MicroTextual Musings: Isaac Schankler Interview

11 Apr

In the last of our interviews leading up to the April 16 MicroFest event, composer/performer Isaac Schankler talks about the composer as abacus, the omnipresent 60Hz hum, and science fiction eeriness.

MicroTextual will premiere Isaac’s piece Honey, Milk and Blood, with soprano Andrea Zomorodian and conductor Troy Quinn.  Here are the particulars:

MicroTextual:  music with words | words without music
Saturday April 16 | 8:00pm
5772 W. Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90019
Enter though Paper or Plastik Cafe
$15/10 online or at the door

CP-Text can be understood as a code – a symbolic mark-making that some others can “read,”  but yet completely unintelligible to people not fluent in that language.  How important is it to you whether your “text” conveys a comprehensible meaning or communication to your audiences?

IS-Honey, Milk and Blood incorporates a text by Jillian Burcar, a wonderful writer who I’ve collaborated with a few times now.  It’s inspired by an old interview with the inventor Nikola Tesla, who had these radical predictions for the future, including this notion that society would become matriarchal and have this hive-like collective organization.  Jillian’s text is, in a way, a depiction of this society, but what’s great about it is that it’s this very open-ended and free-flowing amalgam of scientific language, poetic symbolism and almost violent imagery, so you can focus in on different aspects of it and come away with very different impressions or conclusions.

I’m drawn to things like that, where things seem to be on the cusp of a comprehensible meaning without ever fully resolving, and it’s something I think music can do really well.  We tend to think of music as emotional or expressive medium, but these emotional associations can vary a great deal from person to person or from culture to culture.  I think in the 20th century there was a lot of skepticism of this and so you see movements to make music totally abstract, to make it some analog or elucidation of a mathematical or objective process, in everything from serialism to minimalism.  But if you rigorously adhere to that process something is lost — you’re not operating as an artist but some kind of glorified abacus.  So for me at least, the process becomes some kind of negotiation between abstraction and expression, and the inevitable imperfections that result are what gives music its beauty and meaning.

CP-Why do you choose to compose in a microtonal language?

IS-I don’t always compose in an explicitly microtonal language, but when I do I’d say it’s largely driven by my background in electronic and electroacoustic music.  When working with electronics it’s really trivial to produce any frequency you want, and if you do any kind of electronic analysis it’s impossible not to notice that all music is inherently microtonal, in a sense.  Almost every sound is made up of harmonics that don’t fit in the equal tempered scale.

The kind of microtonality explored in Honey, Milk and Blood came out of some research I was doing for Light and Power, a chamber opera about Nikola Tesla commissioned by Juventas New Music Ensemble that Jillian wrote the libretto for.  I found out that Tesla was directly responsible for making 60Hz the operating frequency of alternating current throughout North America.  So this low 60Hz hum you hear everywhere, coming off power lines, appliances, stereos, florescent lights… it’s all Tesla’s fault.  It’s normally an unwanted sound, a sound you want to try to weed out or minimize, but I thought it would be interesting to use as a foundation instead.  It’s an especially troublesome sound because it doesn’t fit in our equal tempered tuning system — it’s almost exactly halfway between a low B and B-flat.  So I built a kind of ad hoc microtonal scale based on harmonics of 60Hz and harmonics of 49Hz (basically a low G).  For me this scale became a kind of link between our world and the world of Tesla, and there are some mesmerizing sonorities that came out of that.  There’s not really any grand scheme or theory behind it, though — it arose from the needs of the piece, and the next microtonal piece I write may have a completely different approach.

CP-The term microtonality is generally applied only to music that uses a tuning system other than twelve-tone equal-temperament.  However, we believe that, because microtonality breaks down one of the fundamental building blocks of western music (the tyranny of the twelve), it is a term that can be applied to other disciplines of artmaking.  Do you see microtonality in your, or other, fields?

IS-Well, one thing that’s exciting about microtonality is how it can break down our most fundamental ideas about what music is or how it’s constructed, and how it challenges us to build something new from scratch, from the ground up.  I think one of the things that drew me to Kim Ye’s work, and made me want to collaborate with her, is that she seems to be doing something similar in the physical world, breaking down these concepts of how our bodies are constructed or what our relationship is to our bodies.  Not to mention how Jillian’s text breaks down language, how we write and speak, and how Tesla’s ideas poke at how civilization is put together.  It just all seemed like a natural fit.  Plus there is, I have to admit, a common thread of science fiction eeriness that links them.


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