The Operating System


For this special feature in our ongoing Field Notes series (where creators from all disciplines shine light behind the curtain at their daily practice — revealing the often messy, sometimes frustrating, surprisingly beautiful life along the way) the OS is excited to have composers Todd Lerew, Kristina Warren and Michael Laurello, finalists in the 2014 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest. Lerew, Warren, and Laurello have been sharing their process notes with us as they develop new work through July, when the pieces will premiere at the Sō Percussion Summer Institute at Princeton University. Get better introduced – and listen to samples from these innovative new composers — at our series introduction, HERE. We’ve had one round of entries from each composer so far — you can find links to each at the bottom of this article. GET INSPIRED. Take notes!

Thoughts on Musical Failure, pt. II

In my first post, I reflected on a few recent ideas that I’ve had to abandon, at least for the time being, due to a variety of unforeseen technical difficulties. Perhaps partly as a consequence of my familiarity with this type of disappointment, I’ve become interested in what happens when artists frame their own failure as the primary material of interest within a work.

Failure itself is a somewhat thoroughly documented theme across many artistic disciplines.(1) But as Paul Hegarty notes, when one prioritizes it, ‘failure is only “failure” – it is not a judgment about badness, but one of a refusal of heroic success in the form of musical mastery or mastery of musical forms.’(2) The point is not that success in music is futile, but that perhaps it is overrated. For if the concept of failure within a system presupposes known and accepted goals, the potential to radically alter the content of those goals or our relation to them will prove to be a perpetually fruitful proposition in the domain of art.

To this end, I am interested in works which begin already at the supposed destination or at a position of unity, and through some action, arrive at an uncontrollable distance. In several pieces, I have attempted to set up a system in which the performer is presented with an impossible task, the perfect execution of which will result in no activity, and for which the inevitable human deviation from the stated objective generates musical material. In yielding isometrics, a performer holds one arm out straight, suspending a small weight above the frequency antenna of a theremin, and attempting to hold a steady position so as to match a target sine tone generated by a computer. Total precision is nearly impossible, and one must constantly readjust to try to eliminate beating. As one’s arm gets tired and it becomes more difficult to hold the weight up, the beating becomes more erratic, and the piece concludes when the performer can no longer keep their arm suspended at all.

Todd Lerew – yielding isometrics from CalArts-ESP on Vimeo.

For the variable speed machine-wound monochord chorus, I built four monochords with tuning pegs on both sides of each string. E-bowed throughout, one performer simply loosens the string with one tuning peg while another performer tightens the same string via the opposing peg at the same rate. If they were able to perform this action in perfect, machine-like unison, the string would slowly travel from one side of the instrument to the other, the tension would remain the same, and the pitch would be unaltered. But given the sensitivity of the system, very slight movements detune the strings, and the extent to which the performers cannot perfectly synchronize their movements determines a constant microtonal flux of pitch.


monochords 2

I am interested in these situations in which a physically virtuosic success ostensibly remains the goal, but for which some internal limit renders it both impossible and uninteresting. This technical futility, however, does not preclude the necessity of sensitivity to the situation of performance, something that George Brecht might have referred to as ‘spiritual virtuosity’. A piece of any nature can be given a bad performance, regardless of its apparent inclusion of mistakes or ease of execution.

As I continue the preparation of a piece for Sō Percussion, I am exploring a way of extending this inquiry to the temporal domain, whereas in the aforementioned examples it was marked primarily by a deviation of pitch. My intention is not to challenge the technical virtuosity of the ensemble (which, after all, is the goal of much music of noted complexity), but rather to watch it dissolve and reassemble around a unique reallocation of intention. Any failure resultant from the impossibility of their given objective is not an expression of anti-progressive nihilism or a stubborn refusal of success. To the extent that it is creative and not destructive, I hope to profitably revise any notion of music as a passively goal-oriented procedure.

1 I would point interested readers to the Whitechapel Gallery / MIT Press edition simply entitled Failure for an introduction to the theme in the visual arts. In music, one might reference Kim Cascone’s essay, The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music [ed: full text available here] or Eldritch Priest’s recent study, Boring Formless Nonsense: Experimental Music and the Aesthetics of Failure. Composer Tom Johnson takes a more direct (if campy) approach with Failing, a very difficult piece for solo string bass, which also addresses the potential for a semantical feedback loop given the purported intention to fail.

2 Noise/Music: A History, Continuum Press 2007, p 181.

TODD LEREW (b. 1986) is a Los Angeles-based composer working with invented acoustic instruments, repurposed found objects, and unique preparations of traditional instruments. Lerew is the inventor of the Quartz Cantabile (ed: just wait until you see this thing), which utilizes a principle of thermoacoustics to convert heat into sound (!), and has presented the instrument at Stanford’sCCRMA, the American Musical Instrument Society annual conference, the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition at Georgia Tech, and Machine Project in Los Angeles. He is the founder and curator of Telephone Music, a collaborative music and memory project based on the children’s game of Telephone, the last round of which was released as an exclusive download to subscribers of music magazine The Wire. His solo piece for e-bowed gu zheng, entitled Lithic Fragments, is available on cassette on the Brunch Groupe label. His pieces have been performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the Wet Ink Ensemble (New York), the Now Hear Ensemble (Santa Barbara), and the Canticum Ostrava choir (Czech Republic).

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