Saturday, October 24, 2009

Interview with Douglas Henderson

Interview by Chris Becker
Right Photo: Composer Douglas Henderson

To complete my triptych of interviews that began back in September with author Ned Sublette followed by saxophonist, composer Matana Roberts, I bring you an interview with my friend composer Douglas Henderson. I am participating in a performance of Doug’s Music For 100 Carpenters next month (November 7th and 8th, 8pm, at Peirogi Gallery's BOILER space in Williamsburg, NY) and I thought an interview about the piece would interest and provide a "way in" for those unfamiliar his work.

Douglas Henderson's work straddles a line in between the categories of music, sculpture, and dance and theater. He has presented works at the Whitney Museum at Altria, Dance Theater Workshop, and PS122 in New York and at Inventionen and daadgalerie in Berlin, among many others. Doug describes Music For 100 Carpenters as “a theatrical surround-sound music performance, enlisting 100 skilled and unskilled tradespeople. Prying at Stockhausen’s convolution of rhythm and timbre, 100 hammers, 100 blocks of wood and some 10,000 nails of varying sizes are brought to bear in a real-time, real-world articulation of complex computer synthesis. Under the guidance of job supervisors, thousands of hammer blows become waves of tonal murmur, threaded with rustlings of nails and occasional snarls of righteous indignation. The performers are organized into work crews with lists of tasks and closely timed schedules, and arranged in a circle around the audience. Toolbelts, sweat and lunchboxes are part of the score.”

Chris Becker: Over the course of the performance, Music for 100 Carpenters generates an incredible dynamic range of sound using what you yourself describe as a “limited sonic palate” (i.e. hammering nails, shaking bags of nails, opening and closing lunchboxes, etc). As a composer, do you yourself hear the potential for all manner of expression from the “non musical” sounds of tools, household objects, and/or the natural world (rain, wind through leaves, etc)?

Douglas Henderson: I generally work with base source material; partly because it is much more susceptible to surprising transformations (especially in this technique of multiplication, which I'm much taken with), and partly because it inevitably has a heavier psychological wallop. Working with the stuff we all grew up with, from birth, affords a lot of suggestion, which, manipulated, becomes a strong part of the subject matter of the composition. Psychology, or more phenomenology, is something that can be played with on the level of musical composition, and that fascinates me.

CB: There’s a spatial component to Music for 100 Carpenters that is hard to explain on paper. In your description of the piece, you write “… (it) unfolds as a moving sculpture, using sound to tilt the architecture of the venue.” The audience is more or less surrounded by the carpenters and the sounds they’re producing over the course of the piece. Other works of yours that I’m familiar with – multichannel compositions using prerecorded sounds – are played to listening audiences seated in concentric circles facing outwards with several speakers placed around perimeter of the venue. Is your use of space (spaces?) – i.e. where the individual sounds occur and where the listeners are located –a means for sensitizing your listeners’ ears to sound?

DH: I would say that tuning the listener is a central part of the work, both in terms of space and sound. Maybe this is one of the things that distinguishes the identity of the thing, and perhaps defines it outside the realm of music (but maybe not...).

In this piece the carpenters are arranged around the audience, in 10 groups, so I have in some way a 10 channel surround system (with considerable slop, as I don't expect any sort of precision of execution from the mass of carpenters). I would love to put the audience in concentric circles, as this maximizes the dimensional imaging, but we don't have space in the gallery, and the audience will be in 2 sets of rows facing opposite walls, the best compromise I can manage. In this piece, space, location, direction and sonic architecture are nearly the totality of the composition. Each performer can make only a few sounds, and while the multiplication of those sounds is a large part of the magic trick, the main is about location, mass, volume and so on. "Where is it? How thick is it?", these are the things I'm trying to get the people to perceive as variables for composition, and to experience the organization of time in those terms.

CB: Music for 100 Carpenters began as a prerecorded work overlaying several tracks of the sound of one person hammering nails. Since then, the piece developed into a live performance using as many as 50 people. And November 7 and 8 at Peirogi Gallery, you have 100 people (carpenters) on hand to perform the piece. What are some of the qualities to the live performance of Music for 100 Carpenters that you could never realize in its original prerecorded single carpenter version?

DH: The recorded version was actually only an accidental discovery, when a “solo” button was inadvertently released and something strange came out of the speakers. From hearing one person pounding some nails into a board I suddenly heard 40, and the sound was completely transformed, I could no longer recognize the source. The piece was born at that instant. I then used the canned version as way to compose the 50 carpenter piece, which was never intended as anything other than a proof-of-concept, i.e. that the same magic trick could take place in the real world. I was always shooting for the 100 carpenter version, but never had the venue or the money to make it happen until now.

The piece is designed as a set of orders, or scheduled tasks, in the same way that a large construction site is organized. No one has the complete picture, everybody just puts their heads down and does their bit of the work; somehow a building emerges out of all that unknowing, and all that lack of communication between the trades, the architect, the general contractor. I thought this was an interesting set of boundaries for a score. The live iteration, fraught with error, unpredictable following times and so on, completes the thing, or corrects its inherent clumsiness, because the commands possible in the score are very clumsy. If everybody performed exactly what is on the paper it would be kind of blocky (as is the recorded sketch), like a low bit-depth digital converter; the human element is a kind of “dither”: noise introduced to make the signal clearer.

CB: There’s a quote from the painter Piet Mondrian at the beginning of composer Morton Feldman’s essay “Crippled Symmetry”: “I enjoyed painting flowers, not bouquets, but a single flower at a time, in order that I might better express it’s plastic structure.” I immediately thought of your multi-channel piece (pages of illustrations) which uses thousands of recordings you made of brushing two leaves together to realize a multi-tracked, complete and leafy “tree." What did this recording process – similar to Mondrian painting a single flower at a time to create a bouquet – reveal to you in terms of structuring an imagined tree?

DH: A slightly lateral reply: I’m doing some sort of granular process in these pieces. But where the definition of granular synthesis assumes (or perhaps mandates) that the grains have no particular identity, I am interested in putting an individual face on every grain. So for example, in (pages of illustrations) I made hundreds and hundreds of individual recordings of brushing the leaves together - in some way I was getting to know the tree one leaf at a time.

I see the algorithms used to manipulate grains streams and clouds as some form of government - you make a law and many people will follow it, to some extent. It can be something rather minor, like, “don’t spit on the sidewalk”. Some people will disobey, but you will see a citywide trend of less slime on the walkways. This is my metaphor for granular synthesis; and it then becomes interesting to zoom in on individual grains, to give them some meaning in their legal structure. Music for 100 Carpenters is very much involved in this metaphor, with a simple set of rules and hierarchies guiding the performance, and the individual sounds and micro-rhythms being very recognizable, until they form a cloud mass and take off.

CB: You describe Music for 100 Carpenters as “Prying at Stockhausen’s line between rhythm and timbre…” You lived and created work in New York City for a long time before relocating to Berlin, Germany. I realize I’m generalizing here, but what sort of reaction are you getting from Berliners when they hear and/or see your work? Is anything lost in the translation? Or are there elements that they respond to more immediately than New Yorkers?

DH: Europe, as has been observed by many more eloquent observers that I, is different. Morton Feldman said, “ Europe, if you have a job, you’re an amateur.” This is very true, and makes it hard to perform Music for 100 Carpenters over there, because the piece is so much about this very American flexibility in the labor market. Almost every artist or musician I know in New York has at one time or another been a carpenter to make some extra dough; the piece is largely a tribute to those “tool bag days” which are familiar, not just to artists. In Germany, every profession requires a training period of 2 - 3 years before one is permitted to practice; paperwork, licenses, insurance and so on. So people don’t do a lot of different jobs, and if you declare yourself a composer or artist it is somewhat shameful to admit that you have another source of income (though most people do...). The effect on people’s perceptions is substantial, and I bump into some incredulity when I tell people that I actually make my own sculptures, do my own audio engineering, compose music and tie my own shoelaces. One curator said to me, “it is not possible that you can be really good at such different tasks. You must choose one, and only one, field.” (He has since lost his job and is frantically struggling to find a way to pay his rent, with his one, and only one, skill).

So there is a lot of skepticism of Americans for that reason, and also a lot of interest, because Americans are apt to approach problems very differently. Discussing (pages of illustrations) with a group of mainly German electroacoustic composers at the Technischen Universitaet, someone asked me, “What is the structure of the piece?” (I think he was worried that there wasn’t any - a cardinal sin of course). I hadn’t really approached the work from that angle. I was more concerned with the conceptual/perceptual problems. But the answer was very simple, and I said, “The structure is the wind.” The man was clearly hoping for something less poetic, and I had to explain that I studied a particular 14 minute stretch of wind gusts I had recorded, analyzing them for speed, acceleration, pitch alteration in my ear canals, how leaves react at the windward and leeward edges of a tree, etc. That map became the score for the piece. He was shocked - it wasn’t in his way of thinking at all. He wanted something rigorous, or he wanted me to fail - it never occurred to him that a structure could be both rigorous and completely outside his analytical framework. I had to repeat my magic formula three times before anyone would believe me. Then we all had a good laugh.

Mind you, I don’t see these differences as negative in any way, they are just differences. And I think my success in Germany is partly down to the alienness of my background. The corollary to Feldman’s observation is that in America, artists are regarded as dangerous slackers who refuse to get a real job; while Europeans view the calling as a noble one and they have great respect for the sacrifice and effort required. A cop at the German passport control asked me what I was doing in Germany, and I replied that I am a sound artist (Klangkunstler). He said, “Oh, that’s wonderful! Are you doing more in the way of installations or concerts? Berlin is a great place for sound art, I wish you all success in your work.” I wager this will never, ever happen to me at U.S. Customs.

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