Album liner notes for drawn only once: the music of john supko (2011, New Amsterdam Records)
SUPKO: So I’m going to interview you about my music, right? That’s how this is going to work?
EDELSTEIN: That’s the idea. I’ve enjoyed listening to your music over the years, but the more I listen, the more intricate and mysterious it sounds. Perhaps we can sort out some thoughts and feelings and see where that leads.
S: Ok. I’d like to know a little more about what you’re hearing. Let’s start with This Window Makes Me Feel. What’s the difference between the first, and, say, third time you listened to it?
E: I guess what hit me at first was the somber mood—something of the loneliness you feel concentrated in cities. It’s the mood of paper rustling in the wind, whispered text, street noises, muted drones, and a mezzo-soprano’s singing, although I didn’t know what. I was more or less swept along as the sound became louder and more complex.By the third time I listened the music had come apart at the seams. It’s a poignant song—a setting of Robert Fitterman’s poem of the same name, which combines the results of Googling the phrase “This window makes me feel.” It is the poem that you hear whispered on the tape as the mezzo slowly sings the search phrase. But the musical texture sort of mulls things over. The taped ambient sounds, electronic drones, spoken and sung voice, piano, flute, and percussion slow down the poem’s nervousness. The text passes quickly, but the layers—and I hear them as layers—of instrumental music seem slow and pensive.
S: It’s true that the differentiation between acoustic and electronic elements is stark. The acoustic parts elongate over an almost improvisatory electronic texture. The notes sound spare—a D-flat major melody over a functional bassline. The live music is a plea to nurture a contemplative interior life apart from the imperatives of technological innovation. The world is moving too fast for me! I’m turning off my smartphone…well, after this interview.
E: I didn’t quite hear it that way, but it makes sense to me. I’m wondering if Littoral is a complete departure from this plea or if it’s something they somehow share?S: No, it’s not something they share. If these pieces have anything in common it’s their exploration of musical textures through what I’d call “tuned randomness.” When I wrote these works in 2005 and 2006 I was just discovering ways to use random decision-making to generate things like melodic material from specific harmonies.
E: I think I see what you mean about randomness, but let me make sure I’ve got the basics of Littoral. It’s a 35-minute single movement, has only one time signature—5/4—although it sounds like the meter changes. It can be heard as having four sections, and it’s fully notated—even the electronic parts.
S: That’s right.
E: But the prevailing sensations are evoked by electronic sounds, heard in counterpoint, fashioned from many discrete musical lines. You mentioned that each line of electronic sound was processed by virtual instruments, creating a composite sound that is in flux among several versions of itself. Is this an example of using “tuned randomness” in your compositional process?
S: There are different ways to tune randomness. In Littoral I programmed chords and asked the computer to articulate them into melodic lines. When I didn’t like the output I changed it.
E: …and I perceive that the electronic sounds have a position in space—they engulf me physically in 5.1 surround-sound—along with live sounds from two instrumentalists.
S: Ok, but tell me about your emotional experience.
E: Well, as different musical styles are intimated, and as ideas and imagination are focused by spoken text layered amidst electronic and acoustic sounds, I hear a modernist musical texture ebb and flow. The texture becomes something that dissolves modernism with evocations of birdsong and the sea. Time seems to slow and speed. I can hear how you synthesized field recordings of the sea, your own voice processed by computer, the recorded voice of Cees Nooteboom reading his poem Cartography along with live flutes and percussion—am I missing anything?
S: But what does it feel like?
E: It feels like a voyage hewing to the shore of an allusive music.
S: “Tuned randomness” is essential to that impression. It helps create a sense of misremembered music even when you are hearing it for the first time. I like to think about travel or the sea or my sense of time passing, and the music conveys how I remember these sensations. I used Max/MSP to generate tuned random material for Littoral, but these days I’m using it to generate environments in which no two performances of a piece are ever the same, although the piece remains itself.
E: What are you searching for in your music?
S: I want to create constant variety while maintaining constant identity. My music always sounds like itself, I suppose, but writing music on paper has restricted the result. I’m searching for a way out.
E: I find This Window and Littoral hold my attention. They’re beautiful.
S: Thank you. I feel they let slip something I’ve been longing for. I want serendipity composed into the music. I want to be an escape artist, and I want to bring the listener with me.
“Supko” is based on composer John Supko
“Edelstein” is based on critic and Director of New Music at Crane Arts, Philadelphia, Jeffrey Edelstein.