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?
T: The concert is described as a sound installation and performance. Can you elaborate?
T: Will the Chihuly sculptures around you inform your piece in its composition or performance? How so?
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?
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?
T: What are you looking for in submissions to the SoundCrawl?
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?
T: Thanks for your time!
This is part two of a two part article. Miss part one? Check it out here.