In the past, I’ve demonstrated that I am no stranger to weird music nor to things beyond music. While my exploration has always been as a student and fan, Beth McDonald is a participant on the front lines of invention. May 2014 saw the release of Still, the first album recorded under McDonald’s name as a solo artist. She joined me from Boston to chat about the tracks in detail and to share her perspective on electroacoustics. We talked for a while, so I’ve broken up the transcript into sections so you can jump to what interests you.
For context, it may help to stream the album (or at least view the track listing) at Bandcamp.
There’ll be a kind of graphic, like lines, and the cellist will be trying to interpret what the lines mean.
I guess I wasn’t trying to scare the crap out of you, but I do try to go for orienting you to a new place.
I was talking to my dad after they got the CD, and he’s like, “Oh yeah, i mean, it was really interesting… is this the only type of stuff you’re gonna play now?”
Colton: I know a little bit about experimental realms of music, and I’m into it, but not everyone is. So if I wanted to bridge the gap between these camps, give me a general statement of how you would elevator pitch this album to someone who doesn’t know jack about weird-ass music.
McDonald: That’s a tough one. I talk a lot with non-musicians or people who aren’t in the experimental realm of stuff about just hearing sounds, and not thinking as much about “where’s the melody” and “what are the chords going on,” and more just hearing the different sounds that are created, and maybe thinking about how was that created or how is it different than what you’ve heard before. Especially the improvisations: “One,” “Two,” and “Three” are pretty sounds-based; they go all over the map.
Okay, that’s actually a pretty reasonable way to explain this to a layman. But now, to exercise the other half of your brain, if you were talking to one of the other performers on your album, how would you pitch this project to them? Using as many fancy words as you want.
So, this is a series of electroacoustic commissions that I did working with various composers. With all the composers, I kind of got together with them and we experimented. We made new sounds—they were playing electronics while I was doing weird things—and mostly they came to it not having written for tuba before, so they had a lot of other sound concepts. Like, “I’ve written a piece for bassoon where they do this, can’t you do something like that?” And I have to try to figure out how to make a slap tongue sound on a tuba.
With this sort of a project, what I’m largely curious about is how much of the music on the record is, so to speak, us hearing you versus us hearing the composer versus us hearing the engineer. Like, pre-written versus improvised versus post-production.
We mostly didn’t tweak a lot of stuff post-production. There were a few little things, like the singing that I do in Ariane Miyasaki’s piece was really quiet so we had to mess with that a bit to make it loud enough. But mostly the mixing was just trying to be true to what we heard. We didn’t engineer a lot of it. All the improvs were recorded in one go, no multiple tracks or anything. The pieces were all recorded with a couple cuts in them, so, large sections at a time. That’s the post-production part of it.
I guess the improvisation pieces [“Three,” “Two,” and “One”] are about half of the CD, and those are very much the three of us—Caroline, Neal and I—we didn’t really talk about it, we would just kind of play and see what happens.
[And those] are named and ordered on the album [tracks 2, 3, and 4 respectively] just to screw with people.
Yeah… they’re named in the order we recorded them, but I didn’t want them to be in that order on the CD, so just a little bit of fun, to confuse everyone. So those three are the only true improvisations, where we basically just started playing once we were set up, we didn’t discuss what we were gonna do. Sometimes we would stop and be like, “Okay let’s do something now, let’s make it loud,” and we would just start from there and see where it went.
Most of the other pieces have a large part of improvisation in them. Like the first track, Neal’s piece, it’s two pages long. And there will be sections where there’s just a chord, and I have to pick which notes I’m going to play in what order. Or there’ll be a kind of graphic, like lines, and the cellist will be trying to interpret what the lines mean. So Neal’s piece… there’s twelve sections, and he cued when we went on to each different section, but within each of those sections there was a lot of freedom of what we wanted to do.
One of the difficulties of talking about the pieces on an album like this is that, if you get a pop album or a rock album, it’s easy to say “Track five is the ballad,” or “Track eight is an anthem piece.” But those words are not great at encapsulating a lot of what’s going on on Still. And if I try to drop a word like “aleatoric” or “text piece,” it doesn’t give a strong sense of what the sound of the piece was. So for any or all of them, do you sort of categorize, like “‘Three’ was this kind of piece”?
I guess the strongest associations I have are… the first one, Neal’s piece, I really thought of as this promenade that shows you everything you’re going to hear. There’s air sounds, there’s really dense crazy textures, there’s really quiet things, there’s analog electronics and digital electronics. So that one for me is like the statement of what’s going to be on the album, in ten minutes. And then “Still” is the last track on it, and I kind of think of it as a meditation to close the CD. When I was listening to the tracks and trying to decide the order, after listening to “Still” I didn’t want to hear anything else. I kind of just wanted to fade into silence.
What I’m gonna try to do now—I may embarrass myself with my lack of perception, we’ll find out—we’ll walk through the tracklist, and I’ll tell you how I perceived things going on and you can tell me what you were going for, if I missed the point or anything like that.
In the first track, in Neal’s piece, what really stuck out to me was that frequently there are other instruments besides the tuba that seemed to be harmonizing with one another, making actual recognizable chords here and there that change throughout the piece, but the tuba rarely sits on the tonic. The tuba, which I expect as the bass to give me some sort of grounding, keeps hitting dissonant notes, and it was almost like it didn’t allow me as the listener to settle into anything. It kept me on my toes.
I like that description of it. I think one of the things I enjoy about Neal’s writing is he has such a different concept of the tuba. He’s coming so much from a rock background that i think he comes at it more like the bass can be this whole other thing. Like, in a jazz ensemble, the bass will sometimes go way out from where the chords are. So I think he can go a totally different place than you would think the tuba would go in his progressions.
The improv pieces after that I’m just gonna lump together. So for “Three”-“Two”-“One”… I said the first track kept me on my toes and unsettled. And for the improv pieces, it was almost beginning to become discomforting or even disturbing. Because the lack of any constant beat, combined with the lack of any tractable melody, combined with the fact that a lot of the electronics that feature there are making really—for lack of a better word—otherworldy sounds, it feels like I’m a stranger in a strange land the whole time and I don’t have a rock to stand on.
So I have a question for you: did you feel, as you went on through the three—because it’s like 25 minutes of improvisations—did you feel more like you were getting to a place where you knew where you were, or were you just lost the whole time?
In my listen of the album—and I’m trying to go track-by-track but this is what I’m leading up to—when I get to “Hindsight” it really makes me feel good, because I hear human voices. And I’m like, “Ahhh, finally, something recognizable and comforting!” And it feels like I’m surrounded by people again and it’s okay. So in the context of that, really the first half of the album feels like I’m going through the woods, and it’s a track of discovery where I’m never sure what’s going to come out. Nothing ever jumps out and eats me, but I do see flickering eyes in the distance and bugs zipping around and things like that, so that is how it felt to me walking through.
That’s amazing. I love that description of it, so evocative. I do like that otherworldly idea of it. I guess I wasn’t trying to scare the crap out of you, but I do try to go for orienting you to a new place. Which is kind of what you’re talking about. Lately with my solo stuff, I haven’t done a lot of work with melody and harmony, and I’m more in “sound world.” I feel like when you’re working in sound, as opposed to music, you really have to orient your listener to where you are and what’s the scope of what you’re in.
I think that the improvisations can kind of help to craft what sounds are we gonna hear, and what are the external limitations of this music. Almost like if you were in an art gallery of one artist’s work, and you saw the first piece, and you’re just like, “I have no idea what the context of this is, it’s just a piece that i’m looking at.” Then you go to the next piece and you can kind of see, as you go on and on, more of what the artist is working with as far as medium and themes and that stuff. So I think of it a lot like that.
So in terms of the vision of the album, you use those three tracks to explore the whole space so that people sort of know what room they’re in, and it provides actual orientation for the rest of the album. And it actually works out really well, because then in “Hindsight” and then “Significant Transits” it really feels like there is more guidance. It becomes easier to perceive the emotions that you’re walking through or the events that you’re walking through in the sound. Having felt out the space beforehand, things don’t feel so foreign now. It doesn’t strike me suddenly as strange that maybe pop-pop-pop sounds on a tuba mouthpiece would be used to represent this idea, whereas, if I were coming in fresh, that would be a very weird thing and I wouldn’t know what was going on.
Yeah, it kind of makes it so that these weird extended techniques that I’m doing aren’t like, “Oh, that’s weird.”
They’re all contextualized now. So in that sense, the progression of the album works out really well. It actually does lead the listener effectively. And then, despite the fact that it’s really the centerpiece in a sense, “Still” comes last. “Still,” being the title track, I take it was on some level the inspiration behind a lot of what went on.
Yeah. I found “Still” several years ago, but I actually performed it for the first time last summer. It’s a nice piece because it lets me play with electroacoustic sounds, but I can just kind of explore on my own. Sometimes playing “Still” is more like just practice, seeing what I can do and not worrying about the timing and that kind of thing.
It’s got a lot of… well, I guess you didn’t multilayer tracks in an editing sense, but you would be recording yourself live, playing back the loop and playing over it. Is that how it’s constructed?
That’s basically what it is. It’s not with a loop pedal or system or anything, it’s actually with reverb, and the reverb is just turned up so high that it basically doesn’t go down.
That makes a lot of sense now, thinking back to what it sounds like. There’s a lot of very slow oscillation so that, when you then put harmonics over top, you get this waffling in and out of consonance and dissonance.
Yeah, and actually the piece was written for analog reverberators, but I don’t have those, so my friend—who is also the engineer, Ian Headley—worked with me to make a patch for the electronics. For the performance we did, it was four speakers around the room, around the listeners, and so that waffling and fading-in that you’re hearing is actually the sound going around the four different speakers. So it’s really cool to see it live because it’s spinning around you and enveloping.
Are all or just some of these tracks on the album things that you intend to perform live in the future, or have already?
I think the only piece that I am afraid to perform publicly is “Significant Transits.” It’s just really hard to get together in one go, and… Vanessa knows exactly what she wants in a sound. So a lot, when we were recording, was doing the same track over and over again—not for me, but for us to get the electronics just right. So that one’s hard to play live. But everything else on there—like, I played “Still” at the CD release show, and I’ve played Ariane Miyasaki’s piece before, and really the hardest thing about playing Neal’s piece live is just getting an accordion, a cellist, Neal, and I in the same room.
When you play these things live, to what extent do they sound like they sound on the album, let’s say, versus different every time?
“Still” is pretty different every time. I mostly stick with the drony chord idea, but you can do a lot more with it. I tell a lot of people there’s a recording on YouTube that’s totally different than mine. It’s got jazz improv in it. But yeah, and Neal’s piece has the same kind of form too, but it’ll vary a lot, like the texture of it.
The version of “Still” that’s on record fits the name very well. It is meditative, like you said, and even though it’s not always happy, in terms of the chord sounds, it’s always very calm and slow-drifting.
Yeah, and Jonathan Harvey was a pretty spiritual composer—spiritual person and also spiritual in his compositions. So to me it just felt right to do that meditative kind of way. I think it’s totally valid to do more active and crazy versions of it, but i just like doing it [this way].
Getting beyond Still, I know that you’re involved in about a million projects. You are probably one of the busiest tuba players in America. Why don’t you mention some of the things that you are most excited about right now, in the upcoming months.
A week from today I’ll be doing the SICPP [“Sick Puppy”] festival, which is the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice. That’s put together by Steve Drury and the Callithumpian Consort, which is a group that I play with, but last year and again this year I’m playing in the electronics workshop. That’s actually when i played “Still” for the first time was last summer’s SICPP festival. This summer we’re playing a bunch of different pieces, I think three or four things, and then my main project is putting together a performance of this Ichiyanagi piece. It’s for brass instrument, string instrument, accordion, and four electronics performers. So, same accordionist who’s on my CD, Borey Shin, and then a violist will be playing with us.
Things get pretty interesting in the electronacoustic world.
It gets really complicated pretty fast.
So, the label for the record is Single Action Rider. That’s a new label.
Very new, yes. This is just their third release. It’s Neal Markowski’s label, and sort of the general requirement of the label is that there’s always a physical product in some way, so it’s not just digital. Like, the second release was a digital recording of this piece for melted records, and the physical product is a melted record so that you can play it yourself.
I have no concept really of how big the scene is in America that you participate in, because you seem to participate in a number of different and variegated scenes.
I like doing different stuff. I was talking to my dad after they got the CD, and he’s like, “Oh yeah, i mean, it was really interesting… is this the only type of stuff you’re gonna play now?” I was like, “no, no, no… I’m still playing in brass quintet, orchestra…”
Beth McDonald is still playing in a brass quintet, an orchestra, and some other stuff. You can stream or download Still here and follow her wild and crazy tuba-playing schedule and much more through her website.