The View from Down Here


Last month, I had the pleasure of performing some original compositions at a house show. The audience was mostly performers, the stage was the living room with couches moved back against the walls, there was entirely too much food and drink. It was intimate and fun, and I’d love to do more of it.

But in this specific instance, I performed a set of art songs I wrote, setting Robert Frost’s “Five Nocturnes.” They’ve been performed before, but after hearing a soprano do it at the premiere, I realized I had actually written it for a baritone. And then after hearing a baritone do it, I realized I had actually written it for myself. Which is not to say it can’t be performed by other people (one of my favorite things as a composer is what performers bring to pieces that composers can’t/didn’t put in), but I don’t know many tenors who enjoy hanging about C3 for long stretches, or many baritones/basses who can hit Bb4 without flipping to falsetto. All of this to say, performing this piece myself (with Cristina Lord accompanying), was a little self-indulgent but also exactly what I needed/wanted in that moment. And lordy, do I want more art songs in intimate settings like that.

But the point of this post is that I also premiered a new work called “Astronauts” for solo electronics. If you haven’t heard of astronaut.io and you’ve got a few minutes, go check it out because it is hands down one of my favorite things on the internet. If you don’t have a few minutes to look at that and also read, just imagine youtube videos that have been uploaded in the past week. It’ll play a few seconds of a high school basketball game, then a few seconds of a baby laughing about something, then a few seconds of a dog, then some community music performance, and so on and so forth and it’s such a stunning and candid view into people’s lives. Into what they consider important enough to document. I find it incredibly moving and have lost the odd hour here and there to just watching it.

But the piece, “Astronauts,” was my attempt to say something about it. It’s a max patch I programmed with a couple of effects to obfuscate the sound (delay, pitch shift, noisy nonsense, etc), with the idea that I would improvise the processing to each video as it came. But I ran into trouble early on with the structure of it. My initial instinct was to move from complete clarity to complete chaos and unintelligibility, but this to me sent the exact opposite message than what I felt from a dry experience of astronaut.io. A pessimistic message of “look at all this meaningless content, how it clutters together and is only so much noise.” I mean, yeah, more content is being created than can ever be consumed, but that’s not the point for me. Not here, at least. But if you flip the structure, moving from more chaos to less, I think it gets the message across. That yes, this is a lot of noise, and sometimes you don’t understand what’s going on, especially in such short sound bites. But if you listen closely and pay attention, you can understand something. That regardless of language or culture, you can understand some part of someone else’s life in 10 seconds. A mom cheering on her daughter’s high school hockey team, or takraw team. The cameraperson trying to get the attention of their cat. A standup comedy routine. A middle school news announcement. A college public speaking project. A sweet live concert that is just completely blowing out the phone’s microphone but that’s okay because you can tell it was still an awesome concert. And for a few seconds you feel connected with a person you’ve never met. I like that a lot.