One of my favorite things about composer David Smooke is how wide open his ears are. No matter how bizarre the music, he will want to check it out. His own music demonstrates this sort of receptivity in its colorful variety, dramatic textures, and quirky spirit. The works on his debut portrait album, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, range from brooding and creepy to funky and joyous, wrapped up a combination of thoughtful composition and spontaneous improvisations.
Full disclosure: David and I go way back — we studied together at the Peabody Institute in the mid-’90s, and as fate would have it, now we live just a few houses away, on the same Baltimore City street. Although I considered setting up some tin cans connected by string between our houses for this Q&A, in the end he moseyed over to my place late on a Sunday afternoon, where we mixed some “dark & stormy” cocktails and chatted about his new album, the release of which (on New Focus Recordings) he celebrates with a record-release concert at National Sawdust on January 22.
ALEXANDRA GARDNER: Your portrait album, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, contains a real smorgasbord of works! There’s a toy piano concerto, a composition for the ensemble loadbang, a piece for multi-tracked bassoon with video, and more. What do you feel is the thread that connects these works together? DAVID SMOOKE: When I was planning the CD, I was thinking about pieces that I like, and about pieces that nice people I know might be willing to play for the album! And as the project started to take shape I realized, wait a second, there’s two pieces with voice, there’s a concerto, there’s a couple solo pieces — what holds this together? I was a bit flummoxed as well! [laughs] Then I realized that what holds all of my music together is a belief in the narrative possibilities of music. And by that I don’t mean they’re telling stories — they’re not narration — but I’m fascinated with the idea of abstract music, by which I mean music without any association beyond the music itself, but that has clear emotional content. And so that’s really what I’m after here is this idea of narrative possibility. I’m hoping that someone approaching the music will do it with the idea that, oh, this music is taking me on a journey, it’s taking me somewhere. Even if they have no idea what the journey is or where it’s going, that they trust that there is a destination and there is a journey.
Another thread connecting these compositions that I perceive — and I realize it’s probably because we are friends and I was around when you were creating these works — is that each one presented some sort of significant compositional challenge for you. For instance, in the title track, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, you are balancing a toy piano against a concert band – which is no small feat! – and 21 Miles to Coolville is the first piece in which you incorporated video. There are real learning curves that accompanied some of these pieces. That’s an interesting way of thinking about it, and it definitely does go to a lot of the way I think about composing. When you look at the piece A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, the challenge there to me when I first started it was just writing for that ensemble. You have a trumpet, a trombone, a bass clarinet, and a guy singing! How do I balance that? How do I create sustain? How do I let them breathe while still creating a through-line? So just the ensemble itself was incredibly challenging. And then the text, which goes to the whole idea of the journey, but also not really knowing how the journey works – because it’s a story – but then the writer took the story and published it in alphabetical order. So it begins with something like 41 iterations of the word “A” before moving on, with the idea being that perhaps there was a story where “A” was used that many times, and now you just get them all in a row. And so the challenge of the structure is that it’s very clearly structured, but it’s not clearly structured in a way that we think about structure.
I guess that to this day it’s such a thing that I’ve always done that I don’t even think about it anymore – yeah, the challenge. And this is partly why I don’t write for orchestra so much, because I find it hard to get started when there are too many possibilities. I think with all my projects I just always start with, well, what are the limitations, and how can I transcend those limitations? Creating boundaries, and then trying to explode past the boundaries. Without the boundaries, I can’t explode past them.
So in 21 Miles to Coolville, it’s a bassoon. What is the bassoon not known for? Its funkiness! Who ever said “funky bassoon?” So I said okay, this will be my chance to write a funky, travel, joy piece. Because I’m writing for multiple bassoons. And it’s also why I explore the toy piano. Because it is so limited, but then it’s like, what else can I do with it?
I’m glad you bring that up. It’s at the heart of everything, I think.
Can you speak about how you approach language in your compositions? You take language in a really interesting direction that is very different from a lot of other composers. Well, as you know, I love language. I love it so much I married someone who does language for her life and career! Do you love it enough to marry it? Yes! Yes I do! [laughs]
In music there’s a real difficulty, because I love language so much, sometimes when I’m setting a pre-written text, I can feel trapped by that. So I have this song cycle which is based on this incredible epic poem by Eavan Boland, an Irish writer who teaches at Stanford and lives in Palo Alto, CA. It was the largest piece I’d written to that point (it’s about half an hour long), and I spent about a year and a half on it, and after about eight months of it I just got so frustrated because the text was forcing me to do things. It’s a beautiful text, and so I wanted to do it justice, and yet, in order to do it justice I had to set it in a very specific way.
My next vocal piece was Some Details of Hell, which is on the CD, which again is an incredible poem. I found that the poem told me how it had to be set. And so after that I began to chafe against those limitations. And I love the voice! I think that the voice is the best instrument. I don’t think that any instrument we’ve invented can improve on the human voice for its expressive nature and what it can do, and the way it feels when it’s coming out of the person singing. I wanted to still have the opportunity to explore the voice, but not be tied down to a text. So for several years I started writing vocal pieces without text, using the international phonetic alphabet and vocalizations. That worked for a long time.
And now with A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, I feel like that’s getting me back to text, because in that piece the text itself is structured in a way that so clearly worked for me musically, in the way it’s alphabetized and in the flow of it. So I feel like I can go back to text now, and I just have to be very, very careful. Choosing the right text is less about finding something that is an amazing poem, and more about finding something that allows me to do musically what I need to do.
Often great music uses crappy text, and that can be really frustrating. Being married to a writer, I will get called to the carpet if I’m setting horrible text! [laughs] But on the other hand, someone like Laurie Anderson is a great person to look to in this regard, because she can use snippets that are very simple but then end up having very profound meaning in their simplicity. So I think that’s probably where I’m going to be going next with text.
Microtonality is a central feature of your work. How do you approach melody and harmony from a microtonal standpoint? Why is it important to you? When you’re talking about microtonality, you’re talking about the notes between the notes of the piano, or the notes between the frets of the guitar. And it’s a sound that I grew up with, because I grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll — before the age of autotune — and especially listening to punk. When I teach my rock history class, I especially love playing the Sex Pistols doing “God Save the Queen,” and when they’re singing “No future…” they’re so out of tune and they’re making these incredible cluster chords, though they’re trying to sing the same note. But that’s what gives it the energy! And in so much of today’s popular music they’ve taken that energy out of it by actually auto-tuning things.
When I started hearing classical music, I thought it was lacking that energy, because classical musicians are so amazing at being able to play in tune. And I was like, where’s the twisting of the note? Where’s the bending? Where’s the soul of it? To me the soul comes from the bending of the notes. So that’s what first got me started with microtonality, and now I’m using it for three different things: the expressive bending, trying to get things perfectly in tune – if you ever hear Queen when they sing vocal harmonies, it’s like the major triads are just perfectly crystal clear, it’s because they’re singing a little microtonally, so they’re singing pure notes instead of the notes as they’re tuned on the piano, and when the guitars come in they sound a little bit off compared to the voice because the guitars are tuned so that you can play in any key – and sometimes just because I want an odd sound.
And how do you approach incorporating microtonality into ensembles that include equal temperament instruments, like piano or vibraphone? Yeah, in Some Details of Hell, there’s a piano in there, and that piece is very microtonal. There are a couple things I might do. I might just have some parts, or elements, of the piece not be microtonal. In Some Details of Hell everything kind of crystallizes in the middle, where instead of a climax it’s a crystallization where some things become clearer, and where that happens it’s not microtonal. But also I use a lot of very high harmonies in the piano where there’s so much resonance and so many different things happening behind the notes, and overtones, that you don’t care about the basic note itself; you care about how it’s resonating. It blends more into a microtonal texture. So the equal temperament instruments will generally be doing a drone, and everything would be based on that drone, and/or these very high harmonies.
In the past few years you have become quite immersed in live improvisation and performance. Can you talk about how that came about? I’ve always improvised. And before I knew how to play instruments, before I knew what composition was, I was improvising. What’s changed is that I’ve actually started sharing my improvisations with other people. I remember when I was in college, one time we were in a bar and there happened to be a piano there, and I just sat down and played on it for a while. My friends were like, “What, you do that? That’s amazing!” And I said, “No, don’t tell anybody.” I was just always so afraid and so embarrassed. And as you get older, you get past that embarrassment and fear and just say, well, forget it, let’s just get out there and do things. Before, the improvisation was always kind of a starting point, and I’d write the piece but the improvisation was always just for me.
The improvisation was part of the process of writing the piece? Often yes. It didn’t have to be — I would improvise regardless — but up until very recently I would not be able to start a piece unless I was able to improvise at an instrument first. That was always an integral part of finding what sound world I wanted to be in. So the real difference is now I’ve gotten over my fear and I’m getting out there and letting it be part of the world. And I’m finding that it’s amazing! It’s so nice to be able to communicate in the moment to people, and to be able to say to these guys from loadbang, “Hey, do you want to play together as part of the show?” I mean, how lucky am I to be able to do that?
Yeah! And you seem like a pretty big “people person,” so I imagine it must be nice to get out from behind the composing desk and be in the world with other musicians. What I really like about people is that I think they’re fascinating. I love learning about what’s going on in people’s lives, and what better way of doing that than collaborating? And composing sometimes doesn’t feel very collaborative. I’m slow when I write music down, which makes the collaborative part of it difficult. So my tendency is to say, “Oh I want to collaborate with you!” And then I go disappear in my room for year, and it’s like, “Here’s the piece!” Where did the collaboration happen? So this allows me to really do that in the moment, and feel more that it’s a back-and-forth.
I feel like with the performing and the improvisation, I’m reaching the sort of audience I want to be reaching. I feel weird saying this, because it’s not like my compositions are not reflective of what I want to hear, but there’s something about the composer being also the performer that makes people listen in a very different way. It makes it much more open, and it makes it much more possible for someone who doesn’t have the background of going to hear chamber music and feeling like the classical world is open to them – to feel like, yeah, I can enjoy this, this can be for me.
Alexandra Gardner is a Baltimore-based composer and sound artist. She works with ensembles large and small, often combining acoustic instruments with electronic music. Coming and recent performances of Gardner’s music include the Seattle Symphony, Chicago Composer’s Orchestra, Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble, and pianist Jenny Lin. She also writes, edits, and produces audiovisual material specializing in classical and experimental music, with a focus on multimedia content designed for the web. For more information, please visit www.alexandragardner.net.