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19 April 2011

Avant-Muzak by Matthew Shlomowitz

Matthew Shlomowitz Image: Matthew Shlomowitz  

This conversation between Stephane Ginsburgh and Matthew Shlomowitz was written down around the time of the premiere of Shlomowitz's work Avant Muzak at De Singel, Antwerp (Belgium) at the end of March. The work was commissioned by Centre Henri Pousseur, Li├Ęge, and the interview appeared originally in the centre's e-newsletter. The text is reproduced here by permission of Stephane Ginsburgh, pianist and artistic director of Centre Henri Pousseur.

Stephane Ginsburgh : The title of your new work Avant Muzak sounds like 'En avant la musique' but also like 'Avant-garde'. Is it a positive manifesto for a new kind of music?

Matthew Shlomowitz : Yes, it's positive. But manifesto is a bit grand; let's call it a proposition. The proposition is to critically engage with the sounds and culture of the everyday and popular world. Critical thinking is commonplace in contemporary music, but it's usually only applied to a very select set repertoire of ideas and sounds from our post-war tradition. I reckon this is limited and insular and that critical thinking might be more interesting and relevant when applied to the familiar, to things usually dismissed or taken for granted. If Cage wanted us to open our ears to non-music, to regard music as a state of concentrated listening that can be applied to any sound, then my project is to imagine what possibilities the sounds and music around us (that we don't listen to or take seriously) might possess.

As for the specifics of Avant Muzak: it's a five-movement work for the young Belgian group Besides, using their full line-up: flute, soprano saxophone, drum kit, electric guitar, amplified harp, violin, cello and sampler. The instrumental music for all five movements is based on a saccharine chord progression that suggests the world of 'muzak'. This music is considered in a different way in each movement. In the first, for instance, the music is presented at four different tempos, so the listener can examine how the music sounds and feels, and what it evokes, in each condition. Each of these four tempos is matched with a recording of footsteps at a similar speed. I like the combination as it makes a connection between musical tempo and walking tempo, and also because by having 'similar' rather than the 'same' speeds, you get these really nice phase relations between the two.

SG : You often use synthetic and electronic sounds from daily life. Which ones did you incorporate this time, and how do they relate - as specific layers to the instrumental parts or the other way round?

MS : The titles of the movements will give some of the answer: 1. Slow, quite slow, quite fast and fast; with footsteps; 2. Starting and stopping; with girl poem; 3. Loud and Soft; with construction; 4. Scanning; 5. Cultural Location.

I've already said something about how the instrumental and recorded sounds relate in the first movement, so now I'll say something of the second, which has an extended recording of a girl speaking a 'you broke my heart' genre poem. This is laid over the music, and together they continually start and stop together, which interrupts the recorded voice and its meaning in interesting ways, and also makes strange second level rhythms: you have the rhythm of the music and the text and you have the rhythm of the starting and stopping. The last movement, in contrast, uses a wide variety of field recordings (a football crowd, the ocean, inside a car driving etc.) as the idea there is to frame the same music in different contexts.

SG : By their repetitive quality, electronic objects often sound like 'gimmicks' in your pieces. To what extent is this an important element of your language and what is its function?

MS : Oh man, does this 'gimmicks' line sound as mean in French!? You've made me doubt my understanding of the word in English so I've just looked it up. The word sounds pretty good when defined like this: 'an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, especially one designed to attract attention or increase appeal'. But then, I found this: 'A device employed to cheat, deceive, or trick' !

The proper answer is that I hope the repetition is what stops these things from being gimmicky. If a sample of a cow moo, or a recording of a TV voice-over is initially a gimmick, then I hope the repetition quickly kills that. That is, repetition usually leads to an abstraction: after identifying what the sound is, after you've heard it a few times the listening naturally shifts towards the acoustic properties. But it's true that some sounds resist this shift; for different reasons, it's hard to really listen to the sound of a yawn or an orgasm purely in terms of appreciating sound attributes. Nonetheless, even with these 'novelty' sounds I think the repetition, and the fact that these sounds are put into repetitive patterns with other 'sound events', gives them a formal discipline and critical distance.

SG : Explicit performance aspects are not the principal scope of works such as Avant Muzak - what's the role of performance in a work like this one?

MS : This piece is music. There is no consideration of visual interest beyond the usual kind of enjoyment we get from seeing music performed live. That said, I do think concert music which brings in recordings can do certain things that purely instrumental music can't.

The relationship between recordings and instrumental music is similar to the relationship between images and instrumental music. For instance, if you imagine an instrumental texture being combined with recordings of whales or machine gun fire, I think that would be similar to that same texture being combined with images of whales or a battle scene. The difference is that, being in the same medium, the instrumental music and the recordings interfere with one another.

I also think that working with recorded sounds opens up more kinds of listening, and shifts between different kinds of listening. A foghorn can be heard in terms of setting a harbour scene, for its sound qualities, or in terms of its place in the composition (e.g. if a sample of a seagull preceded the foghorn the first three times we heard it, a set of expectations will have been set up). I've only recently discovered Pierre Schaeffer's writings and in particular his different listening categories, so I'm in no position to make elaborate statements on this, but it did lead me to find this fantastic list of the way musicians listen.

Further links

Matthew Shlomowitz - AMC profile
Centre Henri Pousseur (http://www.memm.be/)
Listen to Popular Contexts
(for piano and sampler, performed by Mark Knoop) by Matthew Shlomowitz on the composer's website

Subjects discussed by this article:

Stephane Ginsburgh is pianist and artistic director of Centre Henri Pousseur, Liège.


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