Andrew J. Swanson - November 14th, 2010
I have recently taken to reading about many of my favorite composers. I usually turn to autobiographies and interviews first, as they’re generally good sources of methodological information. Sometimes the autobiographies can get a little bit tedious, but I really live for those glimmers of insight into the creative process. I think in some ways this has become my most reliable source of inspiration. Learning about how the greatest composers actually worked is completely and utterly exhilarating for me. To discover that a composer who I respect solely on musical grounds also has thoughtful and eloquent things to say about the creative process is truly a source of joy. I like to read a little bit and then get to work on a piece of music, because I feel somehow that I have the engine of history breathing at my back, and that there is nothing else more important than contributing to the body of human work. This is not to suggest that I consider myself to be on the same level of the composers that I revere, but rather that their words somehow grant a sense of urgency and importance to the compositional task that may not have been there for me otherwise. Furthermore, it is because of these readings that I have begun to realize how serious the craft of composition actually is, and how seriously I need to treat the compositional process if I want to be able to call myself a serious composer one day. I still feel as if I am in the nascent stages of my compositional/musical development, and I’m not sure what all of this means, but I feel as if these ideas have really taken hold of me lately and dammit, it’s really humbling and really invigorating.
In my continuing perusal, I see over and over that many composers actually wrote works with one specific idea in mind, and eventually the music would be repurposed. For some reason, it hadn’t really occurred to me that I might use the information present in one piece of music to furnish a series of several works, or that a piece could be implanted into a large-scale work as a section or movement. The notion of writing “multipurpose” music was not altogether foreign, but I found myself intrigued by this idea in practice, primarily because I churn completed works out at a sub-glacial pace, and secondarily because I usually don’t go into a composition with a plan of action in mind. This way, I’ll get more milage out of my ideas, and having a specific scheme in mind always helps to coax the stuff out of my dome. In the case of this composition, I let this principle of multi-functionality guide the creative process. I have set out to compose a self-contained piece of music that will function both as a standalone entity, and also as generative material for a larger work. Now, as for why I just said “have set out,” I must admit that I fully intended to disclose to you all that I am still in the process of writing this piece (phew—I’m glad that’s out of the way). For the Racer Sessions we will be performing the core of this work as a self-contained piece. Since completing this first little nugget, I have been working to develop the potentialities within it to create a work that is greater in scope. For the time being, only the this “nucleus” is ready for presentation.
To provide a bit of background information, I will say that this setting of the “nucleus” is pretty much derived from the disturbing-assed dreams that I’ve been having for the better part of my life. For whatever reason, my dreams tend to be these horrible, lurid environments, and are frequently populated by scenes of viscera and suffering. I can even remember some dreams from as far back as 1989 or so (here’s a good one from 1995: a whole group of people were being impaled one-by-one with a telephone pole-sized pneumatic bolt-guns for attempting to press this button on the ceiling that would allow them to escape a superheated windowless room). If it’s not physical violence to which I’m bearing witness, it’s usually some disconcerting psychological stuff that I’m forced to confront. Necessarily, I’ve grown accustomed to this type of stuff over time, and it doesn’t actually bother me so much anymore.
I always know when my dream is going to be one of those dreams, as my subconscious mind goes to great lengths to ready me for the experience. Generally they begin with a sensation of physically reeling backwards in space. Once this subsides, I have arrived at something like a blank dimensionless room. Suddenly I am motionless. Within what minutes of arriving at this stage of sorts, some pedestrian object (e.g. a tea kettle, a shoe, or something of the like) will materialize in front of me and it will lie motionless for several seconds. The vertiginous sensation returns, but the item remains fixed before me. As I become disoriented once again, the item begins to change form. For example, a shoe might become a table, and then that table might become a printer, and so on. This seemingly endless cycle of morphing gradually speeds up as I watch, and the item continually changes form over and over and over. Everything becomes indistinct. I find myself enveloped in what might be described as rising plumes of generally formless subconscious material. It is then that I realize that my subconscious mind has taken over, and at once I am completely subservient to the will of the dream. I feel a certain sense of betrayal; it is as if my conscious self was somehow deliberately manipulated by my subconscious self, and subsequently prepared for an absolutely heinous experience. As a note, they do not proceed in this exact fashion each and every time. If it’s not this precise sequence of events, some other set of shifting details will carry out the erasure process. That said, it is the process itself that is always recognizable, in spite it’s varying constructions.
Once in the dream, I experience a certain sense of clarity. I am stricken by the hyperrealism and the solemnity of this domain. In my isolation, I take solace in these quiet corners of my mind, while simultaneously experiencing a sort of undulating sense of trepidation for fear of what lies in store. When the time comes, the I find myself beholding some happening that is so paralyzingly awful that I can do nothing but wait and watch as it plays itself out. Clarity, once a welcome sensation, now only serves to heighten my awareness of the most grotesque features of the dream. My senses of perception are inseparably tangled with the troubling scene before me, and in some capacity or another I have become an unwilling participant in a series of gut-churning events. Eventually each sordid affair draws to a close, and I have nothing left to do but wake up, at which point I’ll groggily attempt to sort out what just happened. In no way is my removal from the dream a cathartic experience, nor is it so haunting that I am crippled for the rest of the day/week/year. I think that it kind of translates into something I might call temporal discomfort, having come out sputtering out of the ether and into reality. This may explain my almost perpetual scowl.
To explain the piece: this little aria was not written specifically to evoke these gruesome images, but I find that it lends itself to this interpretation. The harmonies oscillate between something like consternation and satisfaction. In the dreams, I am never allowed to feel comfortable, but at certain points I am able to digest the information set before me and I experience brief moments of tranquility. However fleeting these moments may be, they sustain me in the throes of tribulation. The harmonies certainly do reflect a similar kind of pushing and pulling. Eventually the melody is accompanied by a slow and menacing contrabass line, which I suppose could be suggestive of blood, agony and things like impersonal forces shredding your hopes and you know, stuff like that. The improvisational section is comprised of dull, grumbly, and muted sonorities that loosely represent the less distinct areas of the dreams, and eventually the melodic material emerges above this noisy substrate. My hope is that this piece is somehow really pleasant to listen to in spite of its narrative content. I am mostly concerned with expressing this revolting stuff in a notional sense; the various emotions/feelings that accompany these images (wistfulness, grief, nausea, “the blues,” et cetera) are more important to me than the images themselves. The piece isn’t a vigorous and rigorous play-by-play of the aforementioned narrative, nor is it the note-for-note sonic equivalent of my disgusting dreams. More than anything, I would consider the piece to be a simple redolent gesture. I suppose that ultimately, you’ll hear what you hear (and that, after all, is encouraged).
I would like to thank everyone for allowing me to do a bit of amateur oneiric investigation in presenting this piece (and not to mention some amount of autobiographicalizing, too). If nothing else, I suppose that it is a product of my effort to mediate between my subconscious and conscious self, as the two seem to be situated on opposing sides of an ever-widening gulf. Or, maybe my subconscious is working closely along with me to shake out all of the “bad bad” so that I don’t have to do so in my waking hours. Anyway, for the sake of Old Man Brevity (who I think may be R-ing I.P. by now), I will explain how this whole thing will play out in the session on Sunday, rather than spelling it out here. I could go on, but I will not. See?
I lied. Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you there!
P.S. Joining me for the performance of Drifted Cistern: The Narrows will be Kristian Garrard, Jared Borkowski and Aaron Otheim. I extend my endless gratitude to each of them for their contributions.