Empty Rooms

Empty Rooms

Tempwerks Cover

This week I’ve been consumed by preparations for Trees and Branches, a concert I’ve wanted to do in some form for years now. For me, the legacy of John Cage’s ideas is even more fascinating than his music. Everyone seems to learn a different lesson from Cage, making the shape of that legacy vast, diverse, and constantly changing. I imagine it as a forest of trees and branches emerging from Cage’s sonic landscapes, radiating off in countless directions.

Since a single concert devoted to the entire scope of Cage’s influence would be impossible, it made sense to focus on one particular offshoot: in this case, the Californian composer and percussionist Arthur Jarvinen. There are a few articles about Jarvinen out there if you’re not familiar with his music. What made him irressistible as a focal point for this concert was his personal, immediate influence on so many composers and performers in the Los Angeles area, myself included.

Jarvinen’s sense of humor and penchant for redeeming “non-musical” sounds seem particularly Cageian, but Jarvinen’s humor was always more sardonic, and he didn’t necessarily follow Cage’s dictum to “let sounds be themselves.” In 2009 and 2010, Jarvinen wrote a series of electroacoustic pieces that combined a variety of electronic equipment he had collected over the years–strobe lights, contact mics, telegraph keys, shortwave radios, a Geiger counter–with more modern digital technology (e.g. laptops) and more traditional acoustic instrumentation (e.g. violin). He put together a group of LA-based composer-performers (Andrew Tholl, Scott Cazan, and me) to realize and perform these pieces, and named the group TempWerks. Unfortunately Jarvinen passed away before these pieces were to be premiered, but with the addition of Casey Anderson to the group, we were still able to perform them at the Sacramento Festival of New American Music in 2010 as originally planned.

On Saturday, we’re playing three of Jarvinen’s pieces together for the first time since then. Extending the vectors of influence, each member of TempWerks has also written a new piece for the group. At least in my case, I wrote with Cage and Jarvinen specifically in mind as influences, an unusual exercise for me. Generally influences are things that creep in unnoticed in the process of composing, so it was odd to have an explicit set of influences as a starting point.

Song from Twenty-Eight Rooms was the end result of this process. The piece calls for each performer to make seven field recordings of different empty rooms. Cage’s idea of silence as sound is an obvious inspiration here, but past this the resemblance is perhaps superficial. There are no chance processes in the piece—in fact it’s rather obsessively structured. There’s also a harmonic component—each performer is asked to arrange the recordings from low to high based on the dominant ambient hum from each room.

The piece is also notated in “stopwatch time,” i.e. with minutes and seconds instead of traditional rhythmic notation. This also stems from Cage, who often used this kind of notation to try and escape musical time or, to put it another way, to replace rhythm with duration. Two of Jarvinen’s pieces—Slide Show and Blinded by Enlightenment (Again)—also use a version of stopwatch time. But perhaps due to his background as a percussionist, Jarvinen’s stopwatch time pieces feel incredibly rhythmic. The five-second interval is a particularly important structural unit in his pieces, a curious choice because it’s right on the cusp of our temporal perception—a little too long to feel comfortable as a rhythmic interval and a little too short to feel comfortable as a durational interval.

This tension between “sound as sound” and “sound as music” is also a principal component of Song from Twenty-Eight Rooms, which uses the five-second interval as a departure point and adds several levels of subdivision. I briefly considered notating it with traditional rhythms in 5/4 at 60bpm, but this turned out to be impractical. In fact, deciding what tools to use to notate the piece was surprisingly time-consuming—I ended up writing most of the piece on graph paper before transferring it to the computer. After trying out various kinds of illustration software I settled on NeoOffice Draw, which seemed to strike the right balance between limitations and flexibility for this project.

While I was figuring out how to structure the piece, another influence snuck in after all: Tom Johnson, a self-consciously minimalist composer who creates startlingly vivid musical depictions of mathematical concepts. Many of Johnson’s pieces deal with combinatorics, or the field of mathematics dealing with combinations of objects. To give a basic example, let’s say you want to find all the pairs from a set with three elements. If you work it out, you’ll wind up with three sets: {1,2}, {1,3}, and {2,3}. One thing that attracted me to combinatorics is the similarity between mathematical combination and musical variation. Certain elements are repeated, while others change, in a manner that is systematic but often hard to predict as a listener.

Tempworks score

In the score of Song from Twenty-Eight Rooms, each recording is given its own color from low (red) to high (violet), but as the piece begins, each player is confined to one sound. The combinations here are concerned primarily with ordering (permutations)—{1,2,3,4}, {1,2,4,3}, {1,3,2,4}, etc. You’re also introduced to the three main “shapes” of the piece (left-facing triangle, right-facing triangle, square), corresponding to different amplitude envelopes.

Johnson’s music is certainly engaged with more advanced mathematical concepts than this, and his musical depictions of mathematical solutions are often exhaustively complete. I’m less concerned with completeness or correctness, and more interested in the emergent musical properties that mathematical processes can generate. When all the sounds, shapes, and durations are introduced, the number of possible combinations skyrockets tremendously. Instead of doggedly cataloguing all the combinations, I superimpose several patterns simultaneously, hinting at the complete gamut of possibilities in the space of a minute.

Song from Twenty-Eight Rooms

I like works of art that suggest a larger world just outside of the frame, and that’s what I’m grasping at here—chords shifting like quicksand, faint suggestions of melody, patterns just beyond the edge of comprehension. Yes, it’s a piece about absence, but also the richness of absence. People are like empty rooms, and out of these empty rooms whole universes burst forth, universes populated with all the things we can never know about them.

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One thought on “Empty Rooms

  1. Mark Phillips

    Glad to hear that Art’s influence and music is alive and well. At Ohio University, his alma mater, we had the privilege of honoring him as an outstanding alum during his lifetime. Thanks for the article.


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