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  • Translator: Joseph Geni Reviewer: Thu-Huong Ha

  • I thought if I skipped it might help my nerves,

  • but I'm actually having a paradoxical reaction to that,

  • so that was a bad idea. (Laughter)

  • Anyway, I was really delighted to receive the invitation

  • to present to you some of my music and some of my work

  • as a composer, presumably because it appeals

  • to my well-known and abundant narcissism. (Laughter)

  • And I'm not kidding, I just think we should just

  • say that and move forward. (Laughter)

  • So, but the thing is, a dilemma quickly arose,

  • and that is that I'm really bored with music,

  • and I'm really bored with the role of the composer,

  • and so I decided to put that idea, boredom,

  • as the focus of my presentation to you today.

  • And I'm going to share my music with you, but I hope

  • that I'm going to do so in a way that tells a story,

  • tells a story about how I used boredom as a catalyst

  • for creativity and invention, and how boredom

  • actually forced me to change the fundamental question

  • that I was asking in my discipline,

  • and how boredom also, in a sense,

  • pushed me towards taking on roles beyond the sort of

  • most traditional, narrow definition of a composer.

  • What I'd like to do today is to start with an excerpt

  • of a piece of music at the piano.

  • (Music)

  • Okay, I wrote that. (Laughter)

  • No, it's not — (Applause) Oh, why thank you.

  • No, no, I didn't write that.

  • In fact, that was a piece by Beethoven,

  • and so I was not functioning as a composer.

  • Just now I was functioning in the role of the interpreter,

  • and there I am, interpreter.

  • So, an interpreter of what? Of a piece of music, right?

  • But we can ask the question, "But is it music?"

  • And I say this rhetorically, because of course

  • by just about any standard we would have to concede

  • that this is, of course, a piece of music,

  • but I put this here now because,

  • just to set it in your brains for the moment,

  • because we're going to return to this question.

  • It's going to be a kind of a refrain

  • as we go through the presentation.

  • So here we have this piece of music by Beethoven,

  • and my problem with it is, it's boring.

  • I mean, you — I'm just like, a hush, huh -- It's like -- (Laughter)

  • It's Beethoven, how can you say that?

  • No, well, I don't know, it's very familiar to me.

  • I had to practice it as a kid, and I'm really sick of it. So -- (Laughter)

  • I would, so what I might like to try to do is to change it,

  • to transform it in some ways, to personalize it,

  • so I might take the opening, like this idea --

  • (Music)

  • and then I might substitute -- (Music)

  • and then I might improvise on that melody

  • that goes forward from there -- (Music)

  • (Music)

  • So that might be the kind of thing -- Why thank you.

  • (Applause)

  • That would be the kind of thing that I would do,

  • and it's not necessarily better than the Beethoven.

  • In fact, I think it's not better than it. The thing is -- (Laughter) --

  • it's more interesting to me. It's less boring for me.

  • I'm really leaning into me, because I, because I have

  • to think about what decisions I'm going to make on the fly

  • as that Beethoven text is running in time through my head

  • and I'm trying to figure out what kinds of transformations

  • I'm going to make to it.

  • So this is an engaging enterprise for me, and

  • I've really leaned into that first person pronoun thing there,

  • and now my face appears twice, so I think we can agree

  • that this is a fundamentally solipsistic enterprise. (Laughter)

  • But it's an engaging one, and it's interesting to me

  • for a while, but then I get bored with it, and by it,

  • I actually mean, the piano, because it becomes,

  • it's this familiar instrument, it's timbral range is actually

  • pretty compressed, at least when you play on the keyboard,

  • and if you're not doing things like listening to it

  • after you've lit it on fire or something like that, you know.

  • It gets a little bit boring, and so pretty soon

  • I go through other instruments, they become familiar,

  • and eventually I find myself designing and constructing

  • my own instrument, and I brought one with me today,

  • and I thought I would play a little bit on it for you

  • so you can hear what it sounds like.

  • (Music)

  • You gotta have doorstops, that's important. (Laughter)

  • I've got combs. They're the only combs that I own. (Music)

  • They're all mounted on my instruments. (Laughter)

  • (Music)

  • I can actually do all sorts of things. I can play

  • with a violin bow. I don't have to use the chopsticks.

  • So we have this sound. (Music)

  • And with a bank of live electronics,

  • I can change the sounds radically. (Music)

  • (Music)

  • Like that, and like this. (Music)

  • And so forth.

  • So this gives you a little bit of an idea of the sound world

  • of this instrument, which I think is quite interesting

  • and it puts me in the role of the inventor, and the nice thing about

  • This instrument is called the Mouseketeer ... (Laughter)

  • and the cool thing about it is

  • I'm the world's greatest Mouseketeer player. (Laughter)

  • Okay? (Applause)

  • So in that regard, this is one of the things,

  • this is one of the privileges of being,

  • and here's another role, the inventor, and by the way,

  • when I told you that I'm the world's greatest,

  • if you're keeping score, we've had narcissism and solipsism

  • and now a healthy dose of egocentricism.

  • I know some of you are just, you know, bingo! Or, I don't know. (Laughter)

  • Anyway, so this is also a really enjoyable role.

  • I should concede also that I'm the world's worst Mouseketeer player,

  • and it was this distinction that I was most worried about

  • when I was on that prior side of the tenure divide.

  • I'm glad I'm past that. We're not going to go into that.

  • I'm crying on the inside. There are still scars.

  • Anyway, but I guess my point is that all of these enterprises

  • are engaging to me in their multiplicity, but as I've presented them

  • to you today, they're actually solitary enterprises,

  • and so pretty soon I want to commune with other people, and so

  • I'm delighted that in fact I get to compose works for them.

  • I get to write, sometimes for soloists and I get to work with one person,

  • sometimes full orchestras, and I work with a lot of people,

  • and this is probably the capacity, the role creatively

  • for which I'm probably best known professionally.

  • Now, some of my scores as a composer look like this,

  • and others look like this,

  • and some look like this,

  • and I make all of these by hand, and it's really tedious.

  • It takes a long, long time to make these scores,

  • and right now I'm working on a piece

  • that's 180 pages in length,

  • and it's just a big chunk of my life, and I'm just pulling out hair.

  • I have a lot of it, and that's a good thing I suppose. (Laughter)

  • So this gets really boring and really tiresome for me,

  • so after a while the process of notating is not only boring,

  • but I actually want the notation to be more interesting,

  • and so that's pushed me to do other projects like this one.

  • This is an excerpt from a score called

  • "The Metaphysics of Notation."

  • The full score is 72 feet wide.

  • It's a bunch of crazy pictographic notation.

  • Let's zoom in on one section of it right here. You can see

  • it's rather detailed. I do all of this with drafting templates,

  • with straight edges, with French curves, and by freehand,

  • and the 72 feet was actually split

  • into 12 six-foot-wide panels that were installed

  • around the Cantor Arts Center Museum lobby balcony,

  • and it appeared for one year in the museum,

  • and during that year, it was experienced as visual art

  • most of the week, except, as you can see in these pictures,

  • on Fridays, from noon til one, and only during that time,

  • various performers came and interpreted these strange

  • and undefined pictographic glyphs. (Laughter)

  • Now this was a really exciting experience for me.

  • It was gratifying musically, but I think

  • the more important thing is it was exciting because I got to take on

  • another role, especially given that it appeared in a museum,

  • and that is as visual artist. (Laughter)

  • We're going to fill up the whole thing, don't worry. (Laughter)

  • I am multitudes. (Laughter)

  • So one of the things is that, I mean, some people

  • would say, like, "Oh, you're being a dilettante,"

  • and maybe that's true. I can understand how, I mean,

  • because I don't have a pedigree in visual art

  • and I don't have any training, but it's just something

  • that I wanted to do as an extension of my composition,

  • as an extension of a kind of creative impulse.

  • I can understand the question, though. "But is it music?"

  • I mean, there's not any traditional notation.

  • I can also understand that sort of implicit criticism

  • in this piece, "S-tog," which I made when I was living in Copenhagen.

  • I took the Copenhagen subway map and

  • I renamed all the stations to abstract musical provocations,

  • and the players, who are synchronized with stopwatches,

  • follow the timetables, which are listed in minutes past the hour.

  • So this is a case of actually adapting something,

  • or maybe stealing something,

  • and then turning it into a musical notation.

  • Another adaptation would be this piece.

  • I took the idea of the wristwatch, and I turned it into a musical score.

  • I made my own faces, and had a company fabricate them,

  • and the players follow these scores.

  • They follow the second hands, and as they pass over

  • the various symbols, the players respond musically.

  • Here's another example from another piece,

  • and then its realization.

  • So in these two capacities, I've been scavenger,

  • in the sense of taking, like, the subway map, right,

  • or thief maybe, and I've also been designer,

  • in the case of making the wristwatches.

  • And once again, this is, for me, interesting.

  • Another role that I like to take on is that of the performance artist.

  • Some of my pieces have these kind of weird theatric elements,

  • and I often perform them. I want to show you a clip

  • from a piece called "Echolalia."

  • This is actually being performed by Brian McWhorter,

  • who is an extraordinary performer.

  • Let's watch a little bit of this, and please notice the instrumentation.

  • (Music)

  • Okay, I hear you were laughing nervously because

  • you too could hear that the drill was a little bit sharp,

  • the intonation was a little questionable. (Laughter)

  • Let's watch just another clip.

  • (Music)

  • You can see the mayhem continues, and there's, you know,

  • there were no clarinets and trumpets

  • and flutes and violins. Here's a piece that has

  • an even more unusual, more peculiar instrumentation.

  • This is "Tlön," for three conductors and no players. (Laughter)

  • This was based on the experience of actually watching

  • two people having a virulent argument in sign language,

  • which produced no decibels to speak of,

  • but affectively, psychologically, was a very loud experience.

  • So, yeah, I get it, with, like, the weird appliances

  • and then the total absence of conventional instruments

  • and this glut of conductors, people might, you know,

  • wonder, yeah, "Is this music?"

  • But let's move on to a piece where clearly I'm behaving myself,

  • and that is my "Concerto for Orchestra."

  • You're going to notice a lot of conventional instruments

  • in this clip. (Music)

  • (Music)

  • This, in fact, is not the title of this piece.

  • I was a bit mischievous. In fact, to make it more interesting,

  • I put a space right in here, and this is the actual title of the piece.

  • Let's continue with that same excerpt.

  • (Music)

  • It's better with a florist, right? (Laughter) (Music)

  • Or at least it's less boring. Let's watch a couple more clips.

  • (Music)

  • So with all these theatric elements, this pushes me in another role,

  • and that would be, possibly, the dramaturge.

  • I was playing nice. I had to write the orchestra bits, right?

  • Okay? But then there was this other stuff, right?

  • There was the florist, and I can understand that,

  • once again, we're putting pressure on the ontology of music

  • as we know it conventionally,