Infecting Materials

I have a bit of a tendency to tip towards obsessiveness. (At this point, I probably should pause for a moment to ask those people who know me well to stop guffawing at my understatement. Okay? May I continue?) When a restaurant joins two tables, I’m the sort of person who finds it difficult to sit down until I’ve assured myself that the corners match perfectly. I can find myself distracted while attempting to converse with certain people unless I’m aligned correctly with them. I react viscerally against documents with two spaces after each period, and spend a great deal of time and fruitless energy encouraging my students to employ one-inch margins in their papers. In short, I enjoy exploring the minutiae of arcana and believe that exactitude is a virtue.

At times, I believe that this character trait helps my composing. I enjoy spending the time necessary to align all the elements in my scores, and I treat the process of eradicating engraving errors as a moral imperative. I attempt to take the care necessary to consider the physical nature of the instruments for which I’m writing in order to ensure that every gesture can be produced. When I am able, I question the basic assumptions of our musical tradition, including our tuning, notation systems, and performance practice.

More often, I find that my obsessiveness detracts from my attempts at artistry. While following any specific musical path, I can focus on what’s directly in front of me without seeing the opportunities beckoning on the periphery. As I direct my ideas to flow easily from one point to the next, I lose the ability to surprise and delight. Inevitability begins to function like a juggernaut, crushing all obstacles as it proceeds inexorably towards its goal. When I was younger and was attempting to compose fast groove-based music, I kept finding myself creating rhythmic drive by placing attacks consistently on a single rhythmic level so that once I established (for example) a sixteenth-note pulse, an event would occur at every sixteenth-note interval until I reached the ends of phrases. Although I knew that the pulse would remain firmly established in the absence of such specificity, I continued to build these unrelenting lattices throughout those compositions.

As I grew more aware of my innate tendencies, I began to build the opportunity for serendipity into my compositional process. If I make a copying or transcribing error, I question whether the pattern alteration should be construed as a mistake or as an improvement. Duchamp considered his great glass “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” unfinished until movers dropped and shattered it, and he painstakingly glued the shards back into the frame. With visible cracks now veining the entire piece, he felt that the design was finally completed. I attempt to channel the spirit of Duchamp in order to accept even those accidents that seem disastrous at first blush as possible windows opening towards new opportunities.

Moving beyond fortuitous mistakes, recently I’ve begun teaching myself to infect my materials. After indulging my initial tendency to build a progression by obsessively revoicing a single interval, I now might take the resulting fragments and mutate it. At first, I can subtly add one or two sonorities that appear to play by my harmonic rules, but with a second interval now creating a genetically modified chord. This new creation can then reproduce either naturally into other similar harmonies, or can undergo further transgenic manipulation, creating ever-newer chords. Simple manipulations that alter a single characteristic of a gesture suddenly open up entirely new worlds populated with musical organisms that might sound alien to the initial idea, allowing me to move along paths that my obsessiveness might have otherwise eschewed as unrelated to my initial ideas. In so doing, I’m hoping to awaken the possibility for delightful surprise.

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