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Walking Marbles, Tortoises, and the 99 Cent Store: An Interview with Carolyn Chen

by Kenn Kumpf

a•pe•ri•od•ic will open its 2018-19 season next Sunday night (Oct. 14th) at 8:30 p.m. on Constellation’s Frequency Series as part of a double bill with vocalist/composer Carol Genetti. a•pe•ri•od•ic will give the Chicago premiere of Carolyn Chen’s In 1839 it was considered elegant to take a tortoise out walking.

In 1839(…), like many of Carolyn’s compositions, merges the fanciful with the wondrous: in this work via marbles rolling through a stage strewn with numerous objects/obstacles. The piece asks the performers to “walk” their marbles through the space of the room, allowing them to activate the sonic potentials of the varied objects (or the other way around). The score describes the marbles’ movements as occurring “with different degrees of obstreperousness,” which simultaneously captures both the whimsy of the work as well as the delicately intricate counterpoint (a distant crystalline cacophony) of the marbles navigating the performance space – at times through the performers’ mediation, at times in spite of it.

Carolyn shared some of her ideas about the piece with us via email; here’s some of our discussion:

Materials

Kenn: I love but am curious how the thought process connected the tortoise imagery with performers “walking” their pet marbles through varied spaces. First (real) question: what brought you to marbles? And part B: did the title or concept of the piece come first?

Carolyn: 1. The 99 cent store. Probably responsible for a big part of my practice. (How to make music without grants). Also, small objects are always useful for improvising. I did a small piece for rolling things on a timpani and Dustin Donahue found Israeli couscous was the best because the imperfections made louder and more interesting rolls. But for undetermined surfaces, marbles are probably easiest.

B. I think I’d come across that line years before the piece and loved the image, but don’t remember when it connected with the marbles exactly. I think I tried to look for a shorter title and didn’t succeed. I still love the image but sometimes it’s hard to remember a long title. I’ll forget the year when I’m trying to search for it. 

Anyway, the concept solidified when participating in the co-incidence festival a few years ago. I was thinking about what to ask of an open group of people who were probably interested in listening and might not have set instruments with them. I’d played with marbles myself and just done a scored quartet for instruments and marbles rolling in containers, sometimes very noisily, in measured time. This was a chance to let people have more space to follow things, literally. The Benjamin line seemed like a nice way of setting the tone. Like you can take it easy, just mostly follow them around. They’ll figure it out.

Notation

K: Your scores are really beautifully worded, in that the language is colorful and surprising but also anchored in concrete performance instructions. What’s your approach to making a text score – how much begins as cut-and-dry instruction and how much as…may I say poetry?

C: Thanks! I think I usually try to be as clear as possible these days. Depending on the context, the voice will approximate how I’d say it out loud if I was just talking to you. Sometimes it’s easier to get the feel with an analogy. There are some things we have really precise language for and some things we don’t. If not, an image might be a more efficient way of getting the gist. The idea of an open score is to explain a situation and give someone a specific, solid footing so that they can start looking for their experience and their interpretation. As a performer I might feel safer and therefore more free if I have a clearer sense of what I’m looking for. So I might sketch out some possible paths of following the basic instruction in case a reader’s feeling shy or in case the premise wasn’t clear enough. A poem, since it doesn’t have this functional imperative, is more like me just following the marble around myself. When I first started composing, I think I wanted to say less, to leave more space for people to find their own thing. Now I’m more practical-minded, and I realize lots of people might not have the time or will to puzzle something out, and examples aren’t necessarily constrictive.

Sound Space

K: The sounds of your piece – marbles interacting with objects – are mostly quite delicate, and may vary quite a bit for listeners in different locations. How much of this piece is dance, how much is sound, and how much are those inextricable?

C: Nice question! I don’t think it’s a conscious human dance in that people are mostly looking at marbles and hopefully not thinking about what they look like. Maybe it’s a marble dance with human accompaniment. I’ve played with marbles with dancers and it does feel different. They’re more used to thinking about a whole space and their relationship to their bodies. But I do think sound is inextricable from movement. Moving air has to come from somewhere. In this piece like with a lot of music, it’s from moving bodies. So it’s fine to call that dance if you see it that way. Here neither the sound nor the movement is specifically prescribed. It wouldn’t really make sense to. But the listening is. That’s what ties it together. 

Connection to Tradition

K: There are elements here that are surprisingly classical: the form of gradual intensification, the reference to Klangfarbenmelodie, a use of space that’s developmental. Do you think at all in terms of musical analogues when planning a piece like this, or do those emerge from other processes?

C: It’s hard to untrain musical training. I think often things turn out formally more traditional if the medium or instrumentation is less conventional. Not that that’s a goal, but maybe there’s less pressure to sidestep or reinvent tradition. It just is what it is.

 

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