Ingram Marshall: Today’s Music Tomorrow

From Fog Tropes to Hymnodic Delays

FRANK J. OTERI: To return to live performance, going back to what is the beginning in terms of what’s on record, let’s talk about Fog Tropes. Here’s a piece that involves a live brass ensemble and has gotten played quite a bit and I imagine is still getting played.

INGRAM MARSHALL: Yeah, it’s by far my most played piece. So you want to hear the story of Fog Tropes?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, I do.

INGRAM MARSHALL: O.K. 1980. A friend of mine was a performance artist in San Francisco, that’s where I was living at the time, asked me to put together what she called a sound score. Not really a piece of music, so much as a bunch of environmental sounds and some electronic music that she could use for a performance piece she was putting together, which had to do with the weather in San Francisco. So we went aroundóthis is the summer time, when it is very foggy in San Franciscoówe went around and recorded fog horns, I think in maybe four different places. And, I don’t think I had a really high-end recording thing. I used to tell people that I recorded it on a Nagra, but I think I actually just used a Sony. I don’t really remember, but the main thing is that it was not hi-tech. So I recorded all of these fog horns and went back to my studio and started making tape loops and basically created a kind of collage of different pitches of fog horns. And some other sounds got in there, you know some buoy ringing, some birds. Lots of birds. Wind sounds. And she did this performance and it was about an hour long and it had one section in the middle of it, about 10 minutes that, to my ear, was really good. So I said, this is too good to just let kind of disappear into the fog, so to speak, so I kind of work on it a little more and just created a tape piece, a ten minute tape piece. And I used to, I played it as a prelude to the live electronic work I was doing then, The Fragility Cycles. And it was just a tape piece and I called it Fog. So the next year, 1981, my friend, John Adams, who had just become the composer-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony, had a series of new music concerts that he was supposed put on. And it was going to be very hip; it was going to be in the Galeria, which is kind of a downtown place for people to sit around and drink and eat and, you know, enjoy themselves. As it turned out, my concert was not there, it was in the Japan Center Theater, but what happened was he asked me to do my piece Gradual Requiem, which is the work I had composed with a mandolinist and myself, the mandolinist being Foster Reed, and he said, this is John’s suggestion, why don’t you take the piece Fog, which is a really wonderful piece, and kind of juice it up with some trombones and tubas. We can stick ‘em up in the balcony and make a great effect. So that just got me going, so for about a week I just worried how I was going to do this using just a couple of low brass and suddenly it occurred to me one day that I could write it for high brass too. I could just write a brass quintet. Oh, it was actually a sextet, so I did that. I just simply wrote parts out for six brass instruments. And Fog Tropes was born. And it was played that first time by students from the San Francisco Conservatory. They did a pretty good job. It was pretty effective. And then not too long after that the San Francisco Symphony brass players played it on a symphony concert actually, one of their regular concerts. And then somebody else picked it up. I can’t remember who it was. Pittsburgh? Or St. Louis? One of those orchestras… You know, this was the time that orchestras were just beginning to have those composer-in-residence things. And they were all doing new music concerts. John Harbison was in Pittsburgh, I remember he did it there. Libby Larson was in Minneapolis. And Joan Tower, I guess, was in St. Louis. Or maybe it was Joe Schwantner? Joe Schwanter was still there. But Fog Tropes was being played at all these new music venues at these different orchestras. So that’s how it got around.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you didn’t necessarily work with the players for these performances, they just…?

INGRAM MARSHALL: Oh, yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: You did.

INGRAM MARSHALL: I mean it was all written out in regular notation, but I kind of had to tell them what the idea was… For example, the French Horn parts are these interweaving lines that they actually have to phase, very much like in a Steve Reich piece where one of them gets faster and faster and kind of gets a beat ahead. You know, you really have to talk them through it and say this is the way it goes. And that’s still true today when I get recordings of the piece…without my being there often they don’t do it right.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, this question of legacy once again: two hundred years from now, you know when they decide they don’t want to play the Beethoven symphony or the Haydn symphony for the three millionth time and they want to do Fog Tropes…?

INGRAM MARSHALL: Well, there have been a lot of strange performances of it that I had nothing to do with. I’ve heard recordings and they’re just somewhere else, you know. Somebody once did it on a barge floating down a canal in Germany. When the brass players were on the barge and I guess the audience was on the bank. I don’t know where the speakers were for the tape part. It’s had an interesting history.

FRANK J. OTERI: I guess when we look at the music, when we look at your music now and hear the performances and think of projecting it into the future, it really in some ways calls into question how valid the performances now are of the music of the past, since all we really have are imprecise scores. We can’t really know a lot of the inner workings of a lot of these pieces and certainly the older the music you get the less precise the notation is and certainly for a lot of the music being created today, having very precise notation is, you know, unless it’s sort of very academic serial music where everything is really well worked out, a lot of the aesthetic of this music is for it not to be worked out and for it to just happen.

INGRAM MARSHALL: Well, the mid-century modernist take on all of this is that the score is the text and the text must be adhered to; this is the composer’s wish. This is Stravinsky, you know, this is Boulez. The whole early music movement grew out of this, where they were trying to recreate the sounds of the Baroque period and the Renaissance period, but there’s so little in the text giving the information. They had to go back and read treatises and stuff, and even then, as Richard Taruskin points out, they ended up creating a kind of modern music based on old music notation. And it’s wonderful! I love working with old music people. You know, I’ve worked with Paul Hillier and his Theatre of Voices and they all have this early music sound and whether they’re doing twelfth century stuff, Perotin or Ingram Marshall, you know, I love that sound, that’s a modern sound.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, there are all, there is so much music being created, in fact we’re going to dedicate a whole issue of NewMusicBox, the one after this one to the whole notion of composers writing music for early music ensembles and early music ensembles doing it. There’s a Bay Area-based early music group, American Baroque, which was even one of the winners of the Chamber Music America/ASCAP Adventurous Programming awards this year. And, you know, you never think period instrument group = new music, but the connection really is there. Certainly in your music, in works like Hymnotic Delays which is essentially written for an early music group… What was the experience of working with them like?

INGRAM MARSHALL: Well, first of all, with Hymnodic Delays, the four pieces are based on early American psalms, three of them by composers that were active in the early 1700s. One from New Haven: Daniel Read. Then one from Vermont; two of them actually from Vermont: Ingalls and Morgan. So, in those piece the four singers actually do sing the originals in one form or another and they just sing it so great, but what I do with it after that, they take off on, but I’m using that sound that they have. And I was inspired to do that by hearing a recording that Paul had done some of that material actually a few years earlier. I think it was His Majesties Clerkes, which is a Chicago early music vocal ensemble. And now I’m in the midst of writing a piece that’s a Mass, it’s a setting of a mass text for a chamber choir that Paul Hillier is conducting. It’s not the Theater of Voices, but it’s a chamber choir from Denmark that specializes in early music. Well, early music and John Cage.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, is this the group Ars Nova?

INGRAM MARSHALL: Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, they did that disc on Mode of the choral music of John Cage.

INGRAM MARSHALL: Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, they’re great.

INGRAM MARSHALL: And so I’ve got all those voices in my mind now that I’m working on this electronically processed version of the Mass, so…