...the exact right red, the perfect green.
Nate Wooley Talks with Alex Mincek
From Sound American Editor, Nate Wooley
The following conversation took place in the Sound American office in June of 2016. I jotted down some quick questions in the days before our meeting, with nothing more in mind than to gain a more complete personal understanding of the music on this release and of the thought processes of the composer himself. My notes were, what I thought of as, points of convergence and divergence between our personalities, with the narcissistic hope that my perception of how close we were in work ethic and aesthetic was accurate—an attempt to ally my own way of thinking with someone whose output I admired.
What follows is a short excerpt of a conversation that is printed, in its entirety, in the deluxe liner notes that accompany the upcoming release of Mincek's disc: Torrent (released April 26th by Sound American Publications). For this special "mini-issue" of Sound American, the concentration is on Mincek's sound world and his highly personal way of combining texture and timbre with melody and rhythm to make something wholly original.
Listen to Alex Mincek's "Harmonielehre: Envelopes" from his upcoming SA Productions CD - Torrent featuring Josh Modney, violin and Eric Wubbels, piano
Nate Wooley: Your relationship to sound is interesting to me. I’m assuming you’re coming from a strict notational background?
Alex Mincek: I come from, what I would loosely characterize as, straight-ahead jazz from Charlie Parker on. So late ’40s through the present—that kind of practice and broad aesthetic that was not, for the most part, notated. I came up doing stereotypically normal jazz educational things: transcribing solos, playing along with records, that kind of thing. I started notating things more because I liked the idea of having some kind of global way of creating synchronized scenarios.
NW: What do you mean by that, “synchronized scenarios”?
AM: One of the things that least often occurs in purely improvised music is really precise unison playing. Right? Everyone is listening and reacting, but treating a large group of improvisers like a composite whole is not easy. Usually my experience is that the large group becomes a collection of musical parts that remain, not disconnected, but in discrete units. Whereas, when I write notated music, I can morph between—if there are eight players—them being identified as being eight or any permutation therein: two quartets, four duos, one octet, you know, all signified as one unit. And so that was the push toward notation for me.
Getting back to your question, my concept of sound is bound up with texture and timbre. To use the example of eight people playing: What are the textures that we can perceive as one unified thing? In other words, I’m really interested in how we parse sums and parts, so is the sound a collection of parts? Can we identify the parts? What kind of texture allows us one aspect of that part to be more salient than another?
And then, I’ve found timbral issues to be very interesting: the number of ways one can notate timbres on an instrument that might be very exact or might provoke the instrumentalist to make something that is just in that ball park and might not be imagined by the composer but is just kind of a spur toward something different.
NW: In general, there are a lot of contemporary compositional techniques that rely on extended technique and concentration on timbre. The thing I find most refreshing about your music is that I never get the feeling that those sound worlds are anything but a means to a musical end. There seems to be an interest and weight on timbre, but it’s balanced with melody and harmony in a manner that never feels strictly experimental. How do you think about the overall tension and release inherent in timbral considerations in the context of melody, harmony, rhythm, form, etc.?
AM: Right, well, I’m not trying to just show off these little sounds and say, “look what I can do with a violin, or look what I can do with a saxophone.” Once you find these special sounds, it’s most interesting to me how you combine them and, as you just mentioned in terms of tension and release, how they proceed from one to the next. Is there some kind of inevitability or some kind of coherence that these things suggest in the way that they’re ordered?
And, so, to make a kind of crude analogy to visual arts, Ellsworth Kelly was an artist who worked a lot with these bold colors, and in one phase of his work they were pretty strictly primary colors. In other phases it’s still these bright, vibrant colors, but it’s the exact right red, the exact perfect green. They’re not quite in their primary state, whatever that perfect version is, but there’s just something that is, “argh, how did you get that perfect version of yellow!”
What I would like to do with music then is—instead of a saxophone multiphonic, followed by a scratch violin sound followed by a stopped horn—to explore what it sounds like if this particular multiphonic is played at exactly the same time as this oboe multiphonic with this violin overpressure with this stopped horn. What is that composite? You’re not necessarily identifying the technique. You’re just hearing a composite.
I think that just keeps things fresh. All of the examples of techniques that I just cataloged are really ubiquitous sounds at this point. And, something that I’m always kind of fighting against in the new music world is the total push just toward new sounds, because it feels so disposable. People just want the new thing and then as soon as they do it, they throw it away. It’s like, “wait, can we actually just figure out what we can make with these?”
And this leads back to an idea of experimental music, which I like a lot, but I like to see what the actual results are and—when there are positive results—how I can put them into practice in various ways and have a kind of buoyant experiment happening. I shouldn’t just do a thing once and then move on. I don’t want to be wasteful with the material, so I’m constantly combining things in different ways.
But, in terms of the way things flow… I concentrate in my own work on this idea of why certain sounds need to move to other sounds. This is caught up mostly in how I’ve been preconditioned by Western music harmony.
NW: And, there are certainly elements of that history evident in your music, but it feels like you’ve also built your own kind of taxonomy of movement or tension and release. Is that a fair estimation, and, if so, has that process been systematic or intuitive?
AM: I think that’s fair, and it’s a combination of those things. The intuitive version is all-time quarterbacking everything else. It’s always present and mediating the other approaches, but there are definitely systematic materials that I’m working with. I’m typically trying to have them work in combination, especially with systems that traditionally seem incompatible so that the result—just like I mentioned single sound being a combination of events—is a kind of simultaneity of trajectories governing how I should move.
Just to give you an example: On one level I’m thinking of a section of music as having one process that’s dealing strictly with a kind of timbral morphing, so, to be crude in my categorization, a kind of spectral ideology about how a particular kind of sound decays over time: what happens to pitches as this particular sound decays. And then there might be a process within that as well that’s dealing with a more intervallic or purer abstraction of intervals—so maybe a more atonal system from the world of Schoenberg and Webern. There might be a kind of stripped down Schenkerian tonal thing as well and just any other number of processes that I may think are interesting at any given moment. So, I’m just trying to combine them all. The overall result, though, is one that you can’t quite pin down but it seems to make musical sense. And that’s what I’m going for, something that’s not obvious but somehow feels direct and clear. You just can’t exactly pinpoint why it’s working so well.
NW: It’s getting away from that minimalist model of everything in the structure being audible.
AM: Exactly, it’s not didactic. I’m not trying to be pedantic. I’m not teaching anybody anything, and I’m also not showing you under the hood necessarily, but I still want it to be direct and clear.
NW: I think, from the listener’s point of view, it’s that quality that draws you in and makes you want to hear it again.