The press release mentions that you work with "a structural approach to composition in which the proportions of harmonic relationships organically determine other musical elements such as pitch, duration, and dynamic". More concretely, how does that work and, more importantly, what is the connection between these elements?
You're referring to a compositional technique I created and called "integrated proportionality." I use it in many of my electro-acoustic works: Cello Constellations for Clarice Jensen,
[Read our Clarice Jensen interview.]
Harmonic Constellations for Mari Kimura, Radians Phase II for Third Sound, and Floating Just Above, a new multi-track cello work recorded by the Belgian cellist Pieter Stas (which will hopefully become available next year).
Although related to the concept of "total serialism," integrated proportionality is fundamentally different. The interrelationship between musical components derives from the note's actual frequencies rather than abstract correlations with a 12-tone row or set of pitches.
I program a series of gradually evolving sine tones in which the frequency relationships between each tone are tuned perfectly in whole number proportions (i.e., extended just intonation). Then the actual frequency relationships of the notes determine their entrance time, attack time, sustain time and decay time. I also use whole number proportions from the harmonic relationships to determine the timing for the work's formal structure. So in this way, the harmonies, dynamics, rhythm, and timing for the unfolding of the work are all organically connected by the mathematical relationships of the pitches themselves.
The best result allows you to hear the connections. For example, a series of harmonics unfolds gradually in a curve. The lower harmonics take more time to fade in, and the higher harmonics take less time in direct proportion to their frequency relationships.
I also work with the acoustic beats produced by simultaneously sounding commas, then synchronize the rhythms to the resultant acoustical pulses. You can hear this happening in the four “Tone Clouds” in Revelation when acoustical beats of 64:63 commas generate the pulse. It also occurs in Cello Constellations, when the gradually ascending cellos play a set of tones generated from the harmonics of 64Hz. while simultaneously, the gradually descending sine tones produce a set of tones generated from the harmonics of 63Hz.
So, when each corresponding harmonic from the two different series convergence, you get a 64:63 comma sounding that creates polyrhythmic patterns. For example, the fundamentals of 64 and 63 create acoustical beats at a rate of one cycle per second (64 minus 63 = 1), while the 2nd harmonics create acoustical beats at a rate of two cycles per second (128 minus 126 = 2). The 3rd harmonics create acoustical beats at a rate of three cycles per second, and so on.
Harmonic Constellations, Cello Constellations and Floating Just Above were all composed using math and text-based computer programming. The data was then organized into spreadsheets and used to create a more traditional score with just intonation ratios and exact frequencies specified in Hertz above each note. All of the tones were divided between the string instruments and sine tones to create an integrated electro-acoustic timbre. The rhythmic pulsations heard in the sine tones, and later magnified with repeated notes in the strings, result from interference patterns perceived by the brain as acoustical beats. When we hear two sounds of slightly different frequencies, we perceive an acoustical beat that comes across as a periodic variation in volume, but is actually the difference between the two frequencies.
Collaborations can take on many forms. Seven Sacred Names again sees you working with a diverse ensemble of performers. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
It varies from project to project, but the beauty of collaboration is that you can create something which you couldn't on your own, and in the process, you can learn new approaches to the creative process and also expand your audience. The most organic, ground-up collaboration on the album is Alim: Polyphonic Raga Malkauns, composed, performed and produced by Payton MacDonald, Ina Filip and myself.
On the Seven Sacred Names album release event (starting at 1:03:45), the three of us describe our unique collaborative process and how this work developed. Our next project will be an entire album of polyphonic raga. Our collaboration will also include music I am creating for another collaboration with artist Nina Elder in a multi-media installation called Passage. Passage focuses on providing an experience of the different time frames that we talked about earlier.
Kalim and Mureed were more traditional collaborations between me as a notational composer/pianist and string players Tim Fain, Ashley Bathgate, and Caleb Burhans. Tim, Ashley and Caleb each brought an incredible level of musicianship into the studio. Their artistry certainly inspired my performance, but it also prompted me to revise both works after listening to the initial recordings, and we re-recorded them!
Of course, Roomful of Teeth are famous for their collaborations with composers, and there is no experience quite like working with them. I was doing a residency at Yaddo while they were doing a different residency at MassMoCA (about an hour away). I would email them a PDF of the score, and an hour later, they would all be singing the latest version for me. Then, a few days later, we would do the same thing again with a new version.
My engineers and producers for Seven Sacred Names: Adam Abeshouse (who also produced Revelation and Time Loops), Ryan Streber and Sam Torres, all made immense artistic contributions to the project. I also recorded a collaborative album with Christina Vantzou and John Also Bennett, which will be out early in 2022.
[Read our Christina Vantzou interview.]
When Christina and I first met in NYC in December 2018, we realized that we shared many similar ideas about making and recording music. What would happen if we created an album together? Our divergent backgrounds give us complementary approaches to the creative process, so we decided to dive in within a few weeks. In April 2019, we spent three intensive days at the AB Salon in Brussels. Along with John, Christina's husband and collaborator, we developed new material through improvisation and recording and offered our first public concert. In December 2020, we recorded the album over eight days with producer/engineer Francesco Donodello at Vox-ton Recording Studio in Berlin.
We each believe that profound, meditative listening facilitates improvisation, which can lead to great music. Christina's mastery of providing the frameworks that allow musicians to improvise, along with her keen ability to rework and process any material, intrigues me. Even though I have a strong background in piano improvisation and playing/singing Indian ragas, most of the music for my published recordings is meticulously composed and notated. I wanted to explore what would happen if I let go, listened to Christina's guidelines, and improvised at the just intonation piano. Together, we might realize a new sonic dimension through listening and reworking the material. To create an interactive experience, John played modular synths in the studio at the same time. Christina was always providing new ideas; she was both a wellspring of creativity and our safety net.
We came to the project with a sense of wanting to "see" or "hear" something rather than wanting to "show" something. We focused on experiencing the collaboration as a transfer of energy, not just creating music. Those times when we simultaneously achieved a state of listening reflect this project's strengths. We listened to each other and dared to trust what we heard. This deep faith allowed us to dive into the material together. Overall, we delved into a practice whereby, here and there, we peered into a magical unknown, and it was very satisfying.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The key for me is momentum. A consistent daily routine of composing helps a lot. If I am in the process of developing a new work every day, my creative juices start flowing, and ideas from my last session are still evident in my mind when I start up again the next day. I still hold a lot of information about the work in my mind, and I need less time to get back into a creative flow. On the other hand, if I am busy taking care of my other responsibilities, it is harder to get going again, and I am much more likely to procrastinate. My Dad said it very clearly, "It is hard to start, but it is also hard to stop."
It also helps me stay in a state of creative attunement to sing and play ragas on the piano every day, which is the source of many of my ideas. I also practice yoga, go for daily walks and spend time in nature whenever possible. In addition, I take artist residencies for a few months every year. Those are enriching times because I accomplish a great deal and spend time connecting with other artists or exploring beautiful natural environments. Having a quiet and spacious studio with one or more excellent pianos also makes a big difference.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Do you feel as though tuning plays a role in this regard?
Developing and maintaining good health and expressing gratitude to be alive and well is a priority. But true health is not just having a healthy body, but also a healthy mind, and one could even say a healthy soul. It has been known for millennia that music can heal, and it can help us heal our bodies, hearts and souls.
Sometimes when I have been very sad about something, I have turned to music, and although playing or listening to music during these times can "hurt," because it can get me more in touch with how I am feeling, this is also the first step in healing. We must first be present and aware of our emotions before we can transform them. There is a saying, "That which is not transformed is transmitted," and in this way much violence and suffering is transmitted from generation to generation. The way to start putting an end to this is to transform our suffering, and music can help us do this.
When he was young, my Sufi teacher, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, was in a motorcycle accident that killed his fiance. He suffered immensely, but ultimately transformed his pain by listening to Bach's Mass in B Minor every day!
As for tuning, I think this is one of the keys to health and transformation with music. In modern times, and as a result of the equal-tempered tuning system, we are continually bombarding our brains and nervous systems with vibrations that are "out-of-tune" with the most basic principles of the physics of sound. It is like most of the music we listen to has a grey cloud around it. But, conversely, with just intonation, everything comes into a clear focus!
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?
For me, just being an artist is a socio-political act. Creating music in just intonation, which has a much greater degree of harmonic diversity than the modern equal-tempered tuning, also embraces a more "natural" approach to music. It rejects the colonization and hegemony that developed along with the European proliferation of equal temperament, subsequent rejection, and even ignorance about an entire alternate universe of musical possibilities.
With Seven Sacred Names, I wanted to introduce listeners and musicians to the beauty of simple harmonies by creating a work that allows them to start perceiving just intonation as an infinite harmonic system encompassing limitless possibilities on a spectrum between simplicity and complexity. To maximize the resonance and beauty of each movement, I use five different tunings: Kalim has its own just intonation tuning, Hayy and Basir are in my "Revelation" tuning, Alim and Qadr are in my "Ragas in C" just intonation tuning, Mureed is in equal temperament, and Sami uses a just tuning derived from the 4th octave of the harmonic series.
The work begins and ends with two different versions of the seventh name or divine quality, Kalim. Al Kalim is the culminating capacity needed to fulfill the desire for self-knowledge – "I have the capacity to express all that is within me." When I first conceived of Kalim in 2017, I was participating in a multi-disciplinary workshop and performance at Arts Letters & Numbers based on the theme of “Constitution.” Music can represent universal harmony, and it occurred to me that harmony is to music as our Constitution is to democracy. I wanted to show how music has its own Constitution, which creates harmony among individual notes much as the articles of our Constitution advance or limit personal freedoms to develop a framework for social harmony. Kalim draws inspiration from the timeless qualities of Arvo Part's Spiegel Im Spiegel, and it is a tribute to universal structures that will prevail through the test of time.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music can transform people's lives – the world is a better place because of Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and the Beatles. It can integrate many parts of our minds and bodies and equips us for problem-solving. However, music also requires concentration; I believe that there is ultimately no better form of meditation than attentive listening while singing or playing an instrument. Practicing music, or attentive listening, daily also helps us to bring more awareness to the moment. I feel that this practice brings more life to life, making us more awake and alive. In my opinion, the best way to face death is to live a deep and fulfilling life. And music can help us do that by touching us deeply in places that go beyond words.
Hazrat Inayat Khan said "What is wonderful about music is that it helps man to concentrate or meditate independently of thought and therefore music seems to be the bridge over the gulf between form and the formless. If there is anything intelligent, effective and at the same time formless, it is music. Poetry suggests form, line and color suggest form, but music suggest no form. On the contrary, it creates that resonance that vibrates through the whole being, lifting the thought above the denseness of matter; it almost turns matter into spirit, into its original condition, through the harmony of vibration touching every atom of one's whole being."