Conversations

inti figgis-vizueta
James May

[inti and James met in 2017, maintaining friendship and creative contact through online chats, internet forums, and occasional opportunities to see each other at events. This article captures ideas shared over the past few years and demonstrates how these thoughts manifest in creative practice and engagement with our artistic communities.]

On Sympathetic Listening

JM I’ve been really interested in the idea of “critical listening” for the past few months, which I think is something we all depend on in our music practices but don’t have a tidy way to discuss or quantify (so we don’t address it). I first ran into this idea when reading a chapter from Peter Szendy’s book Listen : He’s telling this story about how he uses the volume on his home stereo system to accentuate, for a friend, his listening experience of a recording, and uses speed functions to slow down a Charlie Parker solo so he can transcribe it. Then, he says :

Some people, however, use this set of tools that we have, these changes in volume and speed, for completely other reasons than faithful, literal transcription. I think of those DJs we went to listen to the other day. They are indeed musicians—there was even a poster, a program, we paid for our seat to attend a concert . . . And yet, all they did in front of us—with a confounding virtuosity [emphasis mine]—was at bottom nothing more than the gestures I perform for you, in private, in the comfort of a living room : I adjust the volume, I jump from track to track, I blend or mix two disks, I slow them down or speed them up . . .But it seems to me that with our DJs another era of listening may be beginning, which I don’t know what to call. It is no longer that of [Walter Benjamin’s] aforementioned mechanical reproduction, but rather one where production, reproduction, and reception tend to be confused. Not so much to become equivalent as to share the same gestures and the same instruments. For if the DJs are essentially doing nothing different from what I do in my listening room, that is because they are simply listeners appearing in concert. I am not the only one to think this; it was a musician who recently said, speaking of them, that their art “implies less a knowledge of how to play than of a knowledge of how to listen.”1

I keep coming back to this idea since reading this chapter, because I feel like it explains so many thoughts I have about New Music. First of all, I think this what we mean when we say a performance was too technical, or that a student needs to “get past the page”—they’re not actively listening to what they’re producing and how they could shape it.

But to take this a step further, isn’t this the problem that composers face when they use nonstandard notation or open scores ? Performers are trained to reproduce a notational direction, so when they’re given agency to craft that direction the results vary widely in quality based on listening awareness. I think we’re all sneakily trained to be critical listeners, but we don’t do enough to cultivate listening practice past standard aural skills. And, the kind of critical listening that gets taught reinforces focus on pitches, melodic line, or rhythmic division, rather than color, acoustic properties, or soundscape.

I wonder what we’re excluding by focusing so much on technical virtuosity and not critical virtuosity ? How many amazing musicians are shut out because they don’t have physical abilities, how many types of music do we deride for being “simple” because they don’t rely on fine-tuned motor skills ? And, also, how can we rethink teaching strategies to develop listening awareness simultaneously with performance technique ?

I also think it’s pretty revealing that we all talk about experimental music in reverent tones, but don’t really let students or audiences engage with the listening practices that (to me) are the foundation of most experimental music. We just tell them they should love x or y composer, and then turn them around to work on their passage-work.

ifv I hear you. My immediate response would be that technical virtuosity seems to equate to critical virtuosity within the dogma of classical music—reproducibility of both personal and long-established interpretations is seen as the core metric of quality and correct path towards growth. Listening, in our model, is warped entirely as a tool for self-reflection and critique rather than as a tool and guide for musical communication across boundaries of practice, ethic, and training.

I remember how difficult it was to explore nonclassical musics in institutions, especially during my undergraduate study. Many of us actively wrote and performed in modes such as punk, folk, and mixed ensemble improvisation, but received very little guidance or support from the faculty of our music program. They allowed the music to exist and be presented, but the feedback was only ever technical, never aesthetic or philosophical. Practice and exploration need those kinds of reflective and inquiry-driven spaces to grow.

From the perspective of our given pedagogy and curriculum, nonclassical musics were always presented as extensions of classical matrices of musical and systemic understanding. Form was generally approached from macro to micro, the approach favoring notated musics while simultaneously imparting reductive understandings of genre and culturally-specific expressions of sound. Instead of listening as our core analytical tool, these courses reduced down these expressions to Western notation—essentializations always missing and compartmentalizing non-formalized idioms of culture and community-specific practices.

For composers, notation is taught as the fundamental plane defining our understanding and relationship between personal musical vision and sonic realization. Fluency in notation streamlines realizations of composed musics in the sense that they communicate most directly with the lexicon of classically-trained players and produce replicable and desired sonic results. While modalities outside fixed notations are now common-place fixtures of contemporary classical performance practice, those expressions must be identified as being ultimately reliant on the pedagogy and canon that underlay and underwrite the history and relationship of classical instrumentalists to their instrument. This is all to say that making a box and writing “improvise” in the middle doesn’t fairly engage with classically-trained players—their relationship to their instrument and sound production is also taught to be tied to score. Without oral transmission and the building of collective understandings of alternative musical modes, scores don’t mean much aside from the communication of sequential pitch and rhythmic pattern. Outside of classically-informed modes, scores cannot replace the necessity for relationship-building and oral communication of sonic intention.

As classically-trained composers our relationship to listening is warped because of this extra, required layer between transmission of musical intention and sonic realization. That layer is classical music’s shadow, that which fills in all the unspoken conversations around compositional and interpretative practice and relies on bias and cultural supremacy to define all sound-making that is Other. Listening, in our taught practice, becomes defined by excellence and expertise, concepts that inherently carry soft power and define all musical forms encountered by the sonic histories and lenses of white supremacy and patriarchy.

Listening and its practices are still new spaces of exploration in our field, and we need to continue to open these spaces and questions to prevent its coming prescription in textbooks and mainstream institutional pedagogy. Listening is harder for those authorities to colonize because its implicit model is critical and based on shared experience and dialectic inquiry—as in the truth of a musical form or object is through the presentation and dialogue of shared perspectives and truths. The fundamental metric of quality then avoids becoming an individual’s research of the object—it’s not something a teacher can point to, identify, and reinforce conclusions through citation of Norton Anthology. It, in a decolonial form, is an equalizing group-driven practice of identification and critical engagement with sound.

We often talk about “diversity and inclusion” efforts and their pitfalls in identity-focused percentages and quota goals instead of the actual feature and integration of decolonial voices. Practices and ontologies presented in culturally competent and appropriate contexts must be consciously placed and given equal presence within core curricula, moving past their elective or specialization categorization. This also must avoid their integration into musical entrepreneurship models that reward the assimilation, into essentialized, whitened versions, of traditionally Othered voices. Critical listening, more than virtuosic, is the structurally disruptive tool that moves us past surface level understandings of nonclassical ethics and values of musicmaking.

JM The idea that listening is by definition a critical understanding of a collective experience, and for that there are deeper socio-cultural nuances to listening, is so essential to this whole discussion. Nina Sun Eidsheim does a really amazing job of articulating that in her work (like her book, Sensing Sound)—but, in general, understanding that listening needs to be navigated by different modes than the default objectifying, neo-liberal consumption is absolutely key.2 Carol Gilligan also has a fabulous article about patriarchal listening versus relational listening called “Hearing the Difference,” which also points out how healthy listening should be a baseline for community building rather than (in her argument) considerate service; maybe more immediately applicable to the paradigm we’re discussing here.3

And I think one systemic challenge of this is that we have very few environments separate from conservatories to foster artistic considerations of nonclassical music, besides jazz (which itself now largely resembles the classical conservatory). Like, we’re discussing how a classical institution could adapt to this need, when we don’t even know what such an institution would look like besides, as you point out, white-dominant experimental programs that tend to emerge from a classical practice anyway. For instance, the school I most recently attended had unique opportunities to study pop music, sound art, film music, experimentalism, Irish traditional music, improvisation, and ethnomusicology, but people still criticized its shortcomings because they expect an institution teaching art music to be a classical academic conservatory. And, to be fair, even that department evolved from what was previously a more traditional conservatory in curricular method.

We wind up with contradictory problems. We’re suggesting that institutions like conservatories and concert halls need to create space for alternative philosophical and cultural understandings of sound, so as to establish supported systems that holistically engage non-Western musics. Simultaneously, the philosophy and culture of the Academy almost always supplants the philosophy and culture of the practice it tries to incorporate due to perceived metrics for success, even when a program publicly asserts that it is not focused on expected conservatory aesthetics. To take an example from “within” the academy : How ironic is it that, more often than not, we make students listen to Cage’s works and read about his life, rather than provide opportunities to engage in listening exercises that would fundamentally interrogate their assumptions about performed music and sound ?

As we’ve stated, listening is by default a communal experience that gets steamrolled by classical performance practice and work production. It seems impossible to foster the kind of interconnected sonic community we’re imagining while our logistical infrastructure relies on product exchanges and our creative infrastructure maintains a fairly rigid power dynamic between composers, performers, and audiences. And imagining that classical music institutions will change to accommodate that seems naïve—most practitioners in the field, just by the numbers, simply aren’t interested in these critical lenses. They just want to continue the tradition.

But I don’t want to end on purely essentialized terms. As long as this traditional Western Art Music exists, then we need to promote diverse composers, performers, and scholars as loudly as possible. While a streamlined pedagogy predominates, I frequently see professors discuss their alternative syllabus constructions on social media—lots of privileged authorities are trying their part. But there is a next step, I think, and that step is to bring this criticality to a deeper philosophical level, and to enact that criticality through engaged listening exemplified by practitioners outside the academy, who respect a more complex relationship with sound. New Music could be the site of entry for these critical approaches into the Academy, but New Music also must acknowledge that it perpetuates the baggage of the classical tradition. There are other fundamental questions and histories to critically examine.

Alien Figgis-Vizueta
inti figgis-vizueta

On Listening to Ourselves, or Creative Process

ifv Hey, you asked me about my artist statement! This is what I sent to——:

My musical process is inseparable from my social practice, focused on the development of deep performance poetics and community organizing rather than the contemplation of aggressively notated objects. I work to create musics that form parallels and webs between my inherited and dual knowledges as a bi-racial, queer, indigenous composer. Though I explicitly reject traditional notation, my work nevertheless starts from the score—it functions as both instructional and systemic reference as well as a physical record of identity, ethnic ontology, and poetic continuity.

Starting from one-page scores in 2016, my music grew slowly, from initial combinations of melodic fragments and many overlapping timbral transformations as I started to embed them within larger meta-structures such as cyclic, transient, or otherwise less-than-linear paths. As my abstraction of structure and sequentiality has deepened, so have my perspectives on sonic practice, conception of local and total time, and the resulting shadows from discontinuity in notation and/or realization.

These structures have also developed from close collaborations with friends/performers. I’ve integrated dialogue and research about the pedagogy and canon championed by conservatories, as well as the indoctrination in programs like the Suzuki method, to continue to shape and subvert notations, instructions, transformations, and explorative elements in ways that are familiar and built on pre-existing pedagogical vernacular. The inscription of these ephemeral relationships pushes them into a concrete reality, one that seeks the decoupling of technique and craft from oppressive aspects of embedded practice.

Performance becomes a transformative act, not only affecting listeners and participants, but permanently altering the space itself. Its queering flows through the continuity and exploration outside of Western, patriarchal bias: The richness is the deep relationship-building, rituals in rehearsal, and continual co-development of new poetics of music-making. Those are the first steps towards safety and decolonization of concert spaces: Centering queer, indigenous work leaves permanent ephemera that continually highlight the unreliability inherent in Western Art Music.

My performer-collaborators are more than interpreters—their perceptions and choices are as centered and channeled through navigation of my given constellations (scores). I see my role as the composer entirely as a facilitator of these excavatory processes, with the notation acting as the framework for exploration and sonic subversion of classically-driven modes of music-making. The scores are a starting point from which practice springs, and from practice a deep poetic understanding that sustains myself and my overlapping communities.

JM I’m struck by your use of the word “shadow” in illustrating the results of your notational practice, and earlier in discussing classical music pedagogy, and I’d love to dwell on that image. A shadow is always part of an object, but it moves in and out of our conscious awareness depending on light, space, perspective, etc.—and, when we do notice it, we give it the possibility of existing as a separate thing that moves past the on-the-face detail of the original object, so we can understand both in a new way. I think what you’ve captured here, and in your work, is the fact that this shadow already exists in the framework of these disciplines and practices you draw on, but we ignore it for the on-the-face qualities of those systems.

So then, what you’re doing in your composing (to my reading) is refocusing the shadow of scores or Western Art Music tradition in two really significant ways. First, you’re disrupting the original object (notation) so that a typical interaction with it isn’t musically sufficient, forcing a performer to move towards the shadow ; then, you’re letting the performer mold the shadow itself based on their own understandings of that incomplete original object. You’re subverting the implications of making “classical music” without abandoning the structure, and then inviting the individual to fill in the gaps with their knowledge.

And that’s so critically different than a lot of approaches to interrogating those implications. I think when artists come up through classical training and then encounter these problems, they often move into adjacent practices or genres—I certainly feel like I’ve taken that journey. This loops back into what you brought up earlier about the relationship between score study and listening for a composer ; I only started studying classical music during my undergrad, and I really relied on my academic and analytic abilities to bolster my composing skills because I was self-conscious about my lack of training. I was gaining a bunch of listening skills because of the tasks we do as composers, but I wasn’t employing them as much as my score-study when I wrote. It took a festival faculty member who watched me rehearse a piece to point that out to me, and they were completely right.

A lot of the work I did this past year took an abrupt turn from my familiar composing paradigm because of opportunities to explore improvisation, extended vocality, theatrical devising, and experimentalism in general. All of that highlighted the listening and creating instincts I had cultivated without knowing it and exposed some of the characteristic shortcomings of classical tradition that you point out. Then, beyond my practice, experience with experimental and improv scenes immediately demonstrated community qualities I felt I missed in other, more New Music-y scenes.

I’ve started dealing with some of these pedagogical and philosophical issues by just sidestepping into totally different practices of sonic art creation, most of which just abandon the tradition of notated scores altogether. That ranges from text-based instruction pieces, to loosely mapped “templates” for largely improvised pieces, to working exclusively in DAWs4 with field recordings and sound design. The pieces that do use notation try less to dictate than to induce by mining familiar signifiers (i.e. notehead size, beaming, spatial relationship) for their inherent suggestiveness.

ifv It seems like we’re both working with different ways of object decoding to create a mode of music-making that occurs through practice, rather than in the score. In your work, the majority of the excavation occurs upfront in the ensemble’s study process, and in mine it occurs more regularly throughout the rehearsal and performance process.

JM Absolutely. You’re really transforming the medium to force a fissure in the method itself—I’m interested in how that influences the individuals performing your work in their general practice. Because I completely agree with your assessment that relationship-building and community come to the fore through your music, and am curious how that extends past the moment of performing ? Is your work guiding performers to engage more wholly with their individuality in other contexts of art-making, to bring this more critical awareness to bear in their work beyond your piece ? Is it an opportunity for inviting in musicians/performers without as much training in these systems (notation, classical performance, concerts, etc.) to open a path for new practitioners—or, put another way, have you had the experience to write something like this for performers outside the classical tradition ?

ifv I’m still engaging those questions now—part of my current trajectory in this field translates to generally less rehearsal time and fewer regular performances, practices I consider essential to producing a work that truly blooms beyond initial engagement. I’m excited for some upcoming opportunities that provide that time to breathe and develop deep work, especially with JACK Quartet & their JACK Studio program. Otherwise my DMs are open and I’m continually looking for more collaborators, friends, and community.

On Listening to Each Other

(May on figgis-vizueta's Openwork, knotted object // Trellis in bloom // lightning ache):

JM What really excites me about this piece in particular, both listening to it alone and with the score, is how the “Openwork” format manifests in both the concept and the sonic result. It’s not just that you give the performer a lot of freedom or that you employ repeat modules—the piece lives at a unique juncture amidst these systems you present. It’s very clear how that integration would manifest in performance preparation, rehearsal, and score-study, and so I think the piece achieves a lot of the community-building goals you articulate for your work. But, for me, it critically also achieves those goals in the sound itself. I rarely feel that aleatory boxes rise above their immediate form to achieve something greater than themselves, and I’ve simultaneously experienced in my own pieces how freedom bordering on improvisation can go totally awry. Your piece sounds like a multi-dimensional, negotiated version of a familiar style, and I can’t think of many (any ?) notated pieces that achieve the same depth. I felt the same way about your percussion piece, To give you form and breath ; part of me responded, “Oh, this is like a really neat pseudo-minimalist piece,” while another part of me responded, “Yeah, but it is actually achieving the mesmerizing spaciousness that everyone seems to claim for minimalism but that I unfortunately rarely experience in listening.” I think that similarly is due to the subversion of style that your presentation format enables an ensemble to achieve.

(figgis-vizueta on May’s NYC Noise Commission, 1930):

ifv The transformation I’ve seen in your work clearly showcases an expansion from static to mobile sculpture. Not only the shift from construction to devisement as you put it, but the multi-dimensional density of each moment feels remarkably different from your past work. I hear clear structures and linking of materials without overt linearity (definitely a shared goal). I love the moments of spiraling, the quick transformations from clear oration to timbrally rich and dense vocalization, the electronics that feel breath-like, and the physical performance elements (leaning, verticality, taut figuration). Its dynamic performance and sonic structures immediately placed me in an expanded mode of listening, as well. The score is a fascinating object too, achieving a high level of integration and hybridity between notated elements and experimental practice and performance.

On Listening to Our Community

JM I recently heard anaïs maviel’s in the garden, recorded at the 2018 OBEY Convention, and it completely took my breath away.5 I’m particularly interested in how this listening practice we discussed operates in a solo performance setting, and I think maviel’s interaction between voice and accompaniment very intentionally invites the audience to expand their listening habit. The use of the voice is extraordinarily provocative, and the construction of performance so open for reflection, it’s exactly what I’ve been interested in recently. I’ve also been reading the improvisation section of Audio Culture and listening to TAK Ensemble’s podcast, which has been a great way to encounter the relationship others have with art music and creation.

ifv I caught the end of claire rousay’s performance residency at Rhizome D.C. with an incredible improv trio set featuring guests Jacob Wick (trumpet) and Richard Kamerman (electronic objects), with rousay on two drums and objects. The spaciousness, various densities, and distinct relational sound worlds all existed on an axis of listening and co-exploration. rousay’s sound palette focused on friction and combinations of light metal objects with sharp drums. Kamerman offered analog playback of the bus trip there along with earlier parts of the actual set punctured by loud, pure sine tones. Wick gave fast tongue pops and rapidly moving and electronic overblown figures. The set filled the space and I felt like a witness to an incredible transcendence of the disparate timbres through deeply interactive listening and directionality—of equal fun was chatting and debriefing over drinks after.

1 Szendy, Peter. Listening: A History of our Ears, 70–71. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

2 Eidsheim, Nina Sun. Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

3 Gilligan, Carol. “Hearing the Difference: Theorizing Connection.” Hypatia, vol. 10, no. 2 (Spring, 1995), pp. 120–127.

4 Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) refers to software used to record, edit, and/or produce audio, i.e. ProTools, Logic, Reaper, Ableton, etc.

5 maviel, anaïs. in the garden. Gold Bolus Recordings GBR043, 2019, digital. https://anaismaviel.bandcamp.com/album/in-the-garden