Tag Archives: Daniel Corral

Misfits and Hooligans Interview: Isaac Schankler

22 Apr

In the first in our series of interviews with artists leading up to Misfits and Hooligans concert on April 28, we talk to composer, accordionist, and Catalysis Projects Core Artist Isaac Schankler.

Isaac Schankler

Can you tell us a bit about your work that’s being presented on the concert?

Sure! Two of my compositions are being performed. Daniel Corral and I are playing Chocolate Phase for accordion duo and electronics, which is inspired by a song called “Chocolate Rain” by Tay Zonday. “Chocolate Rain” was an unexpected hit on YouTube in 2007 (I can’t believe it’s that long ago already). It’s a pretty strange song, very repetitive — the chorus and verse share the same melody — but also oddly compelling. The production of the synths and drums make it seem kind of goofy at first, but over time it begins to acquire this cumulative power of a litany or a recitation. And the words actually detail this pretty scathing picture of institutionalized racism.

Of course, the popularity of the song, or at least what people were saying about it, seemed to have little to do with any of this. It seemed to be more about the incongruity of Zonday’s deep voice and his nerdy appearance, or his odd mannerisms like moving away from the mic to breathe. I’m fascinated by this process. What does it mean when a musical artifact takes on a life of its own, and becomes appreciated for reasons completely outside the artist’s intention? Despite this disconnect, I find myself unable to let go of the idea of music as communication or expression. So I was curious to find out what might happen if I took musical material from the song and presented it in a different context.

Chocolate Phase takes the song’s main piano riff and runs it through a bunch of phase processes, where four versions of the riff gradually shift out of unison. It’s similar to what you’d find in Steve Reich’s early minimalist music (Piano Phase, Violin Phase).

It’s actually a great riff for that purpose; there’s a nice compound melody with multiple lines embedded in it, so when you phase shift it, all these things come tumbling out.

I guess in a way this was an attempt to render the musical material in a more “abstract” setting, more distanced from the specific qualities of the YouTube video. The irony is that of course it’s connected to a very specific musical tradition of late 60s minimalism. Zonday himself has a very idiosyncratic attitude toward musical traditions:

In many ways, I feel like a musical orphan. I’m not sure who my influences are. Growing up, I learned to hide the fact that I had any passion or enjoyment for music or life. Being ‘influenced’ to laugh or dance was always a sickness or pathology. It made my parents fearful that they were losing their kids. To this day, I’m not sure you could get me to admit that I was influenced by anything. It’s just beaten out of the way I think. Perhaps people call my music ‘unique’ because I don’t feel beholden to any influences.

I love Zonday’s heretical idea of a music without influences — take that, Western canon! — and the fact that he felt compelled to make music despite his restrictive upbringing. Chocolate Phase is really an homage to that attitude, and I hope it’s appreciated in that spirit.

The other piece, Mobile II (“Dear Mr. Edison”) for viola and electronics, is another kind of animal entirely. It uses two source recordings from the very early days of recording technology. The first is a speech given by composer Arthur Sullivan in October 1888, thanking Thomas Edison for his invention of the phonograph. One part of the speech stands out:

I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening’s experiment — astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever.

It was only natural, then, for me to consider his speech itself as musical material. My approach here owes a debt to the music of Austrian composer Peter Ablinger (Voices and Piano).

The second recording is  an excerpt of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt performed in June 1888. Recorded from over 100 yards away and subject to over 100 years of decay, the chorus of 4000 voices is almost obscured by noise artifacts from the degradation of the wax cylinder. Often the technological medium itself seems to have its own musical agenda; the piece explores the wonder and terror conjured by that agenda. Alma Lisa Fernandez (of the Eclipse Quartet) is playing the viola part, and she’s doing some amazing things with it!

Do you consider yourself a hooligan or a misfit? Or both? Or neither?

I like the construction of the word “mis-fit” — taken literally it’s not even really an insult. It just means something that doesn’t quite gel with other things. Most of my pieces are probably misfits in some way. They don’t even fit with each other. Someone reminded me recently that “eclectic” can also be a compliment or an insult.

Tell us about the most memorable oddball instrument you’ve ever encountered.

From recent memory, I have to say I really appreciated the melodicas with foot-operated air pumps in the premiere of Oscar Bettison’s Livre de Sauvages by the LA Phil chamber players. As an accordionist I think about breath a lot, but the breathing of the accordion bellows is always kind of incorporeal — it happens outside your body. Bettison’s piece featured the most visceral aural depiction of the bellows that I can remember hearing, almost like the ragged breathing of some dying animal. In the best possible way!