On Compositional Praxis in Andante Scherzoso
Originally delivered as a virtual lecture on June 3rd, 2020
To discuss how I wrote Andante Scherzoso seems somewhat silly, and perhaps an almost embarrassing admission. On a cloudy day in winter, without any snow, I went for a walk down by the Milwaukee River and listened, occasionally jotting down notes on the sounds that I heard, but mostly, just listening. I had no hopes of “faithfully depicting” or “being inspired by” this scene. Instead, I was interested above all in the expression of this experience. However, here I do not use expression in its colloquial sense, but in its etymological sense: ex-pressing—pressing out of, pressing from. In a sense, this turned much of the compositional process into a process of translation. This is of course the case on the meta-level, of translating a lived minute change in consciousness (its im-pression) into music (an ex-pression); but it is also true on a purely material level.
Many of the musical motives come directly from faithfully translating these sounds into a matrix of instrumental techniques and gestures (in this way, it mirrors another definition of express, describing in precision.) This translation, while seemingly an arduous process, was, in reality, one of the most engaging aspects of composing the piece; this is because, through the translation of something as impossibly-high-resolution as “the world” into something of such a measurably lower—although still very high—resolution as a trio, there are bound to be mistranslations, but most interestingly, conflations. A car in the distance might become the same sound as the wind through a pine tree right in front of you. It is from these conflated sounds that the music was constructed, and likewise, I never attempted to ‘represent’ anything (the one exception being the mourning dove call.) And it is in this way that this music is incredibly indebted to the early paintings of Kandinsky. In these impressive landscapes, a tree in the background and person in the middle-ground might be the same size, color, and even brushstroke. Yet in as many contexts, these entities are indecipherable as themselves and enter an in-between space of reality and pure-construction. What this process of composition does, is places two things (images and sounds alike) that have no conscious surface-level connection into the same category, allowing one to find suppressed connections. This is taken even further with near-conflations.
These so-called near-conflations blur the boundaries between various sound-identities, because they (ontically and/or ontologically) lay in between being perceived as identical or non-identical to another sound-identity. These near-conflations result from translations of somewhat-similar sounds, or from translations of sound-variations, such as the experiencing of the same sound from multiple different locations. Likewise, the matrix of sound-identities becomes notably complex here, specifically because the same process that conflates non-identical sound-objects is also a process that can function to dis-identify identical sound-objects. To articulate what I’m talking about in the abstract can sound much more convoluted than it is, so I’ll quickly illustrate this with a situation not from this piece. Imagine we are at the beach and we hear two sounds: a seagull and an ambulance driving away from us. When the ambulance siren and the seagull calling are both in our line of sight, we do not associate their sounds; however, as the ambulance drives away, and it becomes quieter and Doppler-shifts down in pitch slightly, we realize that the two sounds have a lot in common. The physical movement of the ambulance distanced its sound identity from itself, but it also made it more closely resemble the seagull call. Now imagine translating this scenario for a solo tuba.
This spatial element of depth can also be broadened to include a temporal depth. It is not the memory itself, but a double that begins to flower out on its own, a double that creates in the present through knowledge of the past. But this aspect of creation does not stop at memory-as-impetus; indeed, the sound of lived-experience is not simply a filter on reality, but itself a creator. For example, the sound of a falling tree branch almost hitting you in the head is not the sound of a tree branch hitting the ground; but neither is it the imagined sound of it hitting yourself instead.
There is a sound, and it is a musical one.
The tensions in and between the conflations and near-conflations of sound, the tensions between the clear and blurred lines of real and imagined sounds, (these tensions) lead to a specific dialectic that doesn’t unfold as discourse and likewise resembles a complex of interlocking circles more than it does a spiral. The moment when the polka breaks through this prevents the piece from following this circular path and going nowhere—but at the same time, in rupturing the path, it prevents it from going anywhere.
To paraphrase Alban Berg at the end of his Wozzeck lecture, the favor I would now ask of you is to forget everything I just lectured on while you listen to Andante Scherzoso.