I’m convinced that, when it comes to music, I see (or hear) things differently than the average Joe—I think most NewMusicBox readers can relate. Furthermore, my outlook on composition seems amiss when compared to many of my colleagues. Even here in the office, I work alongside two composers obsessed with microtonality—not my cup of tea. Many composers confess to a fascination with numbers, that’s practically a given. But the mania usually spreads into things like form—the surrogate Holy Grail, it seems—and controlling emotional states. I posses none of this. No, I’m much freakier. For instance, I’m infatuated with the sexuality of instrumentation. I kid you not.
I like to play with the persona of an instrument. The machismo of an electric guitar, for example, has inspired me to create works that circumvent the expectations created by having a large array of amps on stage, and instead deliver a delicately intricate piece without a trace of headbanging. In another situation, I might exaggerate the testosterone-level of an instrument. In the past, I’ve emasculated a drum set—making an ersatz setup with phonebooks, rice bowls, and other detritus to correspond with the typical sounds, only dinkier—and set Eddie Van Halen riffs for a piccolo to perform. This is how I amuse myself these days.
When I think about it, I don’t usually write for instruments that don’t have some sort of sexual or gender identity already formed in my head. Right now I’m starting a new commission. The instrumentation includes some of my old friends, such as electric guitar, flute, cello, etc. Thank god there’s no oboe. I mean, I don’t know what to think about the oboe—maybe pair it with an erhu? Chen Yi is totally going to run with that, right? Anyway, I’m faced with some instruments that intrigue me, like accordion. I don’t have to include it, but my curiosity is piqued. Thing is, I now have to decide how to approach the mythology surrounding the instrument: nerdy kid practicing polkas or sultry tango temptress. It’s like nouns in romance languages—things like chairs and hairbrushes have a masculine or feminine designation. Frankly, I’m beginning to think that the accordion might be a hermaphrodite. Am I the only composer afflicted with this strange little quirk when it comes to instrumentation?