Tone Glow 067: George Lewis

An interview with George Lewis + our writers panel on Yan Jun & Zhu Wenbo's 'Twice' and Barbara Monk Feldman's 'Verses'

George Lewis

George Lewis is a composer, trombonist, educator, and writer largely known for being a pioneer in computer music. He joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1971, and has written a book chronicling the organization’s history titled A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Throughout his career he’s performed and worked with numerous musicians, from Anthony Braxton to Derek Bailey to Roscoe Mitchell to Muhal Richard Abrams. Lewis’s composition Voyager is also the name of a computer program he created that analyzes a human improviser’s performance in real time to generate responses alongside independent behaviors. Last year, Carrier Records released Rainbow Family, an archival release documenting performances taken place at IRCAM in 1984. Earlier this year, New Focus Recordings released The Recombinant Trilogy, which featured works for solo instrument and electronics. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Lewis on October 21st, 2020 to discuss the AACM, his new opera that merges Monteverdi and W.E.B. Du Bois, machine learning, and more.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hey, how has your week been, what have you been up to?

George Lewis: Just trying to get settled in Berlin, doing dumb things like trying to find where the grocery stores are and getting bus passes. Just getting to know people here at this institute. Taking weekly German lessons and trying to get better at that. Things of that sort.

You’re taking a year off from teaching at Columbia [University], what are the goals you have for this upcoming year? What do you want to make sure you accomplish?

Well, number one is to avoid getting sick (laughter). I have all my stuff here, where’s my special mask? There’s a fall project and a spring project. The fall project is to complete an opera that combines W.E.B. Du Bois and [composer Claudio] Monteverdi. That is going to premiere in June [2021], so I have to finish it by January. The second part is to try to write a book that compiles and brings together all the thinking that I’ve done on computers, music, and improvisation. I’m not going to get that far with writing the book but I’m going to figure out what the book’s structure is and what the issues are going to be.

How are you planning to merge W.E.B. Du Bois and Monteverdi?

It’s for the Long Beach Opera Company, and it’s directed by Yuval Sharon. He got in touch with the idea that somehow he wanted to think about “double-consciousness,” the famous DuBoisian concept. He wanted to connect that with Monteverdi. I said, “Well look, Yuval, I’m reading this short story by Du Bois called The Comet, and it’s about the earth passing through the tail of a comet and everyone is killed except for a Black man and a white woman. They’re in New York. It’s the ’20s.” The beginning of it reminds me of Stephen King, The Stand, you know, a pandemic wipes everyone out. But does the pandemic or the comet have the power to wipe out white supremacy? In other words, if everyone is gone. What’s the investment in white supremacy? Why should we bother with that anymore? Because white supremacy is something that is affecting both of these people and suddenly they’re looking at the possibility that they don’t have to deal with that anymore. But can they really get rid of it so easily?

So that’s being explored. And in the meantime, it’s about power. White supremacy, a lot of that is about power. And so there’s already a power differential in the relationship already. And it’s just, there’s really been no relationship when it comes down to whether they should try to repopulate the planet, which under the anti-miscegenation laws of the 1920s would have been, you know, grounds for death penalty. So things of that sort animate the piece. The [Monteverdi] opera The Coronation of Poppaea is [also] about power. It’s about grasping for power and some characters in one opera also play in the other. [The idea could be] that sometimes the operas play together and sometimes they play separately. Sometimes they’re interspersed. That’s what I’m working out now: how to bring the totality of the two works together.

What do you think would need to happen in order for white supremacy to no longer exist?

That’s a very good question. Brighter minds than mine have tackled that and have no real answers. We’ve noticed from the current political regime in the U.S. that laws are not enough. You know, when I was a kid we had the standard lecture about checks and balances. Well, that’s all turned out to be nonsense now. There are no checks and balances whatsoever. What those were, were norms of behavior and conduct, and a lot of them came from above. [Trump’s] not wrong when he talks about the deep state, you know. There is kind of a permanent government. It’s not the richest people, but it’s people who, you know, tend to direct things. If you’re in the right situation, you meet these people and you see how they operate. It’s like your nose is pressed against the glass and you’re not going to be one of the ones that does the operating, but you can see how it works.

And you started to see that some of those norms are outmoded anyway, and should be smashed, and others really do work. The problem here is that when that’s replaced by simple will-to-power and with no sense of stewardship of the society you get the situation we’re in now. I’m noticing, for example, that Berlin, where I am now, and New York have very similar viral curves, but here, Berlin is considered a hotspot and the whole country feels that they should do something about it. Whereas in [New York], my home city, there are a substantial number of people among my fellow citizens who feel that (1) it’s no big deal and (2) it should really happen, and everyone should be infected for a so-called herd [immunity] and you go first, that kind of thing. So that’s a very different attitude.

It seems to me, on some level, people need to think differently about each other. You know, Black Lives Matter, that shouldn’t be much of a stretch, right? But immediately it’s met with all this denial and people who say, well, no, Black lives don’t really matter that much. It was just a way of saying, well, our lives matter too, but it seems that was already a bridge too far for a lot of people. And the other thing is white supremacy, even for people who aren’t white, sometimes feels good. It’s the devil they know and, for the ones who are benefiting from it in the most direct way, it’s a part of who they are. And if you take it away, it feels bad. They have to find another way to get along with everyone instead of automatically assuming that they’re on top. And so, so many people have been enabled by this, and there needs to be a real transition to see that it’s not really enabling us, but killing us. Like an addiction. And it usually ends up killing you or killing other people. It might be fading out but, you know, it’s like a wounded animal right now, a cornered, wounded animal. And I’m hopeful about that because maybe that’s the last gasp they give up, but no one wants to face a wounded rat in the corner that can bite you, and you get rabies. No one wants it.

What do you recall about the earliest part of your life? Were you close with your parents?

I grew up in an atmosphere where people encouraged you to do what you felt like doing. I felt we were always defended from people who felt we should be behaving a particular way or having certain beliefs or exhibiting certain behaviors. And not just my parents, my grandparents [too] were saying, “We’ll leave him alone. He’s doing what he wants to be doing. He’s fine with it.” And that’s pretty good. I try to do that too, with my son, unless there’s some pressing reason why he has to be corrected. I’m hoping he just does it, and if I can be helpful, you know, say, “Have you considered this? What do you think about that?”

That’s an interesting sort of environment to be in. Is there anything you can recall learning on your own?

Well I don’t know, Joshua, what I just described to you means that you learn on your own all the time. Or you have the illusion of learning on your own. In fact, you’re being guided all the time by people watching to see what you’re going to come up with. And maybe if you don’t, or if something looks funny, then they’re in there. They’re ready to step in. And so there’s a sense of nurturance. So by the time, for example, I met people like Muhal Richard Abrams at the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), I was already used to that model of people saying, “Well, we don’t have any criticism of what you’re doing. You should just keep doing it, whatever it is.” You find out for yourself and you make your own mistakes. But the funny thing is what you’re doing might have been a mistake for them, but not a mistake for you. And so you find out that what’s a mistake is kind of relative to your personal situation. I think that was something perfectly compatible with the way I was brought up.

The AACM is a Black institution with Black artists. The thing that typically happens is, if you’re not white and you’re sort of doing new things in the world, there aren’t necessarily going to be models to follow for what to do. There aren’t always going to be easy paths forward to “succeed.” I’m wondering, with this environment, were there any sort of models or people who were guiding you, or the AACM at large, through this?

Well, you know, I wasn’t there at the beginning of it, right. I was 19 years old when I came in and there was a whole generation previously. They started in 1965, when Muhal was 35, with other people who were in that age range. And it was started by people who had a lot of experience in jazz, coming out of bebop, but a lot of them were trying to figure out how to come to grips with other kinds of music. I don’t mean other kinds of music called jazz. I mean, they were trying to become cosmopolitan, to think about many different models of music. And the thing about that is you don’t really need a model, what you need is permission. If you don’t get it from the environment, you have to give it to yourself. You have to empower yourself to do these things.

One of the things I often encounter with people is that they think the AACM was designed in reaction to some earlier model of jazz. I could see that, except it was not constant with my experience of going to the classes, listening to all kinds of music from around the world, traditions, and methodologies. And you’d never know what it was going to be. You began to see that it wasn’t just the AACM that was doing that. It was the previous generation, you know, Coltrane, Miles Davis, they were all doing it because that was what it was to be a mobile and literate artist. That mobility, however, was something that was routinely revoked in the case of the African-Americans, the Black musicians. People had to reassert that in their own way.

You don’t really need a model to reassert that, there’s plenty of models around. The whole business of the Black Power movement was a means of reasserting a kind of self-determination—a cultural and personal self-determination—where you were able to say, “This is who I am and this is where I would like to be and I don’t want people to tell me, ’this is the only thing to be listening to, and here’s the hat you should be wearing, and here’s the cultural stance you should be taking.’” People tended to resist that. And you get a whole community of people who were resisting that, who were looking for a place with other people who could help in doing their resistance. You only wanted to resist. In my case being 19 years old, that was perfect because, you know, teenagers, that’s all they do—resist stuff. I didn’t even know what I was resisting, because I certainly wasn’t reacting to any prior movements in music. 

Do you view your life as one of continual resistance?

No. I don’t see resistance as being a big feature, although, depending upon the environment you’re in, you don’t so much resist as you encourage people to think differently. If that’s a form of resistance, so be it. But I look at it as enabling other pathways. So I do it every day, especially here. I’m in this Institute for Advanced Study, and we were having lunch and I was telling one of the fellows at the table about this opera. But despite being a European intellectual—a very, very experienced one—he had never heard of W.E.B. Du Bois. That could be a problem or it could be an opportunity. I think, for the most part, people who are accomplished scholars look for opportunities, they’re not looking for people to say, “Well you’re a dope because you don’t know this or no one cares about that.” I mean, if people thought that way, the AACM would never have happened, because no matter how much ignorance I displayed… (laughter).

Have there been people you can point to in your life as consistently helping you or pointing you in ways to think differently?

Y’know, I think there are too many of those to really count. Every so often I go into a project where I think, “Who were all the people that helped me?” And then I start to think, well, maybe there are 5 or 10 and then I make a list and it goes to about 20 or 30 and then it gets larger and larger (laughter). And pretty soon you start to think, this is hopeless. It’s ridiculous because you’re part of a community. The idea of [listing everyone] is to sort of publicly pay them back in some way. But you can’t, all you can really do is just sort of continue along the path. What do they say, “pay it forward”? Is that what they say now? You try to help the next generation do something. And so I find that in terms of the AACM’s pedagogical [organization], I often wondered why academic institutions couldn’t operate in that way. But I do see now the difference was that in academia, every so often you’re required to blow your own horn in order to survive, you have to blow really loud in a raucous way, and if you don’t do that, you don’t make it. After you do that, you can get back to being a human being again. You just have this obstreperous moment and everyone sanctions it, like you temporarily go mad and everyone says, “Oh, it’s the madding period. Just make sure he doesn’t get hurt.” And then, you snap out of it after a while and ask “What happened?” “Oh, you were in the madding period.” “So, oh, well what did I do?” “Nevermind.”

But in the AACM you didn’t really have that. At least in my experience, people seem fairly willing to help each other now because of that. I felt like I had a group of people who I felt were always gathered around me. It was very nurturing. One of the main jobs of an artist is to find people who like you. And for the rest—the people who don’t like you—what can you do about it? Nothing. You find those people like you, and then you like them back and then you develop new communities. That’s why I’m loathe to really answer that question in a very direct way, because if you do that, then pretty soon an hour later, I say, well, “How come I didn’t mention so-and-so?”

Are there pedagogical strategies that you employ in your classroom, that you’ve seen employed elsewhere, like in the AACM, to ensure the sustainability of a community? 

I find myself looking for ways to make [my students] comfortable with difference. There’s a lot of conformity and people are trying to find themselves at that period. And then they come with a lot of baggage, which you have to find ways to get them away from—maybe create a bubble in which those things aren’t important anymore and then be able to talk openly about things. It’s not structural, it’s more attitudinal, you know, trying to promote a space where people feel free to encounter and to ask questions and explore things from many different viewpoints.

You have this new album coming out, Rainbow Family. This recording is from 1984, I believe. Do you mind talking about The Institution for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM) in the eighties? What was your experience of being there?

IRCAM in the eighties—there were some key figures around at that time. One of them was the polymath David Wessel. David Wessel had a PhD in mathematical psychology, studied with very important people, but he was always a drummer, a jazz drummer. He got involved with people like Roscoe Mitchell and Cecil Taylor and all these kinds of people in California, as it happened while he was studying for the degree and getting his PhD. And then he continued to be involved with computer music. He got really involved with it in a big way. This guy was revered by people. When he passed away suddenly, you know, people were devastated. He was like Muhal in a lot of ways—he was always trying to figure out how he could help somebody, or he had some idea that you should listen to. The thing you had to learn about David, it was best if you were just quiet and let him talk (laughter), instead of trying to give your opinion or critique or any of that—just be quiet. Then you start getting this mountain of stuff you could get into.

I went to Paris for a while in 1980 with a group of people from the Kitchen, which is the avant-garde space where I was the music curator. I saw David there. By this time, David had become the pedagogy director at IRCAM, so he invited me in. IRCAM was a very intense place. It sort of looks like people doing office work—they’re all sitting at their terminals. And back then it was like mainframe terminals, and every so often a sound would come in. Someone would be working on a sound for three days and they’d play it for the whole building, (hauntingly) “AHH.” Some sort of voice synthesis stuff.

For a while there, IRCAM was kind of being run by a triumvirate, right? It was Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, and Vinko Globokar, maybe Gerald Bennett I think was in there too. But I’m sort of murky on that because it was before I actually went there. I didn’t actually end up going there until 1982. David was still the pedagogy director, Tod Machover who later went to the Media Lab, he was a creative director. And there were people there like Jean-Baptiste Barrière, Philippe Manoury, Fred Lerdahl. But then Cecil Taylor came through, Quincy Jones came through, [actor] Marcello Mastroianni came through, president of Germany, Richard von Weiszäcker came through. Everybody wanted to meet Pierre Boulez (laughter). So if you just sat around the building, you learned all kinds of things. David was doing his pedagogy classes. There were technicians there, and they didn’t give me a technician because they said, well, this guy knows how to program already. So, I didn’t have a technician, which, I could have used a technician for certain things. But that was okay. I was able to do a lot of work on my own. Plus, I was working with systems, they called them—there was a whole thing about small systems and big systems. There’s no such thing like that anymore, but back then it was mainframes versus microcomputers. And what happened to that was Moore’s law took care of that. At the time that was a really big deal and it was also mapped onto ideas about real-time versus scores and improvisation versus composition and other kinds of spurious binary issues of the day that were very important to people at the time, but which turned out to be chimerical. Later the technology or the ideas made the whole thing obsolete. Back then it was very ideological.

So when I did my piece, Rainbow Family, in ’84, it was kind of a demo of what you could do in an improvisational context with computers, because they didn’t have any computers you could use for improvising. There was no such thing as a Macintosh, although later they did bring the Macintoshes in. I think maybe, maybe in October of that year, the first Macs ever. They brought [early Apple CEO] John Sculley in to talk to us, to see if he’d be interested in supporting this project. So we did have these Apple IIe computers to play with, which was very nice. Yamaha was also involved because Yamaha had a sort of corporate interest and they were competitors with certain kinds of technology that was coming out of France. They donated a bunch of equipment, including some DX7s. And that’s what I did my pieces with, the DX7s. They brought in two guys, John Chowning who invented the frequency modulation algorithm that is used in the Yamahas. I think that’s supposed to be the first or second best performing patent in Stanford’s history? The DX7 FM patent that John made with David Bristow. A lot of the sounds that they made, I was able to use in Rainbow Family, ’cause I was terrible at making FM sounds. I didn’t know how to make a violin, either.

[IRCAM] was a very dynamic place, right in the center of Paris. I didn’t speak great French, which maybe was a drawback at the time. It was a coming-of-age thing, I can tell you that. Coming of age in Paris at the age of 30.

What do you feel like you learned in your time there that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t been there?

If you go in one direction, you learn one thing. If you go in another, you actually learn something else, that sort of almost speaks for itself. I mean, you’re in France, right? If I’d stayed in New York, it would have been different. It would’ve been around different people. I spent five years in Europe. I was in Paris for three years and two years in Amsterdam. And a lot of the reasons why I was there were to do computer music, although I did do a lot of performing on trombone with a lot of different people. The reason for being there was related to music technology. I don’t know how I could answer that. It’s sort of like saying, you’re in this universe and in the other universe, it’s almost the same, except that you were playing the flute instead of the trombone (laughter).

What drew you to the trombone initially?

Oh, I don’t know. My parents thought it’d be good. I was changing schools. You know about the Lab School in Chicago, right? That’s where I went. But before that I was in the Chicago public school system, which was full of segregation and drafty mobile classrooms in Black areas and all that. An enterprising African-American teacher went to my parents and said, “You have to get this kid out of here and here’s how you’re going to do it.” My parents said, “Well, how do we pay for that? It looks pretty expensive. We don’t have any money, we work in the post office.” He said, “You can figure that out. They give scholarships. Basically, you have to try to get in.” And they did try to get in and they got me in there.

Then the opportunity arose to be in the band and they thought that would be a good idea. I was in a 100% Black, segregated school system and suddenly I’m in a 99% white school system. So what do you do with that? It didn’t make much difference to me, but my parents thought, “Wow, this is really different for us, so maybe it’s going to be different for him too, so maybe playing an instrument would be helpful.” They didn’t seem to care what instrument it was except they had a bee in their bonnet about the trumpet, so that was out. Trombone just looked like a pretty cool instrument. I didn’t have any preference one way or the other, really, and in a way I still don’t.

Do you feel an intimacy with the trombone then? Or is it just like a means to an end to communicate?

I don’t know what the end is really. It’s the means to something and you don’t know what the ends are until you try it. I can tell you what it did: it brought me in touch with a lot of very interesting people and some heavy thinkers so that I was able to perform with them, or even if I wasn’t performing with them, I was able to be around and learn from them. So the trombone really did that for me. And being able to do it at a certain level, and learning from the people I was doing it with, it just sort of increased the level at which the performance was taking place. But in terms of it being something where, you know, I always wanted to do it and never wanted to do anything else? No, no I’ve always had a lot of things I wanted to do. And so I couldn’t get stuck in one place.

Is that similar to your relationship with computer music and with the Voyager [software]? Was creating that kind of work something that you feel like was a larger passion, something that felt more intimate than trombone?

Well, my dad, he liked radio and electronics. He went on the G.I. Bill and went to these radio schools and stuff, but he never managed to get real employment doing it, but he still had a real love of it. Back in the days when you could fix TVs, when you could go in the back with a soldering iron and a voltmeter, he could fix everybody’s TV. And he knew about stuff, Ohm’s law and all that, and he could read schematics. So all I remember was that he’d be talking and I’d be listening and he’d be telling me about Ohm’s law. Why are we telling a five-year-old about Ohm’s Law? But it just seemed like I’d have to hear it. And I heard it enough times that later when I got the first single board computer in the mail and it came with a schematic, I looked at it and I said, “Oh, I know what this is.” 

So that geeky background expressed itself in other ways. We were all Trekkies—my sister, my dad, mom, everybody—but in terms of getting a computer, that was something we had just thought about in passing. They had a mainframe computer in my school. It was one of those old IBMs with punch cards, and I was just not getting it. I’d get the card, I’d write the program, it wouldn’t run. I thought, well, I guess this is not going to be for me. And then, meeting several people in the Bay Area during the early microcomputer experiments with the League of Automatic Music Composers, I’m listening to this stuff and they’ve got their little microcomputers on a local area network and they’re all passing data among each other. They’re creating this music and it sounded like people improvising. In fact, it sounded like stuff that we were doing. And I said, “Wow, you can do this with computers. This sounds like a pretty cool thing to do. I wonder if I could do this.” And the League said, “Well, sure you can do this. You know, [the computer] costs $250 bucks, you can order it by mail, just send it in and get one.” So of course, people outside that home said, “Oh, why would you want to do that? Why don’t you stick to playing the trombone? Or maybe, “It’ll be too hard for you.” I said, “Oh I see, this is racism.” (laughter) Too hard for me? I’m a Yale grad, what are you talking about?

So you ignore those people and stick with the people who are trying to help you. And so I got the thing in the mail and started trying to do stuff. I couldn’t figure out anything except for a programming book, an engineering book, and a hardware book. The hardware book is the easiest because it had a schematic for how to build a circuit, how to build a power supply, and you couldn’t do anything until you built the power supply. I got it to work and then I called up David Behrman [from the League] and said, “It works. What do I do now?” He said, “Whatever you want.” And what I really wanted to do was make something that acted like what I heard the League doing. They were making their computers improvise. So that’s what I wanted to do. And that’s what I’m still trying to do.

It’s gotten a little better. It was all based around interaction, improvisation, and sensing, and environments and stuff that I knew about from the performance world. Knowing about that from performance was very interesting in terms of being able to get the computer to do these things. Being around a lot of people from AACM that were always involved in introspection about their musical processes was very important. The AACM is part of why Voyager and Rainbow Family exist, because without that sense of introspection about process, you don’t get much.

With that goal to capture what you heard the League doing—creating this sort of improvisatory music—was there a moment where you feel like you had a breakthrough and achieved what you had set out to do?

There are no breakthroughs, there are break-even points. The first thing was to just get something to play—anything, you know? I’d been playing with Anthony Braxton and Dave Holland. You know, you play with Dave Holland, he’s uncorking these incredible things. And I started trying to make the computer play something, I said, “Well, maybe this one, you could sound like Dave. Maybe I’ll try and make it sound like Dave, that’ll be the model. It’ll sound like a modified version of Dave Holland playing a bass.” You can listen to it, it’s on a record called “The Kim and I,” it doesn’t really sound like Dave, but that was the basic idea. The idea was that you could actually create sensible structures that sounded like what you expected and that there was a medium there that you could learn, you know, and it was based on very fundamental machine language programming. No loops and jumps to subroutine and loading and registers with this and that kind of thing.

What would it mean to sound like Dave Holland?

Think of it another way. I had a wonderful chat once with Steve Grossman, a saxophonist. I mean, this guy started out, he was like eight, right? A genius on the saxophone at age 10 or something. He said, “I had my Charlie Parker period.” I said, “When was that?” He said, “12 or something.” (laughter). And then by like 14, maybe he was into his John Coltrane period. I don’t know how old he was when he started playing with Miles Davis—16, 17, something like that. He said that was his Coltrane period. When we were touring, he said, “Well, I’m getting into my Sonny Rollins period now.”

So the question is, what does that mean to sound like those people? You could do it as a matter of imitation, and of course he was such a virtuoso, he could do that. But you do that as a means to an end. It’s a means of analyzing the process by using your body and your mind and your intellect and your ears to try to figure out how that music, how it means, how it makes you feel, what’s inside of it structurally and emotionally, and that’s what it means to sound like one of those people. And then the thing is, if you can try that with certain instruments, you never get there because the instrument itself doesn’t sound much like the person, but the influence is there.

Trying to make the computer sound like Dave taught me a lot about how Dave made his music, but also about how other people made their music. And then, aside from that, trying to get a computer to do it as distinct from doing it yourself—you’re building a musician. You’re doing that anyway, when you improvise, when you create something.

What do you feel are the limitations that computers have? What can humans do that computers can’t?

I think the first thing that humans can do that computers can’t do, is that humans can feel anxious about what computers can do. Computers don’t feel anything about what humans can do, as far as I know. You know, all the ’50s talk—“You’ll be replaced by a machine.” Well damn if that didn’t happen. None of the work that my parents did for a living is anything that you could get a job doing now. Computers have all those jobs, all those jobs are sitting on your laptop, you know.

Very little of the stuff that computers do now were things that people thought were possible. It’s always very, very premature to say what something can’t do. It’s gone pretty far with me, what I’ve been able to get my machines to do. I don’t think there would be some a priori limitation, I haven’t found that. Especially when we switched to the pianos, when I started making the piano programs, it became increasingly hard to tell who [was playing]. Back in the of the old days, using the synthesizers, it was clearly like a man or a human versus machine thing, where you were looking for a certain kind of intelligence that arose from what people would listen to, but then some people kept thinking about synthesis and how to get things to sound realistic or lifelike or lively. Most stuff didn’t really pass the test. Every generation, the synthesis gets better. But then after a while people say, “Oh yeah, but it’s not doing this. It doesn’t really sound ’real.’”

But then, in 2004, when I made the piano player [for Virtual Concerto (2004)], the one that made its debut at Carnegie hall in 2004, it played a piano concerto. I didn’t think that I’d be able to make something that you really couldn’t tell who was playing and now it seems like that’s something that is harder to tell. That doesn’t mean it’s passing some kind of Turing test. All that means is that you achieved a certain kind of verisimilitude that you can use in the service of the music-making. But it’s about taking baby steps and learning about expectation and intention, and then finding out that a lot of the literature in fields like psychology and neuroscience kind of back you up. But that’s not the basis. You don’t learn that stuff first and then say, “Oh, I’m gonna apply that to my computers.” It was more like, you have the experience and then you look around for literature. I did do a lot of reading in AI stuff. I did do a lot of that.

Do you have any thoughts about current contemporary developments and usages of AI machine learning?

Well, about 20 years ago I wrote an article. It was about Voyager, and the article basically said that software reflects the community of [the] culture that produced it. I heard that 10 years later from some anthropologists of technology, but it’s basically the same statement. So we’re talking about facial recognition software that thinks that Black people are criminals or believes that white women are the most beautiful. We can trace that directly back to who’s doing the programming. Or a chatbot that becomes a racist in 24 hours based on being exposed to Twitter or whatever. It was in a community where it learned how to be a racist (laughs). But that showed proof of concept as far as I was concerned.

It showed a proof of not the computer concept, but the human concept, which is that old song, you have to be carefully taught. When you are in an environment or in a community, your machine—however they come to their learning, however they express what they learned or what they can do—is going to be based on the community from which it sprang. And so the same technologies can be used for many different purposes and are developed for many different purposes. You start to find that recognition is sort of key for all kinds of systems. 

For me, my favorite improviser is the Mars Rover, and I think the greatest improvising problem is the self-driving car. And then there’s the self-driving killer robots, drones, these land drones and the air drones. I was at a conference at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and they were talking about autonomous land drones, and they started describing them, and I said, you know, musicians have been working on these autonomous systems for a really long time. (laughter). They said, “What? Give us an example of that!” A lot of these issues of ethics have come up in the arts community and that’s not a place they expect to find it. They expect to find all the answers in the political community or the economic community or in the science or in the computer science community.

These kinds of ethical issues are gonna be fundamental, but I don’t think they are inherent in the technology. There is one issue, though. I’m trying to figure out a little bit more about machine learning. I need to get into it for real a little bit. I don’t do machine learning, I do more machine adapting. There’s the black box aspect of it: you set up a neural net, it starts to congeal around certain features of what it’s trying to learn from, and then it becomes like a black box. It’s sort of good for doing that, but that’s about it. So I’m looking for some way in which we could ally a sort of algorithmic approach to the machine learning approach, just some hybrid. I think the methodology is, would it really be possible to create something different?

We’re working on making a virtual bird project, this virtual zebra finch, and it’s gotten pretty far. One of my great former students, Damon Holzborn, who has worked with me on several of the pieces—he’s the only person who knows how Voyager works apart from me, listen to us talk about Voyager and it’s like idiolalia, twin speak or something—started working with these neuroscientists back in New York and they’ve got a pretty good bird that can sing and communicate and do things using algorithmic techniques. They’re about to send this bird into the cage with the other birds to see whether it can communicate with them.

It’s very much the same way in which Voyager and Rainbow Family developed. You sort of send it out into the field and you wait for the reception of the other beings that you’re trying to put it in contact with. In this case birds, in my case, improvising musicians. And the paradigm here is that these zebra finches are said to be improvising. So we’re not quite sure what that means. We talk about improvising birds, but then we’re not really sure about improvising people either, right? A lot of the ideas about who’s improvising, what that means, don’t come from the improvising community, they come from other communities who have great romantic ideas about what improvisation is, and also very surprising limitations on what they think you can do.

What are these romanticized ideas about improvisation and limitations?

The idea that there are limitations (laughter). That’s the first thing that you have. I think the term they often use is “constraints” and people are very confident about that, but they can’t tell you what the constraints are. So you think, well, show me a constraint. It’s like, someone says we want to avoid essentialism. That’s fine, but show me an essence, you know? So they can’t show you a constraint, they can’t show you an essence, but the conversation is very confident. 

So it becomes clearer that improvisers are under this or that constraint. And then the other thing is, improvisation is supposed to be “of the moment,” but the fact is, as one improvising musician said, “I spent my whole life getting to this point.” There are a lot of moments that ended up getting you there. The idea that what you responded to in just that moment was with the set of tools that have been honed over a number of years—however many years that you’ve been doing it. And then you can also improvise the execution. The improvisation can be over very long timescales. I mean, months or years, not just in musical improvisation, but other forms of life that involve improvised actions.

Earlier you mentioned the self-driving car. Why is the self-driving car the greatest improvisatory problem? 

That’s one of my favorites. It features everything that you like to do in improvisation. You know, you’re in an indeterminate situation, you have to exercise agency, you perceive, you make judgements, and you make choices. So to me, that’s what improvisation really is. And that’s about all. I don’t see much else there that really matters. Those four things seem fundamental. Time isn’t really a factor. That seems contradictory, but only to the musician, who are the people who are always thinking about things being in the moment. They like the idea of things being in the moment because those people like it—they contrast it with what they think about classical music, which is supposed to be about not being in the moment. But the composition of classical music is just as much in the moment as anything else, it’s the moment at your desk where you’re trying to figure something out. It’s just a displacement of the moment and you don’t eliminate it. 

So for me, the Mars Rover, that’s amazing. The idea is that it takes eight minutes for a signal to get to it, so it’s gotta be able to do some things on its own. I wonder if people are thinking about these things as improvisors, I know I’ve seen some scientific papers about sort of subsumption-based architectures, which seemed to imply that the machine could be thought of as improvising. But a lot of those people come from communities where improvisation is bad or things of that sort. So because they come from those communities, the software reflects that.

We were talking about how software reflects community. I’m wondering then what Voyager reflects of you and the community you were a part of then?

Well, you don’t really reflect, you enact. People look for art objects that somehow reflect the times or reflect the community. That’s a very passive way of looking at art. Art has to produce relationships, not just express them or encode them in frozen form. I mean, I’m pleased to think that what I do announces relationships and doesn’t just reflect them.

What are some things that you still want to accomplish that you haven’t done yet? Are there things you specifically want to figure out, or want your computer systems or your software to be able to do?

There is one thing. They should be able to find the ending. When people are improvising, one of the things that’s wonderful about what they do is that they can come together musically to create an ending. They don’t have to look at each other, they can just figure it out. It’s sort of incredible how they do it. My machines can’t do that. And I don’t know why or how. So it’s a background task that I would like to know how it is that they can participate in negotiating an ending.

First of all, they have to know that an ending exists, and that’s a problem where whoever’s in the improvisation, whether human or computer, are in the same boat. They have to figure out how to act in a certain way. I was watching a concert years ago. The pianist started making sounds like she wanted to end. And I’m used to that because I feel like I can hear that. You learn how to read sounds, and through reading sounds, you’re basically reading minds. This is something that people like Anthony Braxton are very good at. So I’m listening to this woman, I’m not on stage with her, I’m just in the audience. But when you’re in the audience and you can read those codes, you might as well be one of the players. All the messages that are getting passed back and forth, it’s like eavesdropping. So then the drummer picked it up. Then the synthesizer player picked it up. The trumpet player either didn’t pick it up or didn’t want it to end, like they knew it was there, but didn’t want to do it. So at a certain point the synthesizer player got up from his instrument, went over to the trumpet player and waved his arm and made the sign with his throat and said end the concert. So I thought, well, first of all, I was right about what I thought I heard. And number two, it was something where, what were the nature of those signals that were being passed? I really don’t know. I can recognize them, but I don’t know how they work or how they get interpreted, how they get acknowledged. There’s a lot of preliminary research on this, but it’s very important because it ties into everything we experience in life. How do we know when it’s time for a meeting to end? Well, sometimes people don’t know, they don’t really know.

So 10 years later, 15 years later, I was onstage with the same pianist and she started making these ending noises again. I don’t know if they were the same ending noises, but they were ending noises. So I started making my ending noises. I was trying to support her ending noises. But the saxophone player, you know, it was his birthday, it was in his honor. He just didn’t want to do it. He just said it’s too early, let’s not do that. So we abandoned it. And then later, I told her about this concert she was in 10 years ago and I told her the same story I told you. “Oh yeah, I remember that!”

You know, these things kind of go deep because everyone has that experience. So that’s the thing I would like to do. And if I can do that, you’ll see the effect of it because I will have to turn Voyager on, but Voyager could turn itself off. 

Is there anything that you want to talk about or that you’ve wanted to be asked in an interview before that you haven’t before?

Well, you know, I do a lot of my own writing. So in fact, I don’t care what people ask me. (laughter). I’m not looking for anything to be asked because I can always write my own stuff. You know, I learned after a while that once I started writing, it was back in the day when people expected that they weren’t going to be able to express themselves unless someone wrote about them. And then I think around the ’70s, people like Marion Brown started thinking, well, I could write too, you know? If you have something that you want to say, you can just write it yourself. So the idea behind a conversation like this is that we developed new perspectives. And I think we did that. I think we did that.

George Lewis’s Rainbow Family and The Recombinant Trilogy can be purchased at Bandcamp. Lewis’s book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, can be purchased at the University of Chicago Press website.

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Writers Panel

Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share brief thoughts on an album and assign it a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.

Yan Jun / Zhu Wenbo - Twice (Erstwhile, 2021)

Press Release info: N/A.

Purchase Twice at Bandcamp.


Mark Cutler: Office supply ASMR. Yan Jun and Zhu Wenbo are two of a handful of Chinese noise artists (Li Weisi, who I wrote about recently, is another) who just have a remarkable ability to coax the most satisfying tones and textures out of mundane objects and machinery. In addition to Jun’s largely feedback-focused work on his excellent, recently revived Sub Jam label, he has an extensive history of collaboration, on which he tends to focus more on the microscopic sounds produced by scratching, tapping, and drumming on various surfaces. Wenbo, for his part, tends to focus more on Western classical instruments, which he often pushes until they produce high-pitched squeals and deep, thrumming drones. However he has also worked with desk fans, ice machines, and other discarded electronics.

Here, we have what sounds like a printer booting up (a sound I recognize because I also used it in Saturday’s Tone Glow concert), a tape player rewinding, the chess clock pictured on the cover, as well as countless other, unplaceable whirrs, clicks and hums. Over this, Jun performs breath and voice exercises, letting out heavy sighs and holding what sounds like the lowest note he can sing for the longest time he can sing it. As is typical for Erstwhile, Twice sounds like it evolves according to some stochastic compositional method. Noises cut in and out of the left and right channels according to an inscrutable logic. After a rather frenetic opening ten minutes, the piece slows down considerably, honing in on the smallest sounds it can. A hissing so thin it might just be room tone, wanders from the left channel to the right. Someone, somewhere, plucks a mandolin string.

As I indicated above, I find all this very relaxing. These are the kinds of sounds that it is almost impossible to capture without a very good microphone in a very quiet, serene environment. Even here, we occasionally catch murky voices and barking dogs in the far, far distance. Here, at my own desk, it’s a million degrees and two air conditioners are blasting. I am constantly subjected to a kind of sonic warfare between the bar below my apartment, and the middle-aged Mexican men who hang out and blast música norteña across the street. This album makes me think of the kind of cool, serene spaces that are totally foreign to New York City in a heatwave—and that, to me, is reason enough to love it.
[9]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: More than on Yan Jun or Zhu Wenbo’s previous endeavors, Twice reduces sounds to their basic elements: rhythm, pitch, timbre. The greatest testament to this is how the record is rife with instances—from phone notifications to mechanical whirrs to cautious footsteps—that pierce the ear in different but similarly commanding ways. This is to say every sound is isolated yet surreptitiously demanding, and Jun and Wenbo construct spacious atmospheres to encourage careful listening. This isn’t for a mere embrace of sonic textures, however; when a far-off pop song is heard amid high-pitched sine tones, the sound of microphone tapping hilariously interrupts the proceedings, like someone reaching across the fourth wall to inspect us, the listener, as we’re inspecting the sounds.

This simultaneous humor and austerity is maintained through sighs and coughs and snores, but these mouth sounds serve another purpose: they root everything in the human. Twice consequently feels distinct from similar records—there’s no rendering of the acousmatic as alien, as is found on Taku Unami’s collaborations, or the quaint mechanical cuteness of Rie Nakajima’s automatons, or even the sound-qua-sound appreciation of Asian EAI records’ dryness, be it from Ryu Hankil’s typewriter explorations to current-day Ftarri albums to Jun’s previous works. It’s not about mystery or profundity, either; what Twice does, especially in its open-air feel via field recordings, is transform the everyday into a space for play. There’s not much you need to participate, and the simplicity of the tools used and their consequent presentation is a reminder of that.
[7]

Sunik Kim: There is a deep patience at the root of this work that I find really admirable; Yan and Zhu allow processes—human, mechanical, environmental—to play out to their fullest extent, layering and pitting them against one another. In a sense, they strip the act of composition to its barest essence: the various individual sonic materials feel largely unmediated, plucked and frozen in a pure, self-sustaining and autonomous state, and the task is—simply—to arrange them in time. This emphasis on time manifests in the piece’s deathly slow pace; in a sense, Twice is—bear with me—chopped and screwed EAI, which recontextualizes and renews its familiar source material primarily through an overt manipulation, stretching, and drawing out of time, a focus on extreme, even excruciating durations. And, like with the greatest marathon screws, the end result is that the time flies by.
[8]

Maxie Younger: Twice’s muted kitchen-sink approach is aided heavily by novelty. Sounds that surprise and entrance on a first listen (the stuttering mechanical spurt of a printer; hollowed-out clicks that call to mind broken metronomes and turn signals; bright, high-frequency pulses that move in and out of the range of human perceptibility; the occasional sprinkling of spoken word and trollish mouth noise from Yan Jun) turn strangely flat the second time around, bookended as they are by dry stretches of field recording and room-tone mush that draw my pleading eyes to the progress bar. To be fair, this is more of a consequence of listening to Twice multiple times in the span of a few weeks than it is an exact weakness of the piece. It’s not something that suits being entered into heavy rotation. Throw it on once or twice over a few months and let its absence breed fondness; skim over its surface, but don’t dive too far into its depths. You might not find anything worth visiting at the bottom.
[5]

Gil Sansón: One of the main traits that distinguishes electroacoustic improvisation (EAI) from European free improvisation (EFI) is that the former equates gesture with content, as opposed to EFI, in which gesture becomes expression. As a result of this, EAI treats gesture with great economy, using it to convey meaning and reflections of meaning, and so aspects like the context in which the gesture appears is every bit as important as the gesture itself. Another key difference is that in EAI, the recording medium is treated as a statement and not so much as documentation. Twice, the second collaboration on record by Yan Jun and Zhu Wenbo, offers a glimpse into Chinese EAI, still relatively recent as a scene but already showing fresh ideas and a strong identity.

As the image on the cover suggests, the album seems to deal with the phenomena of time: appearing literally, in some cases, with the sound of clocks ticking, and others as extrapolation of it, as with the sounds of construction workers in the street, the sound made by coffee machines and the ambience of non places like shopping malls with their disembodied voices, all seemingly posit questions about our relationship with time as we engage in something, await for something to happen, or ponder what happened during time off. Sometimes the music takes a lull and it appears uneventful, as if it was waiting for something to happen. Often this is followed by a thickening of the texture, signaling the appearance of the human voice, mostly through the sound of breathing—in some cases via spoken word and throat signing—and maybe punctuated by an unidentified string instrument.

The slow pacing of the music ensures that every sound has plenty of room to be itself without competing with others for attention, even when two or more layers exist simultaneously. The music sounds as ideas worked in conversation between the two artists rather than a set of music, in a way inhabiting a pre-music realm, a place in which ideas can attach to sounds in a natural, unforced way. This environment has been carefully mapped, though: every gesture and every lull captures the attention of the concentrated listener and midway, it’s obvious that the enquiry on the nature of time has taken on a much more metaphysical aspect, in which relativity is no longer questioned but affirmed.
[7]

Dominic Coles: In his book Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre wrote:

Humans break themselves in. One breaks-in another human being by making them repeat a certain act, a certain gesture or movement... One presents them with the same situation, prepares them to encounter the same state of things and people. Repetition... is ritualized.

Lefebvre developed the field of Rhythmanalysis as a way of tracing the effects of advanced capitalism on the rhythms of everyday life and specifically on the natural rhythms of the human body. He argues that contemporary forms of power manipulate these rhythms, transforming unnatural and oppressive cycles of work, production, and sanctioned rest into accepted rituals. In Yan Jun and Zhu Wenbo’s new record, Twice, we encounter the episodic staging of these various cycles of work and rest. This is music that moves us through the highly regimented temporal structures of everyday life.

A stifled, metronomic clicking announces the high frequency of a printer’s circuitry warming to its work. What follows is an inexorable flow of materials, any of which can be repeated. This creates a tension between the almost dreamlike flowing of one material to the next and its repetition. There is the sense that any sound, no matter how chaotic or organic, can become periodic: approximately 24 minutes into Twice we hear a short burst of microphone feedback. As a sonic phenomenon, microphone feedback is often heard as a form of carefully calibrated chaos (and sometimes, not calibrated at all)—over the next several minutes, however, this chaotic element is turned into a repeating signal, like some kind of brutalist, electronic bell. A suffocating stability is achieved through this repetition.

In a previous writing on Yan Jun’s work, I asked whether there was the suggestion of a way out somehow embedded in its form. As I searched this piece for a remedy I began to feel that this searching was in fact the purpose. This is not music that offers solutions, but rather one that positions the listener to seek their own. In their staging of these cold, crushing temporalities Yan Jun and Zhu Wenbo make possible our own imagining of openings and breaks in these repetitions. Whether or not they truly exist it is up to the auditor who, in the end, must find and activate them.
[8]

Average: [7.33]


Barbara Monk Feldman - Verses (Another Timbre, 2021)

Press Release info: “I have been thinking about what is inside and what is outside. The everyday life and tragedy of what goes on around you, and the fact that to accomplish anything you need the isolation in the studio—I think about this moral issue. And then on another level, I think about an inside and an outside for art itself, and how ephemeral that is.... What I am looking for is a way to notate the most intangible aspect of the music—for me that is the colour. Colour is not only the instrumentation. It also involves the ‘weight’ of the tones, and a kind of gravity in the relationship of the sound and silence, as well as the spacing of duration and registration.” —Barbara Monk Feldman

Purchase Verses at Bandcamp or the Another Timbre website.


Gil Sansón: Barbara Monk Feldman has been sidelined as being merely an epigone of her late husband, himself being accused post-mortem of abuse by former colleague Bunita Marcus. Indeed, the perceived delicateness of his music is now tempered by accusations by people who saw and endured the worst aspects of his personality, but I think it’s safe to say that his imprint on modern music is secured and it would take a Stalinist revisionism to change this. In any case, his discography is large enough by now and we are better served by being able to hear the work of Marcus and Monk Feldman, two composers that while unable to completely distance from the music of Morton Feldman are bringing new shades and associations, a different sensibility, perhaps less burdened by the weight of music history that made Morton see himself as closer to Schubert and Stravinsky than to Boulez or Stockhausen.

Monk Feldman uses similar colors, with piano, bells and tuned percussion being particularly Morton-esque, but soon a different perspective becomes obvious. Monk Feldman uses harmonies with less atonal zeal, not shying away from the type of intervals Morton Feldman wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. There’s also an inherent admission that Morton Feldman opened a new territory and could not claim exclusivity over it, and we can also talk about how in 2021 this insistence on being 100% original is no more than a byproduct of the maverick spirit of early modernism; it can be seen as a pissing contest and led to many dead ends. Today, a composer like Monk Feldman can be seen as patiently exploring aspects of a sound that Morton Feldman may have explored first, but it’s precisely because of this spirit of moving forward he may have failed to fully explore all areas discovered.

Monk Feldman seems to want to write good music, not writing music’s history, and that enables us to listen to the music for what it is, which is a good thing. Tuned percussion plays a large role here, with resonance and attack envelopes being explored carefully and lovingly; the music sounds less concerned with big themes than to the actual sound of it, and the writing for vibraphone shows a composer with full command of the resources of the instrument. Here, there’s less of a preoccupation with one’s place in music history and more of a simple expression of life experiences through music, masterfully composed with the humble intention to convey the ineffable: the small and quotidian revelations of wonder that we encounter by simply being alive and open to the world. “The I and Thou,” for example, may sound like Morton for one second and completely unlike him the next without losing its beauty and charm.
[8]

Sunik Kim: In an interview, Feldman grounds her work in decay and gravity; these clusters of notes and tones are mere vehicles, triggers, for their subsequent downward arc, their steady, inevitable dissipation. Though this is a trite observation, it’s hard not to hear—compressed into each strike of the mallet—the passage of life towards death: the latter awaits at the end of the rainbow, an enveloping, unchanging silence. There is no terror or dread in that silence, just pure neutrality—and as the notes layer, dance, interlock, meet at different points in their ultimately identical trajectories, the boundaries between “sound and silence,” life and death, are blurred; the final tapering of one cycle appears to spark the birth of another, and the silence itself takes on a particular, ever-shifting character, a constant that is somehow also in flux. The end result: I see, hear, and feel, with new clarity, these processes as they occur in reality, and—if lucky enough—experience, in the split-second interlocking of those processes, what Feldman calls “a brief glimpse of infinity.”
[9]

Leah B. Levinson:

[9]

Mark Cutler: I don’t mean to diminish or overshadow Barbara Monk Feldman’s long and fruitful career as a chamber composer by discussing her husband’s influence on it. I think such influence was, under the circumstances, unavoidable: opener “Duo for Piano and Percussion (1988)” was composed right after Barbara’s three years of doctoral work with Morton—completed in 1987, when they also married, and when Morton also died. Here we feel Morton’s late style echoed most acutely, as melodic fragments seem to lilt weightlessly past one another, amid a vast sea of silence.

However, if we listen to these pieces chronologically, rather than according to the CD’s rather haphazard order, what we hear is a composer breaking away from the prevailing idioms of New York’s Downtown scene, towards something more melodic, more exploratory, even jazzier. The lovely little closer “Clear Edge” progresses through a series of piano sketches, which repeatedly threaten to break out into balladry. Not that her work simply sped up—“The Northern Shore” is the latest and longest piece represented, and it is one of the slower ones too. However, even here, we find Feldman circling over and over to these soft, simple arpeggios, giving the piece a melodic sensibility which anchors its more abstracted interludes. These later pieces should give any listener an idea of Feldman’s originality as a composer, and as such this CD captures an important period of development in her career. I hope we’ll begin to see far more of her work recorded and made widely available in the future.
[7]

Samuel McLemore: One of the most recognizable gaps in Western musical thought is the one between rhythm, melody, and harmony. Despite the obvious difficulty in doing so, the Western tradition insists on treating all three as completely separate entities, even down to the bizarre way we categorize percussion instruments as being “tuned” or “untuned.” Into this gap falls one of the most important instruments in the Western canon: the piano. The rapid decay each note on a piano must endure makes it clearly more suitable for rhythm than sustained melodic lines, yet the incredibly wide range of its pitch allows for more harmonic possibilities than almost any other standard instrument. Such supposed contradictions are surely part of why the instrument has remained so popular for so long.

Morton Feldman thrived on exploiting these kinds of gaps in conceptual thought in his compositions. Not mentioning the late Mr. Feldman seems almost impossible when discussing the music of Barbara Monk Feldman, as the specific way she arranges the unique decay and sustain of the piano against—and with—each instrument it’s combined with is inescapably similar. In style, tone, and execution, the works on this disc share a deep kindship to Morton Feldman’s compositions. Still, they keep their own unique sense of beauty and resolution, and what we wind up with is very graceful and pretty music that, despite fully embracing the stylistic and instrumental vocabulary of Morton Feldman’s minimalism, manages to sidestep most of the clichés that befall music this charming.
[6]

Vanessa Ague: In my new city, I’ve noticed the sun glimmers every evening after the puffy gray clouds have drifted away into the ether. It shines just in time for sunset, in shades of golden yellow and orange, a dream that’s passed before it even has the chance to begin. I’m only here for ten more weeks. I’m hovering in a liminal space between my distant homes and my current location. I soak in those five minutes of sunlight, the home I still know, while a shroud of existentialist concern wafts into my room with the twinkling stars of night.

My soundtrack is Verses, a contemplative set of recordings for piano and percussion by the composer Barbara Monk Feldman. Monk Feldman was married to Morton Feldman, and she studied with him, so his drawn out, indeterminate style is a clear influence, though Monk Feldman’s pieces are much more succinct than his. Verses is stark but warm, plodding through vacant atmospheres with precision. In her imagination, murky existentialism crystallizes into a piercing sonic vision. She weaves the austere hums of placid instruments into a tapestry of meditative sound that penetrates the soul with a deep poignancy. I find solace in the delicate hums and gently interlocking rhythms of Verses, in its sporadic bursts and sprawling melodies.

Most of the tracks seamlessly run into each other, equally transportive in their gently unfolding rhythms, though I’m particularly compelled by the detailed texture of “The I and Thou” and less infatuated with the tenuous “The Northern Shore.” Most of all, I find the experience of Verses to be one tailor-made for moments of uncertainty; its potent simplicity feels as intimate as a diary entry and as realistic as a fleeting anxious thought. Occasionally, however, Monk Feldman’s music blooms into lush, pleasant harmony, revealing the hope that’s required to have a dream at all.
[8]

Average: [7.83]


Thank you for reading the sixty-seventh issue of Tone Glow. Let’s have conversations with each other to develop new perspectives.

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