Following our recent post on early-70s occult rock obscurists Bloodrock we bring you a compendium of music from that era of fuzzy guitars, wigged-out Hammond B3 solos and a permanent pea souper of marijuana fog.
As avid readers will be aware, 20JFG is rather partial to transformative videogame experiences. 2008’s Fallout 3 being one of them. Strolling along the post apocalyptic highways to 50s pop staples, killing super mutants and dicing with the crypto fascist Brotherhood of Steel…well maybe not so crypto. It was the best of times.
So it’s no surprise that another trip to the wastelands of America was pretty appealing. Fallout 4, seven years later, has been duly consumed. Seven years hasn’t changed all that much though. Some of the blasted fields of Boston are beautiful in their stark way. Like some meta commentary on the retro-futurist nostalgia the game itself trades on, the rest of the game feels just like seven years ago. The radio too’s just as (gloriously) incongruous as ever, blasting out oldie hits while you dispatch Raiders with your cobbled together arsenal.
Which got us hankering for a different sort of apocalypse simulator. One perhaps stripped of the rich tradition of gallows humour that runs through (post)apocalyptic fiction. One that stands blankly in the burning street going mad as the tooled-up, existential hero brushes past with his grating ‘jokes keep me sane’ attitude. It’s the end of the world and it’s ok not to feel fine.
The complete breakdown of civilisation is, in fact, the perfect time to ponder the bonds between worlds. The sky is on fire and everything that you’ve loved is dead or dying. It’s an atomic rapture and while your cells rapidly die your mind is free to ascend to the orange sky.
We need a radio station for that apocalypse. Handily German Army have delivered.
Suspect that, actually, Bloodrock were probably good old Xtian boys, and they’re warning of what happens to those that stray from the path, rather than giving beelzebub a Bloodrock seal of approval. Nevertheless they do make the whole damnation scene sound pretty cool, even if the chug the band makes is ultimately more Dr. Feelgood than Black Sabbath.
Instead of suffocating us with platitudes and exogenously generated personas towards which we should evolve abolishing ourselves in the process, it creates a Rorschach pool of soothing vibrations, windy melodies and synthetic conflagrations which hover in front of us like shards of crystal exploded in bullet-time.
We see our better, mellower, wiser selves reflected in those holographic sound-fragments. They exist inside us, and we use Arcosanta to bring them out.
In our mythological recombinator, Design A Wave’s Ke’s transforms Snake Plissken (or Solid Snake’s) stealthy traversal of devastated cities and gun-porn warehouses into a melancholy journey through the wastelands of his own solitude.
Those synthesisers which in John Carpenter hands convey the fear of the chase are here tinged with a M Mann-blue blur of sadness, the hero’s journey is a lonely one, and full of pathos.
The metronomic drum stops representing a countdown for explosion or execution, what lies ahead, to hint at what lies behind: A romantic collapse, a chance for human connection, that’s what’s being escaped, across city streets that could have been dreamt by Chromatics.
The legend earns a new dimension, and for that we are grateful.
Having recently chatted to William Basinski and Roomful of Teeth, we continue our series of interviews with our favourite modern classical composers with this illuminating dialogue featuring Whitney George!
This is how Whit’s bio runs:
Whitney George is a composer and conductor who specializes in the use of mixed media to blur the distinctions between concert performance, installation art, and theater. Utilizing a wide variety of material including literary texts, silent film, stock footage, and visual arts, George’s compositions are characterized by an immersive theatricality that thrives on collaboration in all phases of the creative process. Her affinity for the macabre, the fantastic, and the bizarre frequently gives rise to musical programs that evoke the traditions of phantasmagoria and melodrama, challenging musicians to experiment liberally with their stage personae, and audiences to widen the scope of their attention.
Which actually sums her work up pretty nicely. We first got in touch with Whit a couple of years ago, when XXJFG sister project Blue Tapes launched as a crappy home-dubbed cassette label. Whit’s 5-tape box set (packaged neatly in a miniature treasure chest) is one of the most inspired, surreal and accomplished releases in the BT series so far. Only 30 of the box sets were made.
A prodigious composer and academic, Whit channels the lion’s share of her creativity through The Curiosity Cabinet – a hand-picked chamber orchestra who realise her interdisciplinary visions as intimate musical fables.
Is it fair to say that while music is the tools you use with which to articulate yourself as an artist, your inspiration instead largely comes from non-musical art? Your music doesn’t seem so much a response to the literature, painting and poetry you love, as another way of talking about them – just with chamber orchestra rather than words.
It may sound strange, but I try and limit how much music I listen to, especially when I’m trying to write something new (which is just about always it seems). But yes, I’m dramatically influenced by other art forms. Even mundane, everyday life. Like taking the subway. It can be such a musical experience. Just listening to the train cross the tracks and different speeds produce different rhythms. When I was new to the city, I used to take midnight journeys on the subway from my apartment to anywhere an hour away. Just there and back—listening—and usually doing field recordings. I love reading poetry, which is a music all of its own. Even if I’m not setting text for a singer, I’ll sometimes call upon poems and poets for inspiration (like some movements of the Night, like velvet: in twelve letters series, which is essentially a narrative dialogue between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, using their poetry as text). Painting, photography, and how I view color translates to orchestration and instrumentation. I’m not synthetic (I don’t see colors when I hear things), but there are sounds that remind me of colors. I love working with larger ensembles because it give me an opportunity to create some very unique tone colors by combining instruments together. And film. Oh, how I love film. Specifically silent film, so the music can work on equal footing with the moving image. I saw one of Frans Zwatjes films randomly while trying to escape the rabbit-hole that is the internet, and I’m on the mission to rescore everything of his I can get my hands on, which included this piece,
Do you think of your pieces explicitly influenced by non-musical art as belonging to the tradition of ‘symphonic poems’ or ‘tone poems’? What are your own favourite works by other composers in this vein?
While I’m deeply indebted to the music written in the last 100 years, I may owe more to Romantic composers than contemporary ones. I love a good story—I think most people do, really. And the Romantics were all about story telling. Very longer-winded story-telling at times, but story-telling nonetheless. So, tone poems and symphonic poems are among my favorite genres from the western classical cannon. I deeply admire some of the classics, like Camille Saint-Saens Danse Macabre, or Paul Duaks’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or epic tales like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, or Holst’s The Planets Suite (which I distinctly remember really loving in high school), or Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique. Of course there were programmatic works written in the 20th century, and continue to be of interest to composers (like myself) today. There are several outstanding tone poems/programmatic works to make note of that are more current, but perhaps, rather get lost in a list of “favorites” I might just say what I’ve been interested in tracing where the narrative has taken us. A lot of the early 20th century was about destroying and abstracting narratives, especially in early experimental film. And, for as interested as I am in having a narrative in my work, I’m also equally interested in destroying it—or abstracting it far enough where the audience has to be an active participant in making meaning to the shards of a story, in trying to make something whole again. So—pivotal works like Glass’s Einstein on the Beach , which purposefully abstract the narrative and meaning, are really important to shaping some of the concepts I’m interested in exploring in my own work.
One of the things I most love about your music is that I find it intensely playful. I think this is an extremely difficult quality to achieve in a lot of music – the idea that something can be playful, without either being silly or ironic. You somehow manage to convey high drama, passion, suspense but a lingering sense of joyfulness throughout everything you do – is that something you’re aware of, or something that you strive for? It could just be that you have such obvious love and commitment for your work and for art in general, so that sort of seeps through in everything you do.
I think I may use that as a press quote, if you don’t mind! I’m glad my music has a playful quality to it—or rather, that it feels alive. One very positive comment I’ve received from working with artists in other disciplines, specifically dancers and choreographers, is that the music makes them want to move. I think rhythm, or very active use of rhythm might hint at this playful quality. In general I tend to take on darker subjects in my programmatic works (or even absolute works), to which I think the dark just seems that much darker so long as there is a lightness to it. It’s about contrast—in order to have good, you must have evil (or, evil starts looking much different when placed right next to good). Regardless of what it is, I’m not sure U’m really conscious of it. It’s not something I set out to do in a piece. It’s something about my language as a composer—something of a signature—a turn in my handwriting or the way I write my “q”s—that may attribute to this quality you’re picking up on.
And it probably goes without saying (and evident in how I write about what I do)—but I absolutely love it. It’s soul crushing at times (rejection, the feeling that no one is really listening, etc…), but at other times indescribably uplifting (premiering a work, giving a new piece life, realizing the rehearsal mistake is actually “how it’s supposed to go”, being analytical, pushing to make the ensemble better and to make me a better artist, admitting defeat, pulling up bootstraps, and being all the stronger for it).
The Curiosity Cabinet performed your interpretations of Poe’s work at Halloween – what is it you love about Poe, and why do his words form such a fitting counterpoint to your music?
Ah, EA Poe. What a tormented soul. Poe’s language as a poet is incredibly rich and full of lavish detail. He vividly colors (with a rather gloomy pallet) even the most mundane of all subjects. Obsession is something that comes up often in Poe’s writing as well. And obsession often comes across with repetition in writing. Repetition is something that creates form in music as well, which is one of the reasons why I think Poe’s work translates well into/for music, especially when that text element is sung or spoken (I’ve set The Raven for narrator, chamber ensemble, and optional puppeteer in addition to Evening Star which originally is for tenor and piano—although there are a few other versions of the piece now).
There are two other major Poe adaptations I’ve done, which are rescorings of American silent films from the late 1920s.
I’m especially attracted to silent film rescorings because the music is able to become the missing dialogue for the film. With literally no dialogue to compete with, the music is on an equal playing field as the moving image. Music for film, post-Talkie era, decidedly takes a backseat, providing underscoring to the film. It’s still a crucial addition, but the film would still “make sense” without the music. In silent film, the moving image is more dependent upon sound to illuminate things like the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the characters on screen.
I the future I am interested in setting Annabell Lee for soprano and chamber ensemble, in addition to embarking on a semi-theaterical staging of The Cask of Amontillado, much in the vane of my work Quoth the Raven. In 2014 the Curiosity Cabinet presented a concert of Poe-inspired works at the Center for Fiction, which we plan to revive and expand upon in our upcoming ’16-’17 season.
Tell us a little about else what you’re working on right now…
Right now I’m working on overhauling an earlier work of mine based on Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s protofeminist short story The Yellow Wallpaper. Originally the work was for actor, dancer, soprano, and chamber ensemble. To suit the needs of the opera company The Cabinet is collaborating with, I’m revising the work so the man’s role (originally designated to just an actor) will now be sung.
In terms of ORIGINAL work that’s on the drawing board: I’m working with a graffiti/pop-influenced artist and trombone player on a retelling of Where the Wild Things Are set in modern day Harlem with a female heroine. We’re presenting the work with live narrator, music, and projected animated stills that accompany the story.
And, of course, there are almost too many ongoing projects to mention. One project that won’t be completed for years, I imagine, is rescoring all of the silent films by experimental Dutch artist Frans Zwartjes. The Cabinet and I are presenting selections from his portfolio that I’ve rescored this December, but I’d like to present a multi-evening event of his work (with the hopes of getting the Museum of the Moving Image) interested in what I’ve been up to.
The list goes on and on, though—…
What are your favourite works that you have composed or collaborated on and why?
This is a very hard question to answer. I may even answer it a little differently. There are three major collaborative efforts that I feel like hot damn, that was something after it was all said and done. One was my major project at CalArts called Alphabephobia: Something Goes Wrong Everyday, which is a 26 movement “opera” that included literally everything I could possibly think of. Animation? Yes. Dance? Oh yeah. Set Design? Costume Design? Absolutely. Mobile sets? Theater? A fog machine? Literally. Everything. I remember there was a tragic highway accident the weekend of the premiere performances on the 105. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. But it was amazing. It wasn’t even close to perfect. And there were probably more people actually involved in the performance than people in the audience, but it doesn’t matter. I loved seeing all of the disciplines working together, complimenting each other, drawing out aspects of the story that might have gone unnoticed had only one discipline been used in the narrative. Music is at the heart of it all, but seeing the message cross multiple disciplines is what makes interdisciplinary arts just that much more engaging.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a little more focused—it’s more like an opera/monodrama, but has choreography and theater as well. It was my masters thesis project, and one of the first projects I formally put on with the Curiosity Cabinet. The hall we premiered the work in is no longer standing, but it was a really grand place to have had a premiere of an opera. Because it was in a academic setting, I was able to use props from the theater department, and we fully staged and costumed the work. My favorite part was that the musicians, who are typically stuffed under a pit, are integrated into the set on stage. The work is large, and a difficult one. Drama unfolds over 13 individual “diary entries” told from the perspective of our leading soprano. The premiere performance, with people in the audience, was the first time I got to experience the work as a whole, 50-minute drama. The work provides some conducting difficulties as well, and was, in 2010, one of the hardest (and longest) works I’d tried to perform. But that feeling of IT WORKED, despite the inevitable live performance hiccups—that’s the feeling that I live for.
And the experience was similar with The Anatomy of the Curiosity Cabinet which is the first large-scale, multi-movement work I completed FOR the Curiosity Cabinet. Most everything I write is absolutely for my/the ensemble, but this was the first official statement—and reason why the group is called The Curiosity Cabinet. For what it’s worth, the ensemble was named before the piece…but not much before. Again, it’s one of those large-scale works where it’s a true privilege to get to hear the work *in its entirety* before the performance…which didn’t happen. But the premiere? I couldn’t have asked for anything better. It was one of those all-star moments when I did the best I could writing a piece and conducting it, and the ensemble put in just that same effort. The result was palpable. If every performance was like that, I would never, ever consider any other career aside from music. Of course, having these “moments” make them less special, but that is one performance I hold near and dear to my heart.
You’re so good at composing that it almost seems sort of effortless for you! So do you have aspiration to work in other media, such as writing or visual art? I’m sure I remember you saying you sculpt occasionally…
Ha! I wouldn’t call it effortless, but it does get easier the longer I do it. Generally. Each piece has it’s own world, though. Some worlds are harder to navigate than others. I might have an easier time with composition than others because I really do consider myself a multi-/interdisciplinary artist. My main staples are conducting and composing, yes, but I’m almost always occupying my hands during mundane activities. So painting, sculpting, collage-ing, writing in my notebook, keeping up with nail-mail correspondence, repairing/reworking/refurbishing articles of clothing…the list could go on indefinitely.
I’ve really found an outlet with fashion, recently. I think it can be a wonderful expression of some fundamental ideas I have as a person. I’m very interested in the idea of re-contextualization and reworking things that are old into something new. I’m almost completely against purchasing new clothing. I would safely say 80% of it is preowned/thrifted, and of the other 20%, at least 10% are goods that are hand-made by artists with small shops. There is so much in music that is recycled as well…it shows up across so many interesting mediums.
If you had to pick one piece of music by any other artist living or dead that thoroughly sums you up as a composer and a human being – what would it be?
One piece? JUST ONE? It’s Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. It sounds like listening to a clydeoscope for an hour. There was a strong year that I listened to that piece every time I got on the subway in New York. I found that a lot of my commutes were about an hour, so it was a nice parallel journey to have while listening to a piece. Traveling from Point A to Point B, just as the piece does. And the rhythm and cross rhythms in it….are beautiful. It sounds like people walking. And in a large, metropolitan area, you can watch people phase into and out of what you’re listening to. And watching people move in and out of your world and vision like that is a beautiful thing. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Tell us a little about the intriguing ensemble of personalities and instruments that is the Curiosity Cabinet – what do they bring to your work that other orchestras could not?
I find that I enjoy writing for specific people much more than I just like writing for instruments. Everyone plays his/her own instrument differently. Never once have I worked wit one player and said to myself You know, you sound exactly like so-and-so. And, of course, everyone also bring their distinct personalities to rehearsals. One thing that may make our group distinct from others is that I refuse to make a piece my interpretation and my interpretation only. It’s usually the job of the conductor to not only be a practicality in keeping a piece together, but the conductor should also lead the interpretation of the work. Or, rather, a conductor historically does. And I’m not sure this is correct. I’d much rather hear and survey the opinion of the group rather than just dictate. It makes rehearsals much more of a conversation between players and parts rather than some sort of medieval dictatorship. And I pack my ensemble with people who are not only talented on their instrument, but who are gifted musical conversationalists. Our opinions won’t always be the same, but I think that’s also the point. It’s not about having a bunch of yes men in a room, it’s about testing an idea, making it bleed, working out its imperfections, and then showing off the finished product. Whether or not a work is ever finished is another topic of conversation entirely.
Finally, imagining you had unlimited resources to do any live spectacle, art happening, opera, performance art or interdisciplinary event, describe to our readers what you can see in your mind’s eye right now!
Unlimited resources? My dream is to buy an abandoned theater/performance space and to fix it up, make rehearsal facilities that are attached to it, and curate a bunch of interdisciplinary series out of that space and have different nights of the week. Like Friday nights might be performances of live music with silent film. Wednesday might be a day for works with puppetry. Thursday Burlesque? Magic acts? Who knows… But I’d like to present a series with the ensemble rather than a one-off performance. (So…if you know of anyone who is looking to give away a theater…!). I want to promote cross-collaboration, and I think having a space that is suitable for multiple disciplines is a good first step. While it might seem like an impossibility at the moment, who knows—crazier things have happened.
There are so many large projects I’d like to take on as well…one of which is a full-length opera. We’ve presented selections in a concert setting, but it’s never been staged, no one has ever been off-book, and opera, as we all know, is one of the most expensive art forms. Lots of singers. A generous orchestra. Sets, costumes, and, of course, the space to perform it in. The other struggle with this piece is finding the time to finish it. The librettist has finished the text, but the music…there’s an hour that’s been written. Maybe more. But to finish the piece would be a full-time job on its own. And finding the money to commission the piece to be written and then performed sounds like an impossible about of money for the moment.
Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from the piece
I’d also love to release one (or two) of my major works on vinyl, and get my ensemble into a recording studio to really produce some finely polished recordings. One piece I think would make a great project is the Inferno: the Nine Circles of Suffering for String Quartet on a two-sided, clear red vinyl press. Ideally I’d collaborate with a graphic designer (I do play favorites, my sister, Kaylan George, is awesome) on the artwork—which would be just that: a piece of art. I’d love to do something similar with the Night, like velvet: in twelve letters set…
Clapping Music is perhaps the natural, glorious death of the now unfashionable rhythm action game.It is both the closest* a game has come to defeating the abstraction between input and effect and the simplest you can make it.It is a one button game that’s as difficult (and rewarding) as the sadistically herculean feats enabled by the Souls games (which xxjfg adores).It is a video game on a phone that takes Steve Reich’s Clapping Music and makes it a nerve shredding, sweat inducing contest between your own sense of rhythm and an endlessly falling series of dots.
And it’s brilliant.
It’s brilliant in that it exposes what is so impressive about a performance of Clapping Music.It’s a piece that was designed to be simple in its instrumental requirements and in its concept.It is inherently playful and yet, when you hear it performed you still can’t quite grasp the complexity and labour at work.Until you perform it yourself of course.Which, with its three difficulty levels (which dictate tempo — hard being ‘normal’ speed), the app allows you to do.
It’s brilliant in that it opens up the mathematics of music through an appropriately minimal graphic design.
It’s brilliant because because it makes minimal composition into the competitive score attack festival it always wanted to be (I’m looking at you Riley).
And finally, it’s brilliant because you may well suck at first — the human desire to conform to your virtual partner’s claps is strong — but you get better.You get better until it clicks and in a glorious moment your rhythmic mind decouples from the tyranny of your partner’s beat and you soar through the variations.