A Language We Already Understand: Noah Creshevsky’s Hyperrealism

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Noah Creshevsky
Photo by Randy Nordschow

We are living in a time of complex and immediate changes, in an ongoing quantum montage of life’s activities: compressed, flattened, and retransmitted in an electronic flipchart of images and sound. Indeed, it’s a hyperreal world, according to composer Noah Creshevsky—and he’s got it sound sampled, cataloged, deconstructed, and remade.

Creshevsky doesn’t carry the credentials of a hyperboundary gatecrasher. Trained in composition by Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Luciano Berio at Juilliard, he is the former director of the Center for Computer Music and professor emeritus at Brooklyn College. An advocate of fellow composers and a man of quiet demeanor, Creshevsky looks the part of retiring theorist nestling down to a future devoted to analyzing The Art of the Fugue.

But not so fast. Creshevsky counts Bach—or more likely Gesualdo and Josquin—among his old friends, but what he is creating with that friendship is a musical presence that pokes a keyhole into the future. Future keyholes too often result in a poke back in the mental eye. But Creshevsky’s two-decade development of hyperrealism jibes with both scientist and author Raymond Kurzweil’s vision of the future and the marketing mentality of the iPod.

The Premise of Hyperrealism

Creshevsky defines hyperrealism as “an electroacoustic musical language constructed from sounds that are found in our shared environment, handled in ways that are somehow exaggerated or excessive.” It sounds like the 1960s mix-it-up performance art era all over again. It’s not, and the composer’s dry summary does the language a disservice. In our recent conversation, he explained that we’re already familiar with the language he uses: “Soundtracks and commercials are the best examples. That’s where hyperrealism is found routinely. If you take the best moments from good movies and you close your eyes, you’re hearing a collection of music, sound effects, subverbal utterances, verbal utterances—the whole soundtrack. It’s useful to substitute the word ‘soundtrack’ in certain sentences in looking at what kind of a world we live in.”

Here are some of hyperrealism’s salient features:

  • Just as the acoustic palette includes the sonic results of a body of instrumental techniques, the expanded hyperreal palette incorporates the sonic results of the rest of the world. That is, it expects that the real world will be sampled and distilled into a vocabulary of sounds. These sounds may be unique to a composition or become part of a common vocabulary.
  • The expanded palette is most successful when the source material is from a shared real world—whether that means “natural” sounds (such as voices, birds, or wind), naturalized sounds (tire squeals, instruments, or footfalls), or adopted sounds (horns, cellphones, or electronic toms). Obviously, original electronic sounds are not among the shared.
  • The expansion of the palette demands sounds and abilities presently outside the normal human expressive and muscular capabilities. Hence there must arise the superperformer. The superperformer lives in the technology of the composer (although if Kurzweil is to be believed, that will change for composer, performer, and listener).
  • The expanded palette and the superperformers must be realistic. The transformation of sounds beyond the recognizable disguises the shared nature of the sound and removes the commonality out of which hyperrealism draws its strength. The expanded palette is edited but not processed.

Hyperrealism, with its sense of heightened or exaggerated reality, drives hyperdrama, which Creshevsky says “is character-ized by a steady level of heightened sensations. Hyperdramas attempt to consolidate and compress intensified states. Hyperrealistically extended palettes and/or restricted palettes in conjunction with superhuman performance capabilities express a larger-than-life level of emotional intensity.”

The Music

The test of any musical language is whether it is capable of diverse, deep, and convincing expression while at the same time maintaining intellectual integrity and accessibility to a wide range of participants. In the case of hyperrealism, this test is ongoing. Even though listeners are used to the hyperrealism of television commercials, video games, and movie soundtracks, in the case of so-called “pure” music, there is a need to get used to the expanded palette in order to throw off the reaction to the music as funny or trivial—or seeing the hyperrealism beast as a one-trick pony being painted in different colors.
In Creshevsky’s case, the getting-used-to requirement is met in each piece, as this is not music that can be expressed within the boundaries of a three-minute tune. From the tightly coherent, five-minute Born Again to the twelve-minute hyperdrama Ossi di morte, the work traverses a detailed sonic landscape without repetitive exposition or hooks.

Listen to an excerpt from Born Again

In fact, the maddening difficulty in deciphering Creshevsky’s architecture derives in part from the orchestration of samples. His music must be absorbed in chunks in order to become one with the hyperreal approach, without resorting to a linear analytical process that the music will defy.

What does that mean? First—and this is one of Creshevsky’s critical premises—is that there is no rush. Unlike concert-hall music of the pre-recording past, this music can be heard over and over again. Second, we have become used to the complex hyperreal but have not allowed it to its rightful place within (choose your adjective) serious, art, or nonpop music.

Indeed, Creshevsky says, “Those soundtracks are organized in much more complex ways than we organize a string quartet, because we can include a string quartet as part of it. There’s the music part of the soundtrack—and then there’s all the rest.” Composers have tended to exclude the rest as outside music, he contends. As for average listeners, “There’s very little classification going on. They don’t listen and say, ‘Is this tonal or atonal?’ because the music is often not tonal if it’s in a horror movie or a science fiction movie or mystery scene. They don’t ask if it’s a live orchestra or synthetic. They don’t differentiate if it’s really music or just part of a soundtrack—an overall sound experience. And they don’t distinguish between styles. They don’t care. We don’t care.”

In some ways, he has yet to expand the palette to include what might—as a parallel to total serialism—be called “total hyperrealization.” His music is spacious, but there is no use of spatial relations; works exist in timbral and pitched worlds. In fact, his frugality in terms of creating space is surprising. Likewise, his dynamics are for the most part conservative. And finally, the regularity of events is often in sharp contrast to the flexibility of the palette. One step at a time, perhaps.

Man & Superman

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On his CD, Man & Superman (Centaur CRC 2126), Creshevsky makes significant early contributions to hyperrealism. And if this were the only Creshevsky CD you had at hand, you might stop there.

The opening work, Variations (1987), bring to mind the Diana Deutsch experiments in sound perception. What carries the continuity? Event position? Timbre? Melody? Are you sure? Can you follow the variations? (Can I? Not ab initio.) Yet within its cloud of samples, there exists a piece that, stripped of its color, might be a modernist etude for piano.

Within the same context of playability exists the following year’s Electric String Quartet, made with samples and voices. Again, questions arise. Why a string quartet? Why superperformers? The work is almost playable, but in here another element intrudes: implausible perfection.

Listen to an excerpt from “Talea”, the last track of Man & Superman

Says Creshevsky of perfection, “We’re accustomed to that. We live in a hyperreal world. They’re already removed from the concert hall because nobody plays that well, with such power.” Do listeners accept a recording with mistakes? “No, they don’t. They won’t. They resent it. We have a right to expect [perfection],” and that expectation, he insists, shows the path to hyperrealism. “Once you’re writing for recording, you’re not limited.”

Who

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Creshevsky’s next CD, Who (Centaur CRC 2476), already challenges his own basic tenets of hyperrealism. With a Stravinsky-like opening of brass samples, Fanfare (1998) moves to vocal samples and defies his own statements on repetition. But to understand Creshevsky’s progress, more detail on his background is needed. At Eastman, where he spent his early years, he was taught that material should be created in a way that it can be re-used in some other form. “This means that a thing in itself has no validity unless it is reproduced,” he says. “And a nice metaphor for that is human reproduction—that you’re not worth anything unless you reproduce yourself somehow.”

There’s a burr in Creshevsky’s voice. “We live in an overpopulated world. We live in an information-rich age. It’s a positive thing. There’s enough. And look, there’s a record! And this did make a difference in how people listened to music. So a high point in a piece doesn’t have to come a second time. If you want to hear it again, you simply put it on again.”

The classical idea of repeating the exposition is totally obviated in a world of recording. “It’s being stingy,” he says. “A penny saved is a penny earned, and it winds up being a big jar of pennies you don’t know what to do with. You’re not actually saving anything. ‘What economy of means!’ As if this is self-evidently a virtue! And as soon as you say, ‘What did you save? Why is it a virtue?’ you’re really hard-pressed to know how to answer. And the motives can become annoying—unless you do it to the point of mania like the Grosse Fuge. I think the Grosse Fuge is about human fallibility. It’s just barely playable.” (Here Creshevsky’s fascination with the barely-playable reveals itself.)

Sha (1996) makes a successful legato from different samples. He alludes to the Renaissance with Josquin-like pairing of voices and—before departing for other realms of verticality—harmonies reminiscent of Gesualdo. Twice (1993) is quasi-operatic and very linear, with a hint of how Charles Wuorinen’s orchestration reworked the songs of the “Glogauer Liederbuch.” And in the title tune, Who (1995), “romantic” materials arise before breaking out by sample division. Again, it’s hard to associate without thinking of Klangfarbenmelodie (even Creshevsky has used the term) but with the melody audible. It plays with associations—”brass” chords at same level as other chords give them more drama by position. Organ and timpani drive traditional expectations where the context does not jump off the recording. By the time the listener arrives at the composition et puis (1998) —music that is most successful because the composer does not get trapped in orchestral expectations—the method and energy of presenting events can suggest styles such as country dance and bluegrass.

Listen to an excerpt from et puis

Gone Now (1995) reiterates a Creshevsky compositional pleasure: the use of early music harmonies (and implications) in a non-functional guise. What is unique and significant is that Gone Now is reminiscent of what Eric Salzman hinted at but turned away from in The Nude Paper Sermon, but never exits the tonal door for Michel Chion, nor makes reference to Stockhausen’s Stimmung. The listener conversant with contemporary nonpop expects this, but it does not happen. Perhaps the use of sliding samples militates against typical tonal expectations. Voices, strings, pennywhistles, harps, horns, trumpets, noises, electronic tones—interrupted by points of stasis—curve around to the 13th-century Notre Dame motets with intervening dissonances (Dominator-Ecce-Domino or Pucelete-Je Languis-Domino) and points of purity. And then the listener laughs—Scott Johnson pioneered this with John Somebody, but that is not Creshevsky’s path, either. The samples follow the composition and vice versa. They are integral.

And then, with Breathless (1997), Creshevsky hits another wall. Hyperrealism fails when the speed of recorded voices is manipulated, as we are so familiar with them—they are too low or too high, like a tape recorder that’s been too slowed down or too sped up—and the timbre collapses. Creshevsky understands that this is a delicate border—”I transpose them within what I regard to be a realistic range, so that they don’t turn into chipmunks”—but his perception and this listener’s, at least in this instance, are quite different.

Hyperrealism

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But by the time of the CD Hyperrealism (Mutable Music 17516-2), Creshevsky has solved those issues by discarding the arbitrarily dissociative and perfecting his vocal sampling. Ossi di morte (1997), an exhausting vocal hyperdrama (considered to be one of music’s milestone compositions by composer/scientist Piero Scaruffi), reconstitutes a vocal ensemble from fragments, using the highly exaggerated mannerist style, and melds it with orchestra (also reconstituted from fragmented samples) to build an operatic edifice, with Rossini-esque bel canto, vocal coughs, and even a flash of verismo as it careens rhythmically toward a devastating conclusion of the voices one might imagine arising from the throats in the condemned in Bosch’s Garden (where, perhaps, they had just been feasting on a last meal that ended with ossi di morte).

In the more formal Jacob’s Ladder (1999), an organ continuo pulls the outlier elements together in a manner that will recur in later works, which also includes vocal syllables, rising/falling scales, and strings. Freed of modernist confrontational proclivities, it develops clearly and inevitably, with directions down and up in contrast.

Each of the remaining compositions—Canto di Malavita (2002), Vol-au-vent (2002), Hoodlum Priest (2002), Novella (2000), and Born Again (2003)—reveals a security with hyperrealism. It is no longer a manifesto but the language Creshevsky sought.

Listen to an excerpt from Canto di Malavita

Jubilate (2001) exists in several versions: the one on “Hyperrealism” with the real and hyperreal voice of Tom Buckner, one with Beth Griffith, and a unique live performance with both Griffith and a cello part derived by Craig Hultgren. With mewls and gutturals and slides and purrs and gasps and gulps, it is a Creshevsky piece that cannot be heard first among his work, for its Flemish/Italian hybrid harmonies are lost in the sound effects—effects which reveal rather than intrude. Though the composition is good-natured and joyful, its elegant shape invites listeners in ways that the composer’s other works challenge them.

Among Creshevsky’s unreleased recordings are Cantiga (a 2003 revision of a 1992 work), reminiscent of and contemporaneous with Nic Collins’s ambitious but less crafted Broken Light for modified CD player and string quartet; the almost Wagnerian I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (2004), a hyperdrama with melodic lines, harmony, and samples as leitmotiven that are torn away as if Creshevsky were saying, “I am done with these sounds”; and Psalmus XXIII (2004), in which pure vocal sounds combine with gasps and cries in modal monody evolving into tonal counterpoint.

The Compositional Process

Creshevsky’s working methods are, by his own description, straightforward. “I always start the same way—I start by sampling,” he says. “Sampling is like photographing. You hit the shutter and you take a little moment of something. I take very tiny moments.”

He classifies the samples. In Hoodlum Priest, for example, he classified the samples by sung notes, gurglings, languages, and other criteria, making key maps along the way. The samples are transposed over a realistic range. “I organize the material. I make a palette.”

Creshevsky re-emphasizes the qualifications for his palette. “Hyperrealism involves collective reality. That’s a changing thing. The cellphone—when I first heard it in the dentist’s office, under nitrous oxide at that—I thought, ‘What the hell is that?’ That was years ago, when people were first using these phones that didn’t have bells in them. Now they’re a synthetic sound that’s become part of our collective natural environment.”

But Creshevsky never simply quotes material; rather he collects samples of fragments from which he builds short sections, similar to the way a screenwriter might use blocks of images to construct a storyboard. Once these sections have passed through the computer assembly and editing process, he writes about each section on an index card with tempo, sonic elements, and a description. He maintains one card for each section, discards those which are not satisfactory, and puts them in order. He explains, “You’ve got 12 cards in your hand, and you say, ‘Well, look at this one. This one couldn’t come before that one. You’d need to hear this one before you hear that one. This would be a good ending.’ The cards begin to take an order, and ultimately you wind up with a piece.”

Listen to an excerpt from Twice

Problems and Solutions

With Creshevsky, it’s hard to know whether he’s a chicken or his samples are eggs. The results seem fluid, with the chicken-egg creative process entirely covert, especially his stylistic choices: “It’s postmodernism, isn’t it, where you’ve got these materials. Why not use them? I feel free to write in whatever style I want. The new Psalm is in C major.”

Confronted with the timbral richness and composition-by-composition distinctiveness, Creshevsky finds his defense in the hyperrealism he finds in other media. “When we go to a movie or you turn on the television, you get a different timbre every time. The sonic material is different every time. Every movie is different from the last movie. It is a different movie. But we’re expected to go hear more piano music or yet another string quartet!”

In a recent chamber ensemble showcase, two string quartets played the same movement of a Debussy composition. “It’s that kind of a kill-each-other experience,” says Creshevsky.

The kill-each-other experience of the concert hall has led Creshevsky to another conclusion: that the days of live concerts are not only numbered, but it is already over. The composer lives in New York, surrounded by a vast palette of natural and mechanical sounds, but in an environment where audiences are bored. Concerts of nonpop frequently turn out 40 people. He says, “My feeling is that next year there will be 30— not there will be 50. There’s no sign of the 40 turning into more, and there’s every sign of them turning into fewer.”

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“We are oversaturated with music.”

That decline brings him to another inevitable conclusion: “Most music is better heard at home. I bought tickets to hear a new Berio piece, and when I left I thought, ‘What did I hear?’ It was just too much to hear.”

Composers need to rethink the basic approach to how they make music. Instead of writing on commission for an imminent performance opportunity from an ensemble, composers’ premier preoccupation should be writing for recording. The idea, he says, is to compose “for the electronic dissemination of music rather than the live presentation of music.”

Electronic dissemination permits and even encourages the open palette of hyperrealism by revealing an unspoken quality of acoustic music: that we are, in fact, done with it. “We are oversaturated with music. We hear more music, but music’s dying, they tell us. It’s the critics who are dying. They have these terrible jobs. These poor critics hate music because they have to listen to the same thing over and over! They have created this self-fulfilling prophesy that art music is dying. But at the same time, you can’t deny that to a certain degree, it is dying. I don’t think music is really dying. I think we hear more of it than ever because it’s everywhere. I think the oversaturation is not to music itself, but to timbre. We’re tired of it. With many musicians (no matter what they say), there’s the deeply held belief that real music is made out of twelve notes, played on a certain limited number of instruments. That’s the oversaturation.”

Putting computers in the concert hall is no answer. “I think it’s barking up the wrong tree,” Creshevsky says. “You sit there with the other 29 people and you watch the guy with the laptop computer. Maybe your seat is in the center, but the balance is not as good as what you’re going to hear at home. Why am I here? I support the work of my friends, but why is it better? The other part of me says that it’s a thrilling experience—this person can play the Chopin Etudes like that live? It’s something fabulous—or they’re waiting for catastrophe onstage.”

However, economic and social considerations mean that having a soprano onstage requires that ongoing work be apportioned to her. “You can’t have her there, sit to the end, and then sing a couple of notes. It’s socially and dramatically unacceptable to have somebody sit around for a whole concert. There’s the visual and the dramatic and the economic!” But in recordings, the situation is irrelevant. Economy of means and the economics of employment are obviated.

He also disputes the virtue of economy of means in a musical context, where thematic elements are conserved and apportioned with care. “This is not saving a tree or the environment. You’re saving a note.” He suggests that the alternative already exists because we live in a hyperreal world. Listeners who scan their radios for something to hear make listening decisions almost instantaneously.

Creshevsky identifies two reasons—reasons that John Oswald understood intimately with his own gloss on hyperrealism, plunderphonics: “One is that you don’t like the timbre, and two is that based on that flash, you know what you’re in for. I’m dwelling on the flash.”

That flash has helped Creshevsky decide to use what’s useful and not to dwell on the Western orchestra. “I started to sample from cellos a couple of weeks ago for a new piece, and I said, ‘I’ve done this!’ And more to the point, ‘I can’t stand to do it anymore.’ This idea of palette expansion means I have to expand my own mind as well as that of the listeners. It wasn’t exciting me, and it ought to excite me.”

Is the palette expansion the future or a transition? In The Age of Spiritual Machines, Raymond Kurzweil posits a future in which all knowledge will be accessible and humans will grow past their sensory and intellectual limitations—perhaps within two generations. He sees advances in fuzzy logic and its successors that will let creative imagination go hand-in-hand (or neuron-in-neuron) with technological contraptions. However, the appearance of the iPod might give one pause with respect to Kurzweil’s dream, for it is a consumption device, where the hardware, the software, and the firmware—the music we will imagine and extend—is in a state of perpetual intellectual lockdown. It is a feeding tube of sound.

Faced with these possibilities, we reach to Creshevsky’s own writings. In a recent article, Creshevsky concludes:

Every act of composition might reasonably begin with a fresh and open-ended consideration of every available sound source. If someone has a commission for a string quartet from a reliable ensemble that will practice, and if this composer has a social or personal interest in giving and attending concerts, then he or she should write a string quartet. But if your quartet is intended to be heard on a compact disc or over the Internet, indulge yourself. Be extravagant. A soprano can provide one solitary high note, if you like, perhaps just there, at the end.

The Quotable Creshevsky

I love Chopin. I won’t put it on again. I’ll put on something else, because life is only as long as it is. I’ve already heard the Chopin. It’s like Citizen Kane. It’s a wonderful movie, but I really don’t want to see it again.

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As a child I thought, “I am willing to suffer like Beethoven in order to produce wonderful music.” And then as I got older, I thought, “No I’m not!” The pleasures became greater and I said, “Hey, I’d like some of that! Give me some of that!”

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Freedom is priceless. And potentially we have this freedom if you can control your vanity and greed and all the rest of these deadly sins. Those kinds of sins do play into music—greed, for example. “My piece is not long enough. Let me get more out of it.” Then there’s that, “Oh, that’s very, very good. I’m going to save that for another time.” That’s stinginess. A kind of vanity and stinginess.

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What is a natural violin to a kid who has never heard a violin? I don’t know. The only thing that everybody universally recognizes as being natural is voice.

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People do not classify. Only professionals classify. I am claiming it. I stake my claim to it. I gave the right definition of it. I made hyperrealism. This is what I am. I am a hyperrealist. I write hyperreal music.

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Dennis Báthory-Kitsz has made work for sound sculptures, soloists, electronics, stage shows, orchestras, dancers, interactive multimedia, installations, and performance events. Dennis co-hosted Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, co-founded the NonPop International Network, and has been project director for new music festivals since 1973.