My mind is blank, but down one inch deep I have, we have, access. Access to what happened before—the universe is embedded in all of us. Is that too dreamy? What we heard, what was seen, what was felt…all that was picked up along the way. As moments click by, we find ourselves moving through time and space picking up fragments of experience. Our senses are tuned to what we want to hear and what we want to block. Some sounds stick—context, emotion, and openness allow for the sound faucet to be turned on. We ponder, work through, process, and invent. Invention is a tricky proposition. Are any sounds or structures unheard?
Consider the path of water. An object in the water can be followed, but the water itself? Does it matter? We live in a culture of mix-up. This line of thought circles towards the question: What are artists thinking about? What informs their decisions?
In the digital age, we are tethered to each other more than at any other time in history. We are surrounded by thousands of unfiltered sounds. The way that we experience art and culture has been retooled and re-imagined—for better or worse, this is the “now” in the 21st century.
We have always had cultural gatekeepers: artists, publishers, concert promoters, radio producers, teachers, etc. At the top of this filtering process is the mind and ears of the artist.
Often I take the “fixed” hierarchy of the music world too seriously and to keep things in check I often think about Jad Fair. I am still in awe over this lo-fi pioneer and how he is clear that he can only sound like Jad Fair. Part of the question of influence is what do artists want to sound like. Jad touches on his sound and idyllic philosophy in the liner notes to 1995’s Half Japanese – Greatest Hits:
Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion. If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. But that’s absurd. How could it be wrong? It’s your guitar and you’re the one playing it. It’s completely up to you to decide how it should sound.
Musical lineage and the idea of tracing influence in contemporary composition and interpretative approaches is a fascinating topic. In many ways I find it mirrors the complexities of the natural world around us and the personalities within it, and the deeper I dig into it, the more questions I have.
My interest in tracing influences grew out of group listening sessions that I hosted during my tenure at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia. Each session was an opportunity to get together in an open forum to discuss artistic process and actively listen to current work. We listened to music that served as a point of reference or influenced the participating artists. The process was not straightforward, but it was rewarding in many ways. Mostly by offering the group a new way to unpack each other’s work. Tempesta di Mare, the early music ensemble from Philadelphia, has carved out a distinct position on the world stage interpreting very old music. Still, questions of influence deeply impact their work:
Music evolves gradually. Emerging new styles carry within them the bones and souls of their parents, and the musicians who first played each new style bore in their minds and ears the practices honed playing what had come before. Both as individual musicians and as an ensemble engaged in the study and performance of old music, we cultivate variety and specificity in our approach to different repertoires by immersing ourselves in their antecedents and influences.
I keep returning to the hall of mirrors of this topic. All music contains many of the same building blocks and elements. Is it possible to chart influence? How do artists push the dial forward or—in Tempesta’s case—backward? On one end of the spectrum we have exact reconstruction of past work, and way over on the other end we have innovation and invention. Even those lines arch and seem to connect.
As listeners, what are we attached to? At what point in life have we made up our musical minds? Do we have to eat our musical vegetables to grow strong? Listen to Bach, Blind Willie, Carnatic music?
In my youth, I spent hours late at night in suburban Atlanta catching the radical sounds of WREK freeform radio—it was a lifeline to the world and my first real exposure to underground music. I was inspired by DIY and alternative music and still reference that as my true north. The intensity and immediate nature of that music informed my ears and to this day they are tuned from that experience.
Recently I was at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. They now offer a new type of museum experience with a digital collection wand that acts as both a virtual notebook and interpretive tool to interact with the museum collection. After your visit, you have a personalized URL link with the collection of objects that you scanned and more context and historical data. You have access to the catalog of objects and real time connections to the history.
Could we have the musical equivalent of those interpretive tools—a collection and museum of sound and music? Is that the concert hall or university music library? The internet or iTunes? What can help provide context for the music and enrich and inform the listening experience? Will that change the end result, deepen the experience, or help uncover influence?
As both a composer and percussionist, I have tried to look for potential in sound and what sounds everyday objects and nature make in the world around us. Over the years I have trained myself to tune in—not tune up, not judge—and look for structure and logic in all work. I challenge myself to crack the code: how do the structures within the sound work.
We accumulate so much sound experience in our heads that the pre-cognitive elements in work are nearly impossible to trace. As we zoom out, influences that will never be apparent in the music alone might be known by the artist and can only be identified by the artist through conversation. I propose we actively listen together and discuss music in real time. Listening sessions can be a tool to begin to trace influences, first by the artist articulating conscious ones and then the group, through conversation, surfacing unconscious ones.
If we look through the window into the personalities and viewpoints of the great composers and interpreters of our time, we will find a fountain that offers years of thoughtful approaches and reference points—what is undeniably theirs and what they borrowed and processed through their interpretive minds.
As a companion to this essay, I have asked sound artist Camille Norment, pianist Simone Dinnestein, and composer Colin Jacobsen to contribute a short description of a current project along with a point of reference that may have led them to form their work. This is not a simple equation and there could be hundreds of trace influences for each piece.
Regardless, what they offered is both insightful and rich, and I am grateful to these amazing artists for taking time out of their busy schedules to contribute to this piece and shed light on how other music inspired and informed their musical perspectives and personalities.
In this brief essay Simone offers poetic insight into her interpretive approach and how it connects to historical performance practice and the bones of the score itself. We recognize the characteristic sound of a piano, but it is interesting to consider what sets the conditions for the performance to be otherworldly and how those conditions arc towards or away from a set lineage and performance traditions.
Simone Dinnerstein on Schubert’s Impromptu No.3 in Gb, Op 90
I am fascinated by the language of instrumental music. Somehow tones and rhythm can create subtly particular messages that affect us in varied and profound ways. Music is so communicative that I have trouble focusing on words when they accompany sounds. I love listening to German lieder and find it some of the most beautiful and emotional music, and yet I don’t know what the words mean. In fact, I don’t really want to know. To me, the words often pale in comparison to the music.
Certain composers like Bach and Schubert wrote a great deal for the voice and were used to setting text to music. Their musical settings incorporated breath and all of the phrasing and articulations of speech—the pauses for reflection, the excited rushing forward of a new idea, the sudden shift in tone.
Schubert’s Impromptu in Gb is essentially a song, with the 5th finger of the right hand acting as vocalist. I thought a lot about how I would sing the line, where the breaths would be, where I would alter a sustained tone. How to do this on a piano was a challenge. One of my favorite Schubert recordings is of Renée Fleming and Christoph Eschenbach. Fleming has an uncanny ability to change the color of a note while she sustains it. It’s as beautiful as watching the light change through shifting clouds and rustling leaves. I tried to find a way to do this on the piano, an instrument where the sound is out of your hands the moment that the key has been played. Playing the piano is like being an illusionist, working with balancing the voices within the texture and with pedaling to create a vocal effect.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recording of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin was my first taste of lieder and remains a huge influence on me. He and the pianist Gerald Moore highly characterized every phrase. They took Schubert’s score and completely created an imaginative world, using the score as a beginning rather than an end.
Pianists tend to be very literal when it comes to the score. I prefer to look at it as a rough guide. In this impromptu there are many hairpins, areas where there is a crescendo and then a decrescendo. In quite a few parts I think this is about intensity as opposed to volume. Sometimes the increase in intensity actually manifests itself by growing alarmingly quieter.
I see this Impromptu as being full of memory and longing for the past. There is a bittersweet and heartbreaking beauty in it that feels very personal and intimate. I worked with filmmaker Tristan Cook to make a visual representation of this. We used images of my family and home as well as images of distance, isolation, and nature. It’s not a narrative, but a type of filmic poem to the music.
Encoding and decoding: Colin outlines a complex map of influence connecting to Kandinsky, Dada, Shara Worden, and David Byrne! He also includes some insight into the origins of the name of his quartet, Brooklyn Rider. I was fortunate enough to see the performance he references at Jacob’s Pillow. It’s a fantastic example of how multiple styles, forms, and disciplines collide and borrow to inform compositional decisions.
Colin Jacobsen on Exit
I wrote Exit as part of an evening-length song cycle/dance theater piece called Chalk And Soot in collaboration with choreographer John Heginbotham and his company Dance Heginbotham. The music was written for my quartet, Brooklyn Rider, and the amazing vocalist Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond).
I realize that the song, though only five minutes, packs in a ton of influences. First, there’s Shara herself, whose clear, unaffected, and totally committed singing style has made her a muse to a number of composers—and, of course, she also writes her own great songs. There’s the text, by Wassily Kandinsky from Klange (Sounds), a book of woodcuts and strange, humorous poems that influenced the Swiss Dada artists and Russian Futurists. This is from the time of the Blue Rider Group, which included the likes of the composer Arnold Schoenberg and the painter Franz Marc. (Brooklyn Rider derives its name in part from the inspiration of this cross-disciplinary collective.) This text, though almost more prose than poetry (and in a translated version) still has a wonderful, weird, childlike rhythm and musicality that I thought would work well with dance and the active imagination of John Heginbotham. Finally, at the time I was writing this, I was reading David Byrne’s book encoding his thoughts on music and the creative process, How Music Works. I appreciated his practical, stripped-down and de-mystified approach to creativity. He kind of exemplifies the words in Shara’s song “Be Brave.” Incidentally, check out Brooklyn Rider violinist Johnny Gandelsman grooving out to David Bryne’s song “This Must Be the Place” starting around 1:40.
Feldman, architecture, and primal instinct are a few parts of the complex sphere of influences Camille calls out. It’s fascinating to consider how architecture and physical space can inform sonic choices. Camille turns over her compositional strategies that link the human body as a resonating chamber, the Venice Biennale Nordic pavilion, and the overarching exploration of censored relationships between the body and sound.
Camille Norment on Rapture 2015
Rapture is an audio performance work I created for my participation in the Venice Biennale 2015 in the Nordic Pavilion. The work emerges out of specific sonic and conceptual elements from the sculptural sound installation I created for the pavilion, and on site, it uses the pavilion itself as an instrument. The other voices include the Camille Norment Trio comprised of myself primarily on glass armonica and text, Håvard Skaset on electric guitar, and Vegar Vårdal on Hardanger fiddle; David Toop on flute, electronics, and text; the Oslo 14 vocal ensemble; and Sofia Jernberg’s powerful solo vocalizations.
A significant influence for this work was the conceptual positioning that I had towards my earlier Toll project. In Rapture, I wanted to further the exploration of censored relationships between the body and sound. Tonally, I centered Rapture around the tritone interval, which is simply any combination of two notes that are six half-steps apart. The tritone was banned in the medieval period and thought to be sinister due to the unease of its sound and lack of tonal resolution. Here, I can also reference experimental composer Arne Norheim, who once said, “Music lives in the realm between poetry and catastrophe.” Seeking to suspend the sonic experience in a space between ecstasy and trauma, I gave the tritone to the all-female chorus members to sing, as one elongated breath at a time. The effect the chorus has as functioning simultaneously as a whole and as individuals has some likeness to the third movement of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. In both the Rapture installation and performances, however, I took this function more to an extreme, and placed emphasis on the voices belonging to physical bodies. I also used the Nordic pavilion itself as a body within this framework, attaching audio exciters to the large shards of broken glass and exciting them with tones from the glass armonica. The glass armonica, like the Hardanger fiddle and electric guitar, was once banned for fear of the power of its music over the body and in fear of its use to rupture social norms, especially related to the female body, music, and sexuality. Sofia Jernberg has an ability to adeptly perform what I refer to as ‘pre-lingual’ vocalization—a type of vocal communication that just precedes language and relies primarily on musical texture. My research into hysteria (also shell shock) guided my crafting of Sofia’s contribution, and brought the work full circle, back to the body, music, society, and the tensions between raptures (ecstasy) and ruptures (traumas).
Jeff Arnal has worked in the arts and nonprofit sector for the past two decades first as a composer and percussionist, and later as a curator, writer, administrator, and producer. Currently he lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he is the artistic director of Free Range Asheville, a platform for performance, research, and discourse.