Biological and Machine Ears
An Interview with Ethan Hayden
by Colin Tucker
Ethan Hayden is a composer, performer, and author based in America's Rust Belt. His acoustic, electronic, and vocal music has been performed at conferences, festivals, and DIY spaces around the world. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Composition from the University at Buffalo, and also holds undergraduate degrees in Composition and Theory from the University of North Texas. His principal composition teachers include Cort Lippe, Jeffrey Stadelman, Joseph Klein, Andrew May, and David Bithell. He currently teaches sound synthesis and electroacoustic composition at Buffalo State College. Also active as a performer, Ethan regularly presents new and experimental works for voice, trombone, and electronics. He is the associate director of Wooden Cities, a Buffalo-based contemporary music ensemble, and the technical director of Null Point. He is the author of Sigur Rós's ( ), published as part of Bloomsbury's 33⅓ series.
I. Electronics in the Elements
CT: I'm curious how PLACE relates to your total electronic music experience. What kinds of things were new or different about it for you and in what ways did you have to change your thinking about music technology?
EH: First, I'd say that, other than arena rock concerts or specific facilities that are equipped with some apparatus for doing music outdoors, electronic music—or amplified music even—doesn't happen outside very much. And when it does, my attitude is that it's not very good. There's just something about how loudspeakers sound outdoors, and the way in which sound is dispersed that is really unappealing to me. And I don't think that's a niche opinion, I know others who feel the same way. Dunn's score requires PLACE—with all of its music tech—to be performed outdoors, and there's something about that outdoor aspect that bothers me. It's like an image of a computer being set up in the middle of an empty field—which is, I guess, exactly what we did—but there's something disjunct, or even anachronistic about it. Amplified sound is going to disperse in bizarre ways outdoors depending on myriad factors, so there's already going to be a distortion. Even if one is playing an extremely well-mixed pop album, it's always going to sound worse outside. To then take field recordings, which are extremely difficult to record well, and then play them not just outside, but in the very outdoor space in which they were recorded, one has to contend not only with sound dispersal but also the dissonance between the natural ambience and the inevitably lower-quality reproduced ambience. Because the piece foregrounds the way recording and playback distort ambient sound by the very nature of the technology, this disjunction is emphasized even further.
Null Point’s set up for their premiere realization of PLACE at Silo City (June 17, 2017). Photo by Colin Tucker.
CT: PLACE is a very low-tech, DIY approach to electronic music. How did that relate to your previous experiences, did it involve a different set of elements to focus on, or different priorities or working method?
EH: Yes, but not for the DIY reasons you mentioned. Most of the electronic music I've composed is designed to be portable and to be performed by myself (i.e., it's literally DIY). So if you count using a $1000 laptop as DIY—that's certainly arguable—I'm not sure PLACE is any different or more low-tech that what I've done in my own music.
But the way the piece uses technology is totally different from what I've been used to doing, even down to really mundane elements. I'm used to setting up mics in a jazz club or a church or something, but it's something else entirely to do so outside, it goes back to that idea of disjunction or anachronism: unwinding mic cables and having them land on dusty gravel—which doesn't feel right at all. And also, the simple fact that the cables have to be so long—that may seem like a silly point, but even in a large hall one typically isn't sending a signal across several hundred yards to a laptop which is recording another signal from a hundred yards in the opposite direction.
CT: Or the fact that we had to borrow cables from three different institutions for the project. We had half the mic cables in the city of Buffalo!
EH: Yeah, and the way the piece magnifies that collision between the recorded sound and the space it's played in, which is usually something one ignores or tries to obscure.
CT: A lot of this piece is lo-fi or, at best, medium-fi. What was it like dealing with that aspect of it? Even for me--I'm not really an electronic music practitioner, but I found it a bit frustrating when things would sound "terrible" according to studio standards of what recorded audio is supposed to sound like.
EH: To a large extent, it's just the amount of noise that manifests on the recording. Of course, there's going to be noise on any recording, but I feel like in field recordings the noise is unbelievably significant, it's the main marker of reproduction (it's like tape hiss, the sound the medium itself produces, which is not there in the source material). There's a residue on the sound.
CT: You mentioned a loudspeaker being something that doesn't seem to want to be outdoors, I suppose that's even more extreme with a microphone when it's operating in an unbounded space. Our expectation of the sound that is recorded with a microphone is very much based in a closed studio environment with a sound source six inches away. What does it mean when one is recording a sound from 1000 feet away while it is being filtered by the environment?
EH: It's a much different way of approaching the recorded sound, one that discards any notion of clarity or any fetishization of pristine audio. It embraces the limitations of the microphone itself, as a tool, like a hammer, which is only useful in certain circumstances. The microphone "hears" so much differently than the way our own biological aural apparatuses do. That's perhaps a good way to think about some of those earlier sections of the piece, like Parts 1 and 3: they cause us to hear both with our own biological ears and with our machine ears, and they allow us to distinguish between the two.
II. Acoustic Balance, Cognitive Dissonance
CT: Let’s talk about the instrumental sections. Did Part 9 seem daunting at first?
EH: The real challenge there is the whole aspect of matching the volume of the environmental sound, but not exceeding or overpowering it. That's a phenomenally interesting idea in and of itself, I mean, what does it mean for two ambient sounds to match amplitudes? It's not as simple as just looking at a level meter, there are all sorts of things that contribute to this idea of balance: psychoacoustics, directionality, sound source location, audio masking, etc. My perspective as a player producing the sounds is both unique and compromising: as a trombone player, the sound is coming from pretty close to my head. In reality, it's not even coming out the bell for me, it's resonating throughout the whole instrument, and I can feel the physical vibrations, so it's difficult to know whether what sounds to my ears like a "matching" dynamic is going to sound the same to anyone else. But either way, that was always my primary focus while performing, trying to "ride the levels" between my sound and the ambient sounds to make sure I could always hear the latter. When I'd find a sweet spot, and wasn't having to agonize over balance, it would actually be a really comfortable place to be, but a lot of the time it was more of an edge-of-your-seat kind of thing, always adjusting the balance.
Above: Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 9 at Artpark (July 16, 2017).
Left: Ethan Hayden in Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 9 at Artpark (July 16, 2017).
CT: Yeah, it was like that for me too. It's surprisingly different from playing traditional chamber music in which one is worried about volume but in a very different way. There one has a sort of imaginary listener who is seated out in the hall, and the performer is playing to them, making educated guesses about what the balance is for them, with sounds that are fairly loud and fairly close by.
EH: And also different from the sounds one is making themselves. In chamber music one has their own part which differs from the other musicians' parts. But in Part 9 one is doubling—it's like the difference between a homogenous and a heterogeneous mixture in chemistry. Chamber music is usually heterogeneous, but in Part 9 the composer wants a homogenous mixture, the players have to combine their sounds with the environmental ambience at an almost chemical level.
CT: How about Part 10, what was it like to work on it?
EH: It was lots of fun! At the Silos, I performed it on a cheap student trombone Null Point acquired specifically for the performance. At Artpark, I actually used a student French horn instead of the trombone. The difference between these two was incredibly pronounced for me as a trombone player. There was something very uncomfortable about doing that stuff to the trombone (filling it with rocks, dragging it through gravel, scraping it against the walls of the silos, etc.). With the French horn I could just go for it.
CT: Because it's not “your instrument.”
EH: Exactly. But with the trombone such actions made me feel rather anxious. I found myself repeatedly checking to make sure it was the Null Point trombone I was using and not one of my "real" trombones. In rehearsals, I did all kinds of stuff to the trombone and the instrument bounced back and was fine. But then in performance, the first bunch of gravel I put in the bell somehow made it all the way into the slide making the slide irreparably useless in the traditional sense. That felt so wrong to me, I had some major cognitive dissonance about it.
CT: I remember you saying multiple times, "This instrument is gone for," but apparently it still has a fair bit of sound-making potential?
EH: Absolutely, and especially for this piece, there's lots of mileage left in it. But it still feels weird to hold a trombone and know I can't smoothly jump out to sixth position if I want to. After years and years of training on how to hold the instrument and being taught to be careful with it, and treating these instruments like they were fragile infants, it's a tough thing. I'm not one of those performers who practices two hours a day, seven days a week, but there's still enough time spent on it that it feels like an extension of my body, so it can be a bit stressful to play it in this way. But then there were other things, like scraping the bell against the wall in at the Silos, which I didn't do in rehearsal and just discovered in performance. That sound was so rich and amazing, it almost negated the anxiety about mistreating the instrument because the results were so satisfying. It produced all these great multiphonics that were strikingly loud, and the results were maybe sixty percent predictable—predictable enough that I could make repeated gestures and shape things, but unpredictable enough to continually produce surprises. Eventually I'd wear down that part of the bell and the resultant sound would change so I'd have to turn the instrument—but when I'd turn the instrument, I'd be holding it at a different angle and with different pressure, so the sound would still change in all sorts of colorful ways, it was great! Someone should make an instrument that's just a brass bell that you can go around scraping things with, because I'd play that all the time—I'd switch entirely from trombone to that instrument!
Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 10 (excerpt) at Silo City (June 17, 2017)