Notes on Curatorial and Performance Practice
An Interview with Colin Tucker
by Jennie Gottschalk
Colin Tucker is a composer and curator who lives in Buffalo, NY. His compositions explore thresholds of audibility, physicalities of performing and listening, and cultural meanings of melody. Recent collaborators include ensembles Chartreuse, dal niente, East Coast Contemporary Ensemble, ELISION, Linea, plus-minus, S.E.M., Surplus, and Uusinta. As curator, he is founding artistic director of Null Point, an initiative for new music and sound art whose projects explore materialities of live, collective sound-making through immersive concert presentations, site-specific projects, durational performances, and participatory/pedagogical endeavors. Since its creation in 2014, the organization has presented events in partnership with Artpark, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Constellation Chicago, Dartmouth College, Fridman Gallery, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, New Music USA, New York State Council on the Arts, Princeton University, Squeaky Wheel, Toronto Arts Council, Visual Studies Workshop, and others.
I. Beginnings: Towards a Site-Embedded Music
JG: To start off, what was your motivation for putting on PLACE?
CT: The story goes back almost two years before the piece’s June 2017 premiere performance. In late summer 2015, I was thinking about future programming for Null Point, the experimental sound initiative I direct. I was hoping to build on possibilities explored the previous summer in “Decay-Reverberate,” a four-day event featuring new sound works created for presentation at Silo City, a group of vacant, historic grain elevators near downtown Buffalo.
To research possible future programs, I sought to do further research on histories of site-specific sound. Being a classically trained cellist, and a composer who writes mainly acoustic chamber music, I was especially eager to learn more about earlier work that activated intersections between site-responsiveness and chamber music. In particular, the possibility of moving the nuanced group interactions cultivated in historical Western chamber musics out of exclusionary high art spaces into outdoor, public spaces struck me as particularly fruitful. What if chamber music’s subtlety and flexibility were enlisted not in the name of technocratic specialization, but instead towards public, post-anthropocentric community building? In other words, how could the techniques of historical Western art music be effectively “scrapped” and appropriated towards wholly new purposes? I knew of relevant works by Yoko Ono, Mieko Shiomi, Anthony Braxton, Pauline Oliveros, Annea Lockwood, Alvin Lucier, and others, but sensed that there might much more contemporaneous work along these lines.
Null Point’s world premiere realization of Lena Nietfeld’s some workers it casts into barbarous types of labor, and others it turns into machines at "Decay-Reverberate" at Silo City (June 2015)
CT: I also knew of and admired pertinent pieces by David Dunn, but didn’t know of any that were not tied to particular (mostly distant from me) locations. I sent him an email asking about more portable site-specific pieces that might be suitable for my group, and, why yes, not only were there suitable pieces, but there was a day-long outdoor piece, PLACE, written in 1975, that had not yet been realized. I still remember opening that email, reading through the score of PLACE, and immediately thinking, “this piece needs to happen!” Although in ways less radical than some of Dunn’s later work, the piece nonetheless strikes me as embodying a limit situation in its intricate engagement with the environment of a particular place as well as its formal and durational scope.
Even from reading the score, I was especially intrigued by how the piece intervened in an everyday space in delicate yet decisive ways. The piece’s audacious gamble seems to be that, by contributing highly context-sensitive sounds to an outdoor place, musicians might intensify listeners’ focus on that place’s existing sonic and physical environment. PLACE attempts to do more with less, augmenting the richness of music’s dialogue with environment by limiting music’s materials, an avenue of investigation that to this day is under-explored. And, on top of this, the piece pursues this aim through a remarkable variety of strategies, and sequences these strategies into a compelling large-scale narrative that engages in dialogue with both contemporaneous process forms (of Lucier, Tenney, and Reich) and symphonic formal architectures. (Elsewhere in this volume, I explore the perceptual implications of this approach to form).
JG: Tell me about how plans for a performance materialized.
CT: A substantial amount of legwork took place prior to actually making sounds at the first ensemble rehearsal in May 2017. Prior to pitching the project to potential partner institutions, I worked out the piece’s logistical parameters, about which the score is quite open-ended. The piece requires at least five human musicians to spend an unusual extended period of time in a particular location (between rehearsal and performance), making it expensive and logistically unwieldy. Given the project’s durational scope (in addition to its broader performance demands), I believed that compensating performers at non-menial hourly rates was essential, and would lead to a much more positive experience for everyone involved. After numerous unsuccessful and almost-successful pitches, the project finally found a home in 2017 at Artpark, an arts presenter in an expansive park overlooking the Niagara Gorge. Concurrently, Null Point had been invited to perform at Silo City, a complex of vacant grain silos on the Buffalo River, in the same time frame, allowing us to realize the piece twice in contrasting locations.
II. Location, Ecology, History
CT: I should clarify that the choice to even consider realizing PLACE in either location was made only after a good deal of time on-site and reflection. By presenting the piece in two contrasting locations, I aimed to render audible the work’s location-contingent attributes in an especially concrete way. As such, I hoped to position site as (non-anthropomorphic) protagonist, almost as if the score were being “interpreted” by two different sites.
The decision to realize the work twice in different sites emerged from my broader approach to curating highly indeterminate post-Fluxus scores. In some cases, I select a point within a work’s possibility space that resonates well with the particularities of the given presentation context. More ambitiously, I also like to explore what is possible beyond the single realization, exploring a score’s unique parameters of variation and limitation through multiple, contrasting realizations. In this latter case, I treat indeterminate works as opportunities more than obligations, and I spend a perhaps excessive amount of time thinking about how a score activates specific openings to reconfigure practices of performing, presenting, and curating. I believe that past realizations of extremely open-ended works written 1960-1975 have often barely scratched the surface of what’s possible in this regard.
Null Point’s set up at Silo City for their world premiere realization of David Dunn’s PLACE (June 17, 2017)
JG: Tell me more about why you chose these two particular sites.
CT: To start, the score provided some concrete limitations: I read it as requiring a site with a multiplicity of ambient sounds, with no one layer of ambient sound dominating, and with expansive walkable spaces. However, there were a range of broader considerations that led to my site choices.
Dunn realized many of his early site-specific projects in stereotypically “natural” wilderness locations, which at the time might have been an important intervention, in simply acknowledging the sites as vibrant ecologies rather than as “natural resources” to be exploited. However, nowadays, this approach to performance siting is more common, and I worry that it has become too compatible with idealist notions of nature as being a “pure” space totally “away” from human activities. Morever, the Rust Belt region where I live has a historically very complicated relationship with “nature,” and as a result I wanted to realize PLACE in sites linked to that history. The composer had indicated to me that he had become increasingly open to working with non-wilderness sites, so I ran with the opportunity.
To open lines of communication between the performance and the region’s ecological histories, I deliberately chose two sites historically implicated in initiating exploitations of nature on a scale unprecedented in human history. Silo City is part of a larger network of local grain elevators that positioned Buffalo as the hub of the Great Lakes grain trade (ca. 1840-1965); Buffalo’s location at the terminus of the Erie Canal necessitated the elevators’ construction for purposes of transferring grain from lake boats to canal boats. Artpark, being built on top of a municipal and chemical waste dump (in addition to displaced debris from the nearby Niagara hydropower reservoir), is likewise historically linked to the development of hydropower and heavy industry in the Niagara region, sectors whose output would be disseminated nationally and internationally, respectively.1 If grain silos situate nature as a resource to be exploited on an industrial scale, Artpark’s site rendered nature into a literal dumping ground, an inert blank slate lacking sentience. In cultivating conversations between work and local context, I aimed to go beyond simply lending the piece incidental “local color” and instead approach the piece as a way to open perceptual perspectives on the (globally overdetermined) material interstices of regional economies and ecologies.
While I hear PLACE as emphasizing above all the phenomenological implications of contrasting sound production networks that integrate human musicians and local environment,2 this orientation does not necessarily exclude the meaning-based realms of history, ecology, and economics. Rather, the work might be understood as focusing engagement with these domains through their oblique everyday manifestations rather than through conceptual abstraction, a mode of perception explored in certain writings of Henri Lefebvre. The piece’s immersive nature—in both its durational scale and its open-ended installation format—invites flexibility and multidimensionality in perception, indicating that interpretation isn’t forced to choose between, say, phenomenological and historical. For instance, what if parts 7, 8, and 10 of PLACE, in resonating the performance location’s physical environment, were approached as a kind of speculative sonic archeology? Personally, I found this mode of reading almost unavoidable in certain instances.
Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 10 (excerpt) at Silo City (June 17, 2017)
III. Preparations: Approaching Contingency
JG: What did preparing and rehearsing the piece entail?
CT: By spring 2017, my co-curator Ethan Hayden and I began thinking in detail about the score itself. We met with the composer over Skype, and he provided illuminating context about the piece, but (perhaps deliberately) gave us few specific suggestions regarding how to interpret the succinct, highly indeterminate score. One of his few concrete suggestions was that we continue to “unpack” the score, reading between the lines to ascertain broad acoustic objectives in each section. When approached in this fashion, scores of this nature often turn out to be demandingly specific, albeit in quite different ways than more conventional notated music.
Informed by score study, we made numerous site visits to the performance locations to plan how to engage with the sites in performance. I made multiple visits to each site prior to the first on-site rehearsal, walking what must have been miles in search of the most effective ways to cultivate dialogue between site and work. I found this to be an immensely fun way to explore the sites, and I would consider these explorations, together with the extensive site-based rehearsal process, to be an integral rather than incidental component of the piece.
JG: What was it like to rehearse different parts of the piece?
CT: Different parts of the piece elicited a range of performance dynamics; preparing the piece’s ten parts often felt like preparing ten individual pieces. Parts 2, 8, and 9 required the vast majority of ensemble rehearsal time, while parts 1, 3-6, and 10 required very little in the way of run-throughs but did necessitate a good deal of troubleshooting, as well as effort behind the scenes to procure suitable gear.
Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 9 at Artpark (July 16, 2017). Photo by Megan Metté.
CT: Part 9 posed challenges typical of the work’s acoustic sections (challenges presented in slightly different ways in parts 2 and 7). In asking instrumentalists to “produce sustained sounds in imitation of real time events,” the score asks performers to use their instruments to produce a sound imitating another sound produced by a different, distant source. For listeners, the interest in this section lies in the sonic blurring of “cultured” instrument and “natural” environment. As it is likely impossible for an instrument to create a perfect imitation of a live ambient sound (particularly in time), we strove to imitate ambient sound as precisely as possible in order to present listeners with as much ambiguity as possible. The notion of a perfect instrumental imitation of ambient sound functions as an impossible but productively orienting goal in preparing part 9.
Rehearsing this part was a highly provisional process of trial and error, trying out individual imitations, assessing their success, and then scratching our heads over refinements in timbre, timing, pitch, and/or volume, and then going through this process again. Given the prerogative to “blend in” to the environment in this part, it was incredibly easy to allow one’s volume to fade gradually into inaudibility. Ultimately I ended up explicitly encouraging my colleagues to active seek opportunities to play loud—imitating not only loud ambient sounds, but also sounds like sustained pitches that one might be able to imitate at a louder volume while still “blending in.”
Part 10 was considerably simpler to put together. The first step of rehearsal was to dive in and explore how our instruments could be activated and/or modified by the local environment’s materials. This, of course, was the most fun I’ve had making music in a long time! For everyone involved, we were discovering altogether new perspectives on instruments we’d played for years.
While certain Fluxus pieces might be interpreted as prioritizing the theatre of damaging and/or destroying instruments as an end in itself, I understand part 10 of PLACE as emphasizing different possibilities. If destruction foregrounds the human body’s agency over a material object, we sought, in part 10, to instead situate the human body as catalyst for open-ended interactions between instruments and “natural” materials. Towards this end, we cultivated a vocabulary of actions that explored a wide spectrum of volume, visibility, subtlety, and destructiveness; we also decided that, in the context of this piece, destruction of instruments would be more interesting as a byproduct of an action rather than as an aim in itself. Two instrumentalists activated instruments (a violin and field drum) already damaged far beyond repair; as a result, I encouraged these players to choose actions which might result in the instruments’ destruction, which in fact did occur. Given the absurdity, hilarity, and theatricality inherent in many of the actions possible in part 10, disciplined realization of one’s chosen actions—with a straight face—turned out to be an important way to elicit the desired focus in performance.
Megan Kyle in Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 10 at Artpark (July 17, 2017). Photos by Megan Metté.
CT: In ensemble rehearsals for electronic sections of PLACE (parts 1 and 3-6), we faced three notable conundrums. First, we faced the question of which artifacts of technology were intrinsic to the piece and which were not. For instance, in initial rehearsals of part 4, the use of smartphones as recording devices produced occasional loud bursts of static when plugging in and unplugging. We felt that the static problematically overshadowed another, subtler artifact of technology—the effects of recording and re-recording recordings, and ultimately decided that the unpredictable, subtle timbral change resulting from the latter was more intrinsic to part 4’s effect. Following this we tried using exclusively portable digital recording devices, which thankfully eliminated the bursts of static. Much of PLACE traffics in subtle, fickle sonic boundary spaces; for all of the score’s seeming openness, in practical reality, the actualization of these spaces often requires a diligent, extensive search for an extremely specific sound world.
IV. Group Dynamics: Ensemble as Ecosystem
JG: How did the rehearsal process proceed over time? Were there unexpected events along the way?
CT: The two-month rehearsal process was a fascinating study in group dynamics and learning processes. During the initial rehearsals, I sometimes felt like I was needed to figuratively hold peoples’ hands as they ventured into the piece’s novel, demanding sonic situations. However, by the time of the final rehearsal for the second performance, my colleagues were regularly contributing astute suggestions, such that I ended up making a surprisingly small number of suggestions myself. Even while many of my colleagues were relatively new to music of this sort, they quickly internalized (in their own wonderfully unique ways) my process of unpacking the score’s specific implications. In working this way, I feel that our ensemble has become much more than the sum of its parts, and it has been downright exhilarating to build on those collaborative ways of approaching highly indeterminate scores during our past season, in realizations of works by Yoko Ono and George Lewis, for instance.3
It is worth considering the implications of the piece’s extended on-site rehearsals. The piece cultivates a fascinating—and historically mostly unparalleled—dialogue between chamber music and proto-social practice strategies. That is, the work’s short score is as much a means to the production of a performance as it is a catalyst for collective, extended, open-ended exploration of place through sound. This process of exploration includes site visits, material procurement, individual practice, group rehearsal, and performance; the performance is but one manifestation of a longer-term process of discovery. My personal experience of the project corroborates this reading: my fondest and strongest memories of the project are those of social camaraderie in the outdoors, of the pleasures of collectively discovering otherwise overlooked facets of a particular place. Paradoxically, these experiences might not have materialized without the score’s exacting specifications.4
V. Outdoor Performance: Uncertainty and Flexibility
JG: Were there any special, unexpected moments that happened while performing on site?
CT: For sure, and the piece does court that possibility quite actively, between its duration, outdoor location, and sensitivity to contingency. One favorite moment was during a rehearsal of part 4 at Silo City, when a train arrived across the Buffalo River and repeatedly sounded its whistle repeatedly. The whistle reverberated and echoed in throughout nearby “canyons” between silos; my colleagues and I looked at each other with sheer exhilaration and astonishment as the whistle’s resonances made palpable the immense scale of our local environment. As per part 4’s procedures, the whistle was recorded, played back, re-recorded, and so on; the recorded whistles became a part of the piece, functioning both as punctuation and as a clear index of the timbral degradation inherent in re-recording. The piece offered a framework wherein the train whistles, which might otherwise have been a one-off everyday accident, were woven into dense networks acoustic interrelation, extending their life-span as well as their capacity for engagement with other site-based sounds and creatures.
VI. Futures: PLACE as Catalyst
JG: What’s the future of this project? Are there additional performances of PLACE in the works?
CT: Following the summer performances, we realized parts 4 and 5 in December 2017 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, in the building’s spacious atrium. The performance occurred during a well-attended evening event featuring other installations and performances, so music (of a mainstream sort) often functioned as one ambient sound layer among many; this circumstance had occasionally happened in the other performances in the form of music from passing boat and car radios. To celebrate the release of this volume, we’ve planned a number of talks and performances of portions of the piece this spring (with more to follow in fall), an updated list of which is available here. There are no confirmed plans for complete realizations, although a few are in the works.
Personally, I would like to be performing the piece regularly for the next few years, in a variety of sites, at a range of times of day, exploring diverse instrumentations, sometimes involving non-professional and/or untrained performers in certain sections, and investigating contrasting approaches to duration, spatialization, and other parameters left open in the score. The project has been a consequential one for Null Point; it has not only greatly sharpened our performance practice in a great deal of post-Cage music, but more broadly seems to have catalyzed our identity and sense of purpose as a group. In particular, there seems to be a surprising amount of enthusiasm among my colleagues for future work within the unprecedented space that PLACE activates, at the intersection between chamber music, site-specificity, and social practice.
However, I see PLACE not as a closed masterpiece to be revered but as (among other things) a springboard for further creativity. Null Point is currently drawing up plans to commission new site-responsive work by younger artists, with an emphasis on work that builds upon PLACE’s site-contingent types of techniques but also overcomes its limitations by—for instance—engaging with the soundmaking and listening practices of particular plant and animal species, addressing how human categories of social marginalization like class, race, gender, and ability mediate humans’ relationship to outdoor environments, interacting with a particular place over a more extended time frame, emphasizing contributions from community members more explicitly, or centering indigenous perspectives on land and location.
In the wake of realizing PLACE, my colleagues and I have focused our own compositional efforts more towards site-specific work, some of it in dialogue with possibilities explored in Dunn’s piece. At our December Burchfield-Penney performance, Ethan Hayden debuted an interactive piece for ambient sounds and real-time electronic resynthesis of ambient sounds, extending the implications of Dunn’s early experiments into high-powered digital technology. I am delighted that Artpark has invited Null Point back this coming summer for a residency, where we will realize site-responsive works by David Dunn and Pauline Oliveros, a new outdoor version of Ethan’s piece, and new works by colleagues Lena Nietfeld and Arrow Fitzgibbon and I.
Ethan Hayden, HaEccEity / QuiDDity, realized at Burchfield Penney Art Center
1.Morever, the site’s pollution is a microcosm of rampant pollution across the North American Rust Belt, including the infamous nearby Love Canal.
3.Ono’s Pieces for Orchestra were realized with Megan Kyle and Ethan Hayden, while George Lewis’s Artificial Life 2007 was realized with Brian DeJesus, Esin Gündüz, Ethan Hayden, Lena Nietfeld, Weston Olencki, Justin von Strasburg, and Katie Weissman.
4.This is a subtle point of difference with more recent social practice art: while the latter often emphasizes social interaction unstructured by a goal (such as preparing for a performance), PLACE (as well as numerous other proto-social practice works by Fluxus artists, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, Ben Patterson, and Christian Wolff) approach social interaction as a resultant of a structured collective rehearsal process around a notated score; the question of whether score or social interaction is ontologically primary is (perhaps by design) undecidable.