Getting Inside the Music

My life’s work is grounded in two passions: music and place.

The term “chamber music” embraces both, speaking directly to the importance of the places in which we make and listen to music. It also implies an intimacy and immediacy we don’t usually experience in a large concert hall, theater or opera house.

Pauline Oliveros observes that the most important musical instrument of the 20th Century was the microphone. The microphone exploded musical space. It allowed us to hear sounds we’d never heard before. Together with the loudspeaker and electronic instruments, the microphone has allowed us to create new sonic chambers.

The chamber music of La Monte Young’s “Dream House” fills the space almost to the breaking point. Marianne Amacher’s “Music for Sound-Joined Rooms” and Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in A Room” magically transform the chambers themselves into music.

The quintessential medium of chamber music today may be the recording. Recordings have made it possible for us to experience virtually any music as chamber music, without being physically present at the original performance. Listening to a recording, we always have the best seat in the house. Headphones place the music directly into the chambers of our ears. Surround-sound is just the latest means of indulging our desire to get inside the music.

In my own work, I aspire to create a kind of outdoor chamber music, placing the listener at the center of an enveloping musical landscape. Economics make the symphony orchestra a medium that’s not readily available for experimentation. So most of my orchestral works are scored for small, one-on-a-part orchestras that can dedicate the rehearsal time necessary to bring a new piece to life. More and more, I’m working with smaller groups -(such as Percussion Group Cincinnati, the Paul Dresher Electric Chamber Ensemble, Essential Music, The Third Angle, and my own occasional ensembles) -and with solo performers, using electronics to make chamber music that is orchestral in conception and sound.

What’s your experience and perspective? Is chamber music still a useful concept? If so, what does it mean to you?