Sounds Heard: Thomas DeLio—Selected Compositions (1991-2013)

Thomas DeLio
Selected Compositions (1991-2013)
(Neuma 450-108 & 450-201)

Neuma catalog items 450-108 and 450-201 are, respectively, a CD and a DVD (whose job is mostly to support multichannel audio; only one piece includes a video component) that together represent a 22-year retrospective of the music of Thomas DeLio. Twenty-three pieces composed between 1991 and 2013 are included on these discs.

If you’ve ever been curious about DeLio’s catalog, you’ll find plenty to engage with here. If you already hold DeLio in high esteem—he’s been counted by some among the most important living exponents of post-Cageian American experimentalism—you’ll love having all of these pieces within easy reach so you can relive them whenever the spirit moves you. If you feel—as others I’ve spoken with about DeLio’s music do—that this particular emperor has no clothes, Neuma’s collection offers the perfect chance to reevaluate that conviction. And if, like me, you’re pulled cyclically toward and away from DeLio’s music and the discourse around it, these two discs provide an ideal checkerboard on which to allow your feelings about this insistently elusive music to play out once and for all.

The CD booklet includes the following mission statement, one I remember very clearly from my first brushes with DeLio’s output more than a decade ago and which bears excerpting here:

As William Carlos Williams once said of Gertrude Stein: “Stein has gone systematically to work smashing every connotation that words have ever had, in order to get them back clean.” I too admire Stein for this reason and, following in the footsteps of those who have tried to do the same for sound, would like to move away from gesture process and get sound back “clean.” My approach to composition, to which I came quite subconsciously, involves reducing the music’s surface to just a few sounds separated—pushed apart—by large quantities of silence; sound events pushed into isolation. Often writers and scholars comment that my music is about silence. However, it is actually about sound. I use silence, among other things, to frame sound so that we may experience it in new ways, highlighting qualities of sound perhaps otherwise lost. [...] I argue for wiping the slate clean and rediscovering sound beneath all the rhetoric and dated mannerisms which have accumulated over so many years and, in the process, really coming to grips with the nature of our own experience—a complex task indeed.

Although I found a great deal to enjoy in these substantial Neuma releases, I did so for exactly the opposite reason to the one that DeLio seems (according to his elevator pitch) to have intended: DeLio’s music purports to get sound back “clean,” but it’s the dirt in his sounds—that which we track in on our shoes, so to speak, no less than that which collects during each piece—that makes these recordings so worthwhile.

There are two kinds of pieces on these discs, more or less: pieces with live performers and pieces that exist on fixed media only (here charmingly called “tape” pieces in spite of their inescapably digital pedigrees). In both kinds, per DeLio’s liner note, isolated sounds are separated by long silences. As Agostino di Scipio points out in “Notes on Digital Silence: Listening to Tom DeLio’s Short Tape Works,” there’s an ontological difference between silence in a concert work for live performers and the digitally encoded silence in a fixed-media piece; either way, however, a DeLio experience (to one who knows what to listen for) is generally recognizable as such, and recognizably distinct from pieces emerging from other experimental music traditions in which silence figures so significantly (scores published by Edition Wandelweiser, onkyokei performances, etc.). In “Luminous Presence: Thomas DeLio’s think on parch,” Linda Dusman writes that DeLio and composers like him reject “the musical languages and forms of the dominant culture and seeks to create newly with each work the distinctive style established by each composer.” Whether or not it can honestly be said to emerge “newly” with each work, the “distinctive style” DeLio has established is unflagging, regardless of medium.

To the extent, then, that hearing one of DeLio’s pieces should be an exercise in the decontextualization of unsullied sounds, the fixed-media pieces and the instrumental pieces function in much the same way. But, as I’ve already indicated, I don’t think these pieces are simply exercises in the decontextualization of unsullied sounds: thankfully, the sounds come pre-sullied. That’s where the meat of this literature lies, for me, and that’s where the fixed-media pieces and the instrumental pieces diverge categorically.

The fixed-media works are full of sounds which are by no means fully drained of the “rhetoric and dated mannerisms” DeLio aspires to eliminate. Indeed, they’re full of gestures, and very sensuous and richly legible gestures to boot. Song: “Foxrock near Dublin…”, the first track on the DVD, has recourse to a bridge-of-the-Enterprise ambience beneath fractured lines from poet P. Inman (a presence throughout the discs—more on him later). Meanwhile …transients, in which DeLio processes the recording of his transients/images for piano and percussion and then strives (in an anti-musique concrète instrumentale) to “project those sonorities not as the products of actions or gestures—the products of purpose—but as purely physical [i.e., sonic, acoustic] realities.” To my ear, this doesn’t really happen: in fact, it’s the traces of the original “physical realities” of performance that are truly at issue in the piece.

Even though DeLio encourages us in words to approach each moment in his music as a lone and unmoored present, the pieces themselves encourage us to make connections backwards and forwards in time. In the fixed-media pieces especially, this is a matter not only of the piece’s duration but also of historical time: on a technical level, the electroacoustic pieces’ use of resonators and phase vocoding point very clearly to the 1990s, an inevitable (but possibly trivializing) result of following Fredric Jameson’s charge to “always historicize”—the last thing DeLio seems to want us to do. “sam”, for fixed-media sound and video, inhabits circling repetitions or near-repetitions for almost eighteen minutes, a lifetime compared to most of the fixed-media pieces on these discs. The version of “sam” on the DVD is an adaptation of an installation, which might explain its length; even in truncated form, it’s a piece that develops its own history and web of internal relationships that militate against the primacy of the sequestered moment.

The instrumental pieces, naturally, avail themselves of a different palette. A word here about the performances: although they’re uniformly superb in both precision and spirit, the works for percussion are especially noteworthy. DeLio is fortunate to have strong advocates (in capacities as varied as conductor, performer, interlocutor, and analyst) in Christopher Shultis and Tom Goldstein, whose efforts have probably brought more listeners into contact with DeLio’s music than any others’. However, all of the renditions showcased here are faithful and tight, and they all deserve praise for keeping the quality of such a huge undertaking so high. (That the Philharmonia Bulgarica recorded the three-and-a-half minute Than is itself remarkable—who expected to find an orchestra piece on these discs?) And of course they all sound great, especially on a set of decent headphones; that’s one way in which “sound” is importantly thematized that I can’t complain about.

It’s not only the sound worlds of the instrumental pieces that differ critically from the fixed-media pieces: because the embodied effort of producing instrumental or vocal sounds is so much greater than the effort of processing or reproducing sounds electronically, DeLio’s instrumental works—which I haven’t heard live in recent years but used to encounter from time to time on programs at UMBC—engage with a sort of economics of sound. Unlike his fixed-media pieces, in which sound is “cheap,” his instrumental pieces are like manipulated markets in which sound is made more valuable by virtue of its scarcity. In these pieces, performers have to reckon with the long silences between sounds, incorporating them into a performance practice. (Goldstein has written about this very consideration.) The piano solo Though, performed on the CD by Jacques Linder, establishes just such a market, and its silences rely on the sounds that they follow to create a sense of desire —at least, this is my experience of the piece: a family of small, handcrafted objects, fascinating individually and as a set, for the next of which we have to wait. As though, another solo played here by Twin Cities percussionist Jeffrey Gram, works similarly, fabricating desire by separating gestures—and let’s not pretend they’re not gestures. DeLio writes:

Among other things, in this work I was very interested in drawing attention to the distinction between non-pitched and pitched sound. Toward this end, I introduced only one pitch into the composition, near the end—one very peculiar type of sound framed by the more complex sounds of the un-pitched percussion employed throughout the piece. My purpose was to try to return pitch to its place as “sound”; to strip it of its function as a mere element of language (melodic, harmonic, tonal or atonal).

There’s nothing “mere” about being an element of language, and even if there were, then shouldn’t the piece’s “more complex” percussive sounds—many of which also carry a perceivable pitch—be held equally accountable? To my mind, the sudden appearance of a ringing metallophone in as though only reinforces the suspicion that the pitch-content to be heard in what DeLio calls the “un-pitched” percussion instruments might be expressive, too. I want to make a mountain out of this molehill, and DeLio wants me to forget about it and direct my attention to the next molehill.

DeLio’s aesthetic is a kind of “innocent modernism” in which we imagine that sound is “just sound” rather than imagining, say, that all parameters of musical material can be graduated into twelve equal-sized slices—both then-necessary but ultimately now-false ideals. It does less injury to “sound” than other kinds of musical modernism, maybe, but the word “sound” has quotation marks around it here because sound isn’t actually a thing you can do injury to. This is the root of my objection to DeLio’s project: every sound that appears in his music was produced by human labor of some kind or another; every sound’s source has an historical specificity; many of the sounds include splinters of semantic languages; all of the sounds in a piece can be related to one another in a hierarchical way (or, more accurately, many possible hierarchical ways). They are not just sounds, and what the lengthy silences that are supposed to cut them off from their kin are actually doing is giving a listener time and space to assemble them into meaningful networks.

Consider American poet P. Inman’s voice, which features in several fixed-media works and whose character at times evokes the stray pre-song utterances found on early Todd Rundgren albums. I’ll digress briefly for a look at Inman’s orientation toward poetry, which mirrors DeLio’s to music in important ways. Dusman identifies an intersection in Inman’s writing (whose fundamental unit is not the phrase or the sentence but the individual word) of the imminent (“meaning is always imminent in his poetry, emerging in the moment from the multiple possible readings produced and present in each moment”) and the immanent (“At the same time meaning is immanent; that is, its meaning wells up from the word itself”). Inman conceives of his work in a political way:

Capitalist ideology hopes to dilute or deny the existence of anything other than the everyday given. By doing so current ideology stagnates thought, replaces the possibility of change with the statistic, frozen black on paper, legitimized by its very inertia.

(That may have been true when Inman wrote it in 1979, but it certainly isn’t now: capitalist ideologies in the 21st century are increasingly predicated on the construction of desire, the commodification of affect. They change constantly and appear in terrifyingly vivid colors. They haunt us so thoroughly that I had to turn to those very terms to properly describe my reaction to Though.)

In DeLio’s case, that meaning emerges in his pieces imminently is clear to me. The act of waiting is an essential part of hearing his music, and not only in Though one hears a sound, and then one has to wait some time to hear another. It’s just that these episodes are cumulative; each new one doesn’t negate all the ones that have come before it. Dusman’s description of DeLio’s music as a threshold experience is absolutely correct; the listener spends a great deal of time on the threshold between the apprehension of the piece he or she has thus far developed and the apprehension of the piece he or she will have after the next sound event, which will necessarily alter the former in an unexpected way. This is an intensely dramatic experience, at least for me, but it only works precisely because meaning in DeLio’s music is not constructed immanently but rather negotiated by the conditional and conditioned particularity of each sound-event within the piece’s world and the resonances of those sound-events in the world outside of the piece. DeLio may want to wash his hands of “geology, astrology, and acupuncture,” to paraphrase Grisey, but we should be grateful that he hasn’t been entirely successful—because this very contradiction is what makes
these Neuma discs so magisterial, their contents so captivating.

Maybe this is DeLio’s ultimate revenge on a new music community bent on overthought, on subjectivity run amok, on indulgences in memory and gesture, both of which he reviles: maybe he’s spent a career writing pieces whose insights are revealed only when the discourse around it is considered and then disregarded. This isn’t a review of that discourse, nor of DeLio’s prose writings, nor of his interlocutors’, of course; it’s a review of a CD and DVD that contain a sizable helping of recorded and fixed-media music. He was very nearly right all along: the worthiest ambassador for DeLio (to whom I’m happy to yield the last laugh) is the music—not to say the sound—itself.

Note: If you’re going to investigate the CD and DVD set, you might as well also investigate Essays on the Music and Theoretical Writings of Thomas DeLio, Contemporary American Composer (Thomas Licata, ed.), a collection of articles and commentaries that argue passionately—if not always, as I’ve opined above, persuasively—for DeLio’s work. I’m pleased to have had the chance to cite its contents several times in this review.

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