The recent release of “Between the Kiss and the Chaos” on Delos was a great opportunity to ask five questions to violinist, composer, and producer Tracy Silverman.
In the notes to your CD, your discussion of Axis and Orbits is fairly technical while your discussion of between the kiss and the chaos focuses on the imagery and the relationship between the artworks and the music. I would be interested to hear some of the musical considerations you had as you were writing that one too.
Interesting! I hadn’t noticed that. Axis and Orbits doesn’t have the same direct visual and dramatic starting point as Between the Kiss, which originated as a puppet opera about artists and therefore had some very tangible inspiration. Axis was more of a technical challenge in it’s inception—to try to create a live semi-improvised work for a single person using loop pedals which retained the type of musical interaction that we expect from ensemble playing. With that as the challenge, each of the 4 pieces ends up in a different emotional place, guided there by the different approaches to using the loop pedal which I was exploring in each movement.
In the first movement, Axis and Orbits, I loved the image of these bodies in space moving silently and consistently and without any regard at all to the random alignments in which they find themselves. I love the idea that one alignment of harmony is no better than another, and I like the nihilism of starting out all lined up and slowly but steadily dissolving into chaos. I wanted a nice contrasting feel to the first movement, so the second movement, Camshaft, has a hard funky, rocky groove. And once I got into the funk, it wanted to turn itself into a band playing a song, complete with different “instruments,” sections, breakdowns, etc. It’s very complicated to pull off live, but hopefully listening to it makes you forget that it’s all done by one person. Sacred Geometry was inspired by the polyphony of crickets, and the simple kaleidoscope of the shifting harmony within a regular rhythmic pulse, (as opposed to Axis and Orbits which has no pulse or meter,) inspired Terry Riley to give it its title. Mojo is me trying to call up the spirit of those crazed eastern european roma violinists who play with a ferocity like they have bleeding entrails still caught in their teeth.
I’m also wondering about how similar or different your working process is for a piece involving acoustic instruments and a piece that is more connected to electronic processes?
So much of the real music in any composition or recording is not in the effects or electronics but in the emotional way the instrument is played—the cry in the voice or the timing of the way it’s played. So to a large extent it doesn’t matter whether it’s acoustic or electric. You can often tell nearly the same story on an acoustic as on an electric instrument, but one of the interesting things about working with electric instruments is that they can easily create sounds which might be very difficult or impossible to achieve with acoustic instruments and these new sounds can make you create different things than you would otherwise think of. It’s like having not just a full palette of oil colors to paint with, but also photography and clay and video and metal sculpture and anything you can imagine.
The Nashville Scene interview characterized your performance of the Terry Riley concerto with the NSO as your return to classical music “after 22 years.” It seems fair to say that this CD might also be characterized that way. Do you feel that your music has changed in some way that would invite that characterization? Or has the definition of classical music shifted to embrace what you’ve been doing all along?
I think that comment in the Scene refers to what I modestly call “the odyssey”—my journey from my classical roots into rock, jazz, indian, brazilian etc. And then full circle back to the classical stage via John Adams and Terry Riley, but with a new enlightened kind of violin technique. But my goal and focus was always to create and play new violin music for my own time, violin concertos in our native musical tongue of rock and pop music. I remember reading a book while at Juilliard by Henry Pleasants called The Agony of Modern Music (which I never returned to the Juilliard library and still have, by the way, because I realized instantly that this was the raison d’être of my career) which made the point that every great composer wrote within the style of their time and place, ie. Mozart in the popular Viennese style, Tchaikovsky in the popular Russian style. I realized that rock, funk and all the music my friends listened to in high school was the music of my time and place, so I figured I’d better get my post-grad education in the rock clubs instead of the conservatory, which was the start of the odyssey.
The definition of classical new music certainly has shifted, happily right in that hybrid direction that I’ve been living in for the last 35 years. There certainly is a lot more validity in new music finally being given to rock, jazz, hip hop and all sorts of contemporary musical styles and music from other cultures. The boundary between classical and pop is now completely porous and exactly where most new music lives, but it really wasn’t like that when I got out of Juilliard in 1980. Back then it seemed like the only real music was being made in rock clubs and on the radio and so I headed out in that direction.
As you describe in your program notes, part of the fun and intrigue of live performance with loop pedals is the subtle variability from performance to performance. How do you chose the versions you want in a “fixed” format like a commercial recording?
It’s an interesting point, because it seems that, as a composition, there should be an optimal version. But if a musician is comfortable with improvisation, the best performances are usually when the improviser is forced to react in real time to unpredictable factors such as other performers, bringing the stamp of authenticity which is so hard (but not impossible) to create otherwise. Even if the same notes of the Beethoven concerto are played every night or the same lines of Shakespeare are spoken every night, the interpreter often makes subtle changes in delivery and intention to keep it fresh and in the moment. Improvisers just have more freedom to make bigger changes, which makes it easier, actually, to keep it fresh. Miles Davis wouldn’t show his band the charts to the tunes they were recording until the tape was rolling. He wanted to catch the honesty of that first impression, which is like catching lightening in a bottle. So I did a lot of takes in the studio and found the ones which seemed to have some of that magic, (and were the most in tune!)
Looking forward, how do you see your creative process evolving?
I’m very interested in the idea of 2 or more tempos working together and I have a theory that there is a way to manipulate multiple tempos in such a way that the coinciding of beats creates a 3rd rhythm, much in the way 2 tones can create a 3rd tone, sometimes called a subtraction tone. I have a whole theory about this 3rd holographic rhythm which I call the “sum pulse” but I have yet to be able to isolate it effectively and use it in a composition. I’m hoping to work with someone more computer savvy than myself who may be able to create the tools I need to zero in on this thing—a way to plastically manipulate several tempos simultaneously. The idea of this sounds very mathematical, but it came from the very emotional idea of the heartbeats of 2 lovers, when pressed together, creating a discreet 3rd rhythmic pulse created from the coinciding of beats, perhaps a longer cycle over the period of several minutes, which might create it’s own organic architecture as the heartbeats speed or slow. I think it could make for some very human-feeling music.
Between the Kiss and the Chaos, Composer Tracy Silverman, Tracy Silverman, electric violin; The Calder Quartet (Delos, 2014)