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May 172010

This is part two of a two-part article.  Part one covered the Chihuly art exhibition in Nashville.

On Friday, May 21st at 6pm, Aaron Hoke Doenges will perform his sound installation “SeaSounds and Other Forms” at the Frist in response to the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly.  There will be a second performance at 7pm.  Aaron is the founder and co-director of SoundCrawl: Nashville, an artist in residence at the Downtown Presbyterian Church, and a graduate in Music Composition at Belmont University.  You can listen to some of his fascinating compositions and sign up for his mailing here.  Last year’s premiere SoundCrawl event at the downtown ArtCrawl was an ingenious method to showcase new experimental works.  Attendees visit various galleries to sample alternating sound art pieces, curated by Aaron and Kyle Baker.

In the Theatre Intangible interview, I talk with Aaron about the Chihuly performance, SoundCrawl: Nashville 2010, and the state of music in Music City.

T: How did the Chihuly concert come about?

A: The Chihuly show came by invitation from the Frist.  I had originally contacted them as a potential host for SoundCrawl:Nashville last year and, though they weren’t able to host that event, they were interested in having something at some point.  Having heard some of my work, they felt that it would coincide well with the Chihuly exhibit because of the ambient nature of the audio I use and produce.

T: The concert is described as a sound installation and performance.  Can you elaborate?

A: My main interest is primarily sound installation (though I am still looking for my first extended public installation).  Unfortunately the major installation portion of this show probably won’t work out. I was working with a local artist to create a sculptural backdrop made out of scrap metal and speakers to incorporate into the show.  We just ran out of time for this one, though we are hoping to work on something for one of the galleries in town for sometime in the future (I love the cross pollination between the sonic and visual arts).  I’m still trying to figure out an alternative. The majority of my creative work comes in the studio, so there really isn’t much that is technically performance-oriented.   It’s mostly monitoring the mix to make it appropriate for the space, throwing in a few effects here and there, and maybe panning things for a specific speaker set-up.  Other shows I have done have leaned a little more heavily on the performance side of things because they included live acoustic instruments as well as electronics.

T: Will the Chihuly sculptures around you inform your piece in its composition or performance?  How so?

A: A while ago Chihuly started a project titled “Sea Forms” – a series of pieces that were reminiscent of under-water landscapes that were installed in various locations.  They are very organic pieces – incredibly vibrant and layered.  This was my first introduction to Chihuly (several years ago in Columbus, Ohio) and has been the main informant in my new piece “SeaSounds” that will be premiered Friday.  The Sea Forms projects help highlight the beauty of parts of this world I rarely get to see – I hope to be able to do that with sound. It seems especially important to me now in light of the oil spill in the Gulf – we can often seem so removed from such things, and I want to make it a little more tangible.  I think that’s what art should do – highlight things in our every day worlds in a way that helps us see them.

T: There is a great range in your work, and you seem to enjoy experimenting with form.  In your piece “Lude: To War,” you take a narrative track of an Iraqi war veteran and provide a soundtrack to it made entirely with the narrative itself (Do I hear a Casio SK1?).  In “The Suicide of Freddie Mac,” you tell a story with carefully-arranged non-vocal field recordings.  A piece like “Divergence” finds room for melody, structure, and composition.  But I get the sense that even your most experimental pieces are carefully structured and composed.  Your thoughts on this?

A: Good ear!  I tend to think of myself more as “composer” than anything – I’ve been trained classically in both piano and composition which gives me a lot to draw from.  Even in contemporary experimental work, where the idea of “form” is often rejected or based on alternative foundations, there is a deep history of theoretical ideas to pull from.  Range, texture, volume, rhythm, line, counterpoint, theme, etc.  The great thing about digital work is that we get to add things to it – space (both size of space and movement within that space) is, for the first time, a function of sound as we play with speaker placement, surround sound, reverb manipulation, etc.

“Lude: To War” is one of my earliest pieces that I have posted and probably ignores most of the traditional ideas of music in favor of the more conceptual ideas I was using with at the time.  (It comes in the later part of a period of my work that I lovingly refer to as the “John Cage Phase” because of a heavy focus on concept more than sound.)  The story that Zach recorded lends the entire piece its form.  It seemed to have three distinctive parts of the plot, each one treated metaphorically with the background audio.  In “Operation,” the audio in the background works to “prepare” for the upcoming movements by a sort of gathering.  The highlighted terms and phrases, and especially the word “war”, repeat successively until it’s just utter chaos at the end of the movement.  In “Strategy,” the word “war” makes this sort of “Left, Left, Left Right Left” form, mimicking the trudging of the soldiers in Zach’s story – movement without engagement. The final movement, “Engagement,” uses the word “war” in a way that imitates the patterns of machine guns and bombs, as if the word war were the weapon itself.  Toward the end of the movement it all fades away, as does Zach’s story, to focus on one of the really intense experiences he faced on the front line…it sort of drifts into his mind.

“Freddie Mac” and “Divergence” are much more based in traditional forms and theories than “Lude,” and it highlights my growth as a composer over the years.  Moving from purely conceptual ideas, like those in “Lude,” to a combination of concept and craft (hopefully somewhat improved craft!) allows me to tell stories and create pieces that, even if they are pretty intense, are less daunting to listen to.  “Divergence” is actually a piece composed for vibraphones and electronics – one of the rare occasions when I actually use notes. It’s probably one of the pieces in my portfolio that people are easily ready to label “music”, though the form on that one kind of melts away at the end.

I don’t think that makes “Lude” unimportant. I think the intensity of Zach’s autobiography needed an equally intense treatment and I didn’t want to take away from it with pretty sounds.  I think it gets the point across pretty well, which has been evidenced by several responses I have gotten from a few veterans and family members of those currently serving.  My only wish is that there were some way to get the piece out there to more people, but I don’t think many would be willing to listen all the way through.  I also don’t think that makes my current work any less experimental – it just gives the experiment a better chance at succeeding.  The process is often “hey I wonder what THIS button will do to this sample!?…huh, that’s interesting. Let’s put it here and see what happens,” and then I respond to it.  It’s a process of trial, failure, success and response.  If I feel the experiment fails, I try to turn it a different direction and see what happens.  Fortunately I have an undo button if it just falls on its face and fails miserably!

T:  Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures feel ethereal, frozen in time; yet each piece takes many hours of careful design and painstaking glasswork, involving whole teams of specialists.  Do you identify with Chihuly’s method of working?  How so?

A: The many hours I definitely identify with!  I am slow and methodical in my work (and am often slowed down even further by my nearly four year old processor trying to run too many effects).  I do have a dedicated studio space that I spend most of my writing time in, but working on a laptop lets me go just about anywhere.  It’s both a blessing and a curse.  Sometimes (like those times getting ready for a show) it can become consuming.  I also identify with his influence from the natural world.  I am an avid outdoorsmen, and that is reflected by the natural sounds used as the foundation of many of my pieces (I also like socio-political influences as heard in Freddie Mac and a few others).  That’s probably the extent of my ability to relate, though. I’m not even sure how having a team of specialists would help create my work, though I know there are composers who do have teams of people for various reasons.  Maybe I’m just a control freak.

T: You are the founder and co-director of SoundCrawl:Nashville, which premiered in October at the downtown Arcade Artcrawl.  What really worked about last year’s SoundCrawl, and what would you like to do differently this year?

A: SC:N got a lot of great attention from both the local community and the global sound-art community last year.  Hearing the responses from the the people I met made it a really fun event to be a part of.  I think Nashville, being an industry town, was and is thirsty to hear something new and, fortunately, sound-artists are always looking for a place to share their work.  It’s a genre that’s really coming into it’s own in both the music and art worlds and I’m excited to see and be a part of that.  Those responses and the submissions all worked really well for us – we were overwhelmed with over 300 contributions from around the world.  The spaces really worked well for us, too – the two rooms at Downtown Presbyterian Church were the most popular and the gallery’s were anxious to try something new and really worked with us to get some good installations.

Because of budget constraints our gear list kind of struggled and, due to some miscommunication, I think we irritated some of our hosts with the size of most of our PA systems (we went with what we could get and some of them were pretty large and overwhelmed the space).  We also didn’t anticipate the volume of the crowd.  One of our participants had come down from Chicago for the event and someone saw him literally on the ground with his ear to the speaker because he couldn’t hear at one point.  So the sound stations will change this year – probably to include headphones instead of speakers.  It’s unfortunate because I like the communal listening experience of such works but it’s not really feasible in the gallery settings and headphones will block out some of the noise from the crowd.  We will still have the church spaces, which is good.  We have a small entry fee this year (a measly 5 bucks) to help us with costs so we will have some better control over the gear we use.  We’re also anticipating an installation space with video components.

T:  How can local composers and musicians get involved with this year’s SoundCrawl?

A: Our call for works is at http://soundcrawlnashville.com/call.html and the submission form is all online this year at http://soundcrawlnashville.com/submit.html.  Everything is paperless! Spread the word, I would love to get a load of local submissions this year – we just didn’t get the word out to the community soon enough last time.  I know there are engineers and tinkerers out there who have a little sonic fun in their downtime (we’ve received a few already)…  We may also need some volunteers at some point.  They can email us at crawl@soundcrawlnashville.com if they’re interested in helping out.

T: What are you looking for in submissions to the SoundCrawl?

A: Kyle (Baker, my co-director) and I tend to lean more towards the experimental/sound-art stuff than things that are more traditionally based, even if they are electronic in nature.  We received some really great electronic music pieces last year but, even though they were really good works, we didn’t end up selecting them for the event.  Other than that it really depends on the pool of submissions that we get.  We listen to everything and try to group pieces in ways that will make for an interesting evening.

T: What do you like about the local music scene?  What puts you off about it?

A: I love the talent that is around Nashville.  I’ve been to some pretty amazing shows and have been surprised to see the people who were playing back-up!  There are a load of musician’s musicians here and it raises the level quite a bit.

I tend to avoid the things that put me off musically – mostly it’s the people who are out there “networking” for the sake of “networking.”  I haven’t run into too many of them, fortunately, but the times that I have I felt like it lacks respect for human dignity and genuinity (is that even a word?).  I don’t have the patience for it.  You’ll have that in any industry or town, though.  I think it’s a plague of my generation.

T: What local composers, musicians, and sound artists really excite you right now?

A: Dave Madeira is probably one of my favorite local composers.  His command of the percussion section is strong, and his choral work is just brilliant.  We’ve talked a couple of times about the possibility of working together on some sort of choral/electronics piece, which would be sweet.  I’ve honestly been listening mostly to americana artists recently – Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet (I love their eclectic, cross-cultural melodies and progressive harmonies), Kane Welch Kaplin (for their rhythm and stories), and a couple others (sometimes I wonder if I’m some sort of Electro-folk artist. Folk-a-tronic?).  Most of the electronic stuff I’ve been listening to lately is from the 90’s, and I’m still really personally studying some of our SoundCrawl submissions from last year.

T: Thanks for your time!

This is part two of a two part article.  Miss part one?  Check it out here.