Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, including the artists performing your work?
Working with other people is always a trade-off. When I’m doing creative work with others, I prioritize the process and the people, sometimes to the detriment of the product. When I’m working alone I feel free to be obsessive about the product, which I’m not comfortable inflicting on others.
When artists play my pieces, my instinct is the same. I want them to have a good experience of my work and of me. I want them to feel successful. Sometimes this means I let a poor performance slide when I could have shown more leadership. This is something I’m working on.
How is writing the music and having it performed live connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Writing is a way to be alone. It helps me carve a clearing for myself in a world where I normally feel a constant pressure to please others. Then it becomes a performance, which is almost the opposite experience: an intense burst of attention and adrenaline and pride (when it goes well). These two experiences balance each other.
Time is a variable only seldom discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
I like for my music to either have a relentless urgency, like the overwhelming flood of notes in Bloom, the first piece on Nightflower, or an extreme patience, like the left-hand walk of the solo piano piece Night (Flowers). Both modes use time to take the listener out of normal consciousness, which prefers to stay in the moderate tempo of entertainment (or neuroses!)
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I love music that makes sound the focus, and I love music that you can play on any instrument and still is itself. These two poles repel each other somewhat: if the notes and rhythms are really interesting, they obscure the sound, so to make sound more important, you have to make space for it to speak and be heard in its full form, especially its decay. I write all along this spectrum.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Well, sound is vibration, which is pattern at high speed. We see pattern too, and there’s a clear analog between what we like to see and like to hear. Equally-spaced columns in a building is rhythm. Matching your tie to your socks is resonance. This tells us a lot about how the brain draws connections, makes groups, and processes information.
I also connect hearing to smell, because the ears and the nose are both unguarded and open to the world. You can close your eyes and keep your distance, but if there’s a sound or a smell, we’re more or less defenseless. It’s getting in.
Music is also deeply connected to the sensations of our own body. Melodies mimic gravity and the breath. Rhythm stimulates muscles to expand and contract. All music is dance music, whether we let ourselves move or not.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My own art practice is all about independence – it’s a space where I am free and beholden to no one. This is a powerful thing. It gives sanity and purpose to people living in oppressive situations, like the avant-garde artists of the USSR, and women poets in Afghanistan. For those of us living in late consumer capitalism, it offers us a haven from its endless messages of inadequacy, and offers a kind of ownership of ourselves that can’t be bought. It gives us room to discover our own conscience, respect our own ideas, and create our own meaning in this brief and bewildering life. The independence of the individual is still a radical political idea.
Paradoxically, in my work this means independence from political topics. With a few exceptions, I avoid overt political messaging in my creative work. I feel that once a work is considered for its politics, the things I love disappear (the magic of notes against notes) – its value is reduced to who makes it and how irreproachable or effective their politics are. That just puts me back out into the world of needing-to-please, and fear of judgment, which defeats the independence that I care about, and want other people to have.
There’s another reason I don’t try to ‘do politics’ through my creative work: it’s just not a good way to do it. I could write a string quartet about something I care about, say prison reform, but what would that do? I’d look virtuous in public, and that’s about it. People may disagree, but I think it’s just not actually a very effective way to communicate ideas or persuade.
That’s not to say I don’t feel a social and political purpose in music, just not in my private creative work. I think the best way to create change through music is not in the concert hall but in the classroom. Doing music, not watching music, is what creates communities, improves relationships, and empowers people with exactly the kind of personal independence I’m talking about. I put a lot of my energy into this, particularly at Sing Sing where I run a music school for incarcerated men.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I don’t find it remarkable at all. Music is a primary human activity, as deep as language. Its form changes but what attracts us to it doesn’t. The modernist view that culture is (or should be) in a state of permanent revolution is fantasy. Nearly everyone in the world looks to music to connect with traditions, not break them. Dance rhythms, modes with 5-7 notes, chords with thirds and fifths, I don’t think these will ever change.
I would love to see a world where people make their own fun instead of buying it, and music is a great way to do that. But ever since The Office we’ve perfected entertainment – a lot would have to collapse before people are bored enough to make their own fun.