Interacting Spectra: A Conversation with Cat Lamb

Nate Wooley

Catherine Lamb’s music defies easy categorization due to its individualism and seeming embrace of the whole complexity of sound. She is simultaneously singular and, somehow, all encompassing in her approach to her composing. Lamb works with many influences outside the mainstream, among which is a commitment to what may be considered alternative tuning systems, but her commitment to exploring the broad possibility of sound makes any of her compositional research, regardless of if it is seen as esoteric, work in service to her timbral interests. Her completely unique sound world comes, in part, from what we may call just intonation or, what she prefers, pure ratio relationships, harmonic space, or interacting spectra. Even in nomenclature, it is easy to perceive how Catherine Lamb is thinking about a bigger picture than most.

Lamb had the following conversation this summer with SA editor Nate Wooley over email.

Just Lamb
Portrait courtesy Philip Frowein

SAHow did you come to be interested in being a composer? What is your early musical education?

CLThe concept of being a creator was always in the atmosphere around my musical explorations and learning as a child. I had rather standard early music education (first as rhythm/song like group classes, followed by piano, then strings, then orchestra, etc.). The concept of listening, particularly to live music but also to records at home, was important to my family. I have a memory, for instance, of going to hear Cecil Taylor with my parents or Lohengrin with my grandmother when I was quite young, falling asleep at orchestra concerts. I feel very grateful for such elementary experiences. Though perhaps I would have first called myself a choreographer (often to Stravinsky), and then a writer/director (I convinced friends to rehearse and perform my plays at school). Then perhaps around age 10 or 11, I started to more consciously compose, or at least I was more interested in altering and deconstructing the music I had been given to practice than to practice as a performer might, or make tape recordings of materials I was exploring, mostly at the piano. I remember my father saying to me once, “I always know when you are playing your music, because it starts to get very loud.” I think this is because I would pull the cover off the harp on the up-right and get lost in rapid arpeggiated patterns, anything to get the instrument to resonate beyond what the keys would suggest the music to be.

SAYour early musical experience reminds me a lot of some of the aspects of my own. Did you ever have moments when you felt as if you needed to steer away from your own experiments and “buckle down” by learning a certain compositional tradition?

CLIt wasn’t until I was around 22 that people started to accept me as a composer, even though I had been composing since I was around 11. I remember bringing in things I had been working on to various teachers throughout my teenaged years, but the most I got with that was, “Why aren’t you practicing the repertoire I had given you?” or other such responses. This meant that even though my musical training was rather formal, my own creative training was self-taught and unusual. So by the time I was finally acknowledged as a composer, my composition mentors had experimental or open approaches of their own and were encouraging of alternative practices, even very differing from their own.

I’ve never had the desire to learn a kind of traditional form of composition for my own sake, other than my basic endeavors to understand the dhrupad tradition, or studying scores, or via the things I’ve gleamed naturally from simply being a musician for most of my life. Being a good listener is being a good student, so I try to do that as much as I am able to.

However, my own creative practice I try to keep, for the lack of a better term, sacred. While it is important to learn and to try to understand the world around one’s position, it is just as important to follow one’s own inspiration, which is, what Agnes Martin wrote, what leads to happiness.

SAAt what point did you begin to hear just intonation as an expressive tool for your music?

CLRather than use the term just intonation, I’ll use something like pure ratio relationships or harmonic space or interacting spectra. When I personally think of the term just intonation, I think of a reduced ratio, five-limit constructed musical scale, perhaps something around Zarlino’s concept of consonant counterpoint.

It was a very gradual process through which I began to incorporate another awareness of spectral harmonicity into the music I was making. As a teenager I was very inspired by the multiplicities of colors while playing interval exercises on my viola, but it was much later that I was able to begin to name particular relationships. Only after I was inspired to go to India when I was 21 did musical harmony begin to deconstruct much further for me. Either my ears were opened or my worldview was opened, but I then learned about experimental music I hadn’t been privy to and quickly found a pathway to James Tenney at CalArts where I finished my studies.

It was the simple act of being asked to read Helmholtz that completely altered my perception of everything around me. Everything sounded different after that point because I was actually altering the filters in my listening brain and focusing on interacting spectra in everyday machines. Hearing a thousand tanpuras constantly everywhere, I had a total psychedelic experience without any kind of ingested or mind-altering substance other than newfound knowledge of what was always there and knowing that it would be impossible to ever perceive it in totality. From that point I developed a practice with my viola in order to teach myself how to comprehend these interacting points and began to name them. This partial number in interaction with that partial number has this alignment and sensation, and so on. An infinite process I am still partaking in. So I should mention that since that point (around 2004) I have not written another piano piece and I can safely say that all of my work since has been devoted to the search for particular interacting tonalities.

SAHow do you view JI in the grand scheme of your composing?

CLNumerical relationships as tonal relationships are both extremely reductive as well as infinitely expansive. To compose within this expanded harmonic space, for me, requires a regular sounding or practice to expand the palette, while also to relearn the most elemental relations. When I hear these relationships with different instrumentations and different musicians, all the reductive nature of the numbers begins to complicate against the material and sounding shapes or formants or timbres, as well as all the various articulations reverberating from the perception of the other beings sounding in space. It is a foraging for something very clear, perhaps for only a fleeting moment, from within chaotic planes, trying to meet another human being somewhere within these reverberations and forms, structures.

I don’t think I’m using an intonation tool alongside the music, for example. I’m not using extended techniques, I don’t think. It’s more that over the course of my musical life my focus and filters have shifted such that musical constructs and language mean something different to me now. I would fail horribly at a music theory exam, because I can’t imagine how to think in such a language anymore. When I compose, I am most often composing with numbers, and if I place things on a stave it is coming from another place, even though I am tonally centric, one tonal center regenerates itself. Simply speaking, 1/2/3 takes the place of A/B/C.

SAYou stay away from the term just intonation, which makes sense given how you’re conceptualizing your music, but what place, if any, does theoretical work, like that of James Tenney or Helmholtz, occupy in the way you are composing now?

CLThe contrabass player Frank Reinecke once told me that On the Sensations of Tone is his bible, that he reads it every day. Although I do not read it every day, its very clear theoretical nature of investigating musical perception was and still is very far beyond the time and was critical to my personal development. Paradoxically it was written in parallel to the expanding symphonic orchestra and the standardization era of equal temperament, which is now the major subject always in pedagogical opposition to pure ratio relationships. Helmholtz was one of the theorists to open musical language into scientific observation in clear terms; composers like Schoenberg were interested in such ideas but decided to reinforce 12-tone equal temperament in their own work. Today, other than early music practitioners, Euro-centric musicians are generally trained through standard temperament harmonic theory (knowing that there is some intonation flexibility depending on orchestration but not naming precisely what that is), and so everything aside so-called equal temperament becomes “microtonal,” which is rather frustrating from my perspective. Sometimes it feels like a battle; almost anytime I have a piece realized, I must confront the harmonic pedagogical system and from that space defend my own position, which is sometimes met with surprising hostility! I’m finding that even though there is a deep history of composers working with intonation systems other than the contemporary standard one, and there are many contemporary and younger composers interested in thinking on their own terms outside of it, musical training is still quite limited, harmonically speaking.

If I were to follow a kind of musical theoretical pedagogy, it would be based on what was handed to me when given On the Sensations of Tone to read, and start from there. James Tenney had his intonation class read that book at CalArts, which is where I first discovered it. His assignment was simply to have it around and use it as a guide for how one might escape the standard harmonic position. Basically, to use it both as information but I think more importantly, as inspiration towards some other kind of thinking all together.

I often think about the kinds of terminology that Tenney utilized, particularly terms like harmonic space and aggregate perception. To simply define harmony as multi-dimensional rather than vertical alters neurological pathways and perceptions of reality. So then when I look at Erv Wilson’s geometric drawings explaining tonal relationships or read Maryanne Amacher’s description of musical shapes resulting from certain phenomena, I can imagine music on very different terms than the ones in which I was raised, theoretically speaking.

Catherine Lamb, Prisma Interius VIII (2018) world premiere performance by Plus-Minus Ensemble at Cafe OTO.

SADo you find that the replacing of “traditional” musical harmony, i.e. the A/B/C with the mathematical relationships, the 1/2/3, frees you from a certain sense of linearity in composition? By “relearning” those elemental relationships in music, do you feel like you’ve been given some freedom to find something unique, or is the method of working just a better fit for you as an individual?

CLThis is difficult for me to answer, because my own personal history as a composer and as someone working with mathematical relationships has been such a slow and gradual process. I think after the psychedelic/psychological shift I spoke of earlier where I began to name and specifically hear certain alignments in harmonic space, there was naturally a new generation of material for me, and a newfound necessity towards composing. However, leading up to that, I would say my explorations were leaning more and more towards, for lack of a better term, timbre concerns. I think my seven months in India just before meeting Tenney were also formative, but perhaps more in the sense as a practitioner of European Renaissance music might be. Rather, I was beginning to understand different concepts around modality on clearer and more intricate terms, but I think the actual shift towards naming points in harmonic space was the most helpful for me personally, and so after that my productivity (and confidence) accelerated. I think I have always felt free while composing; whether or not you could call the work I am doing linear or non-linear, planer, geometric, or otherwise dimensional, music is always, in basic terms, regarding experiences in time and space, which I find infinitely inspiring and reflective of the human condition.

Interacting Spectra: A Conversation with Cat Lamb