Sonic Memories

Heather Frasch       Joseph Kurdika

I have many visceral sensations when I think about the importance of the sounds I experienced that year. At the time, I was aware that it was an important time in my life. It felt different than other moments before. Now, looking back I realize it was even more important than I realized. It was the beginning of something.

 

That year, it was as if sounds were constantly in my body. I would have dreams about Beethoven sonatas and hum Mahler on the street. I would hear Schubert lieder running in my mind while I read Shakespeare on the train. I was young and discovering so much about what existed in the world.

 

The train rides were as important as any other element, as well as the apples that I carried around for a snack. As I sat there, moving between locations, I could really be alone with my thoughts, with the inner sounds.

 

I was so full of excitement for life. I was impassioned. I was passionate about everything that year—music, film, literature. There was a revolution that was happening inside of me. Seeds were being set, and it all made sense. It was unbelievable how amazing and beautiful the world seemed. Life inspired me on many fronts. The sounds became my personal soundtrack to that amazement.

I was struck by the unworldly quality all the pieces we listened to together seemed to have. I couldn’t believe sounds like that existed. I had never heard anything as compelling and surreal. I would stay up all night listening to the pieces over and over again by myself, or sit on his floor just wanting to hear one more beautiful piece before catching my train. I became so familiar with the pieces that every detail was filled with the utmost importance.

 

Now, when I go back and listen, I still remember most of the details. Repetition does engrain things inside of you. Sometimes I listen again, but never with the same ears. Sometimes the same pieces seem obvious, and sometimes they bring me back to that year—a personal time machine to my past. I remember the energy I felt, the excitement, and how physical the sounds felt as I heard them inside my mind.

Sometime as a teenager in the mid- to late-’90s, I saw the film version of Spaulding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia. A friend and I just stumbled upon it while watching late-night television. This was the ’90s in a suburban/rural Michigan town. Things like this were rare. I watched the entire thing completely enraptured. I loved that something so stark and simple could also be so captivating. It was simply a man sitting at a table, telling a story. This experience left an impression on me that lasted for years. It was a concrete example of how artwork could be simple and direct: no frills. This was just the sort of thing that I wanted to exist but didn’t have access to the resources to discover. While I liked the story, it wasn’t the entire story that I remembered. I remembered Gray’s voice, and the simple, plain delivery.

 

Fifteen or twenty years later—again, visiting family in Michigan—I stumbled upon it again on late-night television. I enjoyed it, but it was different. It wasn’t the simple, stark experience that I’d held onto for so many years. It was a filmed version of a full-on stage production. It had music; dramatic, electronic music. It had very purposeful, dramatic lighting changes. It was directed by Jonathan Demme. I enjoyed re-watching it, but I was amazed at how it differed from my memory.

 

 

The thing is, it’s not that what I remembered was wrong, per se, but simply that what was important to me as an eager teenager interested in “strange” art and music was very different than what was important to me as…what’s the word?  “Experienced” or “accomplished” seem both conceited and wrong; “old” is wrong. Perhaps “some kind of composer in his mid-30s.” Well, whatever it is, someone who’s spent the better part of two decades studying and performing works by composers like George Brecht and Antoine Beuger watches Swimming to Cambodia in a different way than a teenager who loves The Cure (because it also seemed to be direct, simple, stark, and captivating) does.

 

The film now exists in my mind as something entirely bifurcated. Both memories are wholly accurate and real, though divergent. It wasn’t that the first memory was wrong. The impact of that first experience—in at least a small, if not a large part—led to me perceive the film the way I did during the second experience. Swimming to Cambodia was a gateway… uhh, well, it’s not a drug…art experience that helped to lead me on the path to seeking out these simple, direct, stark experiences in art and music. I have no doubt that the sounds and images were exactly the same both times, but the memory of them and the impact they had upon me were completely different.

 

As I write this, I’m listening to Greg Stuart’s realization of Michael Pisaro’s “A Cloud drifting over the Plain.” I’ve never heard it before, but it’s great—and it’s from 2008, which is a few years after I stopped regularly working with either of those guys. They were both there in 1999, when I first encountered—just a few years after that first Swimming to Cambodia experience—Manfred Werder’s “Stück 1998.” I remember Michael Playing it at a hall at Northwestern University (I have lots of memories of that strange little hall). That first encounter with Manfred’s music wasn’t unlike my first encounter with Spaulding Gray, in terms of the impact it had on me. I remember the discussion my young friends and I had about, not so much the nature of the piece, its structure, notation, demands of performance, but rather the experience of listening and perception within the performance/listening environment. During one of the performances or rehearsals (I remember workshopping the piece and dealing with the notation more than I remember playing it, though I clearly remember listening to others play it), I think a telephone was ringing in some other room. The hall had windows, and external sounds came in. These were things for young musicians to discuss at the time. Now, all of that seems very foreign and blasé, but it was important to us. What did these sounds mean?  What was the piece? What was it doing?

 

In 2003 (I know this thanks to Manfred, unlike me, keeping good records), Jonathan Marmor and I played Manfred’s 2 Ausführende at The Smell, in Los Angeles. Again, I don’t remember specific sounds, though I do remember working on the piece in Jonathan’s house in Los Angeles; I played his violin, and Jonathan played a flugel horn. In any case, during the performance, we sensed things happening around us—noises from outside, etc., perhaps the door to the club had been left open, it was a rainy night—but we simply carried out our tasks. After we played, we got up and went outside. There was police tape across the alley (the entrance to the club was in an alley, between two streets). During the hour or so we were playing, there had been a stabbing in the alley. The police had come and arrested someone, and I assume an ambulance had come as well; I don’t think anyone died. One of the bums who hung out in the alley said he’d been listening to the performance, and really enjoyed my violin playing. I think he called it “beautiful.”