Hedonism and Zombification
An Interview with Zane Merritt
by Colin Tucker
Buffalo-based composer, guitarist, improviser, and artist Zane Merritt holds a PhD in composition from the University at Buffalo, studying with David Felder and a MM degree in guitar performance from Butler University. As a performer, he has premiered the works of numerous composers in his generation, including Colin Tucker, Nathan Heidelberger, Jason Thorpe Buchanan, Megan Grace Beugger, and Meredith Gilna and has performed with the Switch~ Ensemble, the Generous Ensemble, Wooden Cities, and null point. As a composer, his works have been performed by the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra, the Antares Ensemble, Ensemble Either/Or, the Meridian Arts Ensemble, Toronto-based pianist Adam Sherkin, the Parvenue oboe and cello duo, and Wooden Cities, among others. He regularly improvises, having performed with TJ Borden and Steve Baczkowski, among others. He has released 4 improvisational albums, titled "Cosmic Guitar" and "Convincing Myself Not to Sell My Guitar, Vol. 1-3" available on Spotify and iTunes.
I. Unpacking Awkwardness
CT: Tell me about performing parts 2 and 9. Did close listening to ambient sound change your sense of the either performance location’s ambient soundscape?
ZM: Part 2 was always a bit weird to me. It was awkward to perform. In Artpark, it was easy to confuse which sound was actually the loudest sound one was hearing. In orchestration, if one orchestrates just by the decibel level of a given instrument at a given dynamic in a given register, it won’t necessarily register. In Part 2, if one gets fatigued when following a certain sound, another sound that is more interesting takes on the quality of loudness even when it may not be the loudest by decibel level. I opened myself up to that happening, hopefully not comprising the integrity of the piece. All except one of us were performing, in relatively close quarters. The zombification of our actions put us in an odd enough interpretive and psycho-social space that, thinking of the more transcendental and perceptual apparatus involved, kind of got cancelled out.
CT: Are you talking about the inability to hear each other?
ZM: Sure, that, but also there was a tendency within me to get a little more awkward if I found myself going after the same thing as someone else. It was uncomfortable, and the overall point of the movement was awkward and unclear to me.
CT: To me, part of the tension is that this section is more for the performer than it is for the audience.
ZM: Which made it an odd position to be placed in as a performer.
CT: You mean in the inaudibility of other performers, and knowing that one’s own sounds are not audible to one other?
ZM: Plus the added element of the bodily gestures—they seemed, because of their inaudibility, even weirder. And also finding variety within what was possible. I found myself often imitating wind sounds with my palms.
CT: There’s also the fact that we were in public spaces, sort of performing and sort of not performing. Inwardly, this part demands an enormous amount of concentration, and yet there’s often no audible outcome of that concentration.
Earlier you used the word zombification—could you clarify what you meant?
ZM: The pure length of the piece as a whole, as well as of each part. Part 2 emphasized the zombification, although it occurred in the whole piece. Whenever you walk slowly in a group, it has this connotation. In the Part 6, there was a fair bit of that, especially with a planned spatial trajectory that had to be traversed in a slow, meandering fashion. I became the vessel of a sound.
CT: Was this something you were self-conscious of, or is that just an offhand observation?
ZM: I’m okay with awkwardness in performance in general, so it didn’t devolve to a level of self-consciousness because there were only two of us, and the overcrowding I described in the second section wasn’t present. So it was a movement where I could not shut off perceptually because I was still making sure I stayed within the guidelines we had worked out—constantly changing my distance and movement with respect to Leanne [Darling, the other performer in Part 6]. But it was definitely there.
II. Active versus Reactive Attention
CT: I was wondering about how PLACE relates to your experience improvising?
ZM: One goes through varying modes of perception as an improviser. Sometimes, listening at the most hyper-acute level is best. Other times, completely ignoring everything else can be best. That spectrum of perceptual zones manifested throughout PLACE.
CT: But in group improvisation, one’s focus might change quite rapidly, whereas PLACE tends to fix one’s focus on a really specific thing for over 30 minutes.
ZM: Definitely. With Part 8, performing was more reactive than what generally happens with free improvisation. There, direct reaction often spawns a hierarchy of importance: if you’re reacting to someone, you’ve suddenly implicating them. Often, reaction in improvisation is more of what a live TV news anchor would be doing: they’re reading what’s been given to them, but they have the producer in their ear. They’re having to take their activity but also register what that producer is saying, and then act on it.
Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 2 at Artpark (July 16, 2017)
Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 8 at Artpark (July 16, 2017)
CT: In Part 8, there’s an oscillation between reactive split-second imitation, and active, more composerly concern for sequences of gestures, proportions of sound and silence, and interactions with ambient sound. In practice, one’s attention at any given moment is more on the reactive side, maybe 90% of the time. The composerly perspective is only there secondarily, i.e., “Do I need to intervene at this particular moment?”
ZM: And in terms of the choice of timbre, vowel, tessitura, if one decides to start the chain of imitation, that’s when that type of decision-making and thought process occurs. It is comparable to a free improv context, in terms of the micro-focus, particularly in Part 9, when one is really zoning in with utmost concentration. In this case, one is focusing on a more singular thing than in ensemble improv. However, in an improvised duo there is a similar kind of focus; when one is improvising in a duo, it almost makes sense to pay more attention to your partner than to your own playing. So there are both divergences and similarities with improvised music, as with many open-notation pieces.
III. Situated Adaptations
CT: Were there any decisions you made in your own part that you changed your mind on after a rehearsal or between performances?
ZM: I didn’t really change my approach but I had to tinker to find the best way of doing things. I realized that imitating the Doppler effect of distant motors was going to be difficult on a fretted instrument. You could do it with an e-bow and a slide, but that wouldn’t have had the right timbre. My solution was to significantly detune the lowest string; most of the pitch change was me turning the tuning peg. So not rejection, just adaptation.
CT: What was your experience of performing for 7 hours? Did certain segments of the piece feel different…?
ZM: Yes, particularly Part 10 at the silos. Towards the end I turned the corner and went down the road towards the entrance to Silo City. There was no one there, I’m dragging a guitar, it’s howling. It was a strange circumstance. I was considerably dehydrated, very sunburnt (I didn’t wear sunscreen). It was a very odd feeling. At that point, there’s an absurdity that inevitably opens up with any 7-hour performance—it doesn’t matter what the piece’s sonic content is, it’s going to feel absurd at that point. But the sounds that resulted I thought were quite nice, and gave me a lot of ideas for the instrument.
It was a lot different by the time we got to the end of the Artpark performance because for reasons unbeknownst to us or the piece, there was the threat of inclemency throughout; we got a bit of rain in Parts 4-6, but then it finally opened up in Part 10, which was interesting. All of a sudden we have a little hazard, particularly me as I’m working with low-power electricity.
Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 10 at Artpark (July 16, 2017)
CT: Yes, the amplification can be a hazard, but you also mentioned that you felt that the amplification was a limitation?
ZM: It always is when playing with mostly acoustic instruments. I’ve never felt completely comfortable with it. But it’s still better than playing classical guitar in an ensemble. Once we got to Part 10, the amplification became really useful. When acoustic instruments are attempting to match dynamics, the physicality of the action is such a paramount barometer for getting a sense of “Am I doing this right?” But when one using amplification, the physical action doesn’t necessarily correspond to the resultant volume, in terms of decibels. There’s a lot of second-guessing. The e-bow was also tough—there’s a lot to worry about: location with respect to the pickup, playing on detuned down strings—there’s a risk of jumping to upper partials. It can be difficult and frustrating, but I was ultimately happy with how it came across.
IV. Preparing Hedonism
CT: What was your favorite section to perform?
ZM: I mean, Part 10—it’s a cop out, but it’s hard to beat. Staying within the concept of the piece within Part 10, there were moments at Artpark in which I pushed the guitar towards one of the trees, and it managed to hook itself onto the bark, so that it stayed attached without any support from me, and then I threw sticks and rocks at it, attempting to dislodge it. It also speaks to the concept of the piece, where that act of disruption led to a discovery of physical materials that I would not have thought possible. The trees were fun. Part 10 has a different tenor than the rest of the piece.
Zane Merritt in Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 10 at Artpark (July 17, 2017). Photo by Megan Metté.
CT: In the process of realizing it, you were discovering things on the go. How did you think about the relationship between preparation and doing things on the fly? How did you arrive at a performance practice, so to speak? As classically trained musicians, we’re taught that everything must be prepared beforehand, but this section sets up a different relationship between preparation and the actuality of performance.
ZM: Preparation had two aspects here. I had to prepare the guitar with materials lying around to take away the pitch and maximize timbral variety.
Going back to the nature of the amplification: there’s only so many ways you can initiate sounds on the instrument. This initiated the second aspect of preparation. It depends the action one is performing—there’s dragging, hitting, dropping, a bit of throwing. In that way, it was finding nuances within those 6-7 actions that one can do within the stipulations of the piece, to keep it varied.
CT: Have you ever done anything like Part 10 before?
ZM: I was never a punk guy. I was always a heavy metal guy, with an erudite approach. I was always more interested in learning to play the instrument rather than the rock attitude. So that degree of instrumental damage was new to me, and I had a very good time doing it. Discovering the resulting sounds was also a lot of fun, and I learned a lot. It was at once sadistic, hedonistic, and pedagogical.
CT: Were there any sounds in particular that surprised you?
ZM: Preparing the strings with a rock, and then using slight movements to let the strings rebound, and hearing the really high scratch tones resulting. Also the almost vibraslap-esque action of having the instrument braced in a way that it started to bounce, yielding the sound of the strings bouncing. It was very sonically, orchestrationally interesting.
CT: You could have used a rock or stick as a pick—did you consciously chose to not do that?
ZM: That would have not been very interesting for me. Perhaps that would have been outside of the purview of the piece. It wouldn’t have been as disruptive.