Jena Osman: Hey there.
NS: How’s your Monday thus far?
JO: Very fragmented mentally. How’s your day going?
NS: Eh, okay. The year always starts off kind of crazytown and I haven’t yet figured out how Monday is meant to work. But no real complaints.
JO: Monday is my day to figure out Tuesday.
NS: hahaha. I like that. Ready for our “dialogue?”
JO: Yes, let’s do it! How to begin?
NS: So I guess to dive right in, I’ve been reading your stuff my main sort of point to ponder has been the way a reader perceives content. As a viola player and basically just interpreter, I kind of try and control that in my professional life but you kind of have to leave clues for the reader, I guess? I end up parsing your poetry similarly to the way I’d kind of approach a difficult work by say Lachenmann or something, where there’s a lot of layers of comprehension and a lot of discovering of beauty.
JO: I see you’re still typing, but I’m going to jump in and say that I see myself as an interpreter as well—it’s just that the materials I’m interpreting are anywhere where language is used. Can you say more about the kinds of choices you make as an interpreter? In the most general sense, since unfortunately I don’t have much of a vocabulary where music is concerned…
NS: Totally. What you wrote makes a lot of sense. I’m think about your “Joker” poem and the way you sort of weave that sugar refining thing through it. You separate it well visually from the other part of the text. If I were interpreting it, I’d use a different color, say play that all very quietly and under-vibrated at the beginning, and develop that line as I go along, with a richening of sound, while the other part of the poem might be in a light, warbly tone, or something.
NS: I’m sure, though I’ve had the great luxury of working closely with the people whom I’ve commissioned. I can put forth an idea and they can tell me it’s awful and suggest something else. The main thing I try and get at is an understanding of form. Then I feel like, even if my interpretation is not exactly what the composer intended, it’s not going to be horrifying? Maybe. The cool advantage in writing, I think, is that I can go back, as a reader, to something from the previous portion of a poem and re-interpret it, whereas music is really gone once you’ve played it. As a performer you have to guide people through time, and as a listener you just have to trust that you are “getting” it.
JO: Yes, I love that distinction you just made where writing is concerned, that the reader can go back and it can be different every time, different parts will resonate. So glad you said that, because while listening to your music this morning I have been having one of those “poetry can be so dead compared to music” moments.
NS: Ha!! I was having a similar experience with your work! Also I love this essay you wrote comparing poetry to theater, particularly that Brecht quote, which I didn’t know at all:
“The dramatic theatre’s spectator says: Yes, I have felt that too, Just like me, It’s only natural, It’ll never change, The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are inescapable, That’s great art, It all seems the most obvious thing in the world, I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh. The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d never have thought it, That’s not the way, That’s extraordinary, hardly believable, It’s got to stop, The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary, That’s great art: nothing obvious in it, I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.”
JO: Brecht’s ideas have always been really important to me, pushing me to resist complacency when thinking about what a reader might do with my work.
NS: In New Music people talk about “uptown” vs “downtown,” post-modern vs post-minimal, art vs entertainment–all super frustrating terminology, but I think this quote gets to the heart of the matter well.
This just happened: jena.osman did not receive your chat.
Did you get: In New Music…?
JO: Yes, I’m receiving.
NS: It was red and ominous.
JO: That’s very Brechtian.
JO: I feel like I have to relate a story from my youth: I met David Lang about 20 years ago and he told me that somehow I had to find a way to make poetry more of a circus, a word circus, and that’s kind of haunted me ever since. How could what I do possibly analogize to the exciting breathtaking work put out by composers and musicians on the new music scene? To measure a language art against a performing art still feels impossible, but necessary.
NS: A word circus! You know, the sort of visual organization of your work is super fun, to me. I am tempted to “cheat” and read ahead at things that are graphy-looking, which may not yet have any resonance to me. Then I go back to what I was doing before. It’s weird I feel kind of guilty approaching your work kind of chaotically, but maybe that sort of works with David Lang’s idea?
JO: I celebrate chaos, in that it just seems much more realistic than anything else, and reading/listening/speaking is just an attempt to piece out some pathways through it.
What do you think of when you think of John Cage?
NS: Yeah. It’s funny — I’m still stuck on this thing with stuff that’s written down and perusable vs. stuff that you have to experience in time. Oh, let’s do look at Cage for that! To look at a score of his aleatoric, like post-50′s stuff, you get the idea but not the experience at all.
JO: Yes, I think it’s a very different experience just on the level of the body, not to sound hokey, but when I listen to music I often feel my blood running faster. And when I’m reading, it’s like I can feel the gears in my brain creaking. Very different feelings.
NS: Often I am trying to encourage organized listening???? Or to communicate form in some way. Yeah, I kind of feel like I’m gathering up energy and trying to give people a way to remember it.
JO: Cage was all about organizing a space for listening…listening to what’s already sounding.
NS: Totally. He’s got a nice name for that.
JO: ha! Never thought of it that way.
NS: So, you collaborated with Keeril [Makan]. How was it working with a composer and having your text set?
JO: Well, I wrote the poems [used for Makan’s piece “Target”] prior to his request for some text, so I didn’t write it with him in mind. He said he wanted something political so he thought of my stuff. I gave him a few things and he made a selection and it became something completely different.
NS: To go back to our previous idea, did you “disagree” with his interpretation?
JO: No—it’s just doing completely different work. It feels very dramatic, very emotional, and I’m not sure the words signify in the same way. My work is very much about calling attention to words that otherwise might just be glossed. [Note: the piece Makan used includes words from propaganda leaflets dropped over Afghanistan after 9/11.] But when you add in music, something else starts to take over. That critical thinking space changes…
NS: Totally. I actually have a hard time listening to lyrics or libretto or whatever text that’s been set to music as like a comprehensible thing. It’s just sound. I have to work hard.
JO: When I found those translations of propaganda leaflets and the instructions on how to make the leaflets most effective, I was so shocked by them, so appalled by the cultural assumptions, by their use of advertising strategies…and I wanted to call attention to the way language was being used in those instances. I’m not sure that focus is maintained in Keeril’s piece.
So how would you say that a piece of music can be political if words kind of fall into the background? What’s political music for you?
NS: Eh. I have a hard time with political music, I think for exactly that reason. The way my brain parses sound is just divorced from “plot,” somehow. A lot of people are not like this though!! But what I find interesting is that there is music out there that is super academic-y and difficult to pick apart and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways those complex gestures are imbued with beauty, so there IS a brain gear whirring kind of thing at play, but I simply cannot apply that to parsing set text, for some reason.
JO: I find Cage useful on this question…he once paraphrased Wittgenstein by suggesting that forms of music could model the kind of society in which you’d like to live…forms of art are forms of life…so if we rephrase that question of politics: What kind of music could model the kind of world Nadia S. wants to live in?
NS: Definitely complexity does. Beauty does. I mean, we are almost having a theological discussion. I am actually eager to find out what is awesome about as much music as I can. That’s sort of why I am drawn to interpretation above creation — I don’t want to write something to the exclusion of something else, since I love finding out what’s amazing about that potential other thing. The thing with political music is that, because of this text issue, I simply cannot perceive that part of the work of art. It’s not a judgment so much as an admission of my limitations.
JO: I guess I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you say “political music.” Can you clarify for me? I’m just thinking that there must be ways for forms to be political, as opposed to just content or language.
NS: That’s probably true?? I’m having a hard time with it re: music, though. Unless you are like scraping a vibraphone with a wire hanger or something.
JO: Like Cage creating forms for listening—that feels like a political gesture to me—asking us to notice things that we might not have noticed before?
NS: Oh I see. Hmm. Is that political?
JO: I would like to think so.
NS: How are you defining political here?
JO: when people notice different things—things that they previously never even knew existed—it can change how they move through the world, how they perceive their connections to others, etc. I know that’s very vague/generalized and I’ll probably want to edit that later, but do you get my meaning? I think Cage said something like “they say that that language controls our thinking, so if we can change our language, perhaps our thinking might change.”
NS: I gotcha! It’s interesting though, that takes a few steps for me. It seems like with that sentiment all art can be political in that I think a lot of it is there to make us see something a little bit differently. Even if that thing is a triad or a square. Or even the repetition of something familiar, reframed.
JO: Yes, but a lot is just to make you feel comfortable where you are without challenging any prior views or understandings of the world as you’ve experienced it.
NS: See, that’s where the job of “interpreter” becomes interesting.
JO: Yes, repeating something familiar. But even repeating something comfortable can be uncomfortable (in a good way), like Gertrude Stein’s a rose is a rose is a rose.
NS: My job is literally to avoid that — the banal, being too comfortable. I don’t consider it a political action, however.
JO: I don’t think I’m referring to political actions like protests or laws; rather I’m think of artistic forms that can cause shifts in thinking/perception—which feels essentially political to me.
I have a question regarding found sound/text. A lot of poetry projects right now are re-framing projects — taking text from the public sphere (like a newspaper or a law case) and recontextualizing it in the form of a poem. Kind of like sampling I guess. Are you interested in those forms of appropriation and reframing in music?
NS: Oh totally. I mean, in a way, all composers who have ever heard music before are sort of doing that. A lot of people get shit for it—critics call them out on referencing someone thirty years their senior—and yet that’s how music evolved. Bach riffed on Buxtehude, Ferneyhough riffed on Carter, and Muhly riffed on Adams. It’s important to be open about it! But going even further to the area of found objects, we are inundated with an inSANE amount of music these days, and it all kind of seeps in.
I guess that’s not really the same as appropriation and re-framing, but it’s an aspect of it. Sampling is appropriation, but it’s all very high-art, low-art delineated in classical music and that rubs me the wrong way.
Ooh! politics of form. Can you explain that a little more?
JO: I’ve got to say this conversation is a challenge in that the analogies between our disciplines aren’t easy to make. Let me just back up a second and say that poets are often writing in dialogue with past poetic traditions too. But that seems different than someone taking a newspaper and just retyping it and calling it a book of poetry (as Kenneth Goldsmith did in his book Day).
Maybe the music equivalent would be something like what Steve Reich does in the Cave where he takes interviews and the voices become the music?
NS: Well, if you’re asking if I like that, I do, it’s beautiful. But that was such an innovative, beautiful take on a thing, framing spoken word that way. Sort of like Schoenberg in Pierrot, in a weird way. Re-framing with commentary. Not really the same as re-framing silence as music, or a newspaper as a novel, I guess.
JO: Politics of form: newspaper language is shaped by the demands of that genre (a supposed objectivity and what will sell papers). People expect certain things from poetic forms (epiphanies, beauty), from musical forms, but none of these forms are neutral — they are not “essentially” those things, and art forms can call attention to that, can stretch the possibilities.
NS: So we are back to Cage.
JO: What I’m trying to communicate is that how something is framed is just as important as what is being framed. Form can actually be a content in and of itself. I feel like this was one of the reasons that Bang on a Can even came into existence: The content of new music needed new forms, and the new forms changed the terms of the conversation.
Hold on, so I strongly agree with your previous point: “How something is framed is just as important as what is being framed. Form can actually be a content in and of itself.”
When you talk about the “framing” of Bang on a Can, do you mean the experience of going to a concert? The presence of a guitar? The form of the works? Or all of that? I was sort of raised up post-that innovation, so it is hard for me to parse out what exactly the re-framing was.
JO: I’m going to say all of that.
NS: So what’s interesting to me is that classical music was obsessed with this one, complex form for so long that all others were considered trite or facile. And then the 80s-00s kind of saw all these other things coming back into acceptance. I am still interested in how people structure their work, but I guess whether or not that structure is innovative matters less to me at this point than that it’s there and that the content is well-organized. Given that it’s basically some type of emotion.
You’re right, this is hard stuff to type about!!
JO: So if the Bang on a Can stuff was kind of early innovation for you (I’m feeling very old here), what are the most recent innovations that you see going on now? How has your scene changed, or how is it in the midst of changing? In other words, what’s new?
NS: I guess, what’s new is a sort of embracing of all influence or style. Not in the pointed, “world-music-influenced” way of the ’90s, but in a very fluid way. I work with a lot of composers who are also “songwriters.” There’s a thought that, as old a form as “song form” is, there’s still beautiful things to be done with it. Same with a like three-part sonata-type form, or a chaconne. Also, complex, barbed forms can be wonderful. I guess, it’s more important to me as an interpreter that there be A form than a particularly innovative one. I wonder if that is specific to music, or even to just to an interpreter vs. a creator? (Or to me, for that matter.)
JO: I’m sure that holds true for other art forms as well. There are certainly writers who are sticking close to familiar forms of the lyric, trying to reinvent it from the inside. I guess I find myself pulled more towards how to push against the formal walls labeled “poetry.” I’m really interested in the combining of lyric language and essayistic/expository language. And I wonder if that could be at all considered parallel with a combination of traditional classical modes and more popular modes of music. Speaking of which, I’d love to hear about what it’s like for you to go between those kinds of music as a player/interpreter.
NS: Well, and I LOVE working my way through your writing, exploring the paths you have laid out for me. It’s also kind of great to approach a medium with a kind of open mind, due to the fact that I really don’t know what’s “going on” in poetry, just my reactions to the fact of your work. Though knowing more about Poetry would probably help me navigate this conversation a little better.
As a player, navigating pop/classical worlds is identical on stage — I am trying to express what I perceive to be the path of the music. But the rehearsal process can vary. The terminology used can vary. The way my part evolves can even vary. Some of the coolest work comes out of a songwriter-directed improvisation from me, where in classical music I tend to be really coming from the page. Even if something is aleatoric, the composer will leave fewer things to chance, whereas in more popular styles, the songwriter will kind of trust that you understand the idiom.
JO: And I imagine the bright lights and fans and celebrity of the pop stuff must be very seductive! Oh, the glamour of it all! In fact, I’m in awe of all performing arts (traditional or avant-garde or popular) because there’s that immediate interaction with an audience, the ability to feel its presence as it responds to your work…this is something I rarely feel as a writer…
NS: Well, performing is super fun, you are right about that, and I love communicating to an audience, no matter what the context, but it’s more often 300 people than 3,000. And classical fans are getting more boisterous!
JO: 300 is a good number. Do you mind if i ask you one last question?
NS: Not at all!
JO: iI’m curious about your experience working with Meredith Monk.
NS: She is the most best.
JO: I am a huge huge fan.
NS: She’s an amazing person who creates art in a very different way than others. She sort of gets everyone in a room and pokes and prods until a piece comes out. It’s SUCH a luxury — usually you have like two rehearsals and a soundcheck to get new works together. She creates works that are so simple in some ways, and yet they communicate SO MUCH emotion. So much of that “I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.”
JO: Or maybe i weep when they laugh; I laugh when they weep?
JO: Well Nadia, I hope to meet you some day. It’s been a great pleasure chatting (I’ve been listening to your playing and your awesome radio show while typing). Music is really lucky to have you making music.
NS: I’ve SO enjoyed poking a toe into your work and I will definitely check out more! I hope we can meet with real voices and faces too! You were lovely, have a great one!