Friday, July 10, 2015

Composing "water/peace"

In 1989, artist (and fellow UNM faculty member) Basia Irland asked me to collaborate on what would eventually become "water/peace." I was reluctant. The year before, she and I--along with many others--collaborated on what up to then was the artistic highlight of my life: serving as artistic director for a John Cage retrospective where Cage himself was the featured guest. But 1988 was also the year when I first experienced symptoms of a performance-related injury that, by 1992, would incapacitate me to the point where not only couldn't I play percussion instruments, I couldn't even hold a pencil.  Since percussion was what I knew, and I was losing the ability to play, what could I contribute? Basia wouldn't have known that when she asked; when I agreed it became a way of finding out.

Basia was at that time already a well-established professional artist with a strong sense of aesthetic intention so her invitation came attached with both a general idea--water in relation to peace--and a project: performing at the North American Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution in Montreal, Canada, March 2-5, 1989. Our session was titled "Sculptural and Percussion Performance: Water as Metaphor." Her contribution to the work was the making of light sculptures, which created the environment where the music would be performed, book sculptures included as part of a long list of musical instruments from around the world, and the selection of texts, in some cases hand copied by Basia from the original sources. She also came up with the brilliant idea of wearing spelunking head lamps so we could see our instruments and read our texts in the otherwise darkened space within her light sculptures. I composed the structure: three sections, seven minutes each, with a four-minute collage to begin the work that included all the sounds and texts heard in the following twenty-one minutes.  Much of this was pre-recorded with the assistance of composer Daniel Paul Davis, who also made a computer-generated score by notating all the musical material in the recorded sections, which I myself performed. 

List of musical instruments for Montreal performance:

Score page of "water/peace," Davis transcription:

Sketch of collage:

To connect with the themes of water and peace, I included two water sources, provided by Daniel Davis, who as a sound designer for theater productions had a catalog of choices: the first, an up-close recording of a stream; the second, a recording of ocean waves that included the occasional sound of seagulls.  The electronic tape that we made included seven minutes of piano (played inside like a percussion instrument), seven minutes of vibraphone, and seven minutes of crotales.  At that time, in order to not be influenced by my own personal taste in sound selection, I chose pitches according to whether or not they were found in the source words of what I was working on. In this case, water and peace gave me the pitches, A and E (in water) and A, C and E (in peace).  Not fussy about naturals, sharps and flats, these choices provided me with a fairly large number of pitches: A-flat, A-natural, A-sharp; E-flat, E-natural, E-sharp, C-flat, C-natural, C-sharp. In section I, I played the piano interior, using the pitches A and E (water), and improvising my choices, one every eight seconds. In sections II and III, I did the same with vibraphone and crotales (respectively), improvising my choices every seven seconds and using the pitches, A, C and E (peace). These were recorded by Daniel Davis on the spot and became the underlying foundation of the twenty-one minutes that follow the opening collage.

Here is the piano score I used to improvise that first recorded section:

In addition, there were twenty-one texts chosen and read, both by Basia and I, some live and some recorded, one per minute.  On top of all this, Basia and I divided up the instruments, forty-one altogether, and played them--first (rapidly) in the four minute collage section, and then (in a less hurried context) over the course of the remaining twenty-one minutes. 

If pitch was decided somewhat arbitrarily by word choice, the form of the piece was carefully designed by numerical choices, both global and personal.  I mean both literally, as I was not much inclined then (not much now either for that matter) toward symbolic reference. Global references gave me continents (seven) and countries inside those continents. This latter count, in those pre-internet days not likely accurate then and certainly not accurate now, determined how many attacks there would be in each section. If the large scale form was as previously described a simple ABA  structure, the smaller scale division of seven was determined by the continents, three minutes each. With Antarctica placed in the middle, this meant that for those three minutes, because there were no countries, Basia and I stood in silence--no readings, no sounds.

The personal side of this involved the crisis that was happening in my life concurrent to my composing "water/peace," due to my already mentioned physical injury that, in turn, was inflicting enormous psychological and spiritual damage.  Writing and preparing "water/peace" included weeks of practice with Basia in a small make-shift studio using a boom-box to play the tape and placing the instruments on shelves that surrounded the room. Those practice sessions were, in themselves, healing events. Basia and I became closer as friends, and I was also able to continue playing percussion, which up until then was my entire life.  I enjoyed helping her learn to play the instruments. And it was gratifying to hear how good the piece sounded as we played it together. Only the second composition I had ever written in my life (the first was a solo percussionist piece I wrote for a concert in Baltimore the year before, written to replace a composition I could no longer play because of my injury), "water/peace" was clearly going to be a big success. I was so pleased!

"Water/Peace," at twenty-five minutes, still the longest piece of music I've ever composed, is also the last piece of percussion music I ever performed: an artistic marker of the end of my days as a percussionist, as well as, thanks to Basia's invitation, the beginning of my new life as a composer.  For that, and many other things over more than two decades of friendship, I'll be ever grateful.