Remember what a “bad” analog connection was like? It’s hard to find these days, unless your car is old or un-fancy enough. A poor signal meant that we could still hear the person on the other end, just minus a little detail, and plus a little static noise. Still, we could listen through the static and the dull tone and connect with the person on the other end. It’s different with a digital signal. It’s great that with a good connection, you can reproduce the original sound with all the fine detail and without the static, but with a bad connection, it gets interesting: if the sound doesn’t drop out altogether, it’s replaced with blocky metallic digital burps that are hard to ignore. Still, we try even harder to ignore those glitches (like we ignore the candy wrapper crackling in the audience—it’s not what we came for), and we tend not to notice how our digital things are shaping the ways we go about being human. For example, did you notice how video chatting has broken eye contact? How emoji partially “humanize” words but also boil human expression down to an alphabet of cartoons? It’s weird, and we should recognize it, how it bends us out of shape, and how we can be human despite it.
This album can’t do all of that for you, but we hope it starts you thinking about your digital world, as we explore the musical potential of embracing digital glitches and the marks they leave on the most human of sounds, the voice, take the glitches into our own hands, and make them speak for us.
Most of the music here was made with a technique called live sampling. Rather than recording sounds and editing them into musical compositions after the fact, I perform, with digital instruments I built that can only record and transform the sounds happening live in the moment. I give my instruments the ability to make some creative decisions on their own, and they each give me different ways to influence the performance as it goes without totally controlling it. This stimulating and precarious creative predicament intensifies our imaginations, reaches deep into our intuitions, and lets music emerge that we never would have conceived in a calm, controlled setting. It gives a voice to ideas and relationships we didn’t know were there.
In the Middle of the Room was a live sampling improvisation with Elisabeth Blair. The lyrical content was inspired by Elisabeth’s friendship with an extraordinary woman who, sadly, passed away soon after this performance. A text version of this work was printed in the Cream City Review, and a video version is included in their online exhibit for hybrid literature, IØ. We’re proud this work was selected for the International Society for Contemporary Music’s prestigious World Music Days, one of only six pieces representing the United States, among 74 works from composers worldwide.
Next, Susanna Hood joins us in a trio that explores a different sound world, where the words only seem to raise more questions. Previously, I had only done live sampling improvisations with instrumentalists. Words obviously carry another level of meaning, but partial words, proto-words, sounds that make you think you might be hearing words, and even non-verbal gestures all open up worlds of potential meanings, each unique to the listeners’ own imaginations, experiences, and attention. Here, we don’t have a particular story to tell. Instead, we’re climbing into our own sounds and exploring wherever their story-ness and musicality lead us.
Each track and each vocalist takes a different approach to responding to and exploring this sonic hall of mirrors he or she has entered. The improvisations with Rodney Waschka II, who is also a computer music composer, embrace the humorous artifacts of sampling most directly, and by treating them seriously, greeting the absurdity with its own logic, we end up finding ourselves in even more new creative spaces we didn’t know existed.
Jabberwocky—A Timbre Poem was actually my first computer music composition. It’s a setting of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” and like 19th-century “tone poems” told stories through melodies, this “timbre poem” illustrates Carroll’s story through the sounds spoken by me and my mentor, Joseph Butch Rovan. Everything in this composition comes from the sounds of words.
The final track revisits themes from the album, through the perspective of a machine learning algorithm. It also uses electronic voice phenomena (EVP), through a special recipe developed with Miguel Espinel. Here, the static isn’t added after the fact, but rather, any voices you hear emerge from it.
The cover art comes from visual artist April Zanne Johnson, who created it from her perceptual responses to the album. (aprilzannejohnson.com)
Thanks to Rodney Waschka II and North Carolina State University for having me over to make and share music; the Atlantic Center for the Arts and also Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso for bringing me, Elisabeth, Susanna, and April together in an artist residency and for fostering a culture of collaborative explorations there; Butch Rovan for building the computer music program at Florida State University where I began making music in this way; and the Texas A&M University President’s Excellence Fund, Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, College of Liberal Arts, and Department of Performance Studies for making this work possible. —Jeff Morris
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Ravello Records is the contemporary classical label imprint of audio production house PARMA Recordings. Dedicated to highlighting forward thinking composers and musicians from around the world, the New England-based label's eclectic catalog offers listeners a cross-section of today's up-and-coming innovators in orchestral, chamber, and experimental music.
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