I’m beginning to work on a new piece for clarinet and electronics based on Mary McDonnell‘s “red line” drawings. When I first saw Mary’s work, I found its starkness and simplicity so compelling, and as a musician immediately felt a connection to the musical staff in her use of series of hand-drawn parallel lines. Considering them for long periods gave them an almost illusional quality, as though I was seeing them from both far away and under a microscope at the same time. She told me that one of the critics writing about her work noted that in it one experiences the macro and the micro simultaneously.
I visited her in her studio in upstate New York on a snowy day in April to record her drawing. In the electronics portion of the piece I want to find a way to convey the intense simplicity of the drawings, and I thought the sound of the pen on the rice paper she uses might be a good place to start. A friend recommended I try using piezo film mics directly on the paper, and I also borrowed a pair of Oktava MK012s that I placed about three inches from the surface. I also used my Zoom recorder, sitting it directly at the top of the paper.
The three different mics picked up three completely different aspects of the sound (no surprise). But the piezo sound was truly extraordinary—I felt as though my ears were inside the paper, hearing every fiber of the rice paper break as Mary slowly dragged the pen across its surface. Also, of course, there was no ambient sound at all, and so there was an otherworldly quality to it all. The real shock came when I brought the recordings home to my studio, and my 100-watt amp refused to handle the sound from the piezos. There must be some sub-audio low frequencies that keep shutting it down?
Beside the technical challenges, the aesthetic ones loom in front of me. I am fascinated with the slowly evolving hills and valleys of the pianissimo sound of these pen strokes on paper. But how will I turn this into a piece that is not the most boring thing ever heard? I could listen to these recordings for hours, but bringing them into a performance means they will be listened to with very different sets of ears, and very different expectations. Maybe with this piece I will need to create in the category of “uncompromising.”