How do you see the relationship between timbre and composition?
In what registers can you speak of a book? By reference, as a bookbinder might, to its physicality (its typeface, design, materials of which it's made) or, like the critic or theorist, by reference to its content. I suppose music has equivalents to this in timbre and composition. Both, though inseparable, are somehow conceivable as separate creatures with wildly different lives (not unlike those of chimerical "content" and "style" in literary theory). Perhaps there's an innate ceiling to our perceptual apparatus that eventuates in this tricky dichotomy; a composer making a score on a computer for trombone thinks in both trombone and computer, adopting, as bounds for creation, the physical range of the instrument and of man's possibilities relative to it. Can we conceive of a music that's born fundamentally free of timbre or medium or audibility beyond the gimmicks of serialism? Composing with the intent of negating timbre or instrumentation (with "abstract" "mental" notes and rests) is something of an oxymoron, as these abstract mental notes and rests are, at the very least, possessed of the brain's timbre. Do notes have the platonic existence, anchored in the inaudible, that their emissaries on the page suggest?
Time is a variable only seldomly 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?
So atomic is time that to describe it, as it is, seems as hopeless as describing sweetness to an alien who doesn't eat. There is the map, and there is the territory; I would, therefore, draw a rough line between formal time (the time of clocks and music) and time in and of itself, that ever-presence conjoined with space. Cage's 4'33", famously misconceived, and I don't mean by Cage necessarily, as being composed chiefly of that which happens in the silences marked off in the score, or as being subversive to the totalitarianism evinced by the score, is of the same dynasty as the scores of a Wagner or a Schumann or a Webern - name your score maker - in the sense that the piece consists only secondarily of the chance sounds of any one performance, and primarily of the abstract formal marks that make up the zen-simple instructions for the piece, always a portrait of the present from the lowest common perspective, framed by the performer's chosen instrument. Cage - in that complexity of wills and trusts that defines score composition and performance - through his score and his marshaling of the traditions that buttress all scores, controls every performance of his piece and how it is perceived no less than a Beethoven or a Mahler does, compelling the audience and performer to stamp the time therein with his ego, with the performer as his vicar. This is no different at heart from what goes on in any other performance (not just of music), with the audience sometimes spending money and invariably spending time to attend. This is one of the key points of 4'33": to depict an empty set, the bare bones of what is always present in a piece and its performance.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Bill Evans called jazz (i.e. improvisation) the composition of one minute's music in one minute's time, rigged with degrees of aforethought that vary from process to process; in his formulation, the modern recording is a descendant of the score, which was, firstly, a means of preservation. Elsewhere in this interview I reference a few of the senses in which we think of "composition": the making of music (e.g. writing a score) where the creative act is removed from the performative, actualized in a discrete time space, and the making of music where the performative is wedded to the creative in a one-to-one temporal conjugality. Before written music came to be, what was the difference between "composition" and "improvisation", between "storage" and "performance"? There are parallels to this elsewhere. Man was orally storing poetry by metamorphosis eons before our colonization by the symbol. The earliest of our written lyrics can be thought of as embodiments of symbolic man's venture to ensnare his pre-symbolic self in a stasis at existential odds with his history. Similarly, man has been making music for longer than he's been making scores. As most people aren't musically literate (a fact that seems common across societies), we're more in touch with our ancient selves musically than we are lyrically.
Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
As a listener, it's not terribly important for me to be able to deduct what's going on in a piece of music to enjoy it; sometimes it is, sometimes it's not; sometimes I notice, sometimes I don't; some pieces get me more curious than others, and this curiosity leads to companionship. As for my own work, I'm only sometimes consciously in control of the processes at play; often it's only afterwards that I light on what I was doing, and while it's not entirely accurate to say that I'm not concerned with the audience (since any thoughts you accept or reject during creation can be recreated by the listener in their own way) I don't fret over what people will think about what I'm working on or whether my "processes" or "ideas" will be transparent. But every composer has their own motives behind their use of structure. In strictly idiomatic music (and I'm being reductive here in the interest of brevity), structural innovation is not so much the point as is abiding by the rules of the game at hand (whether blues or jazz or rock or pop or classical or country). Even within that sector of (for lack of a better term) "experimental" music, the innovating framework may be for the delight of the composer alone, who couldn't care less if the listener divined his or her designs, while for other composers it's paramount that the audience decipher the exact coding of their compositions. Music has its own versions of the figurative and the non-figurative. The established genres of popular music, each of which can be thought of as a kind of church, all are addictively such because their practitioners employ friendly formats whose simple deduction injects the listener with a rush of aggrandizing pleasure. In our endless flight from lonely chaos, or forms otherwise unpleasant, which defines our persistent consumption of media, we find solace in these popular recyclables and the autobiographical associations they enshrine. A musically untutored casual listener of pop radio can detect when something's amiss with the forms they've been primed to regard as the ether of sense. Popular music means the parish, the community, a confirmation of belonging; the world is indeed a village when you can travel from one end to the next and find a song you can sing with someone there.