Glossolalia/Lines On Black


Sam Pluta and Alex Mincek Discuss Formal, Perceptual, and Relationship Structures in Glossolalia and Lines on Black

by Alex Mincek & Sam Pluta

May 1st, 2020

Sam Pluta: In your liner notes for Glossolalia, you talk about how a goal of this piece is "to help us perceive our own mechanisms of perception.” This reminds me of Albers, whose art forces us to perceive our perception by placing objects we think we understand into contexts that force us to question that understanding. I feel like this music somehow sounds like Albers, both on a micro and macro level: ultra-clear sounds and forms saying something far greater in combination and proximity than individually. Could you talk about your manipulation of perception in this piece and its link to visual art, if that link exists?

Alex Mincek: Yes. Perhaps all of my music is linked strongly to visual art and, to visual and physical phenomena more generally. And yes, your association with Albers is spot on! Josef and Anni Albers have both been very important influences for me, especially Josef's book Interaction of Color.

In Glossolalia, there is a broad range of interaction between, as you put it, clear sounds and forms - where various classes of grouping mechanisms interact in ways that might result in emergent qualities unique to individual listeners. In other words, the circumstance of interaction might change how an otherwise “fixed” musical object is perceived to have changed. Of course this occurs in all music, but the goal here is to draw special attention to this phenomenon as a sort of meta-feature, where the listener is made more aware of how they are listening and how they are hearing.

By “grouping mechanisms”, I'm referring to classes of organization that help us differentiate discrete qualities and quantities. For example, to point out just one such class of grouping, let’s consider duration. The piece uses some consistent sets of duration throughout. For instance, five-second and ten-second durations (just to name two) are perhaps salient features of the work.

Or are they?

Five seconds of what exactly? Ten seconds of what? Triggered by what? From where? By whom? Ending how? Preceded by what? Followed by what?

Each five- or ten-second buffer of time manifests a slightly (or even drastically) different quality based on how it is prepared, enacted, filled, and proceeded. The variables that act upon duration to color it variously can themselves each be considered as a basis for grouping (grouping by harmony, by activity, by density, by texture, by timbre, by intensity, by source, by morphology, by function/syntax, by semantics/semiotics, etc.), to be likewise “colored” by myriad situations of interaction.

Does this make sense?

It all seems so clear in my mind, but then very convoluted once I attempt to verbalize it, which is perhaps precisely what attracts me to music as a vehicle to express these ideas. In fact, this specific difficulty of communication/explanation also directly relates to the title of my piece.

Anyway, to take a slightly less wonky path of description, albeit an even more complex one to fully untangle, I would point out that the piece plays with groupings of "real" vs "synthetic": There are computer voices and there are human voices. There is a drum machine and there are drums. There is a white noise machine and there are humans blowing air into tubes. There are electronically produced sine waves and there are humming wine glasses. And so on...But now consider how all of these groupings act and interact: The computer voices at times act like drum machines. The human voice at times plays percussion. The flute sometimes sings...And so on. There is a nearly constant relay of sources trading various degrees of likeness and difference in proximity to the stereotypical roles and functions most commonly associated with each source. It's all a bit chicken or egg-y.

SP: It makes me think of an expanded Schaefferian system, where instead of using reduced listening to compare sounds based on their timbre/envelope morphology alone, you expand that relationship outward to include other parameters. I know you have been thinking a lot about different aspects of psychoacoustic phenomena in orchestration. The audience may not know, but this piece developed over a long period and continues to develop. I remember at one rehearsal, we were experimenting with a sine wave in combination with acoustic instruments. I was playing the sine wave super loud, but we couldn’t hear it through the ensemble. When the other instruments stopped playing, the sine wave was painfully loud, as in actually causing pain. But when the band was playing, we couldn’t hear it. The result was a kind of orchestrational magic trick, where the sine wave disappeared before our ears, getting masked by the ensemble, but never really going away. What other kinds of perceptual magic tricks are going on in this music that you might want to draw the listener’s attention to?

AM: Yes, exactly. I remember that rehearsal well! And yes these little auditory “illusions” are something I find interesting to explore, though, I often try to deploy them quite subtly, so that the music isn't just a catalogue of psychoacoustic events. I try my best to merge these phenomena with deeper(?), more personal concerns that I'm trying to express in the music.

One such example deals with a version of the masking technique you remember from the rehearsal you mention. At about three minutes into the first movement, the entire ensemble bursts in to join the electronic voices (and “white-noise” machine). Up until that moment, the most prominent musical line is the one that begins the piece: a computerized voice that peppers a torrent of noisy consonants with sporadic chirps of vowels in the neighborhood of E-flat. Anyway, I orchestrated that first tutti ensemble entrance in such a way that all the vowels of that initial voice are masked, but all the consonants are perfectly audible, as are the vowels from the other computer voices (so now they get to "speak"). In fact, That first tutti chord outlines four (if I remember correctly) different harmonic spectra that are all closely related, so that there is a somewhat multistable quality allowing various instruments to either pop out or be masked at any particular moment. That chord modulates a number of times. In each iteration of the chord the multistable balance is sort of redistributed. However, those emergent back-and-forths are all greatly steered by each listener's manner of listening in tandem with their own thresholds of hearing.

Glossolalia, first movement: Scat and Scatter

I don't know if you remember, Sam, but it was kind of tricky to mix that section because it was hard to gauge the 'actual' levels of individual instruments. As soon as we would focus on any one instrument, a few others would disappear, and the instrument being focused on would seem far too loud. But in the next moment, when listening closely for another instrument, the previous one might totally disappear.

But this orchestration is intended to express one of the grouping ideas that I mentioned previously. The roles and identities of the ensemble are made simultaneously ambiguous and clear (depending on the focus of the listener), by a single metric (a fixed chord in this instance) that they all inhabit.

Anyway, there is quite a lot of stuff like this running through the piece...

I know you are interested in this sort of thing too. And one of the things we have discussed before, that really makes it all so fascinating to me, is that these types of phenomena are often so subjective, conditional and fleeting. It really feels experimental in some very basic, fundamental way, don't you think? There is so much space for trying things out that haven't really been thoroughly codified or explained. I mean, many of these things are quite familiar, but still rather difficult to fully totalize and control.

I feel like your own Lines On Black deals with some of these concerns. The piece seems to trace multiple ways through various musical spaces in ways that allow the paths to be perceived as both connected and/or independent. For example in the opening movement, Duo, the flute and violin are at times united by musical gesture, but distinguished by harmonic language, or the very opposite: they are differentiated by instrumental gesture and linked by harmonic language. Even the title [Lines on Black], to me, seems to suggest an undifferentiated whole that belies infinite possibilities of lines, shapes, colors, directions and meanings comprised within.

SP: The opening duo of Lines on Black is a great way to peer into the structure of the work as a whole (and my music as a whole). As you say, the flute and the violin are in a dance, sometimes in rhythmic unison, sometimes harmonic. Sometimes they are completely independent and sometimes in total lockstep. This is a game often played in improvised music, and I wanted to create a situation where a listener may hear this and think it is improvised. Thus the players are taking turns suggesting ideas or reacting to the ideas of the other. Sometimes the back and forth is all questions and suggestions and the music moves very quickly. Sometimes the two hit on a particularly agreeable notion, causing time to freeze, allowing the players to expand upon that idea for a slightly longer duration. Thus, time has an accordion structure, where some ideas pass by almost without notice, and other ideas are latched onto and expanded.

Lines on Black, first movement: Duo

This constant churning of ideas is how I have chosen to explore composition of late. This process allows me to compose in a mental state that is akin to improvisation, where I play a “Yes, and…” game with myself, allowing any ideas I have to be part of the fabric of the piece. The flow of ideas is recorded, and I allow those ideas to exist without questioning them (that is a different process). Then I go back and expand upon the most appealing objects that I have created. As a result, the music tends to be composed non-linearly and from the inside out. I might write the ending of a piece first, then the beginning, then the middle, and then go back and expand upon the middle and then the beginning and then expand the beginning of the middle, etc:

[ end ]

[ beginning end ]

[ beginning middle end ]

[ b m [ b m e ] e]

[ b m [ b [ b m e ] m e ] e ]

The structural result is that ideas can connect across the piece, and ideas can even connect across multiple pieces - as in an idea in one composition can reference another composition. The structure both allows me to improvise in composition and also is a result of that improvisation. When I talk about improvisation in composition, people probably think the music is a stream of consciousness from left to right in time, but it is actually the opposite, where linear time is much more of a tree structure.

In this form, certain objects, partially due to duration and partially due to difference, jump out of the structure to create meaning. The particular overall structure of Lines On Black hinges around the seventh movement, titled On/Off. In this movement, Ian [Antonio], Josh [Modney], and Erin [Lesser] enter a seven minute hocket with a synthesized drum sound. This hocket acts a meta-accordion structural element. It could be almost any duration: twenty seconds or two hours. It doesn’t matter. By expanding outward from a two-sound cell, this object was stretched to a duration of seven minutes that recontextualizes everything on either side of it. Everything before it has a somewhat linear and active structure. During and after it, we have entered a floating vortex, hopefully revealing an altered brain state. Looking at the music this way, it is possible to visualize how one of the static moments of Duo plays a similar function on a local level as On/Off does on a global level.

On/Off plays another role. So much of this piece is about the personalities of the performers of Wet Ink. Everyone in the band gets a solo or feature of some kind, some of which are written out and some of which are improvised. On/Off is the absolute opposite of this. While it is written for the surgical skills of Erin Lesser, Ian Antonio, and Josh Modney, it leaves no room for personality, and in fact it leaves no room for error. It has to be totally precise in order to work. This is the opposite of the rest of the music, and it is this opposition that gives the movement its power in the larger structure.

Lines on Black, seventh movement: On/Off

This makes me wonder about the element of personality in your piece. How do you use the amazing performers of Wet Ink as an inspiration for your music? Are there things you wouldn’t write for other performers?

AM: First, I’ve always really liked your approach to dealing with the individual personalities in the ensemble. To me, it is a very Duke Ellington, or Miles Davis sort of approach to shaping the musical content around the individual players in the group. You do it so well. It’s very rewarding to play and to listen to!

I also write very specifically for Wet Ink, I suppose, but in a way that you might find surprising (or maybe it’s obvious to you?). With other projects, I sometimes feel a responsibility to have the surface of the music (and score) clearly demonstrate some fairly traditional notions (for me) of virtuosity and craft - music that reads as “difficult” and as “complex” in ways that reveal a player’s skill and a composer's craftiness. This is a long, complicated subject to discuss, but to just quickly generalize, I think this notion of virtuosity is often rewarding to performers because they are able to clearly demonstrate a high level of noticeable ability, often regardless of aesthetic, and in turn the listener might be impressed by this display and by the qualitative nature it seems to offer.

Wet Ink Group Photo
The Wet Ink Septet in 2018, taken at the NYC premiere of Glossolalia and Lines on Black. Both pieces have continued to evolve since then. (Photo: Alexander Perrelli)

But this is kind of the opposite of how I think of Wet Ink. I mean, there are some of these displays in my work for Wet Ink, sure, but over the years I have been trying more and more to delve into a different variety of virtuosity - one that requires, for me, a different concept of instrumental skill, sensitivity and knowledge, insofar as it is often not about an identifiably “virtuosic” way of playing, but rather, a manner of performing that integrates with the work as a whole so as to nearly vanish. For example, to go back to visual art again, there are instances of a distinct layer of color painted underneath a much different surface layer of color. While the bottom layer is obfuscated in terms of its color identity (you can’t really identify what color it is), it nonetheless causes special qualities of depth and intensity emanating from the surface (even if the top layer is primarily opaque!).

So, the music I make for Wet Ink does not necessarily project what I consider to be the more obvious features associated with virtuosity. Instead, I try to engage with a sensitivity to hearing and listening in relation to extreme timbre, extended intonation, meticulous balance, coordination and precision - features that are not always as easily recognised, or regarded, as virtuosic. I feel these particular tasks require special empathy and restraint, which I further believe makes a specific ethos more palpable. I trust Wet Ink not only to bring great sensitivity to this type of music making, but I trust them to embrace, rather than lament, the lack of validation that the more obvious markers of virtuosity often confer. I sort of think of the instrumentalists like the inside of a watch: a collection of finely calibrated gears, springs, magnets and stones working toward a common goal that is manifested by the movement on the face of the watch, but largely hidden otherwise - or like an inscription on the reverse side of a watch - again, hidden, sort of private, but imbuing something special to the object. I’m a Cancer, so perhaps I’m just being super astrologically on-brand!

I should mention that what I’m describing is also in direct relation to the other composers in Wet Ink. Surely what I have articulated above stems largely from my personal aesthetic leanings, but it has also been driven both by the influence these composers have had on me and by an attempt to sort of continually occupy my own lane in the midst of these influential composers, who obviously have their own tastes. We all have a lot in common, but I think we strive to establish clear differences as well. This is good in my view and certainly my proximity to the composers in Wet Ink has been extremely impactful to my own creativity!

SP: I think the clearest example of what you are talking about can be heard in how you treat Kate [Soper’s] role as a vocalist in the group. A voice, as an instrument in any ensemble, just becomes a soloist. There is almost nothing you can do about it. The ear focuses on that sonic profile and it is almost impossible to break away. But you do such a great job of integrating your vocal parts into the ensemble texture as to make them blend in and become equal with all the other instruments. Kate also does a great job of understanding this and merging with the ensemble.

AM: Sam, you mention that your piece ranges from thoroughly notated music to purely improvised sections. Can you say something about how you communicate how the improvised sections should work? Are there composer-supplied boundaries for these sections? Or are these real leaps of faith? Is it, as you mentioned before, personality driven, or are there other more abstract factors?

Also, could you say something about your own performative role in the piece, which I do think is distinct both in terms of presence and function?

SP: I am going to answer your second question first, because it relates to what you are talking about in terms of virtuosity and restraint. The electronics in Lines on Black cover a broad range of roles within the ensemble and also cover a broad range of approaches to electronics, in a way serving as a case-study of all of my approaches to using electronics within an ensemble context. In the opening Duo, the electronics are a total background texture. I trigger a shifting wall of sine waves focused on a “G” spectrum, fusing with the background drone that the ensemble is creating. In Voice and Electronics and Saxophone, I play back-and-forth, equal partner, extended super-instrument duos with you and Kate, mostly using your sounds as my source, creating this intertwined improvisatory language that has been such a part of my work for the past 15 years. In Cycle I am the soloist, blowing over the top of the ensemble texture. Here, I don’t use instrumental sounds as my source. Instead, all of my sounds are synthesized, further separating me from the ensemble and placing me at the front of the texture. In On/Off and Canyon, the electronics parts are completely fixed, with no live element at all, flipping my role to that of engineer/composer instead of performer. Canyon goes so far as to being a straight-up tape piece, with the instruments floating over the top with sparse interjections. Here the electronics and instrumentalists switch roles and the electronics become the ensemble over which the instruments are layered.

Improvisation is similarly structured throughout the piece, with a solo by Eric [Wubbels], a duet between Kate and me, a duet between you and me, my solo discussed above, and Josh’s solo at the end. My goal is to provide musical ecosystems where each of the players can bring their own insights to the music, but unlike in completely free improvisation, the situation of the solos/duets is curated, much like in Jazz, influencing the playing of the improvisers. Eric’s solo, for instance, is completely free, but his surroundings influence his playing. He emerges during the first movement, underneath an ensemble drone over a G pedal. This ensemble drone was composed to fit Eric’s playing, and I knew he would know exactly how to emerge from that musical world. The meat of his solo is up to him, and I really gave him no instructions here. But I did give him direction, since where he is going and thus the way he reaches an ending is informed by what comes next. The next section of music is a duet between Kate and me, where Kate starts and ends on a C drone. Thus, Eric’s solo must end in a spacey C area to pass this tonality to Kate who is headed toward her duet with Erin through her duet with me. Hopefully the reader can follow this, but the basic idea is that what is improvised is often influenced by what just happened, what is happening now, and what is about to happen.

This is just one example of this kind of thinking. Another is our improvised part, Saxophone. This movement comes in right in the middle Flute and Voice, half-way through the phrase. Simultaneous to your and my entrance, Ian and Eric come in with their Piano/Perc Duo, which is fully notated. I love this spot because there are 3 completely independent pieces of music, two composed and one improvised, playing at the same time, but each element is clearly heard. Like the start of Eric’s improvisation, the entire musical situation was created to fit your personality and one specific aspect of your performance practice that we have often exploited during our duo improvisations, this quiet, noisy, airy language that I so strongly associate with your playing.

Hopefully these two examples highlight the way some notation can go a long way in informing an improvisation. Now, obviously you all could go a completely different direction than what I expect, and I would have to be OK with that. In fact, I might like it better than what I imagined, another wonderful side effect of collaboration.

Writer headshot

ALEX MINCEK is a composer, performer, and co-director of the New York-based Wet Ink Ensemble. He is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Alpert Award, and multiple awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His music has also been recognized through commissions and awards from arts institutions such as the Library of Congress, the French Ministry of Culture, the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, ASCAP, MATA, Radio France, the Barlow Endowment, and the Fromm Music Foundation. Mincek received his MA from the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with Nils Vigeland, and his DMA from Columbia University, where he studied with Tristan Murail, George Lewis and Fred Lerdahl. Mincek currently teaches composition at Northwestern University.

Writer headshot

SAM PLUTA is a composer and electronics performer whose work explores the intersections between instrumental forces, reactive computerized sound worlds, traditionally notated scores, improvisation, audio-visuals, psycho-acoustic phenomena, and installation-like soundscapes. Since 2009, Sam has served as Technical Director and composing member of Wet Ink Ensemble. He has also received commissions from Yarn/Wire, International Contemporary Ensemble, Mivos Quartet, Spektral Quartet, and the New York Philharmonic and awards and honors from the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Fromm Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony. Laptop improvisation is a core part of Pluta’s artistic practice. Performing on his custom software instrument, he has toured internationally with Rocket Science, the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, and the Peter Evans Ensemble. Prof Pluta is currently Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Chicago, where he teaches composition and directs the CHIME Studio.