Annie Gosfield: Ghosts in the Machine
Frank J. Oteri: So how do you notate all the odd sounds in your music?
Annie Gosfield: When I write for the sampler, I just notate where you put your fingers. I do a lot of work with broken piano sounds and detuned piano sounds, and in some ways they’re really a blast to work with because when you put down your hands you’re not exactly sure what is going to come out. So I also like this idea that you sit down and physically do what might be a pianistic cliché, like an arpeggio, and it comes out sounding completely different. It’s a little harder for performers—myself included—to use these techniques. The pieces can be a little hard to memorize because what you hear will not be the same as where your hands go.
FJO: So you really can’t tell that much about what your music sounds like from looking at a score.
AG: Not if it’s a sampler part. But part of the pleasure of it is the surprise.
FJO: You frequently explore microtonal tunings, and not just quartertones. In one piece you have a cellist retune one of the strings 80 cents flat. What is the system you’re working with here?
AG: A lot of my notation uses quartertones or close to quartertones. It’s not exactly quartertones or eighth tones, but this much out-of-tune or that much out-of-tune. It’s more just going after certain sounds. I’m not going for pure intervals at all. I’m going for something that isn’t just diatonic. A lot of it is influenced by working with these detuned piano sounds. Obviously, if I like something, I’m going to try to extend it to other instruments. There’s always a question with these microtonal scordatura for strings because people say that a lot of string players don’t like to do it. That’s really not as true as one would believe. It is a little bit problematic, because when they tune up for the next piece they might have some intonation problems. I just did this long run of performances for dance with this great cellist, Felix Fan. He’s got this beautiful Hausmann Stradivarius cello, and he had to tune it down and tune it up. He was willing to do it with that [instrument]. I think a lot of string players who are involved in new music are more willing than not.
FJO: Just as you’ll chance upon something at a keyboard based on what the samples are, which isn’t always synchronized with the intervals assumed from the keyboard keys, the same is true with scordatura string tunings. Things are no longer what players are used to them being. How important is accuracy in this music from performance to performance for you? Do you have an idea of how a piece is supposed to sound and does a performance have to conform to that?
AG: It’s very important to me to allow a lot of space for each performer. And I think every composer would say that. But when it comes down to preparing for performances, I can get very specific about what I want and what I don’t want, but it varies from piece to piece. The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory has open solos. One bass player is going to play completely differently from another bass player, and that’s great. The percussion pattern is just loosely written. There are other pieces where every single note is notated. I find that if you’re working with classical musicians, sometimes a piece can be put together much more quickly if in fact every single thing is notated. If you’re working with improvisers, then you don’t want to have everything notated. So it really depends on who the piece is written for.
FJO: The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory, though, is an example of a piece that was initially composed for your own group of improvising musicians but became some other thing that is notated. Would you say that most of the other pieces for your group could also be transformed into works that other ensembles could play if they were notated?
AG: Probably not. I have a piece called EWA7, which is a concert-length piece that was originally composed for a site-specific project in a factory in Germany. And the performers once again are usually myself, Roger Kleier on guitar, and a whole host of different drummers, including Chris Cutler, Sim Cain, Willie Winant, Ches Smith, Jim Pugliese, Ikue Mori. Nothing is notated for that. Everything is written in terms of bars, at the very most, or cues, or people just listen to the CD. That one really leaves a lot of space for each performer. My part, in a way, is the most rigid because I’m playing the samples, and I’m the basis of the structure of the piece. And within that people get to solo on whatever big piece of metal we happen to be able to find. It’s very dependent on the actual instruments we’re able to get for it. It’s always fun to be able to put it together with a new group of people and a new group of instruments. Since percussion is such an important part of EWA7, we try to find some new pieces of industrial metal, or something different to beat on, for each concert or venue.
FJO: That piece gets us into another whole discussion about the relationship between your music and the venue in which people hear it. How much does the venue affect the outcome in your music? And how much of that affected outcome is a desired effect?
AG: For the original performance, the venue was extremely important. For EWA7, we were in a huge factory in Nuremburg, Germany. It was truly site-specific. I was playing sampler, so I basically had a desk job and was locked into my position. But the percussionists could travel everywhere in the factory. We used these catwalks and an enormous acid bath that was brought across the factory on a crane. When we performed it in a theatre in Huddersfield, we made use of banisters and metal that we found within the theatre. Aside from the premiere at that factory in Germany, the most exciting venue we performed EWA7 in was this derelict factory in Warsaw, Poland, as part of Warsaw Autumn. We were told that it was a museum of technology, but it was this ancient factory with holes in the ceiling and ancient machinery that we basically could put anywhere to perform on. So in that case the site-specific element was really important, but if we perform it in a club it still works. We’ll be playing it at Merkin in May, but it will be in more of a concert setting.
FJO: So what is an ideal venue for presenting your music? What are your needs?
AG: You just adapt the piece. Part of what is exciting about being a composer is being able to make an older piece new with each venue and each group of musicians.
FJO: So is it possible for a performance of this to go terribly wrong?
AG: Only if the monitors are terrible. Basically that’s it. We have had situations where the monitors didn’t work, and with the sampler things can go pretty seriously askew. But I try to organize the samples so I get to play my part live, so it’s more like playing piano than operating a tape recorder. I can play along with the other musicians and follow them rhythmically. Or I can stop playing the sampler. And if the percussionists start going crazy and can’t hear anything, I can drop out completely.
FJO: Accidents, in a way, seem like a part of your process.
AG: Yes. And when things go wrong, there’s no reason to panic. You just deal with it. It’s just music; it’ll just sound a little bit different. We performed EWA7 at the Anchorage a couple of years ago, and it was a really fantastic space. The Anchorage is this space under the Brooklyn Bridge, and it’s kind of like a monastery. But the electricity was not perfect. So at really critical moments my sampler crashed. This performance was with Roger Kleier and Jim Pugliese, and they had just been on the road quite a bit with Marc Ribot’s band Shrek, so they really locked in. So at these critical moments where the sampler died, they could just improvise. I could reload and reboot. Roger has worked with me long enough, so he knew what was going on. Instead of panicking, he just looked at me, and I’d be like [shrugs]. After the performance, people came up to me and said, “That was such a dramatic moment when the sampler just dropped out.” So this affected future performances. It’s true. The samples are very dense, they play for a lot of the piece, and there’s this real drama in it when they just drop out.