And I doubt many people can hear Webern’s palindromes. But when you create a situation with these percussionists, and you have a palindromic setup and they’re doing this kind of thing, people see it. And they can infer what they’re hearing from what they’re seeing, so you’re able to create certain kinds of symmetries and formal patterns that you might not be able to do if people were left to their ears alone.

MEC: That’s right, although the piece of music itself is not a palindrome. That’s totally unrelated. But visually, there are these mirror image things. And I think maybe one example in that piece—there’s a place where there’s a two-against-three pattern between the two outside players, and they’re playing with one mallet. So one is doing two, and the other is doing it in three. And I think if you put your attention there, you can see that very clearly.

Later on, after that piece was done as a concert piece, I also created a 16-monitor video wall out of it that took the component parts of the piece and broke them up across 16 screens in a square, so you could really focus in on some of that material highlighted in another way by juxtaposing over the top another set of patterns. That’s when I could take that two-against-three pattern and put those two arms, hands, and mallets next to each other so you can see that as you’re hearing it, which makes a really big difference. It’s a very simple example of how what you’re seeing might affect what you’re hearing. I think it’s usually much more subtle and complicated, but that’s a very simple, straightforward example of how what you see changes how you hear or reinforces what you hear or draws your attention to what you hear.

FJO: There’s also a communal aspect to this that I find really interesting. I’m thinking back to the piece Click which, I think, is the first piece for CRASH.

MEC: Um, well Still Life is a piece that CRASH does and Click actually predates the group as well, but we call it CRASH’s signature piece because that is the piece that’s been done and done and done and done and done.

FJO: There’s also a piece called Crash. Is that how the group got its name?

MEC: Yes, there is a full-evening piece called Crash.

FJO: Before we get into the specifics of how the ensemble got put together, I want to talk with you about the communal performance aspects of Click. It’s interesting that the group that originally performed Still Life initially wanted to move the drums and play the piece more conventionally. That would completely miss the point of Click, which is so much about the players playing each other’s sets of claves. The whole piece seems to be about the sharing of resources.

MEC: I never thought of it as a sharing of resources exactly. I don’t know really where that idea came from, though I remember when I got it. But I also want to say, there is some of that sharing of resources—as you call it—in the marching band world where you might see a drummer reach over and play another drummer’s drum.

FJO: And certainly also in many traditional African groups, like the Chopi Timbila mallet percussion ensemble pieces, where you have many people playing on the same mallet instrument and they’re playing interlocking patterns. If one person was out of step, it would throw the whole thing off.

MEC: I was not the first person in the world to think about how visual and aural things go together. There were hundreds and hundreds of years and cultures that thought that way, and so there are lots of musical traditions, especially percussion with visual things or marrying percussive dance and rhythm.

FJO: Probably the closest thing we have in Western classical music to that is piano four-hand repertoire.

MEC: Oh, yeah. Right.

FJO: But, as far as I know, you’ve never written a four-hand piano piece.

MEC: That could be an interesting thing to exploit visually, too, with crossing hands, or intertwining, something like that. But I don’t have a four-hand piano piece, just the two-piano piece Kilter.

FJO: Which is a really great piece.

MEC: Oh, thank you.

FJO: Kilter is word we tend only to use when we talk about the negation of it, being off kilter.

MEC: Exactly.

FJO: So I imagine that there is sort of a motion and a balance idea within that piece, too.

MEC: Definitely, there’s a motion. I was really trying to get at, well, just what you said. It’s a word that’s usually only used in a phrase that means it’s negative. So I was really playing with those two things. Something and its complement. Something and its opposite. And I find that has been something that has recurred and recurred in my work. I think the interplay of seeming opposites is something that interests me a lot. And that’s where Kilter came from.

FJO: To bring it back to Click, what I find so interesting about it is how effectively it realizes a physical process. First you play your instrument, then you play someone else’s instrument. It really is about the group and coming together.

MEC: Absolutely. It’s very much about the group. That’s one of those pieces where it’s really hard for the players to rehearse on their own, although they tell me that when they absolutely know their own part they can sort of do it on their own. But it’s very much about how you interact with the others; it’s not just about putting your stick that way. It’s about putting your stick that way to hit someone else’s stick. So there’s all that sort of figuring out in rehearsals—where’s your stick going to be and when—because the other thing about a piece like Click that is not something percussionists usually deal with, is that you’re often aiming for a striking surface that isn’t there yet. The striking surface is often in motion, too, so part of the rehearsal process is figuring out who’s the active strike and who’s the passive strike—where exactly in the air is that going to be so that you don’t end up either missing, or hitting someone’s knuckle, which is very painful and has happened. You want to minimize that because it’s not pleasant.

Click is one of those pieces that has ideas that have continued to spin off into more and more possibilities. I actually have a couple of other Click-style pieces, and I put together a whole of evening where Click-like material came back as the connecting thread. But those pieces we haven’t done since. That was probably in about ’92, ‘93, ‘91, somewhere in there. It did feel like I could keep mining this material. There’s another piece I did with CRASH called Talking Stick which also uses only sticks as the instruments and, in that case, we used drum sticks. The main figure in that is this thing that I saw one of my players do in rehearsal one day during a break, and I said, “Show me what that is; there’s a piece in there.” That’s how that piece got started. One stick rests against the cheek, and this becomes the resonating cavity. And then the other stick hits the end of that stick. Then as your mouth opens and closes, you get a change in pitch. That’s why it’s called Talking Stick. That’s the recurring theme that comes back, that talking stick pattern. Then there are all kinds of other things that you do with sticks—whether it’s on the floor, or tossing and hitting them, or making sculptural patterns out of them. So that was not a Click-like piece, but it has some similarities with it.

FJO: So, in order to do pieces like that, you formed your own ensemble. I imagine this isn’t the kind of stuff you could put on a piece of staff notation and hand to some group somewhere.

MEC: No, you can’t. That’s right. I actually experimented with notation early on with the history of Click, but it was so complicated to try to get it all down on paper that it wasn’t worth it. Notation should be something that assists in the communication between composer and performer. And what I was finding with the notation I was trying to get down on paper was that it was something that would take the performers much longer to take off the page and into sound and movement when I could just say to them, “Hold your claves like this and do this.”

Notation should be something that assists in the communication between composer and performer.

And that was quick, so that really became the score, with some kind of an outline. I would name the various patterns, so that we could talk to each other without always having to refer back to the number on the outline. I could say, “Start at the triple patty cake” or “Let’s go from the everybody cross.” But this would be meaningless to anybody else except for me and my group, who have that language in common that we’ve created. Since then, after the fact, now I’ve gone back and I’ve written out some pretty detailed notes for each part. But they are sort of a combination of prose-style language and maybe some rhythms written out. They’re meant to be used in conjunction with a video of my group performing it. They’re also never to be put up on a music stand with your eyes glued to it because that’s just wrong for so many reasons. They’re just meant to be referred to. As other groups learn Click, I want them to be memorizing from day one and not be thinking, “First I’m going to read off the page, and then I’m going to take it into my memory from there.” No, this has to be right into movement and sound from the very beginning. Your eyes have to be available.

FJO: There are people who assume that if something doesn’t have a score on the page, that it’s improvised. But this isn’t.

MEC: No, not at all. I think this is one place where my dance background had a big influence, maybe without me even completely thinking about it. You don’t really write down dances for the most part. As a choreographer you may have some notes for yourself, but they exist in the dancer’s memory and maybe now on film or video so that there’s a record of it. But let me back up.

The very first version of Click was at the Yellow Springs Institute in Pennsylvania. I was there for a week with Relâche. That would have been about 1988, if I remember correctly. Because I had the ensemble for half a day, I could work on several ideas. I had them there in the room with me as I was working. So I wrote an instrumental piece for them that was completely written out and which became Parterre. Then I had this idea to do the piece with claves, and I knew I had to have at least three people to make it work. And the three people were the percussionist in the group, Flossie Lerardi if I remember her name correctly, Laurel Wykoff who was the flute player, and Guy Klucevsek who was the accordion player. So I had the three of them, and I think I created maybe just the first minute or minute and a half of the piece. It was really because I had access to the musicians while I was composing.

Then I went home and I knew I wanted to continue with this idea, so I thought I’d have to bring people in for rehearsal. This is not a piece that I could compose in my head and write down and send off to players like I might with a string quartet. So I hired one percussionist and two dancers to be in rehearsal with me to create the piece. The reason I wanted dancers was because I knew I was going to have to work in rehearsal and ask the players to remember what they did from one rehearsal to the next. And I thought, “Well, that’s how dancers work. They’ll get it immediately.” I was worried that if I brought in three musicians that they might say, “Where’s my notation? Where’s my score?” Even if it was just from this rehearsal to the next rehearsal. So that was the reason, and it worked. It worked really well because I had one percussionist who really knew how to work with rhythm, and then I had two dancers who really knew how to work with movement and how to work from memory, so I didn’t have to convince anybody of anything.

FJO: For me, one of the most fascinating of those CRASH pieces is Hands, which doesn’t use any instruments at all. It’s just the body. And because it’s based on such a primal, human activity—just using people’s hands—I imagine other people who see this being performed might think it is something we all could do, but then the minute you start paying attention to it, you realize, it’s actually pretty hard.

HANDS by Mary Ellen Childs from Mary Ellen Childs on Vimeo.

MEC: You know, that piece was a really surprising thing for me. I think it’s only like three or four minutes; it’s very short. It was part of a much longer evening that was all about percussion in various ways, and it felt to me like just a little kind of a filler thing, like something that I was going to use for that purpose and then completely forget about. But somehow that piece has taken off. There are some groups who’ve taken it into their repertoire and have just played it and played it and played it. And it gets this big response that has always surprised me.

FJO: Well, I think it’s because it’s just so basic.

MEC: It is basic.

FJO: The one thing that audiences are allowed to do during Western classical music concerts is use their hands and clap at the end. But here they are being used to make the content of the music that you’re experiencing without any other filter. Yeah, they hit chairs at some point. But mostly they’re hitting each other. And there’s something very satisfying about that.

MEC: Why does that capture people’s imagination? I don’t understand it. But I think that I understand what you’re saying. I’ve done at least one other body percussion piece, Sight of Hand, which sort of draws from clapping games and hamboning and baseball coaching signals turned into percussion, but it’s a little more complex and varied than Hands is.

FJO: I haven’t heard it or seen it, but I’ve read about it and was very curious about it. It’s a new piece, right?

MEC: Oh no, this is from 1998 or ‘99.

FJO: That’s weird, because one of the sites I went to said it was from 2016.

MEC: Oh, what that could be is now I’m going to do a version of this piece with the St. Paul Saints minor league team.

FJO: A-ha! I want to hear about that.

MEC: Yes, so if all the funding comes through—that’s a big if right now—then we’re going to do the piece at the Saints’ game in August of this year. The St. Paul Saints are a minor league team, you know, serious baseball. But there’s also a very fun atmosphere. There are always other things going on in between innings or in the stands. So I had this idea to do the piece that is influenced by baseball coaching signals there at a game. And then we’re also going to shoot video, live at the game, to capture game plays and crowd responses. We’re going to have a second day of video where we can setup some specific shots with Saints players and coaches and my players, and then create a little percussion music video out of it. So that’s the 2016 project.

FJO: There are all these connections yet disconnections between music and sports: the virtuoso, superhuman performers and the ritual of the event—whether it’s a concert or a game that an audience goes to and witnesses. Both sports and music also engender a rabid fandom. Plus there’s a ton of jargon that’s very specific to those two realms. And, as the guy who’s on the music side of this rather than the sports side, I’m always sort of envious of how sports can be as specialized and even as erudite as we are, and still millions of people care about this. So if we could reach sports fans and show them how similar our worlds are, I wonder if this piece is the kind of piece that could do that.

MEC: I don’t know. We’re just in the middle of conceiving how this is going to work in the stadium. It’s actually a pretty quiet piece; body percussion is not going to read very far, though visually maybe it will. We’re also going to work with a group of usher-tainers—they call them—there, people who are hired to be part of the entertainment, and they’re great. I’m going to have them learn just a few of the patterns out of our piece, so that they can participate. We’re going to amplify it in that way. Instead of three players, I’m going to have seven of my own people, and then we’ll probably have about 10 or 12 or so of these usher-tainers. So we could have a pretty big group doing some of these body percussion patterns.

FJO: No amplification?

MEC: I don’t know. I’ve got to think that through. Like I said, we’re still in the planning process. We might see if we can do something on their jumbotron, which would just be a little snippet—certainly not the whole piece—so that everybody can see and hear it that way. But a baseball stadium is not a concert hall, so this is not going to be the kind of performance where people are going to have their attention focused on this piece that, even at four and a half minutes, is still pretty long. We’re never going to get four and a half minutes of an audience’s attention. So we’ll have to conceive of it a little bit differently: breaking it down into component parts; doing a little bit here, going over to that part of the crowd and doing another bit; interacting with a vendor; getting it all on camera.

FJO: Why do you think that it would be so difficult to get them to focus on your piece? They’re certainly capable of being totally focused on the game.

MEC: Right, but they will never give us four and a half minutes. The time between innings—they told me—is two minutes. And they have a lot of stuff going on in that two minutes. So even if we had the whole time between two innings, we couldn’t do the piece. And we probably will only get a fraction of that out on the field with everybody’s attention.

FJO: They couldn’t work extra time into the schedule just to make it work with your piece? Why not give them a little more than two minutes between innings?

MEC: I doubt it, and that’s not really the point of this. The point is having the piece and the live game be part of the same event, then taking all that material and making a piece out of it that exists on video to put my baseball percussion movement into the context of real game plays happening. So I don’t know. We’ll see how it all comes together.

FJO: Another thing that interests me about all of these projects we’ve been talking about is that even though you work very closely with the performers, you’re not actually performing. But you are so involved in the rehearsal process. That becomes tricky if you have pieces that are being done, say, all over the world.

MEC: Well, there are now percussion groups who do my pieces and I’m not part of that rehearsal process. So that does happen now. Early on, I felt extraordinarily protective of these pieces and I did not want anyone else to do them unless I could go and coach it. Then after a while, I just didn’t feel as strongly about that. I think maybe because there were some groups who learned the pieces and put their own mark on them, because every group is going to do it a little bit differently. Even if the rhythms are exactly precise, their quality of movement is going to be a little different. One might have a more precise feel to it, another one might have a little bit more lyrical feel, just based on what the movement qualities of the performers are like. So I got more curious and interested in having performers take on these pieces. And I did find ways where I could convey the information from my written notes plus a video of my program. Now sometimes I even do Skype rehearsals where I can be at a rehearsal enough to see what’s going on and give them some coaching from my own home studio, which often works better.

FJO: But some things would still be very difficult to do without your involvement, perhaps most of all the music you wrote for these crazy bicycle instruments.

MEC: There were three of them, and they’re no longer in my studio. I donated them to the Schubert Club Musical Instrument Museum. So they’re now in the museum in St. Paul. I hear that they are wildly popular because, at the museum, they allow people to get on and ride them. They’re actually musical instruments powered by exercise bicycles that were created for my group by Norman Anderson, a visual artist in the Twin Cities. A lot of his visual art uses old musical instrument parts and a lot of it runs on small motors. These beings that he creates move and make sound. They sort of come to life and each have their own personality and idiosyncrasies. So I was really fascinated by Norman’s work and I asked him if he would create a piece that I could use with my group. The moment I asked him, I had envisioned something that moves and comes to life, but in some way also has some space in it, both literally and figuratively for my group to play along with them or to interact with this thing coming to life. So Norman said sure and started working on it. Then he called me up one day and he said, “I got an idea. I was driving through my alley and I saw someone had put out, to be taken away, an old exercise bicycle. I know I could find a couple others, no problem.” And he does—many of his materials are found items. So he said, “What if I did three pieces that each were powered by an exercise bicycle?” And so I said, “That sounds like fun. Let’s go for it.” Then we started talking back and forth about what the sounds were going to be for each and so we landed on one that was the pipe-cercycle, which uses organ pipes as its sound and physical material. Then there’s the string-cercycle, which is all strings of various kinds. A little ukulele in the front, a cello in the back, some other resonating strings that Norman created. And then the xylo-cycle, which has xylophone-like bars right above the handle bars and a kind of a music box-style cylinder with screws sticking out of it. When you pedal, it will turn and trigger the mallets over the top of the xylophone-like bars. That’s how those three pieces came about.

Tri-Cycles by Mary Ellen Childs from Mary Ellen Childs on Vimeo.

FJO: There’s actually been a significant history of writing music involving bicycles. In the early 1980s there was an audio artist based in Arizona named Richard Lerman who created an outdoor piece called Travelon Gamelon that was recorded by Folkways and which is now available from the Smithsonian. Before that, one of the earliest musical efforts by Frank Zappa that attracted some notoriety was a film score he wrote using bicycles. He even performed a selection from it on network TV in 1963. It was a few years before he became a famous rock musician; he was announced as being an avant-garde composer.

MEC: Okay, that I did not know.

FJO: It’s pretty wacky. And just last year I heard a piece by Ruby Fulton during the SONiC Festival that involved a bicycle. For some reason bicycles keep reappearing in musical contexts, but in the trajectory of your work, I think, it’s yet another example of calling attention to the physical process of making music.

MEC: The piece I just described didn’t start out being about bicycles. It was about invented musical instruments and how a human can interact with them. But it ended up being about bicycles.

FJO: Now that you’ve donated the instruments, does that mean the piece is out of CRASH’s repertoire?

MEC: We did it one more time, at the museum—must have been the fall of 2014. That was the last time it’s been done. Occasionally I would use the xylo-cycle in concert. But frankly, those instruments were sitting in my studio for a good decade unused. They were hard to get in and out of my house and were difficult to transport. You could not fly them anywhere, so they could really only be used pretty close to home. And what I realized after I got the pieces and started working with them is they’re not well suited for a concert-style performance, unless we started working with a sound engineer. If I had gone to the next stage with that piece, I would have done that. Because they don’t balance very well. Some things are too quiet to really hear, and you have to accept the fact that the sound of pedaling is going to be part of the piece because the bikes themselves are noisy. What I also found about these instruments is that they’re best suited for a more installation-style performance. You can do some very interesting things with them to create kind of an atmosphere or a mood or a sound world. But to shape a musical arc over a period of time, which is what you want to do in a concert setting, was difficult to impossible.

If I was going to continue with those instruments and those pieces, I think I probably would have added some other instruments, singers, texts, or something like that. Plus a sound engineer to finesse all those materials in a way that was going to be fully satisfying if you really have a rapt audience in front of you, rather than an installation work where people are kind of walking through. The performance that I did with my players was meant for a gallery or an installation. People do come and actually pay attention for the whole time. And the players are dressed in our usual black suits, and then they wear bowler hats. They get off the bikes and they do other things with them. I don’t know what will happen to it in the future.

FJO: Now once again, I imagine that there are some written instructions, but no score.

MEC: There are some written instructions, and that is the score. That piece actually does have a fair amount of structured improvisation in it. If I had the time or the resources I’d work that even more, but it certainly is not one of those pieces that anybody else is going to do because the instruments are so specific and so is the process of putting it together, as we discovered when recreating it ten years later. But as I said, I would sometimes take the xylo-cycle out and use it as a little solo piece in the context of a bigger CRASH concert.

FJO: Did you ever get on the bike and play it, or was it always one of the players?

MEC: It was always one of the players. There was a period of time during CRASH concerts when I would do little cameo performances. I thought of them as my Alfred Hitchcock moments—you know, you blink and you might miss me. But no, I never really performed in that group. I haven’t performed in a long time.

FJO: Thankfully, in the last decade, two really significant, large-scale compositions of yours are now available on commercial recordings. Dream House is an extremely beautiful piece that very effectively weaves the sound of a live string quartet with an electronic sound environment. But in some ways I feel I don’t completely know the piece because I only know it from the audio recording and it was created as part of a much more multisensory and omnidirectional experience involving multiple video screens. I’ve only seen a few snippets of that posted online.

DREAM HOUSE by Mary Ellen Childs from Mary Ellen Childs on Vimeo.

MEC: The original piece was conceived as a full-evening piece for live string quartet. It was written for ETHEL and some sound montage interwoven into some of the movements, and then multi-image video.

The theme of the piece was construction and destruction and how those two things are so intertwined; one just doesn’t exist without the other. It’s not that one’s good and one’s bad—although sometimes we think of them that way. It’s not that we prefer one over the other. I chose to take the roof off my house to build my studio up. That was destroying something so that I could create something else.

It was also about cycles of time, and then rhythms of work. The video sometimes filled the performance space, but sometimes was as small as a single flower in a window pane of a relatively very small image. It wasn’t meant to be a 2-D, single-screen rectangle behind the players where you see the image. I really wanted the projected imagery to be able to use the space. I think we had seven projectors used in different ways in the course of the evening. And then the lighting design was also a very integral part of the whole performance because after all, video projection is projected light. The lighting designer used and also picked up on some of these same images that were in the video and physically in the space. It was meant to be a blending of what’s projected and what’s a real image. Then we used quadrophonic sounds so that the sound could also envelop the audience. But I have to say that though that was the original performance and how the piece was conceived, I also wanted the piece to stand on its own musically. That was where it started. My videographer worked from the music. I wasn’t writing music to existing film; it was actually the other way around. And we really talked a lot with my collaborators about how to keep it so that the music is really the primary experience, because visual imagery can take over so easily and make music an accompaniment. How are we really going to keep this so that, if anything, the visual material is the accompaniment to what you’re hearing?

FJO: So it was a deliberate decision to issue Dream House on CD in order for the music to stand on its own, rather than to release it on, say, a 5.1 Surround Sound DVD?

MEC: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this lately. I don’t know how you’d recreate the experience, except to restage the whole thing and have a live audience, just because of how the lighting design worked. If you were to take this experience of the video and flatten it down to one screen again, that goes against what the original experience was like. The only way to experience that piece again would be to restage the whole thing, which has not happened. I would be happy to have it happen, but it hasn’t happened.

FJO: Wreck also has a ton of extra-musical elements. It was created for dance and I saw just a little snippet of video that the dance company put up online, but again, I really only know the music because it was released as an audio recording.

MEC: Well, that happened because Carl Flink—a choreographer whose group is Black Label Movement—was creating a full-evening piece called Wreck. It was about an oar boat on Lake Superior that sinks and the crew knows they’re not going to survive. They end up in the last airtight compartment. It’s a rather dark piece. This is not a true story. But it’s about facing death and also about the power of that great lake.

There was another composer who was slated to do it who tragically died very unexpectedly at the very beginning stages of the work. So that’s why Carl came to me. He had already started working on the piece. My schedule was such that, by the time I was really ready to write it, much of the choreography had been created. He was still ordering pieces and making final decisions, but I came to it pretty late in the game, so I was writing to existing dance. I felt very much like I was scoring a film, and that’s really how I approached it. But I told Carl right away, “If you need to have me mirror your phrases musically and work with your phrase structure, that’s not what I’m going to do.” And he said, “No, no, no, I don’t work with music like that at all.” So I felt very freed up to create a sonic environment for the dance to exist in. But I did find ways where, through musical decisions, I could coordinate with the dancers, because it was going to be performed to live music, so the live performers could cue off the dancers.

This can’t be shrinking violet music. It can’t be wallpaper music. It can’t be background music. This had to be music that makes its own very powerful statement.

Of course, what your perception will do when you’re hearing something and seeing something is that you’ll make the connection that the two were meant to happen in time at that moment, even when they weren’t. I don’t know if that makes sense. I was kind of talking in the abstract there. But I said to Carl early on, “The movement you’ve created is so strong, I think this needs to have very powerful music that goes along with it that stands on its own, that doesn’t take second place to the dance. If that sounds appealing to you, that’s what I will give you. This can’t be shrinking violet music. It can’t be wallpaper music. It can’t be background music. This had to be music that makes its own very powerful statement and can be an equal partner with the dance.” And so again, I think that’s why it works on the recording without the dance. But the recording is not the dance piece from beginning to end. When we did the recording, there were some pieces we didn’t put on the recording. It was like releasing a film score; you order the pieces in a different way to make the recording a satisfying experience. So although it’s the same material, the dance performance and the recording are two different, both satisfying, experiences I hope.

FJO: One of the things that I find curious about both of these pieces is that even though they are large-scale and immersive, they’re both chamber music. You’ve never done a thing like this for a very large ensemble. Of course, working with an orchestra imposes a regimented and quite limited rehearsal process. I also imagine that you couldn’t tell orchestra players to move around, or to have video screens scattered around them on stage.

MEC: Well, yeah, I think that’s a part of it. The kinds of things that I do take a little more rehearsal time. But there’s always a limit to rehearsal time. When I did Click, I counted up how many rehearsals I had over the course of a year. There were like 38 or 40 rehearsals. And that was to create the piece and, of course, the players were learning it at the same time. But in our world, that’s pretty hard to come by. And I don’t think that I’ll ever do that work that way again. The kinds of things that I’m talking about take a lot of rehearsal time. That’s probably why Dream House hasn’t been done again, because it would take a lot to get that piece up on its feet again. We’d have to redo a little bit of the video. You need special equipment. You need to rebuild these set pieces. Simple, but they need to be rebuilt to fly in and out. We’d need very high powered projectors. These are also not pieces that tour very easily. They don’t get multiple performances very easily.

As for orchestras, there are just some practical considerations. It’s just going to be harder to do something like that with a professional orchestra. So if I were to do it, I’d have to think about it very differently. Could something have as much impact that wouldn’t take a week of technical rehearsals in order to pull off? And as far as the movement pieces, it’s just harder with other instruments. I’ve experimented with it a little bit. Percussion is so ripe for using movement. With other instruments, you can’t change the playing technique in the same way. It isn’t as physical to begin with, so it’s just harder to do.

I haven’t actually done new pieces for CRASH in 15 years. That’s a whole body of work that exists, and when CRASH travels it tends to be this existing work. But how I’ve incorporated other elements has kind of evolved a little bit. Eventually I starting to be interested in scent, Dream House came several years after the work that I was doing with CRASH, and that was using multi-image video and lighting design.

Last fall I did a piece at the Farnsworth House, which is a Mies van der Rohe-designed house in Plano, Illinois, about an hour and a half west of Chicago on the Fox River. And it’s this beautiful, historic, all-glass house. I was commissioned to write a piece inspired by the house and performed inside the house as part of the Chicago Architectural Biennial. So I got to spend some time in the house and absorb it. Then I wrote the piece based on what I had experienced, knowing the performance was going to take place in the house, to feel what the audience would feel to be in a space like that and see what they see because it’s glass and so the outdoors and the indoors blend so much. For that, I started feeling like the space itself was my collaborator. I’m really interested in doing more of that, writing for an already existing space. I’d like to do something with the night sky—the night sky is sort of, again, my collaborator, my existing other element. The audience’s experience would be of the music, but in this particular space, in this particular moment seeing the stars or looking out. And it’s not meant to be performances where you’re sitting in chairs, facing the musicians, and your visual focus is on the musicians. So it’s, again, using and thinking about space in a different way.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

One thought on “Mary Ellen Childs: Engaging All the Senses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.