Sam's Going to the Diner at Noon: On Living the Composer's Life

EW [Wet Ink Ensemble member] Sam [Pluta] says he’s going to the diner at noon.

KS Is that our first recorded sound bite?

EW Yes.

KS Our first sound bite for the readers of Sound American : Sam’s going to the diner at noon ! So, to set the scene : we are in Sarasota, Florida, for a Wet Ink Ensemble concert. We are sitting by a pool in floating deck chairs with daiquiris in the cup holders . . . [both laugh]

We don’t have a lot of opportunities to talk about each other’s work. We’re dealing with so many other parameters of administration and performance when we’re together that the actual work of composing doesn’t always come up.

EW It’s actually a rare thing that we even get to talk face-to-face.

KS I did think of some questions that I had about your new piece that we just did.

EW Okay, I have some questions for you, too.

KS It seems like a lot of us are writing pieces that are designed to be put together in a short period of time and also to be played by variable instrumentations. A lot of that has to do with us being spread out and not always having the entire group available for every concert. I was thinking of this new piece of yours [modules/relationships], which has that kind of flexibility, because I think of your music as having an incredibly high degree of specificity—harmonically, rhythmically, timbrally, formally, and physically in the sense of “this specific cymbal.” I am wondering how you—workingwith this high degree of rigor—are handling the idea of letting go of some of that control ; whether that’s difficult, or a bummer, or whether it’s teaching you new things about how to trust sound activity to happen the way you want without completely scoring it. In this piece, there are still real moments of specificity, like your duo with [violinist] Josh [Modney], but then a lot of it is fixed but with some parameters open.

EW I think it’s a test case. I’m trying to see if the stuff I’m interested in can go in those directions.

KS By stuff you’re interested in, you mean other composers?

EW Well, the things that are central to my musical personality, which in the past I’ve always realized in those ways you mention that are highly specific. A lot of what’s really exciting to me musically is coming from improvisers more than new music composers. And as a result I think I’m interested, right now, in openness and things that aren’t 100% fixed, combining moments of rigor and of openness and within the same space to create a more complex mode of listening : thinking of things from a slightly more zoomed-out perspective where you’re not really sure what is composed and sounds complex or what sounds complex but is improvised.

KS Where did that interest come from?

EW I think I just hit a moment where I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life and career only doing the same things, and so I thought, “what am I weak in,” a kind of self-evaluation, I want to spend the next ten years learning to be an improviser, finding ways to work with timbre that come out of electronic music, and integrating electronics in my music in more substantial ways. It’s not that I’m rejecting all the musical language that I have built over the years, but I think it’s good to have those moments of reflection. That’s something I look for in the work of other artists as well : those big inflection points in their output.

The thing that bums me out the most, especially in new music right now, is the production model of composing where the worst career mistake you can make is to do something different because you’re “fucking with your brand.”

KS Right, getting the kind of commission where they want “another one of those !”

EW Right, to me that is a kind of death. I just don’t want that at all.

KS Which artists are you thinking about, historically?

EW I just feel like that used to be the model. Like the periods we talk about in reference to classical composers : early, middle, late. That seems to be missing at the moment.

But, since you ask about specific artists, I finally have a bit of breathing room after a long stretch of deadlines this year, and I decided I’m going to listen to every single [Iannis]
Xenakis piece. I would say that he’s someone that’s sort of on my mind along the lines of that model of a huge, level output, and completely insane creativity all the time.

KS It’s funny that you bring up Xenakis because, to me, he seems like someone who had a perspective that didn’t change enormously. Obviously the output is magnificently varied, but he seemed to be looking at music through this very specific personal lens. I don’t think of him as an early, middle, late kind of guy.

EW I had that generalized impression, too, but getting closer to the details of his pieces, I think you do see a little bit more of that experimentation. There is a consistent approach and methodology but he really changes the specific ways he’s working within his boxes. And, as the technology changes, his approaches change, too.

Outside of that Xenakis project, though, I really just love listening to, reading, watching great things : things that are nourishing artistically. I’ll go to see live shows, which are mostly improvised music, and then I just read books and listen to all kinds of music, mostly from outside the new music world. I think if you don’t do that, you can become inured to a certain level of mediocrity, I guess, because otherwise you’re just dealing with the big slush pile of stuff that comes to you through whatever means, and so much of it is not good. I’ve been consciously pushing that aside a little bit and trying to spend more time with the things that are really meaningful and exciting to me

KS I relate to that, and I think that a lot of people I know who are having that sort of “version 2.0” conversation with themselves. I’m thinking about what it is that I want to work on and cultivate ; for me it’s writing—like really writing.

EW You mentioned this after the show that we did.

KS I’ve always been a writer, but I kind of shunted that off to study composition. But, it’s always remained present in my life ; even this piece of mine that we’re doing tonight, Voices from the Killing Jar. I wrote some of the texts for that piece, but I remember being so embarrassed and worried about it. I actually had a whole fake pen name and I was going to say they were poetry by this other person.

EW Didn’t Thomas Adès do that?

KS Did he? ! Well, there is something uncomfortable about dabbling. When you’ve dedicated all this time to becoming an expert in something, like composition, and then you decide you really want to focus on this other thing you don’t have a lot of professional experience with, like writing, it’s a little bit awkward. It’s like that scene in Being John Malkovich when he becomes a puppeteer totally out of left field. I guess if you’re as famous as John Malkovich, people are more accepting, but when you’re a composer who says, “now I’m an improviser” or “now I’m a novelist,” it’s harder to buy.

I’ve written librettos and I’ve tried to think of form in terms of writing, but when I’m reading real writers, it’s obvious they have a special something I don’t have, and I don’t know if I could do enough work to get there. But, I think I could do something more with the intersection of words and music.

I’m trying to get away from thinking of words only in the context of singing ; something where language is the medium and music is involved with that in a deep way but it’s not sound design and it’s not text setting and it’s not speaking with musical accompaniment. I think it’s easy for music to cover for iffy text writing. Even in Ipsa Dixit, I feel like “I could have done that Aristotle a little more elegantly, but no one’s going to pay attention while all this tricky shit’s going on in the ensemble.” I don’t want to let myself get away with that, but it’s hard. You have to invent a way to practice in order to get better at something you have been kind of doing from time to time, but not really deeply studying.

EW How do you think about syntax? The way you use it in Ipsa Dixit is very meta and explicit, but, when you’re not using text, are you interested in the idea of meaning and sound grammar and constructing things like that?

KS I think I’m less interested in syntax and grammar and more in actual storytelling. When I’m writing stuff without text, which I don’t do very often these days, I think about that, too. I wrote a sax duo a couple of years ago and “Wolf,” a piece for Yarn/Wire. With those, I was either trying to say something really specific narratively, or the form had to do with narrative in an abstract way.

The thing I like about writing is that there’s the concreteness of a story about actual things that are happening, but there’s also this pulsing sense of something else behind it. That’s true of music, too, but in music you don’t expect the surface to be literal, so you are more aware of the pulsing background as the content. It’s really interesting how depth gets conveyed when you’re totally seduced by surface. The written word makes sense to us because it is in a language that makes sense. So, I think my dissatisfaction with what I’m doing is that—when you use music as the primary element and especially when people are singing—you can never really achieve that kind of natural surface state, because it’s not natural to sing.

I think “The Crito,” the piece I wrote for me and Ian [Antonio], comes closest to what I’m trying to achieve, because we’re actually just talking to each other but there is a specific musical structure going on underneath that has to do with collapsing parallel fifths. You don’t necessarily hear it but it’s present in some way that I hope gives some underlying meaning to the words that can slip into the listener’s mind.

The difficulty of understanding music in a literal way is frustrating. Because of that, I’ve allowed myself to adapt this sort of narrator persona in my music in order to really explain things, and it’s hard to let go of that. I did Voices from the Killing Jar in Houston a year ago and got a kind of awkward review that said something about it clearly being very unsettling music that no one is supposed to enjoy or understand. I think of that piece as pretty accessible, but that expectation that you’re not going to understand contemporary music frustrates me as someone who’s ultimately trying to tell a story. I keep trying to strip it down more and more, and I think the thing I now realize is that the non-music elements, the speech, has to be the main thing. I can’t keep trying to make music do this work that it’s not really designed to do.

EW But it sounds like you’re also inventing a new genre.

KS Yeah, but I think if I do it correctly you’ll just take the genre for granted. Do you think about genre in your work at this point? Is improvisation a genre to you?

EW I think the idea of genre is made present to you through other people’s reception of your work. Even if whatever new direction you’re exploring is not a big deal for you, you’ll find that a certain percentage of people who would really go with you on some of your pieces feel lost with the change. That’s interesting to see for me, too, in a way.

I guess I think about the habits of genres—the one I’ve been most enculturated to being new music—as a trap. I listen to so much music that’s not in that genre, that when I come back to it the stuff that is really habitual, like clichéd ways of playing instruments, really grates on me. And, I’m like “cool, there’s no need for me to address that particular language.”

I get that things like that—those habits of genre—exist as a way of communicating and building community, building shared language. And, that’s why people adopt them. They want community and ways of being intelligible to other people, but it’s also a kind of style thing.

KS Is the crowd that goes to improv music in New York different from the crowd that goes to contemporary music?

EW It is, but there’s also a nice overlap, and that’s what I’m interested in. At the moment, a lot of people that have a rigorous training in improvisation are interested in the technical training of new music. It’s a nice moment of this mutual gaze across that divide : people with a strong training in one side, be it improvisation or new music, seeing the benefits of the other world and trying to combine the two sides in some sort of whole, as opposed to those worlds being stratified.

KS Maybe that desire to create a holistic voice from multiple sources is something we all go through. I think you spend your twenties feeling like “I guess this is the path I’m taking because these are the things my friends are doing and this is what really excites me,” and then you start to think about what you really want to do or how you really want to challenge yourself.

There’s a real advantage in deeply investigating and becoming skilled at something and then realizing your real interests are a little to the side of that. I feel like you learn a good set of musicianship skills when you engage in a deep exploration of, especially, contemporary music. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t gone to Columbia and joined Wet Ink, because it’s hard to throw yourself into something that doesn’t necessarily feel natural. From that work, though, I have this language of new music that does feel personal, and I can think of all these ways to apply it.

EW That’s an interesting way of putting it. I was doing research on a visual artist and ran across this quote about him by [sculptor] Richard Serra that basically said that an artist should individuate themselves to the highest degree, to become themselves to the fullest. I have all kinds of issues with the idea of expressing personality being the point of what I do, so I do have some resistance to that quote but it struck me in a positive way.

I think I read it around the time of your Miller Theater Ipsa performance, and that idea of individuation particularly resonated in regards to you. You’ve really created something, with that piece in particular, that no one else could have really done.

KS For better or worse . . . [laughs]

EW Really, in a positive way ! You have a very clear idea of what you want to do, and you’re following that. Maybe another thing we could talk about is how you think about structuring your career in that context. I get a strong sense from you—and I really admire this—that you’re not just saying yes to everything.

KS No, but partly because no one is asking me to do the things I want to do. No one asked for HERE BE SIRENS. No one asked for Ipsa Dixit. No one asked for Voices from the Killing Jar. No one asked for this huge opera I’m putting on. I imagine most people come to this conclusion at some point, but if you don’t want to do something then why do it—unless you’re making a living from it. I totally accept that and understand that, but it’s difficult for me because the few projects that caught my eye enough to say yes to, despite misgivings that they would take me away from what I really wanted to focus on, were not totally positive experiences. Because if you take someone’s money, ultimately you have to do what they tell you. Some of those experiences were stressful and made me unhappy so it’s been easier to make the decision to say no.

Sometimes I have an idea that aligns with an offer but, in my experience, it’s rare that someone says that they want to collaborate but the length is up to me, the deadline is up to me, the instrumentation is up to me, etc. My ideal commission would be something like : Here’s a theater ! 2024 ! Keep us updated !

You work on commission a little bit more because you’re freelancing. Have you found it difficult to navigate the time spent on that work with your own artistic needs?

EW I need deadlines. I don’t like them, but I need them. And, I’ve made a concerted effort to be clear with myself about what kind of stuff I want to get involved with and then filter every offer through that, because, same as you, there’s really nothing worse than putting effort into making a piece and then at the end, they’re not happy and you’re not happy.

And, until recently, I didn’t have a lot of people knocking at my door in that specific way, so it never was an issue for me. Now there’s definitely more and imagining the sort of thing that is exciting for you and the collaborator is a different kind of challenge. It’s sort of one or the other : either the day job or these kinds of issues.

KS For me, having the teaching job and doing less commissioned work is better for now. There’s only so much time I can devote to the creative stuff. If I were working on commissions, it would take too much time away from daydreaming about a new form or something.

But, when people commission you, do you think they’re always familiar with your work ; are they asking you to do something because they know your language?

EW At this point, yes. And, if not, it’s very clear and those are the easy ones to turn down.

KS For me, too. “We don’t know your work but we’re doing a concert of all-female composers and we saw your name in the paper, would you . . .”

Thank you for your interest and no.

But, sometimes I get interesting proposals that are totally up my alley, and I think about it and equivocate. I’m trying to get better at not stringing decisions along, but as I get older I really realize how much things take out of you.

EW Well, how many really good pieces can you write in a year?

KS I’ve started to think about how many things we are going to write in our lifetimes. And, because I’m feeling more removed from a commissioning world, I’ve started wondering how many Ipsa Dixit–sized pieces I have in me? That piece is 90 minutes of music and this new opera is over two hours. So, if my work is going to remain on that scale, maybe I turn out a piece every two to seven years, depending on what else is going on in my life?

EW Would you be happy with that?

KS Yes. I think when you invest more than a year in something, it’s a lot easier to appreciate the journey. Your relationship to the work is less about the end result and more about what is getting you up in the morning. That time frame also gives you time to bark up the wrong tree for three months.

EW That’s so important.

KS Yeah ! And, sometimes that wrong tree stuff comes back. Like research for HERE BE SIRENS wound up in my string quartet. Having that kind of space and time sounds like a great way to use three- to seven-year periods for the next, hopefully, 60 years.

EW What does the zero stage of a big project—that time of not yet knowing what it is—look like for you? Is it research? I really love that phase.

KS Yeah, me too ! And when projects are large they have to overlap. You can’t just be thinking like [claps hands] “the premiere happened last night so what should I do now?” I now have a Word file that I put things in or I make a quick note on my phone. You end up knitting together a collection of ideas in the back of your mind.

That’s my approach now, and the opera I’m working on was
similar but I had the context of using this medieval poem as source material. I was on sabbatical at the beginning of the process of making that piece, and I basically did research for six or seven months before I realized I just needed to fucking start writing ! Like, someone stop me ! Why am I reading an ancient gardening manual? What’s happening? ! So, one arbitrary day, I started writing : “Prologue . . .” and then you start pouring it out.

What’s your blank slate like?

EW I love those moments. That’s when I can really take the time to engage with other people’s work, read technical articles, literature, or listen to all kinds of really harsh noise music, or whatever. That resets the context, because I hope that we’re all aiming as high as we can, and the goal is not just to be as good as the stuff that’s going around that particular year in your little scene. I think it’s important to stay connected to the things that are nourishing to you, that resonate in your body for more than a day after you encounter them. I think that process is a way of making a kind of soil in your mind, something that you can throw a bunch of seeds into in hopes that they’ll sprout.

That also usually means that I get a big “police procedural” wall going in my studio above the desk early on in a project, with all kinds of visual things from that process.

I find that visually this helps a lot, and I’ve gotten almost intentional about partitioning creative tasks into conscious and unconscious, and there’s some stuff that you just let cook in the background and other stuff that you’re going to sit down and execute. And I have certain times of the day that I do one or the other. But, there’s always a little bit of sadness when you’re done exploring, and it comes time to write measure one.

KS Something I like about writing is that it’s different from composing. I can kind of do it at any time of day. I type a sentence, read it back, and adjust it. It’s kind of like composing, but I have to be in such a place of pristine mental acuity to write music in order to maintain that control of the time and sound. You can compose all morning and the next day you think that it sucks. Whereas I can write any time of day and know whether it’s working. Maybe it’s easier to sculpt words because we’ve spent our whole lives using language in the same way that is used in writing, at least on the surface.

EW I would be interested to hear from someone that identifies as a professional writer and see if they feel the same way, but it seems to make intuitive sense to me, too.

KS Me too. And I’m not saying it’s easy to write but, for me, I wake up in the dimension of language so it’s less of an issue of getting yourself into the focused space you need to get in the dimension of sound.

EW That’s interesting. I did a residency recently and my partner, Anna, came with me. I think I was pretty annoying about it because I asked that from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm we not talk. You know, even if I came out into the kitchen to get water or whatever. I was just trying to get into that non-verbal space.

KS Yeah I lived with a partner that was not a composer and I would just glare while he was stirring his coffee in the morning. I needed to pretend I was living on the moon for a few hours in the morning in order to get in that composing headspace but, with writing, my whole universe doesn’t collapse when the electrician comes by at 8:30 in the morning.

Is that something that’s appealing to you about improvising ; that you can sit in front of an instrument and just see what happens, even if you’re a little scattered?

EW It’s more about the time scale. It’s always way more successful for me when I’m in that exact same focused headspace, if I’m improvising. I think it’s just that the creation is immediate. The result is immediate. You just taste it right away. If you’re in the zone trying to write something that is a complex texture, you can spend a week figuring out how to achieve what you’re hearing and notate it, then you give it to people and rehearse it. So, obviously that’s a very different experience from the immediacy of improvising that same complex texture, even if the result could be quite similar. It’s not that one or the other is superior, it’s that they enrich each other.