Enlightenment through Sound Collage


New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, the site of the performance

Last week I encountered something brand new in music and I want you to share the experience with me.

After our recent conversation, knowing I’d be in Boston on business, Beth McDonald tipped me off to a concert series being run by the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP).  The schedule of performances, now retrospective, is available here.  I attended on Tuesday night to see Stephen Drury and the Callithumpian Consort (names with which I had no previous familiarity) take on a range of challenging pieces.  While some were more experimental than others, the selections all seemed to have in common a “top-down” design; that is, none were based on a tune that occurred to the composer or a chord sequence he or she found intriguing.  Every song was built from a bigger idea seeking expression in an array of sounds.

Frankly, there was very little “music” in the program in the traditional sense.  “Contemporary compositions” might be a more suitable term than “songs” for what the audience heard.  And while that isn’t much of a speed bump for me as a listener, there were a few pieces I simply disliked.  For example, Lee Hyla’s Migración rendered the Pablo Neruda poem of the same name.  Lee Hyla may know Neruda far better than I do—though I know him a bit—but what I saw and heard on stage was completely disjoint from the images the poem conjured up for me on its own.  It was much the same feeling as hating a movie version of your favorite book, but in a different sphere.  In any case, it didn’t suit me.

Another piece, however, caught me by surprise in the best way.  John Zorn’s Carny was advertized by the program notes as representing “a sound collage approach to composition by pitting contemporary popular genres against traditional classical and modern piano tropes.  And yet, the materials coalesce into something greater than an arbitrary, haphazard collection of themes.”  Having heard it, this is a fair description.  Written in 1989 for a solo pianist, it was performed by Stephen Drury, who has posted a clip from an earlier recording of the piece on his website.  It’s easy to find a couple of complete live versions, as interpreted by other pianists, on YouTube.

What inspired me may not have been intended in the piece, but it struck me like daylight: there is so little difference between beautiful music and cacophony.  I mean this in an absolute way.  Human brains are built to recognize patterns, and there are sequences of sounds that we grasp and perceive as music.  Even more so, westerners are accustomed to a particular set of scales and harmonics, and we have deeply ingrained blind spots for quarter tones and other aural divergences.  But an alien, or a deaf person hearing for the first time, might not know at first whether to prefer a Bach chorale or an arhythmic jumble of notes stirred together with jazz and passion.  Contemporary composers have shown that either can be written in a painstakingly careful way and, while the masses have no trouble pointing to one as “music” and the other as “noise,” I began to think (during Carny) that the distinction is not nearly so natural to physics as it is to psychology.

If you grasp my meaning, I hope you’ll be able to take the same message, or some other dash of inspiration, from the piece.  Or, at least I wish you luck in finding inspiration wherever you turn your ears.  Thanks for reading about my moment; I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Obviously, the more knowledge a listener brings to a piece of music, the more rewarding the listening experience.  But I have performed Carny from Manizales, Colombia to Missoula, Montana to enthusiastic audience response.  They grasp the meaning of the piece, its gestures and attitudes….  As a performer, I find the finger-twisting complexities within various fragments of Carny as rewarding as the complexity of the juxtapositions themselves—because they are always audible to an audience listening in good faith.

—Stephen Drury, as published in Perspectives of New Music vol. 32, No. 1 (1994)

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