Elsewhere is a Negative Mirror—The Music of Per Bloland
“Journeys to relive your past?” was the Khan’s question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: “Journeys to recover your future?”
And Marco’s answer was: “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, pg. 29
The narrative foundation of Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities—well, such as one exists—is a dialogue between the explorer Marco Polo and his magisterial interlocutor Kublai Khan. What the Mongol emperor seeks in the reports of the explorer’s travels is an overarching philosophy that will direct his approach towards the expansion and management of his empire; what he gets are a bunch of weird fables about impossible places.
If Calvino’s art is to give these surreal encounters a poetic and philosophical heft, then Per Bloland’s art is to translate these ideas into a more visceral and abstract medium. “When I base music on literature, which I do a lot, I like to pick a theme from the book. I definitely do not replicate the narrative in any way—in Invisible Cities there isn’t really a narrative to replicate,” he explains. Bloland’s tribute to the novel, Elsewhere is a Negative Mirror for solo piano with electromagnetically controlled resonance, is more of an abstract analogue to the characters than a direct musical translation of the text: the reductionist Khan becomes an encircling torrent of tickled ivories irrevocably headed toward middle C, while the interruptions signify the deconstructionist (and spacey) Polo.
But quasi-programmatic conceits aside, the music has to sound good, too. And it does. Bloland’s setup creates music that both is and is not electronic music; the manipulation of the piano’s strings is accomplished with a computer attached to an electromagnetic resonating device that Bloland himself helped conceptualize and design, but the ethereal beauty that this complicated device elicits is purely acoustic. On top of this celestial “supertheme” (his term), the schizophrenia of the human-controlled piano creates forward momentum and drama; but rather than the performance melding into some sort of cyborg amalgamation, the two parts of the music exist independently of each other as ships passing in the night. And while the novel may give the ending of the piece additional structural meaning, more important is that the music itself is unexpected and beautiful: the soft ambience of the electromagnets dies away as the pianist is left alone to explore the formants and overtones of one single string.
Bloland’s pieces are like Calvino’s cities: they share many attributes and loose categorizations, yet are superficially quite different from one another. Quintet for solo saxophone and electronics might use the same instrumental conceit as Elsewhere—i.e., acoustic instrument + computer—but little else. Quintet explodes in mad punk energy as a Max/MSP patch augments the performer four times over (hence the name), a savage improvisation that’s worlds removed from literature or electromagnets. Bloland’s orchestral piece The Twilight of Our Minds, one of several based on Camus’s The Plague, takes a page from each, combining the aggression and electronics of Quintet with Elsewhere‘s literacy. And so on.
If anything, Bloland’s musical polyglotism is simply due to diversity of experience. Like Calvino’s explorer, Bloland has been a traveler: born in New York City, he has studied or taught in Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Austin, Palo Alto, and Oberlin. In these divergent cities he earned degrees in two fields and engaged in totally different types of music making. The cities he has lived in are as variable as the music he has created. This is probably not a coincidence.