Interview with John Luther Adams & Steven Schick June 2009
Conducted and edited by Steven Ross Smith
At 9 p.m., on June 21 2009 – the summer solstice – as the sun sank behind the Bourgeau Range of the Bow Valley in Canada’s Rocky Mountains, a group of eighteen percussionists from all over the world who were participants at The Banff Centre, in a residency program called Roots and Rhizomes, premiered a work – after ten days of rehearsals – called Inuksuit, created by composer John Luther Adams, on commission, and for this program. Adams had been invited by program director and musician Steven Schick. This interview took place on a sunny slope amidst pine and poplar above the town of Banff on the afternoon preceding the performance which would take place in a grassy amphitheatre at the Centre. On the following day Inuksuit was performed in a wilderness setting at Goat Creek, Southeast of the town of Banff.
John Luther Adams provides his own context for Inuksuit and for the performances in and near Banff:
John Luther Adams: This piece is site determined but it is not site specific. This piece can be performed anywhere and I hope it will be performed in wild locations; I hope it will be performed in Central Park but it seems particularly appropriate that the first performance that has happened is here in the mountains of Canada in part because of the Inuksuit themselves. Those figures are just all around the circle of the Arctic but the greatest flowering of Inuksuit are in Canada and that’s one of the reasons that I picked this specifically to do here, and what more appropriate date than the solstice.
SRS: You cite many influences, but I notice four composers in particular that keep popping up – Morton Feldman, John Cage, Lou Harrison and occasionally Canadian Murray Schafer.
JLA: Well we’re in Canada, eh?
SRS: Murray Schafer – have you never met him?
JLA: No, no. But we know so many people in common and I’m such an admirer of his work, of his book Soundscape, in its original title The Tuning of the World. This is on my short list of books that changed my life. And there was John Cage’s Silence, and Henry Thoreau’s Walden and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Gary Snyder Turtle Islands. Murray Schafer is on that list.
SRS: When did you encounter Schafer’s writings?
JLA: I’m trying to remember; it must have been sometime in the mid to late ‘70’s so I was still in my early twenties, pretty early. Before Schafer – and here we get to an interesting Canadian connection. I must have been oh maybe 14 or 15 when I heard Glenn Gould’s Solitude Trilogy done for the CBC. I never heard the trilogy on radio but the first one, The Idea of North, was made into a television version, which I saw on public television in the United States and that really captured my imagination and I think planted a seed that didn’t sprout until some years later and may have been part of what led to the world where I live, and by extension to the work that I’ve been given to do. And of course we’re neighbours, too; special neighbours in Alaska.
SRS: Yes really. It must be a very different perspective on Canada from Alaska than from the southern states, the states south of our border.
JLA: Well I think so. You know what was interesting – for some reason that I don’t understand yet, my wife and I chose to drive down here to Alberta, not fly.
SRS: Oh, the Alaska Highway?
JLA: Which we had driven once one-way thirty-one years ago, and so after spending, most of our lives now up there, we decided, well what the heck, let’s drive it. And one of the things that I was interested in is what feeling and seeing, hearing, experiencing was the slow transition from place to place to place to place and here, from there to here and back, and, you know, I feel it homier here because this is the same place in a certain sense; it’s a very different place in another sense, but we live in the northwestern edge of the boreal forest in North America and this is, one might say, the southeastern edge and so for four-and-a-half days last week, we drove through the forest and watched it, felt it change over the miles. Up where we are, it’s black spruce and white spruce and a few scrawny aspens and alders and beautiful birches and down here you have pines and not so many spruce and your aspens are glorious, and there are very few birch that I’ve seen. But it’s still the same forest. You have the beetle also, which we don’t yet have, which is headed our way with climate change.
JLA: So anyway, I feel like it was a grueling drive but I feel like, in a way, I never left home; I know where I am.
SRS: Do you want to talk about Morton Feldman – He’s a big and ferocious guy, right, an inspiration?
JLA: As Morton Feldman used to say about Stravinsky, where would I be without Morton Feldman? Without Morton Feldman in your life, you’re nothing. Feldman was a city boy. I remember talking with him once, and he was saying something like, “Yeah, yeah, you get inspired by this, you get inspired by that, or you get inspired by nature”. That’s not exactly true because he did have a weakness for the Hudson, the Hudson River School of Painters.The early, the nineteenth century landscape painters.Yes, I think maybe he was interested in them, for the most part because of the light.
SRS: How is Feldman an influence on you?
JLA: Feldman is, well he’s about so many things but the central thing for me is the sheer sensuousness, sensuality of sound. and I think that is the same thing Debussy is ultimately about and the flipside of that for me is, in terms of influence, is, would be James Tenney who was my principle composition teacher in Cal Arts. Lo, that was many years ago. And Jim was also all about sound but in a very different way from Feldman. Jim was about sound the way Alvin Lucier is about sound. Sound as in miracle of physics, sound as a force of nature, sound as a natural phenomenon, whereas with Feldman, there is a little more mist, a little more poetry, a little more atmosphere in his love of sound. And I feel resonance with both approaches in my work. At times it encompasses both.
SRS: Feldman’s music is often so subtle; I think you used the word “subtle”; Feldman was not afraid to be so soft, and John Cage too. In your work, I hear that. I hear that willingness to be brave enough to go really, really soft.
JLA: How can I not be? You know, I had John Cage; I had James Tenney; I had Morton Feldman; I had Lou Harrison; I had Pauline Oliveros, all these great composers who gave me permission. You know, as Feldman would have said, Cage gave him permission and as Lou would have said, Henry Cowell gave us permission and Cage would have said, Henry Cowell gave us permission. And Cowell might have said, Charles Ives gave me permission. There is this wonderful rich lineage that goes back to the turn of the twentieth century in American music and I use American in the broadest sense because it encompasses wonderful composers such as Schafer or Ann Southam and the Mexican Sylvestre Revueltas and Amadeo Roldan in Cuba, you know, American composers in the broadest sense, and I feel that that’s my heritage more than the European. Although obviously I use the tools and devices and techniques. I borrow what I want to from the European tradition. I feel that I’m part of a distinctly different lineage.
SRS: And on the other side of your willingness to go toward the soft, the subtle, the silent, you go to the other extreme, the dynamics are so intense, so powerful, so strong, and so visceral.
SRS: It gives you an incredible range and contrast and I mean you’re totally aware of that so I’m stating the obvious.
JLA: Well it’s a kind of . . . it’s almost bipolar isn’t it? And I think, I’m not joking when I say that it may have something to do with where I’ve lived and worked all my life because living in Alaska is like living in two different places winter and summer.
SRS: Yes, great extremes.
JLA: Yes especially where I live. It’s the coldest place, it’s the hottest place, and it’s light all the time in the summer and it’s dark pretty much all the time in the winter. So I think without my consciously realizing it, those extremes found their way into my work and it’s, it’s almost like two different minds — summer mind and winter mind — and summer mind is expansive, it’s light all the time, all the time. It’s daylight for three or four months, broad daylight and that, there’s a kind of euphoria that comes with that, a kind of expansiveness and extroversion and then in the winter, you know, from solstice, the sun rolls above the horizon for two hours and forty minutes and it gets, at its apogee it’s a degree and a half above the horizon, so there’s this gorgeous saturated soft sidelight, these twilights that go on for hours but it’s dark most of the time and it just drops a different; it’s as though a kind of curtain lowers your consciousness as though a blanket wraps around you and it’s much more introverted and reflective and quiet. So I think you hear that in the music.
SRS: We’ve talked about that lineage or those inspirations, guides. Do you feel that you’re carrying that ground that they broke forward?
JLA: That’s a great question but I’m not sure I can answer it because I’m at a point in my life where, as I said earlier, I feel as though all of those influences have been assimilated. They are deeply assimilated; they are a part of who I am and part of what I do but no longer at an immediately apparent or even articulate level. And now it really is; I’m just doing my work and I would leave it to people who were smarter and better educated than I am to explain that…. But that’s not false modesty and it’s not sidestepping your question, it’s really just not; I don’t think about that anymore; I just think about the work at hand. My friend and colleague Steven Schick thinks about this a lot, this stuff, how it all connects because Steve, as a creative performing musician, is intimately and actively involved with the music of so many different composers and I’m only involved with the music of one composer. So he’s got a perspective that it is my job explicitly not to have at this stage in life.
SRS: Well I’ll ask him, since he’s just joined us. Steve, I’m going to ask you the question that I was just asking John. We were talking a little bit about lineage and about Feldman, Cage, the roots and all that John covered that nicely, so I asked if he could see that lineage in his work, and he’s deferred to you.
Steve Schick: You know, what I think about John is not so much that he follows a particular person or persons but he follows a kind of, at least in the percussion music – that’s all I’m going to talk about – he follows a kind of emotional lineage, if you will, throughout the late eighteenth century into the nineteenth century, especially in the orchestra but sometimes elsewhere. Percussionists used to represent something large and something terrifying, something bigger than the human being and so you find tympani, for example, as the storm scene in Beethoven 6; you find the tam tam as the sort of symbol of the grotesquery of Wozzeck, for example. John perpetuates a lineage that talks about an image that’s bigger than human, and that could be environmental, that can be other kinds of things, so it’s not that it really follows a person but it follows a set of concerns; it follows a stance.
SRS: And that’s different, that’s different from what was traditionally the role then as you’re saying in percussion.
SS: Well there was always a role in percussion. The tympani rolls in Berlioz’s Requiem , for example, you know, would scare the bejeezus out of you. That’s what it’s there for.
SRS: Yes, and what challenge does John’s music bring to you as a percussionist?
SS: Well there’s a kind of difficulty. There’s a sort of surface difficulty to the music, you know, just how do you do, how do you get the kind of complexity that you can get? I mean, sometimes there are four layers, five layers of, of music going on at once and then there’s this issue of what is the sound. I mean how do you find something that moves beyond the concert hall, moves out into the world, and from that standpoint, John, you know, asks you to be somebody other than the person you were trained to be, which is a person, a classical musician sitting on the inside of the hall. And I think those are difficult as well. I mean, the text is very often difficult as is the music itself but so.
SRS: But then difficulty in percussion is not a new concept.
SS: No it’s not, it’s not.
SRS: Tell me about your musical relationship, the two of you, a little bit.
SS: I played John’s music for the first time in 1995, I think it was 1995 and it was the time that the percussion group I started came to New York and played a concert in Lincoln Centre that included Drumming and other pieces; I didn’t know John’s music before then and we were asked to play this snare drum piece; this kind of a crazy piece for four snare drums so, you know, as broadly spaced, as widely spaced as possible with unbelievably tightly interlocking rhythms and you look at this going and you think, you’re either going to really, really like this guy or really, really not. It’s so audacious. And we became friends then and we’ve stayed friends since; every once in a while there will be a little retro rocket that fires that takes our friendship farther and…
JLA: This is one of them.
SS: Yes, I think this is one of them. It takes a fair amount of trust, I think, at this, at this stage of the venture to propose a situation as, well I think it’s sort of audacious as this to have John then say, it’s not daring enough; let’s do it for 99 percussionists.
SRS: Well, yes. I want to be at that one.
JLA: It is going to happen on April sixteenth 2010.
SRS: Wow and where?
JLA: Furman University which is in South Carolina.
SS: Yeah, Greenville, South Carolina.
SRS: Now Steve, you’ve raised the audacious nature of this particular project so that’s a good segue into talking about it. You’re here at The Banff Centre where, you’re the director of this program, Roots and Rhizomes?
SS: That’s right.
SRS: You decided to bring John into the program and with the notion of commissioning a piece.
SS: Yes, exactly.
SRS: Can you tell me about this particular piece? Was the door wide open when you invited John, or had you two already talked about some ideas?
SS: I think the easy way to start is to say that there are a few composers – the list is so short, because by necessity it has to be – that, as a musician, you don’t really work with on a piece-to-piece basis but you work on a kind of lifelong arch. Whatever John writes, I will play. I don’t even ask what it is. It doesn’t even make a difference because I know that I want to be a part of it because it seems to me that these pieces of music are not pieces, but they are kind of archipelagos in a link of musical memory that will take . . that stretches forward, one hopes, into the reasonably long distance – speaking from the perspective of middle age; but it also stretches back in our relationship but even before that.
So you alluded to the name Roots and Rhizomes and this to me reflects the current state of percussion. We have roots. Some of those roots are thousands of years old, the tradition of tabla playing in the northern India music was the tradition of gamelan in Indonesia, African drumming. These are not recent events in the world, and the western classical version of those traditions is extremely recent. The first western percussion music came in the 1920s. The first solo piece for percussion is younger than I am. So when we rhapsodize as we sometimes do in classical music, what would it have been like to have been at the premiere of the Right of Spring, for example, you know, maybe thrown a tomato or two? Or what, could you imagine asking the first violinist of the quartet that premiered Beethoven Opus 131, you know; “How was that for you? ” It would be pretty good. We don’t have to imagine these states in the world of percussion. We’re living in this state in the world of percussion, so as we look at the way in which we are rooted in various traditions – and I suppose the academic would say discourses – we’re also in a kind of rhizomatic moment in which things spread in uncontrollable fashions. And John is part of both, in my mind.
We talked earlier about his rootedness in what I think of his percussion, the percussion of the terrible event. Percussion has always had this role of representing something bigger than human-kind – states of mind that are emotionally charged, that it would have been unseemingly to give to the viola, for example. So I think of the tam-tam role at the end of Wozzek I think of the Beethoven storm scene in the Sixth Symphony; all of these things are given to the percussionist. The Turkish, the janissary marchers at the end of the Beethoven Ninth. John comes far more than out of a single person, out of the kind of tradition which links music on the inside of a concert hall, the sort of safe zone, to music that is too terrible to speak of and too grand or too frightening or too grotesque, and that’s really the lineage. So that’s the rhizomatic aspect of it, that’s where those two things meet.
JLA: It’s also the sublime aspect of it, you know, where you’re talking about the Hudson River School of Painters and how Feldman had this love for those painters. It’s an old notion now; it’s a nineteenth century notion but I think in some ways it still applies, that is, that razor’s edge between the terrifying and the transcendent, between duty and fear; and they used to call it ‘the sublime’ and that is what we all too rarely these days find, if we’re lucky, in a big world, what’s left of it, and occasionally in music.
SS: The idea of ecstatic being, you know, out of stasis is really where we need to go, you know. You don’t know whether to scream, cry or smile at those moments of musical transportation.
JLA: So this makes Steve the first drummer of the apocalypse.
SS: Seven drummers on white horses.
SRS: Speaking of apocalypse, there is the direct connection of your work here to your environmental concerns. I wonder if you can speak to that, because there are people who would say that music is music and the environment is the environment and…
JLA: I wouldn’t disagree with them.
SRS: But I think the two are very intertwined in you.
JLA: Yes, again that’s a tightwire because I began my adult life as an environmental activist and I made a conscious decision after several years of doing that, almost a decade, that someone else could crusade for me in my place and no-one else could do the work that I might be able to do as a composer, so I stepped away. And I have always been very skeptical of political art, of music as propaganda. I think so often – there are exceptions – but so often when we try to mix art and politics directly, both suffer, so you get bad art and bad politics. So that’s not what I do. And yet everything that I do and, I think, in everything we all do now — because of where we are in the history of our species — we have to bear in mind our relationship to the earth. How whatever it is that we do is shaped by the world and in turn influences the world, changes the world.
SS: The other part of this is that there is the acknowledgement of organicity within the human being, in other words, the idea that you would mix art and politics seems a little silly to me but the idea that you would recognize that a human being has a lot of interests in the world and a lot of exposure to different parts of the world and that art should reflect that, those, that manifold exposure.
JLA: I can’t help myself; that’s why we do it, right?
SS: Yes, it’s so funny, in the world of professional music, in the world of professional musicians, I have so many friends and they almost never talk about music; they only ever talk about musicians and it’s as though there is a kind of cloistered attitude where you are a kind of person when you are on stage and then you’re some other unnamed entity when you’re out and so I think the mixing is really not the right metaphor at all but really just the recognition that, that there is an integrated quality to the human psyche that gets reflected in all these different ways.
JLA: I certainly second that and you’re going back to what we were saying earlier about the influence of place, my place on my work. It’s unavoidable and I can no longer distinguish between my music and my life. Music is not what I do, it’s how I live. It’s how I understand the world and this piece in particular, to get back to your question with regard to the impending apocalypse. For years, my work has celebrated and in some way resonated with the place in which I live, that country that is my home and the landscape of my soul, but I don’t want to be the Alaska composer; I don’t want to be a regionalist. I believe very much in many of the tenets of deep ecology and bioregionalism and I try to eat locally when I can, which up there is not much of an option, but I think we are all now unavoidably citizens of the whole earth and in the last few years, I have felt the music leading me toward something that is broader than the work I’ve done in the past, leading me in a sense away from, from the specificity in Alaska to larger concerns about the whole planet This piece is haunted by that, specifically by the image of the melting of the polar ice and the rising of the seas and the image behind Inuksuit – from which this piece derives its title – those stone sentinels of the Arctic that the Inuit have constructed for centuries and translated literally. It means something like, ‘to act in the capacity of the human’ – and so it strikes me that those figures up there on the tundra are in a sense symbols of human vulnerability and impermanence and that image haunts the whole work, not in a programmatic way, but somehow you might say, in a spiritual sense.
SS: You know the pigeon-hole is an interesting kind of thing because I’ve never thought of John as an Alaska composer. It’s just too small. As big as Alaska is, it’s just too small. It’s like being a, you know, a regional man of mystery, you know, a tricounty man of mystery. (Laughter) It’s just like you want to be a caribou, and so it also just gives people the wrong idea. It’s wonderful to hear John talk about it and it’s so etched in his work and soul of the place where he lives; and where you are is an important part of things, and that’s a very different way of thinking about it, than a kind of compositional nationalism where you, you know, you hear little bits of Brazilian music in Heitor Villa-Lobos, you expect to hear Hungarian folk music in Bartok; and this has nothing to do with the level of the composer because, of course, Bartok was a great composer; it’s just the wrong model for John. I mean, you don’t hear in Inuksuit Inuit drumming patterns; you hear something that is, in fact, almost antiregional, something which takes its musical source from, well in this case, an object, not a language and so I’m always quick to correct the record because I think that – there’s nothing wrong with being associated with Alaska or, you know, suburban Denver or wherever you’re associated with, an Iowa cornfield – but it’s just not accurate.
JLA: I’m sorry,this is just an aside. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this Steve, but I was so happy years ago now when I read the first article about my work in which neither Nixon in China or the word ‘Alaska’ appeared.
SS: That’s it exactly.
JLA: Okay, maybe I can go on living.
SRS: So back to the piece at hand – Inuksuit – it must have been an incredible challenge to bring a performance together, because you’ve only been here a week or so.
SS: We’ve been here eight days. In which we’ve also done seven or eight other pieces.
SRS: The challenge of bringing this piece together to performance level must have been daunting.
SS: This band of participant percussionists are all between their late twenties and early thirties, a select group that anyone would be really, really proud to be associated with. This is an extraordinarily gifted group of musicians.
JLA: Hear, hear.
SS: And they’re not just good with their hands. They think, they’re reflective, they care. I thought that, in the first rehearsal of John’s piece, that I would be kind of explaining it because I’d had the score the longest. In point of fact, they were, in a way, explaining it to me. They all had everything printed off, notes made, ready to go. It’s just mind boggling really.
SRS: Wow, and how many percussionists in this manifestation?
SS: There are going to be eighteen. Eighteen percussionists is already kind of a cause for concern, you know.
JLA: Yeah, alarm, alarm, alarm. It’s eighteen drummers but they’re not playing together; it’s eighteen individual drummers playing in the same general space.
SRS: Yes, I’ve heard about baseball and I don’t think we’ll open that topic today but, maybe the whiskey, or maybe not. (Laughter).
JLA: Well we’re going to open it at some point, that’s for sure. What am I trying to say here? I think I lost my thread. Let me get back. One of the dimensions of our friendship is that Steve and I are kindred spirits in that we’re always asking ourselves, okay, well what next, what next? I mean, this guy can do anything; he can play anything but he doesn’t keep playing the same stuff. There are things that he’s played over the years that he comes back to and he understands them in new ways, as he matures as a musician, and I know how to write a certain kind of music which I will occasionally write from now on, but what really fascinates me, and I believe fascinates Steve and is one of the deepest bonds that we share and what we feed off in our work together is – well that was great, now what, you know, what next? And so this is the answer to what next.
SS: I’m going to insist on the topic of baseball but first, because it is the perfect model. In other words, it is not a search for novelty. It is not a what next; we’ve done that; check it off the list. There is a clear understanding of a kind of architecture within which inflections of direction may cause, is the cause, for poetry.
JLA: Anything can happen…
SS: Yeah, right, exactly.
JLA: …in a baseball game, anything and it often does.
SS: And increasingly smaller actions have ever greater importance; that’s the thing I love about it. And so, I mean when I was talking to the students yesterday; they’re not students, the participants. I should be careful because most of them have more degrees than I do. But, you know, I’m a farm boy; I come from a turkey farm in Iowa and my earliest memories are of watching my father and my grandfather, who were farmers, walk out into a field, sniff the spring air and decide it was time to plant. And I’ll never forget my Dad in this bounded square of dirt where the limitations were extreme and severe and immutable, so, you know, it wasn’t that the farm suddenly grew the next day, it was the same square of dirt. But within that context, anything could happen and so I need to have the hard and the concrete edges of limitations to push off on and then I need to have the almost limitless fertility and potential for growth that happens within those limitations. It seems to me that percussion is a pretty straightforward mapping of those same concerns.
JLA: So to echo, the what next is not about novelty; it’s about going deeper and wider and some place you’ve never been before and. You know, it’s so easy I think for artists in any discipline to achieve a certain level of competence, of facility or whatever you want to call it and then just keep doing that.
SRS: It’s not enough for you is it?
JLA: Well no, because it’s not about competence or facility or accomplishments even. It’s about experience; it’s about exploration; it’s about living and it’s . . . . like, we walked back to the car last night and when I went into the room and spoke with my wife and I just said, “You know, another reason I love Steve? He’s profoundly unorthodox.”
SS: Is that right?
JLA: You are not simply orthodox, you are not; you embrace multiple orthodoxies, but you don’t adhere to any of them.
SRS: Well that’s where you seem to be good reflectors for each other. Oh the sun’s coming out, it’s gorgeous.
SS: It’s absolutely stunning. Oh yeah, the light’s beautiful.
SRS: So we were talking about the rehearsal and you said it went extremely well. You said “transcendent”.
JLA: Yes or transformative. It was. I think we’re both thrilled and relieved, even if it rains tonight and rains all day tomorrow, we have had the experience. It resonates
SRS: Will they play outside if it rains tonight?
SS: It depends on what kind of rain… if it’s a pouring, drenching rain, then we won’t be outside.
JLA: Well I heard that if there’s lightning, we won’t be outside.
SS: There are some limitations. The idea is to respond to the place you’re in and if that place is unavailable to you at that moment, then you have to figure something else out.
SRS: It would be like a rain delay.
JLA: It is very much. You know, I’ve been thinking about that; it is very much like a rain delay situation, you know. It’s supposed to be outdoor baseball, not in a domed stadium, with all due respects to the Blue Jays. But for me, the essential question that I’ve been pondering the last few months as I’ve worked on this piece and Steve and I have had numerous phone conversations about it, is what might constitute an authentic outdoor music and that raises all sorts of corollary questions – what sounds, what instruments, what disposition of instruments and players? What interaction among the players? What is the listening point or what are the listening points for the audience and on and on and on?
SS: I thought your citation of Murray Schafer was beautiful in that the idea is that music is designed to be outdoors. If, for some reason, you have created a piece which is, which fails that test and can’t be outdoors, well then, of course, then it has to come inside.
JLA: Then you have to bring it inside to the laboratory.
SS: And of course at some point, that was turned around, that music was then designed to be indoors and that it rarely, if ever went outside. In fact, I have to say with the exception of the Schafer pieces and a few other things, most music played outdoors is a sort of exportation. It’s music that was designed to be played indoors and that for some reason, often a marketing reason or a commercial reason, it’s played outside.
JLA: Or occasionally out of pure curiosity, which is actually what led to the creation of this piece. A brilliant young man, a student of Steve’s, Rob Esler, as part of his doctoral dissertation, which I still don’t understand, got this crazy idea of taking Strange and Sacred Noise, one of my extended works for percussion quartet, outside and performing it in the desert, in the Anza-Borrego Desert of Southern California, in the autumn woods in New Hampshire, in a meadow in Ohio and then exactly one year ago today…
SS: Yeah, exactly.
JLA: …on the tundra in the Alaska range.
SS: Do you know what’s fascinating about that? I don’t know if Rob shares this but my take on it at least is that a concert hall is a single space; it’s an anonymous space; it’s designed to be democratized, right, so that every seat has an acceptable point of view and it’s the perfect democracy in which every seat is equal except those ones that are better. And so the idea is that it’s anonymous space into which you put different and highly personalized music so no two nights are identical, and the project of taking John’s piece outside was a reversal of that. We took the same piece and put it in different locations to see what dynamic force the place would exert on the music, you know, that was placed within it. I thought that was a fascinating thing because the piece really changed and of course, this brings up the conversation about place, which is obviously a hot topic in a lot of theoretical circles – that place matters, that we are formed by our places, that we then in turn reform them and those are all kind of theoretical issues. You know, it sort of “place” in quotation marks, right? But both the place that John lives and the place that I grew up on, a farm, are places that are real enough that you have to scrape them off your shoes every now and then, you know, clean them from underneath your fingernails, so place here becomes this very practical dimension of literally. In the case of John’s piece, can two musicians on opposite sides of this place see each other; can they hear each other? It is not a kind of cool and distant theoretical concept, like, you know, like heat lightening where you know it’s there; you just can’t, can’t hear it anymore. Place has a kind of roar in John’s music and in this particular instance.
SRS: Yes. I had a question that I had been thinking about and that is to do with the way, the place is manifest, I guess, in your music, if that’s the right way to put it and you said that you hoped to move beyond self-expression and the limits of your own imagination to a deeper awareness of the sound itself which I understand. You said, ‘I’m most deeply moved when the music has little or nothing to do with personal expression’. So I was interested in that notion because in a sense, your music is deeply personal in its expression but maybe you’ve done away with a level, a kind of intention, in the meantime.
JLA: A narrative. I’m not interested in telling a story. I love stories but that’s not what the music is about. It’s not, it’s not a philosophical discourse. I guess, my other fear is of being pigeon-holed as some kind of conceptualist. It’s not about the ideas, it’s about the sounds and most of all, it’s about another ex word; it’s not about expression, it’s about experience.
SRS: Uh-huh. But it’s deeply, deeply personal to you.
JLA: That is highly personal experience; experience by nature is personal. If it’s not personal, it’s not experience – it’s a story, it’s a movie, it’s a, you know, something secondhand.
SS: The thing that I find interesting is that, of course, expression has a certain kind of currency associated with it and that it’s almost always a first-person experience and so expression, if you take it out of first person, it becomes, I think, a default experience.
JLA: So and then just to rebound off of that, when I say I’m not interested in expression, it is a bit of a straw matter or historical device that I’m setting up but it’s romantic expression you might say. And yet, Steve will tell you I’m the ultimate romantic, but it seems to me that that old kind of I, – ‘I’ pronouncement, self-expression is not only outmoded, it’s actually dangerous and that we need now is a new kind of romanticism that’s grounded in something larger.
SS: And the notion of transcendentalism which, of course, is a lineage I think one could draw from your pieces and especially in the nineteenth century notion of transcendentalism is by its nature becoming somebody or something other than who you were before the experience; and so when I play John’s solo, it’s a sixty-five or seventy, or longer, minute piece for solo percussion, there are moments of ecstasy which are not unlike the moments of ecstasy you find in a Mahler symphony or your Beethoven string quartet. I mean, it is not less revelatory and I happen to think that those moments of ecstatic revelation in Mahler and Beethoven are also not told in the first person. It becomes a point where these boundaries merge into almost a plasma that multiple people can belong to at a given time. I don’t have a theoretical background but it feels to me like the same thing.
SRS: And when you speak of that ecstatic moment or zone, you’re thinking for the player and the audience, for both?
SS: I think that good music doesn’t differentiate there. I mean, there’s not a sort of workmanly way in which good music is made that is manipulative of an audience that way. I mean one shares.
I’ll give you an example of an ecstatic moment in John’s music. There’s a piece for solo tam tam, so in other words, a very large gong and it rises a little bit, it falls; it rises more, it falls; it rises again, it’s got people’s attention. It rises to a peak where the gong is screaming, you know, and then it falls and then at that moment where the gong has taken as much energy as you can possibly give it and it’s kind of roaring around you and it comes down, is an ecstatic moment, and then the next moment is the melancholy moment because it’s the opposite side of the piece, it’s a palindrome; it rises but not as far as it did the first time. And the first moment that you realize that that was the peak, that it’s behind you and you’re on the downhill side, it is touching in a way that it’s almost impossible to describe. People have said this to me. I knew that I was going to marry my wife when she said she was moved to tears by that movement.
SRS: Yes. What are you anticipating for tonight for the première?
SS: I don’t have an answer to that one. No, I actually do anticipate. One of the reasons to ask John to come to do this new piece is that. I mean, there’s nothing to gain. You can’t win anything if you’re a musician. There’s really no material gain to be had from doing what we’re doing, so the most you can expect and the least you could expect is to change people’s lives and that’s what I expect will happen.
JLA: And I have no expectations at this point. But, I wanted it to feel and sound inevitable in a sense without being in any way illustrative but like the wind or like a waterfall or some other force of nature. I wanted to have a force of vitality, a life of its own and I can’t sit at my desk and make that up. I can’t move along the piano and come up with that. It comes with the specific realities of this performance in this setting. But I have no expectations at this point. I’m in the wonderful position of being able to come into this evening as a listener and hopefully have an experience that will be different than the one I had as a listener yesterday but perhaps equally moving. Have you ever heard the conversations that Cage and Feldman had?
SRS: Yes I have.
JLA: The conversations. There’s one moment that leaps to mind right now in which Cage in his inimitable way asks Morton, “Do you like composing or do you like hearing music?” and silence for a moment. “I like hearing the music.” That’s the best part for me and we’re there.
SS: That is an interesting thing about listening and that is that it seems clearly that the world is getting louder; there are more machines and that those things sounds more and more alike. So if you think of the sound world as a sort of model a biodiversity, we have fewer species of sound and more of the, more, the population is growing so the very thing that a musician needs, which is to be able to differentiate amongst the sounds and to be able to, you know, to encode or to read the coding within the sounds. It becomes harder as the distinctions among the sounds become smaller and it’s really the great conundrum. We talked often about the little walk I took up the California coast and there would be days that would go by that I would not a hear a sound that was not made by a person driving, flying or talking into a machine, that the only sounds you would hear were ones that were mediated by some kind of machine.And each person you see driving is listening to one of the five or six radio stations available. But the sonic intake, the sonic nourishment that an average person has is so thin, it is thin gruel. So the encouragement, of course, is to listen and what the responsive very often is, is to block the noise by putting an Ipod or something like that in your ear.
JLA: You know, yesterday there were some moments when we were doing the run-through and there were those moments when the train went by…
SS: Yes, beautiful.
JLA: …and sirens were waiilng. And some guy was hot-rodding up the avenue gunning his motor; it was gorgeous.
SS: Well, of course, I mean sound is value-neutral that way. I mean your Harley sounds beautiful to you, but your neighbour’s is not so good.
JLA: Yes, I used to be so annoyed by the sound of small airplanes when you go on a camping trip. I went on a few trips in southeast Alaska, coastal Alaska and of course the float planes are loud and it’s annoying. But then I heard this piece, by a Canadian composer, Hildegard Westerkamp, and she has a piece that is composed entirely on float planes. She lives in Vancouver and apparently float planes are everywhere in Vancouver, and so she said, “Okay, I’m going to take these sounds and I’m going to make a piece” and it’s absolutely rock solid; I mean it’s a gorgeous piece.
SS: What I thought you were going to say, and this happened to my mother-in-law who was hiking in the Brooks Range and her bush pilot got the wrong week and so she spent another week in the range without provisions, so you can imagine what the sound of that plane, when it finally came, was a pretty good one.
JLA: Oh yeah, that’s good. Something related to what you just said that pertained specifically to this piece and it makes it part of the answer is, I’ve done a lot of pieces by design that you might say are monochrome. I’ll explore one sound that has a particular harmonic or timbre or colour and go very deeply into that. There are eight different monochromes and one of the things that I was interested in trying in this piece was to mix the colours and bring all these different hues together in one piece and I’m delighted at the way it’s working. But related to that, which surprises me, is that each of the players is a soloist. Each is a solitary figure in the larger landscape, but that was kind of wishful thinking until I heard it yesterday and each player – it’s not only the instruments – each player has a different sort of instrument; they’re tuned differently; they’re using different notes, but each player has a different touch and a different sound and that was such a beautiful thing to hear, whereas so often we’re going for a blend, an homogenous sound. In ensemble music, this is all about the octave rather than individuality.
SS: Multiply this by the fact that they’re all related to the same objects. So because the form of the Inuksuit is such a governing feature in the piece, that creates an equation by which many more diverse colours can be used to express it.
JLA: And they are all played in the same space and time. Yeah, you know, there’s another aspect of the piece that surprised me which is that the form of the Inuksuit, you know, it’s piles of stones. But some of the Inuksuit forms are windows and some of them are windows on top of windows and the overall piece is really kind of a double window as a whole.
SS: The whole piece is in itself a window. When you think about it, it hollows out in the base or movement in the double.
SRS: How does that translate into sound or music?
SS: I can tell you what I hear. First of all, you hear the piece. We’re talking about a piece of music, which is more or less repeatable and playable and you hear the sounds of drums and cymbals but then in a way, it shapes the way you listen and you’re forced to listen spatially; you’re forced to listen in a kind of multidimensional space and so when there are moments of silence, then you hear the wind or you’ll hear birds or ground squirrels in a way that you never really did before.
JLA: Yesterday afternoon, the performance began with the audible breathing and the friction sounds of rubbed stones and rice swirling on the drum heads; then the wind was blowing through the trees and at one moment, I heard a musician play and it was in a place where I didn’t think there was a musician and I looked up and it was a birch tree.
SS: There was a moment yesterday I have to say in the rehearsal which was so spectacular; The six percussionists of Group One were sitting perched on the stone wall waiting for their moment to play and there were six ground squirrels in exactly the same formation, sitting perched watching the action. And these two different groups were watching the same kinds of things and the percussionists were kind of clicking their sticks and the ground squirrels were chirping in their way and it was kind of a perfect poliphony.
JLA: Yeah, and by the end the ground squirrels were no longer chastising us. They were listening. So we listen to the world and the world listens back.