Once I know that the debut Happy Place LP was written in a state of nocturnal sleeplessness, I begin to hear it differently. The rhythms (courtesy of two drumkits) start to sound increasingly slurred and intermittently synchronous. The guitars tumble out in streams, unimpeded by the discipline that reigns over the daytime. Repetition traps me in the company of nagging and anxious thoughts that recur on a constant loop. Composer Will Mason has referred to Northfield as reflective of his home of New York, and while I’ve only visited the city once, it’s enough to identify a couple of elements that ring true to my own experience (the crossroads of rhythmic activity, the bustle of guitar chatter).
It’s a hard record in several senses. Firstly for the vigour of its execution (the band are known for their loud, physically intense performances); again for the deceptive intricacy of its composition; once more for the demands placed upon me, the listener, as I’m sloshed between sections of faux-improvisation and rhythms folding over eachother. Even after six months of regular listening, I’m still getting my head around it. Ahead of their show of Sunnyvale in New York tomorrow (Tuesday 16th May), Mason had a discussion with me about the attainment of trance states, the visceral urgency of metal music and the relationship between mastery and computer-aided composition.
I read a piece where you talked about Northfield being primarily written in a cramped kitchen at 3am. During these late night writing sessions, were you aware of the fact that this music was originating from a state of sleeplessness?
It started as sketching for something to do late at night when there was nothing else going on, and feeling that maddening sense of wasting time. It quickly became clear that the kind of material I was writing at 3am, in this kind of mania, was different from the kind of music I usually write and the kind of things that I think about when I write music. So that quickly suggested an organising narrative for a larger project.
At first, these weren’t necessarily written with a particular ensemble in mind; they’re just a subset of a larger body of sketches that I wrote. Not everything I wrote during that time ended up on this album. It also made sense in light of my other composing interests, which tend to be about the way that the music you make necessarily reflects both the physical and social environment in which you’re embedded when you make that music; that the music we write reflects a particular time, space, place and frame of mind. So some resonances became clear pretty early on.
You say that you weren’t sure about what sort of ensemble would be eventually playing this music. Did you have any awareness of the sorts of instruments you would be using?
I find it much easier to write for people rather than instruments. I had Austin Vaughn (the other drummer) in mind once I was generating all of these rhythmic ideas, and ended up writing a lot for two drumsets playing in a contrapuntal role with each other. Austin’s an old friend, and we’d practice a lot of stuff for double drums when we were at school together. Likewise, Andrew Smiley and I have been playing music together basically since I moved to New York, and he has a distinctive way with the guitar. So at first it was just these abstract ideas and sketches, but once I sat down and started fleshing them out into longer pieces, I really started to think of these specific performers.
Given that the music was written in very specific personal circumstances (i.e. sleeplessly at your kitchen table), have you had any feedback from the other musicians on what it’s like to be playing these pieces without any first-hand exposure to the environment in which they were created?
That’s the key question. Because I’m both a performer and a composer – and because I like to work collaboratively – I don’t like to place undue emphasis on the act of composing, because that’s just one of a multi-step process of bringing music to life. I will say that I don’t think this [sleeplessness] is an entirely uncommon experience; in fact I think it’s becoming a ubiquitous one in our modern day and age, and that’s especially true living in a major city like New York where all of us are based. I think it’s a headspace that everyone is able to get into fairly easy.
When we play live, we basically do all of these pieces from start to finish without stopping, and try to cultivate an immersive experience for people who come to our shows. Part of that requires us to try and get into this headspace a little bit when we play this music.
Given that you’ve been working with this material for a number of years, do you find that it’s still able to take you to these trance-like places?
I don’t know. It’s hard, because I go back-and-forth on how much of that is even located in the music. People have these deep listening experiences with an incredibly wide range of artefacts as far as music is concerned, and I personally have had these experiences with music that wouldn’t necessarily suggest these deep, trance-like engagements. The music has this programmatic narrative that we’ve been constructing, and that’s an invitation for people to try and engage with it in this way. But that’s not to say that something is inherent in the music that makes it easier or harder to do than with anything else. Music associated with trance implies scale a lot of the time, in that it should be operating on a really large timescale. One of the things I’m interested in is whether it’s possible to have these deep engagements with something that’s actually fleeting and ephemeral; that’s gone as soon as it came.
So the short answer is that I don’t really know. I go back and forth. Some days you’re tired when you play it and you’re going through the motions a little bit. Obviously you try not to do that, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Ultimately I come down feeling that these are interesting questions to think about in general, and that this band and album might be helpful for some people trying to think through these questions and experiences. But my relationship to the music definitely changes as time passes.
Are you referring to time in the context of a composition? Or in terms of your overall relationship with the music?
Just living with it for a certain amount of time as a performer. I come from a jazz and improvisational background. There are spaces for improvisation in this music, but it’s a lot of “pencil on paper” sheet music. That brings its own sort of dynamic with it as well. You can make mistakes; you can screw stuff up. You start to engage with it slightly differently when the threat of wrong notes rears its head. Or at least I do – I can’t speak for everyone else in the band. Also, the other members of the band come into rehearsal already able to flawlessly execute everything, and then I’m the one trying to get my own part together. My experience may not be the normative one.
On your website you talk about chiselling away at one particular section on “Rapture”, and it’s interesting the think about the fact that there was scrutiny and examination happening with material that, on first pass, sounds like it could have been largely improvised. How easy was it to retain focus on your overall intentions for the music as you started to tweak those smaller details?
I’m not a perfectionist and I try really hard to think of writing music as being about creating spaces for people to inhabit in the course of performing it. As far as what ultimately ends up on the page, I can imagine the idea of the song staying fundamentally the same but being instantiated on the page in dozens of different ways. Once you figure out what the vibe is going to be, you stop worrying so much. Although there are parts that I obsessed over a little bit – that part in “Rapture” was the obvious example. It’s hard feeling that, on the one hand, there’s a lot that’s provisional about how the music ends up on paper, and it’s not that big of a deal. I still think of myself as a performer first and a composer second, and I’m a big believer in getting together people you trust to do a good job making music, and just letting it happen from there. Even though we read off of sheet music and there are scores for all of this, which feels weird to be doing with what is ostensibly a rock or a metal band or whatever, there’s also a strong collective component to the music that can sometimes get overshadowed once there’s notation involved.
There are a lot of bands in this musical universe that really have a distinctive style and voice dealing with these kinds of themes: this sort of angular, metal-inspired experimental music with elements of free jazz and contemporary concert music. I would say that it’s congealing into a scene, especially in New York. It’s very important to me that, even if the thematic material is the same, I try and express it sonically in a way that seems that it’s not what someone else is doing. We have these bands we all really admire, like Zs or Liturgy. I can imagine how Zs would make a record dealing with issues of trance, mania and insomnia, so it became important that we not retread that territory; they’re doing it better than anyone so let’s let them have it. One of the tensions I think about a lot is finding a way to do something that’s unique, even if it’s treading familiar programmatic territory.
I’ve seen Happy Place affiliated with the genre of metal music on a few occasions, although I’m not sure how many of those mentions can be attributed to you personally. I struggle to hear that connection. You noted Liturgy just then and I hear certain likenesses between your approaches, but less so with metal music generally. Is the metal connection something that you hear and can relate to?
I agree with you in that I don’t hear us as a metal band in any meaningful sense. As I said, I think there are a lot of artists that are starting to tap into these resonances between noise and metal music on the one hand, and free improvisation and certain figures from the African-American avant-garde like the AACM, Albert Ayler, or Eric Dolphy on the other. I think that there are real resonances between these artists, and I think a lot of it has to do with this visceral urgency that a lot of these groups express. For me, that’s the most attractive part of the metal and noise and improvised music I listen to: that sense of real urgency, and the fact that it just hits me immediately. I think that’s something that can be really cathartic and valuable and productive to experience and think about. I think that’s where the metal angle comes in.
We are also a loud band, and that’s the other obvious connection. But you know – Art Blakey was loud, so who knows. It’s hard to pin these things down, but it’s interesting that there’s this emergent community of people who are finding that these seemingly disparate musics are speaking to each other.
I understand that Liturgy and Dillinger Escape Plan have been the subjects of certain academic pursuits of yours.
[laughs] Not so much anymore, but yes – I gave a conference presentation on Liturgy and Dillinger Escape Plan for a relatively buttoned-up music theory conference. That was a little while ago. It was fine; people were pretty into it. Wherever you go, there are always closet metal fans that come out of the woodwork. It’s always funny to discover that a renowned Ravel scholar is really into The Locust or something.
It’s weird – I do have my academic day job teaching music theory, and I also write essays about my own music. So beyond just making it, I do think about what kind of narrative to encase my music in. I am a little bit self-conscious about that sometimes. There’s part of me that would like to keep the academic and performative pursuits separate, but it’s come to be the case that I see that as impossible. I have to try and embrace that I am genuinely trying to think about these issues and work through them in a variety of different ways, including writing about them as well as writing and playing music. I’m nervous that it’s going to seem overly academic or pretentious, or any number of possible things. I’m trying to make peace with the fact that I have to explore the act of music-making in all the ways that make sense to me.
As someone who has tried and failed to be both a music writer and a music composer in parallel, I’d be curious to know how you handle occupying both of those roles simultaneously.
I don’t try to do both at the same time. I think I’ve only written about my music a couple of times, and it’s always been at some distance from the time of creation. I find that they relate, but you can definitely get in your own way if you try to become too self-reflexive. At the same time, a lot of my favourite artists right now are people who think extremely hard about what they’re doing, and how their music fits in – especially with issues such as representation and diversity and social justice, which are really becoming foregrounded in a lot of artists’ work in a very productive way. People like Courtney Bryan and Tyshawn Sorey and Steve Lehman, who I’ve come to know as we’ve all passed through grad school at Columbia. I see their example and I’m trying to aspire to something similar in my work, whatever medium it’s in: whether it’s making music or writing about it.
I’ve seen you talk about trying to write sections of music that feel like they go on forever, without slipping into a “hyper-repetitive post-minimalist moment”. I know precisely the device you’re talking about, although I’d struggle to break down how one would go about achieve it. Are there particular artists that you see to be doing this sort of thing?
The first figure who comes to mind for me is Morton Feldman, who weaves these beautiful fabrics of an idea that almost repeats but doesn’t exactly repeat with each succession. You have this small kernel that on the one hand seems to unify the entire piece, but is also only heard one time, which is striking. I think about him a lot. He’s been really influential. There’s also a fantastic saxophone player and composer named Anna Webber; I just saw her perform last night, and her music has been inspiring me lately in thinking about subtle varying repetitions and navigating that aesthetic.
I tend to go through phases with listening; I’ll find myself immersed in a particular figure or style. Lately it’s been slow, expansive concert music. The label Sono Luminus just released a CD by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra that I’ve just been obsessed with, which is full of these lovely omnidirectional pieces, so it’s hard to now think back to music that does something totally opposite to that.
I understand that you’re currently writing some “slow and whispery” pieces at the moment?
Yeah, I’d really like to get into making more music with electronics. I’ve been trying for 10 years or so to produce something where I don’t feel like the computer dictated all the terms of what I ended up making. Any time you make music with tools, the technology isn’t neutral – it exerts an influence on what you do. I’ve had trouble being satisfied with what I’ve made using computers in the past, but lately I’ve been a little happier with it. The new music involves embracing a slower timescale and more uses of quiet and space, whereas the last two albums I’ve produced are very dense. I have the tendency to put a lot of ink on the page when I’m writing music. So now my hope is to integrate an electronic component into some new projects that I’m working on, and maybe take a deep breath from what I’ve been working on – even if it’s not an aesthetic shift.
I’ve heard you talk about Northfield being a “New York album”, in the sense that the freneticism and loudness of the record is somewhat reflective of your current surroundings. How are you finding the process of writing music that perhaps doesn’t reflect that landscape?
It’s a good question. I think it’s still going to be a New York album in some respects. I really strongly believe that you can’t transcend that environment, and that instead there’s a way to try and embrace it, whatever that means or looks like. Again, this is music for a largely improvisational group, so whoever ultimately ends up playing it is going to bring all of their background and experiences to bear. It still feels amorphous. I’m going to experiment with a couple of different things and take my time as much as I can.
It sounds like you’ve yet to choose the musicians who will be playing on this one. Does that mean it’s a shift from your usual method of writing for specific people too?
A little bit. I definitely know who I want to play it. I write hard music; it’s challenging and not immediately and obviously rewarding so sometimes I do have trouble finding people who are down to do this, but that’s happening less and less. Some earlier experiences involved a lot of turnover in quick succession, so it’s made me always cautious [laughs]. I get that. I think I know who’s going to be playing it and we’re having our first meeting soon. I’m hoping I’ll produce something that these musicians are happy to be playing and spending all of their time on, but we’ll see.
It sounds like this new music is a direct opposite to Northfield in many respects. Is that indicative of the way you work? Does each project overturn the characteristics of the one prior?
It feels that way. I think of myself as being relatively young and still a novice in terms of my compositional voice. I admire composers who really seem to know what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it; like Steve Lehman, who’s made a number of very different records that nevertheless all sound exactly like Steve Lehman. I listen to a ton of Albert Ayler, and he’s someone that has a distinctive tone that just jumps out at you immediately. I aspire to that but I don’t think I’m there yet. To some extent I’m still trying out a bunch of different ways of writing music. As I said, I do tend to lean towards denser and busier things, but a lot of what I like to listen to is not that way – I’m trying to see if I can exercise a little bit more restraint and discipline in some of the music I’m about to write to really let it breathe. We’ll see – maybe six months from now I’ll send you a promo email of super-frantic glitchy noise-jazz or something.
Yeah. FFO: Squarepusher…
You mentioned about working with electronics, and the challenge of not being beholden to the technology. What sorts of experiences have you had with electronics so far, and have any particular approaches proved fruitful for you?
In general, I guess it’s that working with electronics really problematizes the idea of being in control, or just ideas of control generally in the creation of art. I think we grow up with this idea of the artist as visionary, or the whole Great Man narrative. Obviously that’s problematic and there are lots of brilliant people that have written about why that’s problematic, so I won’t re-tread that exactly. I just know that for me, the experience that really made that aspect of agency real for me – this idea that the act of creation in any context is distributed across a wide range of people, places and things – was making music through a computer. I really started to think about my relationship between myself and the software, and what it means to be an engineer/programmer as opposed to composer/creator, and how these divisions of labour are constructed and didn’t seem to be reflected in the experience of making music with computers.
I’ve found it interesting how the computer has changed how I think; not just about making computer music, but about how art is made in a cultural context in general. That’s not really answering your question with anything specifically musical, but in thinking of it in that way, I’ve started to stress out a lot less about trying to feel like I have to have some sense of mastery before I step out on stage with a laptop. Instead, I’m increasingly giving myself over to this idea that, instead of trying to use the computer in that way, I should think more about embracing the indeterminate, back-and-forth elements that inhere within my working with a computer to make music.
It’s interesting to contemplate that. I’ve always associated computer music with a certain degree of mastery, and I think that’s partly due to the way we interact with computer music in the live environment – the screen is facing away from the audience and concealing them from the act of creation, instigating this division between the performer and listener. I’ve enjoyed speaking to people making computer music who have spoke about how relinquishing control and “going with it” has been liberating for them.
Yeah, definitely. I studied drums in a conservatory setting where you practise for hours every day, and it really does cultivate that idea of mastery. When I think about it in retrospect, I realise that I don’t have that relationship with even the acoustic instrument I’ve spent all that time with; there will be some nights when something will be amiss and it won’t be the same as usual.
I teach a course about music technology, and I raise the question of what is actually new about making music with the computer compared to making it with something else. Everyone’s knee-jerk response is that there must be all kinds of things, but then if you really press it, the question becomes a lot fuzzier. I’ve found that interesting to thinking about.
I go to school with people who do live-coding or are making their own programs, or using SuperCollider and all this other stuff. I’m using MaxMSP and Ableton, and a lot of what I’m doing doesn’t get far beyond the drag-and-drop capabilities of both of those pieces of software. So I certainly don’t want to set myself up as an authority, but I just have started to become a little more comfortable with the computer now that I’ve started to shift away from this idea that it needs to be tightly controlled.
So what else have you got on the horizon?
We’ve got some shows with Happy Place coming up, and we’re trying out some new music that I’m working on. We don’t have immediate plans to make another CD, but if we do I really want to experiment with alternate guitar tunings, which is a bit of a can of worms – unfortunately our ears are so used to hearing the guitar be “out of tune” that if you take the time to set up a weird tuning system on the guitar it doesn’t register as clearly as if it was on a different instrument. I’m wrestling with that at the moment, but I think I might have something that’s dramatic enough to be really noticeable.
Do you mean that people don’t hear the intention in alternate tunings as readily?
Yeah. We took the time to tune one of the guitars up a quarter tone from the other one, so if they each play a G major chord, and one’s playing a G¼# major…it just sounds like the garage rock band down the corner. I’m not suggesting that it’s a lack of refinement in someone’s ear; I include myself in this category too. It’s just that, particular to the electric guitar, we’re enculturated to hear a certain range of intonation.
Not so much with the piano.
Exactly. The same with a fretless stringed instrument. Or a saxophone…well, you can set up music for the saxophone so that it becomes didactic or plainly apparent what you’re trying to do, but that’s the challenge: figuring out how you’re going to set it up that way.
So are you incorporating these tunings into your upcoming Happy Place live shows?
Yeah, we’re going to try some of that out and see if it works well, and then I’ll keep mulling it over. Also I’m composing a piece for a classical ensemble called The Nouveau Classical Project, so I’m working on that. And then I have this more electronic, slower music I’m working on; that’s going to be with a pianist and a cellist I believe, with myself on drums and electronics. And then I have another group I started in December that I’m hoping to keep working with: the clarinettist Ned Rothenberg, the pianist Elias Stemeseder and the bassist Greg Chudzik. That’s more a modern jazz quartet.
All of a sudden I feel there’s all these different projects in various stages. It’s super-exciting, but I’m also trying to figure out what to put on the front-burner.
Is it easy to have all of those headspaces ready to go at any one time?
Again, it’s this infatuation thing; I’ll have one week where I’ll very quickly write 10-15 minutes of music for one particular group, and take some time to tweak and refine it afterwards. I try not to have multiple things going on where I’ll compose for one ensemble for an hour and tab over to something for another group, although I’m sure it does happen sometimes.