Rick Burkhardt Discusses His Unique Approach to Text, Pitch, and Noise in Alban and Other Works

by Rick Burkhardt, with Josh Modney

July 7th, 2020

Editor’s Note: Wet Ink first began collaborating with composer and playwright Rick Burkhardt in 2010 on his sextet Alban, and we have since, as an ensemble and as individuals, worked with Rick on many projects from his chamber opera You, My Mother to his duo TED, and more to come. Rick and I began an email correspondence for Archive 02 focused on Alban, which developed into an in-depth discussion of his artistic practice in which Rick shares his fascinating take on the metaphorical vs. the “real”, on performance practice, and on the tension between words, noise, and pitch in his music.  — J.M.



Josh Modney: Your work often operates on both realistic and mythical/legendary planes, while at the same time alternating between comfort and discomfort in ways that I find captivating as a listener (and as a performer!). For example, in Warka Vase (2014), for speaking percussionists and string trio, you immerse the audience in the soothing and predictable warmth of a museum audio tour, juxtaposed with curious mytho-historical accounts which, though based in actual history, feel alien. In TED (2013), for speaking violinist and pianist, you cut dramatically between an inscrutable and cringey TED Talk and a mythic chant from a very different voice. This kind of cutting between different planes is one of my favorite things in literature, too. Could you speak to how this technique functions in your work? 

Rick Burkhardt: At its core, my project of combining language with sound to make music includes dislodging language, not from all meaning, but from its most obvious meaning.

I've always enjoyed the reports of Viennese poets in the 1820s going to parties with Schubert and being excited to hear the songs that Schubert had made from their poems, because they felt that Schubert's music revealed things in their poems that the poets themselves didn't know were there — one poet was on record as saying something like “I'm about to find out from Schubert what my poem means.”  I want my music to have a similar effect:  the language should seem to somehow have a different meaning in this context than it would in the context where we would normally expect to encounter it.

I think when you mention “comfort and discomfort,” this gets at something important in my music, which is that most of the texts I use bear a resemblance, sometimes an almost exact resemblance and sometimes a very loose resemblance, to texts we would expect to encounter someplace else, someplace outside the realm of music or art.  So as we listen, we’re reminded of a default “familiar” experience of the texts which we already know and have some comfort with, even though that’s not exactly (and sometimes not at all) the experience we’re currently having.  

I’m fascinated by how a sound (a noise or pitch) in combination with a word can make us doubt the most obvious meaning of that word. I find it desirable when, zooming out to a larger scale, pitch and noise combined with text can make us doubt the most obvious meaning of that entire text, and can even discourage us from immediately looking for another meaning to replace the most obvious one. When this play between word and noise and pitch is at its most playful, I get the sense of texts (and other sounds) floating above meaning, as if looking for places to alight but not choosing any yet.

Therefore, it's useful for me to think of a piece's text not as one unified text with a singular meaning, but as a variety of texts colliding together in one way or another, interfering with each other's tendency to settle on a meaning. In the same way noise and pitch in my music interfere with words' meanings, words can interfere with each other's meanings.

To that end, I like to choose texts which do not share the same relationship to meaning. For example I often choose one text which has a “literal” meaning, and another text which has a “metaphorical” meaning. (I put those words in quotes because one of my goals in writing this music is to make us sense that “literal” and “metaphorical” are categories whose definitions are provisional, and whose boundaries are unfixed.) As an example: many of my pieces (Great Hymn of Thanksgiving and Alban are examples) use the voice of a “newscaster,” a voice that delivers literal information (I know, that's problematic, that's the point, haha). And then that voice is confronted with another voice, and this voice delivers a story which is in some way not-literal — a story about a talking bird, for example.

Wet Ink performing Burkhardt’s Alban on September 15, 2018, as part of the ensemble’s 20th Anniversary Season opening concert at The DiMenna Center in NYC.

These kinds of not-literal stories, whether we call them “mythology” or “fable” or “metaphor” or something else, often tend to depict a confrontation between our human world and some other world — the world of gods or talking animals, for example. And we humans are supposed to understand that the other world doesn't really follow our rules. Though that world may mimetically resemble our world, not everything that happens in that world means the same thing in that world that it would in our world. (By the way, I really don’t want to continue the European tradition of treating these stories as “folklore” — they are art and literature, and the people who created them were artists, even if all of their names aren’t remembered.)

To put it bluntly: the story of the Ant and the Grasshopper isn't really a story about an ant and a grasshopper. Bugs in our world don't actually talk. But that doesn't mean the story is wrong, or lying. It has a meaning, but that meaning isn't quite located on the surface level of the words. The relationship between word and meaning is indirect, and we instinctively know this. Also, of course, our relationship to these stories exists through a lens of culture, and of age — stories like these are much older than we are, and have meant different things to different cultures at different times.  So in that way, too, they present us with a complex relationship between words and meaning, and when we listen to them, we instinctively shift into a mode where we approach the question of “meaning” differently.

My hope, of course, is that the interaction of non-literal stories with the newscaster texts will guide us to shift our listening mode for the newscaster texts too, making the newscaster texts seem less literal. And (maybe a bit paradoxically) the “authority” of the newscaster voice might be eroded, while the storyteller voice might seem to have a little bit more authority than usual. In this music, the question of what’s “realistic” might start to yield different answers than we’re used to. Again, I see this as similar to the way words’ meanings can be altered by noise and pitch material; on a micro-level, it’s technically fascinating and enjoyable for me. Obviously also, when one zooms out and starts thinking on this macro level where imaginary storytellers and newscasters are subverting each other’s authority, social and political resonances enter the mix, and they’re absolutely welcome.

And by the way, this alteration of a text's meaning, for me, is music. Throughout this conversation I’m going to be using the terms “pitch” and “noise” and “word” — I'm using those terms instead of using the terms “words” and “music”, because for me, once a piece is working properly, the words aren't separable from the music. They are the music, and the way their meanings get dislocated by the other words and sounds around them is literally part of the musical texture for me. When I hear a word, and something about its sonic context puts the word's meaning in question, that is just as much a sonic experience as a conceptual experience. When a whole scaffolding of meaning-alterations like this takes shape in my mind, that's absolutely a musical scaffolding.



JM: I’ve always really appreciated your use of pitch and harmony, which are elements that might not be immediately apparent when one is first getting acquainted with your music. Text and noise-based sounds predominate in your musical textures, but the way that pitch shines through and that harmony manifests is beautiful and structurally important. How does pitch operate within your ecosystem of musical materials?

RB: I'm glad to hear you think pitch is important in my work! Sometimes I wonder.

I have at various times thought about sound in my music as being pulled in three simultaneous directions: toward words, toward noise, and toward pitch. In a sort of ideal listening world, I'd like to imagine that literally any single sound can be understood as a word, a noise, or a pitch. And different contexts can bring out the word-ness, noise-ness, or pitch-ness of any sound.

But what that means, I hope, is that each of these three categories can really reach out to each other without completely losing their identities. Another way of saying that is: a word can “behave like” a pitch. A noise can “behave like” a word. A pitch can “behave like” a noise. And that makes for a funny way of thinking where a sound in any of those three categories can behave more like itself, or less like itself. A pitch can behave a lot like a pitch, or only a little bit like a pitch. I think in a lot of my music, pitches are mostly behaving “less like pitches” than they do in most music, so that when they do behave “a lot like pitches,” it's surprising, and hopefully disorienting in a satisfying way.

Nearly any word spoken has a pitch, but we aren't usually primed to hear spoken language in terms of its pitch relationships. When people speak in monotone, that foregrounds the pitch of their vocal production. But, monotone speaking also brings with it a host (pun, hahaha) of semantic connotations. The “monotone” speaking in Great Hymn of Thanksgiving (2003), especially when performed by multiple speakers together, is primed, by its association with biblical-sounding words, to remind the audience of a sort of church-based, congregational “praying” voice. There's immediately a kind of wrongness that seeps into that connotative world, though, because performers are also saying things in pitched-monotone that aren't biblical at all (the first words spoken in monotone are actually “stuffed olive marrow”).

Great Hymn of Thanksgiving, performed by the Nonsense Company

And on top of that, the kind of “praying” that this seems to refer to is the kind of “around the dinner table” praying that people do when they aren't really committing to what they're saying, or even thinking about what they're saying. So, the words sound disconnected from their meaning, for a very literal reason: nobody who's saying them actually means them.

In my mind that's an example, through the introduction of pitch, of the words behaving “less like words” than words normally behave. Normally, when we hear a word spoken, we assume that the meaning of the word is also the speaker's intended meaning; or, in the case of a performer (a singer or an actor), we assume that the performer is representing a character who somehow intends the meaning of that word. But, if we can't assume that, then the question arises: who intends the meaning of this word? If nobody intends it, does it still have the same meaning? Meaning is supposed to be “conveyed” by words — but if we don't know where the meaning is being conveyed from, or conveyed to, there's something a little un-word-like about that.

I remember an important conversation I had with Steven Takasugi, back in 2004, when we were both living in San Diego. I was frustrated at the time when I noticed that my mind was stuck in a sort of metaphor: I kept thinking I needed to achieve a “balance” between words and music somehow. But this metaphor seemed to mean I couldn't give either of those elements, words or music, more “weight” than the other. And therefore I was avoiding any very deep exploration of what words can do when they're really behaving like words, or what music can do when it's really behaving like music. Steve helped me a lot by sticking with my “balance” metaphor: imagine it very literally, like there's a tightrope, and someone's walking on the tightrope with a pole, and one side of the pole is music, and the other side is words. And I was going to all these lengths to make sure that tightrope walker didn't fall. But Steve pointed out that there was actually no reason the walker couldn't fall. The walker wasn't a real person and couldn't get hurt, so I didn't have to worry about that. But more importantly, any piece I was writing wasn't actually required to represent a successful attempt to walk from one end of the tightrope to the other end. A piece of mine could actually represent a variety of interesting falls from the rope. This new way of thinking about “balance” as something that could be repeatedly lost, and then restored in a different way, only to be lost again in a different way, freed me up to enjoy many of the issues that had previously been worrying me.

And one of those issues was: well, what is the most “wordlike” way a word can behave? What is the most “musiclike” way music can behave? I had already been working for years, as many composers do, with blurring the polarities between noise and pitch, so that second question quickly bifurcated into: what is the most “noiselike” way noise can behave? and what is the most “pitchlike” way pitch can behave? Obviously the answers to any of these questions will be subjective.

I think the question you were really asking me about pitch was probably meant to get into the question of how I deploy pitches in relation to other pitches in my music. Ha! And I've spent so much time getting to the answer to that question because, actually, I usually don't. When there's a pitch in my music, it's usually more important how it relates to a word, or a noise (a sound whose pitch is indeterminate, or inaudible, or somehow rendered apparently irrelevant by its context), than how it relates to other pitches.

But, in fact, I decided some time ago that one of the answers, for me, to the question “what is the most “pitchlike” way pitch can behave?” is: pitches are behaving most like pitches when they foreground their relationships to other pitches, as opposed to their relationships to other things. After all, building complex relationships to other pitches, especially other pitches heard simultaneously, is what pitches are really good at! Unpitched noise isn't nearly as good at that. Words can build extraordinarily complex relationships to other words, but not if all the words are heard simultaneously — that, interestingly, makes the words behave more like noise.

When it comes to how I choose pitches, I do use tone rows in all of my pieces, because I'm (still) enchanted by the notion (and the sound) of pantonality — I love the sort of magic realism of the idea that every note can be in “every key at once.” That's a very “pitchlike” notion: the sound of pitches suddenly forming hierarchies, immediately straining against them, and abruptly collapsing them in favor of new (equally temporary) hierarchies. That's all built into the twelve-tone system. Since I have other musical materials besides pitch to work with, I have a lot of flexibility in how many pitches I use in a given span of music, which means I can regulate the speed at which these pitch formations zip by, and as such I can modulate how “pitchlike” the music is, or is becoming, at any point (I say “is becoming” because usually, in my pieces, “pitchlike” behavior isn't just “present” or “not present” — rather, it's usually somewhere in the process of appearing or disappearing).

I always try to build this idea of pitch behaving in more and less “pitchlike” ways into the tone row itself. I hear this idea, for example, in Alban Berg's Violin Concerto. The first four pitches of that piece quote the sound of the open strings of the violin being “tested”, which to me is a very “wordlike” use of pitch: it sounds like a violinist warming up, testing out the violin, before playing a piece. The next four pitches of the piece are notes squeezed out from between the notes of the open violin strings: these four pitches have the same gestural profile as the first four, but not the same intervals — instead of perfect fifths, there are two augmented fifths and one diminished fifth. The moment is still a bit wordlike: still warming up the violin — but it's also more pitchlike: a composer has intervened in the warmup by making the pitch content more idiosyncratic! The last four notes of Berg's tone row are separated by whole steps, significantly lacking the sonorous quality of thirds and fifths which we heard in the first part of the row, but introducing the notion and the sound of stepwise melody, which will play a dramatic role later in the piece.

Another piece which inspired me is Lachenmann's Salut für Caudwell for two guitars, in which we hear the sound of the guitars' open tuning almost continuously throughout the piece, as the strings are tapped, plucked, and otherwise coaxed into sound. That ultra-familiar sonority of the guitar's open strings sounds so odd in this context, almost as if Lachenmann had forgotten to write pitches. It's the least “pitchlike” presentation of those pitches that I can imagine.

So based on these inspirations, the first half of a tone row in one of my pieces will often be based on something essentially “given” about the musical resources in the room, a kind of “found object,” something clunky, something anyone can hear I didn't invent. (My piece Passover, for example, in which all of the performers sit around a double bass lying on its back on a table, uses a tone row which starts off very prominently featuring stacked perfect fourths, to quote the tuning of the bass.) Then the second half of the row will be built for contrast, with pitches building harmonic relationships independent of the musical circumstance in the room. (The latter half of the Passover tone row still includes perfect fourths, but now they are stacked so that they add up to major sixth and minor seventh chords, sonorities beyond the open bass string sound.) So as we progress through the tone row, we will hear variety in how “pitchlike” the pitches are. This variety becomes a resource I can draw upon while composing.



JM: Alban (2010), written for Wet Ink, was the first piece that you and I worked on together, and it remains one of my favorite pieces to perform. At the time, I was a new member of Wet Ink, and we had recently begun commissioning pieces for “the band”, our septet formation which has continued to this day (now an octet, with Mariel Roberts on cello). Alban was part of our debut band album, Relay (Carrier Records). Could you share your perspective on the history and genesis of Alban?

Alban, from Wet Ink’s first band album, Relay (Carrier Records)

RB: I moved to NYC in late 2009, and Wet Ink's concerts were among my favorite events in NYC (and still are). I remember a dual Mincek/Sciarrino portrait concert, and of course the Spahlinger portrait concert — very few of those have ever happened in the US. Only a few months after I got to NYC, Eric Wubbels asked me out of the blue to compose a piece for the Wet Ink band. The majority of my composing for the previous few years had been for my own ensemble, the Nonsense Company, three actor/musicians who explored combining music and theater in very specific, idiosyncratic, and intensive ways, and I wasn't sure how I could transfer those discoveries to another ensemble.  

But, I had been having fun for those few years describing my own process as a kind of “inverse” of text-setting.  I was looking at Schubert's songs as taking a text and literally setting it into music, allowing the text to create “ripples” in the music — often by encouraging the “meaning” of the text to permeate the musical material in some way. For example, when we listen to Die Schöne Müllerin, we sense that arpeggios in Schubert's piano writing are meant to “sound like” a rushing river by association with Wilhelm Müller's lyrics — despite the fact that of course they don't “sound like” a river at all.  And more interestingly, that gives Schubert the ability to dramatize the river, as a musical actor, in ways that, if taken literally, are utterly bizarre: in one song, the river stops. In another song, the river begins to respond to the singer. The final song is sung by the river after the singer has died. And so on.  

So I wondered if I could do the inverse of that? Rather than “set” a given text into music and hear the text creating ripple effects in the music, could I place music into text, somehow, and witness the music creating ripple effects in the text? For a long time, I just used this idea as a metaphor to describe the sound interactions I was working with in my compositional textures. But, there was a part of me that wanted to create a song, or Lied, testing out this principle as literally as possible: A singer is up there on stage, talking, producing a continuous stream of text, and into that text stream, musical material is placed, and we hear the ways the text is affected.

Alban Recording Session
The Wet Ink band recording Alban at EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Troy, NY) in 2012

I felt like the invitation from Wet Ink would be a good place to try that out. Wet Ink has a singer who's also a composer/instrumentalist [Kate Soper], and all of the rest of you are chamber players with experience working very closely with a vocalist, able to synchronize at a level even smaller than a syllable. And since so many of the Wet Ink performers are also composers, I hoped they'd be patient with me as I tried to figure out notational issues as I went, which is always a component of my work on my pieces. Since my music constantly shifts gears in terms of who's “leading” the sound — are the instruments leading?  is the text leading? — there's no way a score of mine can be notated consistently all the way through. So it's necessary to have performers who are comfortable with different types of score notation, and with switching back and forth between notational types as the music requires.

So the next question was: what “stream” of text should I use? And I started by fiddling with a transcription I made of Laura Ingraham having a minor meltdown behind the scenes of her “news” program (one gets the impression that “minor meltdown” is a fairly common experience for Laura Ingraham, and for the people who have to work with her). This is consistent with my fascination with newscaster performances, and the fissures in those performances (Laura Ingraham is only a faux “newscaster,” of course, but the acoustic and social implications of her presentational facade are the same).  

But I didn't want to start the piece with Laura Ingraham, or with any newscaster's performative facade having already melted down, so I invented my own text which I imagined would then slowly, by way of various musical interventions, be chipped away until it gave way completely into the Laura Ingraham text. Fortunately, the process of working this way on the text I’d invented yielded many discoveries about how a text's meaning could be dislodged (I’ll talk about some those discoveries later in this conversation), and by the time I got to the place where Ingraham would have come in, I felt that the piece had already accomplished its actual goal. (And it was a relief not to have Ingraham involved in the final product).


JM: One thing that sets Alban apart from your other works is the relationship to this idea of realistic vs. mythic narratives. In Alban, instead of juxtapositions, the real and the unreal are subtly intertwined. 

RB: You're right that in the piece Alban, the way this all happens is a little different. Different types of textual material still clash, and it's still fundamentally a clash between “realistic” and “mythological” modes. But for the most part, in Alban we hear complete sentences, spoken in one voice, telling what appears to be a single story (although frequently disrupted by instrumental noise and pitch) — whereas in most of my pieces, juxtaposed fragments of different texts in different voices bump against and splinter each other, yielding a cut-up or collage effect.  

Oddly, Alban was the first piece I wrote (and is still one of the only pieces of mine) in which there's only one vocal performer (the instrumentalists make some brief vocal sounds, but I think of those sounds as brief distortions of the main vocalist's line, not as additional full-fledged contrapuntal voices). And certainly that's one reason why the presentation of the text has a more “unified” feel — I wanted to explore that one-voicedness.  But to me, “exploring” one-voicedness means revealing it to be a kind of a curtain over something much more complex, and I definitely want to pay attention to the multivoiced “man” behind that curtain. (I don't believe that in reality, any of us is really only one person speaking with only one voice. But that's a discussion about reality — we can have that discussion another time).

In Alban, everything textual is filtered through a single voice: the voice of the newscaster. But the newscaster's relationship to the text keeps changing: she becomes more and less serious, she laughs, she tries to pretend she isn't laughing, she flubs words. In a theatrical sense, her “authority” as a newscaster erodes from the inside (if this were a play, the “meaning” would be simple: she's a bad newscaster). But the vocalist is also required to perform vocal distortions which obviously come from the world of experimental vocal music: vocal frying, slow pitch glissandi, unmotivated whispers, extensions of words, et cetera. So despite the prevailing “newscaster” tone, we're not listening in the way we would listen to a newscaster: we're listening as we would listen to a singer.  

Of course this way of listening is also encouraged by the presence of instrumental sounds that interrupt the text. For most of the piece, all of the disturbances in the vocalist's part follow from sudden instrumental sounds, as if the instrumental sounds are bumping the vocal performer off her track. So here the idea of a “newscaster” is given a slightly different meaning than it usually has, as if the word “newscaster” referred not to a person, but to a performance which one sort of has to struggle to maintain under duress (Probably a lot of real newscasters could relate to that. And I confess that I absolutely love, and have learned a lot from, watching and hearing real newscasters mess up their performances in various ways — apologies to people who are just trying to do their jobs!  It reveals a lot to me about how fragile an accepted conduit of “meaning” can be).

Throughout the piece, the instrumental interruptions to the vocal line are brief, and the vocalist quickly gets “back on track,” returning to more or less the same style of performance as before the interruption happened. But as the piece progresses, the meaning of the story being told is also being interfered with, and bumped off track, much more slowly and subtly, and irreversibly.

For example, at one point the vocalist says “Voice of Colleen Davis,” indicating that the voice will now represent a character in the news story about Alban that the newscaster has been presenting. (It's important that that character isn't Alban himself — Alban is currently unifying the story and its speaker(s) by being the thing the story is “about”.)  In the world of the news story, this makes sense: of course another voice would enter to provide information at this point. But the subtle trick here is that now we're not listening to someone read a news story — we're listening to someone read a transcript of a news story, playing all the parts, and even reading aloud the words “Voice of Colleen Davis,” which would not be heard in an actual news broadcast.  In a piece of theater, the question would be: who is reading the transcript? In a piece of music, we don't have to answer that question. What's important is that the vocalist's one-on-one relationship to the newscaster is now dislodged — it's too early to know if that dislodging is temporary or permanent — and as such, the piece's lens is now widened. It now has the potential to be “about” something more than the content of the newscaster's story.

Ultimately, this is a set up for what I think of as a text “modulation,” analogous to a modulation to a different key in tonal music. The story told by the newscaster is about a kid named Alban dealing with difficulties caused him by the crumbling of various social services. But, after a substantial instrumental “interruption” in which all of the previous instrumental material is recontextualized, we “return” to the newscaster's voice, and apparently to the story about the kid named Alban. But now Alban is having a difficulty from a different world altogether: he can only communicate by putting coded messages into his “orchestral and chamber music pieces.”  

In a sense, the newscaster has succeeded in clinging to her performance of “newscaster,” but the meaning of the story she was telling has modulated out from under her. In “reality,” the kid as described in the first half of the piece probably wouldn't have the opportunity to get orchestral pieces performed (though of course I would love it if he did — I usually only try to disrupt reality in directions I like). But in fact what this language is evoking is not reality: it's a deliberately unrealistic conflation of the kid Alban with the composer Alban Berg (the name “Alban” is sufficiently uncommon that this conflation can take place quickly).

This is atypical for me in that it's a reference that most people who haven't studied music probably wouldn't get. Generally I try to avoid references whose audience is restricted to artists. The reason I made that choice here was: even though all of the text is coming to us through one voice, I'm still clashing two types of text together, and they're still, as you described in my other pieces, “realistic” and “mythological.” The story of the kid Alban having trouble with loss of social services is “realistic” in the most fatalistic, depressing sense of the word (budget cuts, eviction notices, et cetera — they all seem not just possible but likely to actually happen), although, in fact, in this piece, it's fictional, in the sense that I made up these details and this character. The story of Berg weaving the initials of his lovers into the pitches of the Lyric Suite and the Violin Concerto is probably true, as far as I know — but it's absolutely mythological, in the sense that it only makes sense if one accepts the belief (which was presumably Berg’s belief — possibly it’s also our belief) in some sort of (artistic? spiritual?) plane in which those initials residing in those pitches have meaning. We might even call it “hidden” meaning. (And I'm not saying they don't have any meaning! I'm saying that, like in the mythworld, whatever meaning they have definitely operates in a way that's different from the way meaning usually operates in our world. How can something in our world simultaneously be “hidden” and be “meaning”?)

And this is exactly why I chose a reference not everyone would get. For those who do get it, it's mythology, but it's mythology quite specific to us modern-music concert-goers. It's something that has meaning for us, but not for everybody, and we know that. That’s a very specific way meaning can be unstable: when you receive a meaning, but you can’t be sure if the people around you have also received it. So here the “meaning” of the words is taken to a kind of peak instability. (I imagine that for an audience member who doesn't know the reference to Berg, the wrongness of the events of the story at this point — how is this kid writing orchestral pieces? — would have a similar effect. I hope I'm not cheating that audience of an equally substantial experience of peak instability!)

By the way, I notice that I'm using words like “mythological” and “mythworld” quite a bit here, and I want to underline that I don't think of myself as a religious or spiritual person. If I had to define my worldview along those lines, it would probably be fundamentally atheistic (and include no predictions about the afterlife). I think mythologies interest me most because they're important instances of humans using language to construct entire planes of existence that may not literally exist in the world, but whose existence in language is just as real as any other plane's existence in language. Literal meaning is only one kind of meaning that can exist in language. And the fact that it's literal does not make it more real than any of the various non-literal meanings that language can also bring into being.

Similarly, I notice that I'm using the word “meaning” quite a bit, and I sense that that's also perhaps a bit misleading. Language and its various kinds of meanings exist in my music, but they are never the primary goal of the music. Music can and does mean, but music can also do other things (it's just hard to say what those things are using language, a meaning-heavy medium). So let me modulate those sentences above: meaning is only one kind of experience that can exist in music. And the fact that it's meaningful does not make it more real than any of the various non-meaning experiences that music can also bring into being.

And finally, here's one more word about mythology: Roland Barthes' early book Mythologies, which redefines “Mythology” as capitalist ideology in a kind of comfortable story-form, was and is a huge influence on me. Barthes' brief essays on what he calls the myths of his time, many of which hail from nakedly commercial realms like advertising, read like little “exposés” which come very close in spirit to satire. I think that's audible in many of my pieces: newscasters, army prayers, TED presenters, documentary voiceovers, motivational speakers, and other voices from the professional class are definitely painted with a somewhat grotesque brush. And though my intention isn't always to make fun of them (or even ultimately to “depict” them at all), I do think the ideal performance of these pieces needs to allow some spirit of satire into the mix — and this should mostly manifest on the smaller levels of vocal detail. (And it’s important to remember that satire is not always/only comical or mocking. Satire can also be tragic, dour, fierce, gentle, hopeful, hopeless, unstable, emotional, passionate, exhilarating...)


JM: You’ve outlined your general approach to pitch as it relates to the other main elements in your music (words and noise). Are there points in Alban where you feel that pitch plays a particularly important role?

RB: There are obviously very specific moments in Alban which contain more pitches-per-second, you might say, than other moments in the piece. So of course one feels that pitch is foregrounded in those instances. But I'm interested in talking about how even in those moments, pitch can behave in more and less “pitchlike” ways. I'll discuss three examples below.

The first instance of pitch substantially taking the foreground in Alban is here (Page A5):

Alban A5
Alban, Page A5 (1:20-1:36 in the Relay album recording)

It's the most substantial instrumental interruption we've heard yet in the flow of text. I consider this “uncanny pitch behavior”: because the instruments are all playing in octave relationships with each other, and we hear each pitch class played several times in different octaves, the pitch is foregrounded in the sense that our ear is drawn to it; but, the wide register of each pitch, combined with the irregularity of the rhythm lurching first too slowly, then too quickly from one pitch class to another, creates a kind of awkward parody of a melody — this is not the way pitch usually behaves. So I don't hear these pitches as fully “pitchlike.”

Alban B2
Alban, Page B2. Measures B:14-16 are the last three on this page (measure B:14 starts at 3:25 in the Relay album recording)

Next bit: Page B2, Measures B:14-B:16. Here, a texture of mostly staccato sounds has briefly been overshadowed by an emergence of chords, but those chords are blurry: the violin and bass flute bend their pitches, the tenor sax plays multiphonics which sound like overtones with no clear fundamental. But when the piano enters in measure B:14, with sustain pedal giving us sufficient time to hear the pitches, this blurry chord is recontextualized in the context of a chordal harmony, albeit a decentered one. Then, in B:15, this is all recontextualized even further, with the piano playing a deliberate parodic quote of the harmonic series, stated quasi-pedantically, emphasizing a fundamental of B-natural (which the sax's next multiphonic then confirms). The sound disappears quickly, but its brief moment isn't forgotten, and to me that moment is an almost rhetorical statement of “pitchlike” behavior — what, after all, is more “pitchlike” than the harmonic series? But, there's a slight paradox here: pitches do not usually announce their presence quite so didactically, with such a rhetorical flourish. So, although I wouldn't go so far as to say this is “less pitchlike” behavior, it is a case of pitches being present in a texture which is not truly theirs — they present themselves as pitches, but uneasily so.

Alban D1
Alban, Page D1 (starts at 5:51 in the Relay album recording)

Lastly, the entire final section of the piece, section D, which begins at 5:46 in the Relay album recording. Here, pitches are sustained for almost two minutes, and pitch is the dominant feature of the texture. However, the character of the pitch, the degree to which it is “pitchlike”, “wordlike”, or “noiselike”, changes over the course of those two minutes.

The initial appearance of pitch has a character which I consider rhetorical: it interrupts the speaker right as she arrives at the main crisis of meaning in the text, and it does so rudely, with a kind of “alarm” gesture. The pitch content includes a prominent treble perfect fifth in the violin, a C-sharp and G-sharp. But instead of sounding consonant as it “should”, those pitches are mainly heard as clashing with the other sustained pitches: a G natural, C-natural, and B-flat, all in bass clef, acting as a pedal point, but the “wrong” pedal point for the violin's sonority. Each pitch insists on its identity as a pitch, but the pitches do not affirm each other.

Throughout this section, the pitches react to the voice, but they mostly react in “noiselike” ways: they wobble, scrape, bounce, abruptly change dynamic — in other words, the changes we hear aren't changes in pitch, they're changes in sound quality, changes in how “purely” the pitch is being played (and “impurity” in the production of a pitch registers in my mind as “noiselike”).

Alban D2
Alban, Page D2 (starts at 6:28 in the Relay album recording). Measure D:10 is the second bar on this page. Measure D:16 is the last bar on this page.

But over the course of section D, the pitches, fairly gently, sneak into a new configuration. First, the sax and flute bend their pitches so that the minor seventh they've been holding (C and B-flat) expands outward into an octave (B natural) [measures D:10-D:12]. The piano plays a bizarre figure (its only figure in all of section D) which begins with unspecified pitches moving chromatically downward in a very high register and then glisses downward on the strings, in a kind of parody of voice leading, but then actually culminates in a genuine three-note melodic voice-leading gesture that resolves to F-sharp, making a perfect B/F-sharp/B chord with the sax and flute (the sax immediately slides off of that chord onto something else, denaturing the piano figure's “resolution” in the process). Here the rhetoric of the gesture is foregrounded, rather than the pitch relationships created by it. But the pitch relationships are there, nonetheless, and behind the gestural foreground, a new sonority has been introduced, a sonority in which pitches do affirm each other, literally reinforcing each other's overtones.

Alban D3
Alban, Page D3 (starts at 7:03 in the Relay album recording). This page begins with Measure D:17.

So, section D has used seven pitches so far (I'm not offended if you haven't been keeping track), and the five pitches we haven't heard yet are E-flat, F, D, A, and E. The instruments quietly, and just a bit melodically, glide to those pitches, and for the last thirty-five seconds of the piece [measures D:16-D:24], we hear a sonority made of those pitches. The sound is still dominated by a perfect fifth in the violin (A and E-natural, played as harmonics for added “purity”), but now the other instruments support that sonority, since all of their pitches are registrally positioned according to the circle of fifths, with the violin's pitches on top of the stack (the flute, playing the D below the A, makes the sound of stacked fifths very explicit). This, to me, is an extreme (maybe “the” extreme) of how “pitchlike” pitches can be in this piece: the pitches' relationship to each other, arrived at by slow melodic steps, sounds like holding each other in place, gently reinforcing each other's overtones without subordinating any to a hierarchical resolution.

To recap: therefore in the course of section D, the most pitch-dominated section of Alban, the sound of a perfect fifth in the violin (a sound which of course predates this piece as a kind of a “found object” from the unmodified world of the violin) goes through all these changes. It begins at its most “wordlike”: an interruption of the text, an alarm occasioned by the content of the text, its dissonance (in relation to other pitches) cognitively related to the text. It goes through moments of being “noiselike”: in reaction to vocal sounds, it briefly alters its mode of sound production but not its pitch content. And finally it arrives at its most “pitchlike”: reinforcing and reinforced by the other pitches, perceivable as both melody and sonority.



JM: Alban is a work that I strongly associate with Kate Soper’s vocalism. Did you know Kate’s voice prior to writing this piece? How do the practices of individual performers factor into your process?

RB: I am sure I must have heard Kate's singing voice at Wet Ink concerts, although, significantly, I don't think I had heard any works of hers including spoken text, which is something she's now well-known for. Her major works from the last decade, in which she creates provocatively illustrative musical events around spoken texts (especially analytical texts which wouldn't conventionally be considered “aesthetic” in affect), feel very close to my own interests, but Kate hadn't composed those works yet.

So Kate and I met, just once I think, so I could get to know her voice better. I asked her to try various kinds of performance ideas with the Laura Ingraham text. And to be honest, most of those ideas had to do with flubbing the text in one way or another, for example: “perform while trying not to laugh and basically succeeding” or “perform being very angry but trying to pass it off as a joke.” These sound like acting exercises, and they could be (and should be!), but I was also genuinely interested in discussing them with Kate as musical events: “lose control of pitch slightly, with timbre becoming a bit airy, here” or “use a very nasal timbre while restricting pitch inflection here to about a minor third”. Kate was up for all this, and I was encouraged to know that it would be possible to work this way, giving instructions somewhere in between theatrical and musical (if I remember right, we didn't try out anything that would normally be called “singing” in that meeting — I don't even think I asked Kate what her vocal range was — that wasn't what the piece was going to explore).

It's funny to remember that meeting now, because it was so brief and modest and fledgling! In the few years after that, Kate and I worked closely together on two major opera projects, my You My Mother [Soper as performer] and her Here Be Sirens [Burkhardt as director], where of course we were able to explore and stretch these ideas, and other ideas about music-theater hybridization, much further.

You My Mother
Photos from Burkhardt’s opera You My Mother, which featured several Wet Ink members, in 2012 at La MaMa in NYC. Produced by Theater of the Two Headed Calf, the evening also included an opera by Brendan Connelly, who was a founding member of Wet Ink.

I love working with Kate because she not only brings an immense range of musical capability to the table, but also constructs artistic contexts in which intelligence (her own and other people's) is clearly demonstrated to be something valid and valuable. I think one of the reasons her music is so influential now is because she illuminates a very persuasive world in which it's okay, even mischievous and appealing, for musicians to use their brains. This should not, of course, be a big deal. But, speaking for myself (and I know many musicians, actors, writers, et cetera feel the same way), it's just horribly galling how often we artists are expected to play dumb, because somebody (a critic, an art institution, even an academic setting) thinks our art is supposed to be “emotionally direct.” But art can be direct and intellectual simultaneously, and Kate's compositions and performances demonstrate not just facility but absolute comfort with, and joy in, that simultaneity. (Also, art can be indirect, and that can be perfectly wonderful too.)


JM: As you know, Wet Ink is a group of composer-performers, and our ethos and process is intertwined with that identity. You are an amazing performer, and your practice encompasses things that might be considered quite wide-ranging in terms of genre. Do you feel that your experience as a performer is an important part of how you write music for other people?

RB: Well, you're one of my very favorite performers, so I'm moved to get this compliment from you!

I am interested in what happens when a performer straddles the line between actor and musician, and what I mean by that, specifically, is: actors, onstage, are supposed to give the impression that they're choosing to do/say things in the moment, according the internal impulses of their characters — even though we, the audience, know they're (usually) speaking lines which they've rehearsed. Musicians, on the other hand, may give an “emotional” performance, but we know they're making sounds (if it's composed music) that are laid out in the score, or (if it's improvised music) that are the result of many years of developing instrumental technique(s). I am not immune to the appeal of spontaneity onstage, but what really interests me is what might happen if we combined these two approaches to performance: to watch actor/musicians filter their performances through a kind of instrumental technique which connects to who they are as living people, but which goes well beyond any sort of performance of “self.”

This happens automatically when chamber musicians begin talking as they play their instruments. Of course, they are people doing something people do every day — talking! — but the interaction between their speech and their instrumental activity isn't an interaction we usually see/hear. So the amount of technique they bring to that interaction influences how we understand what we're seeing/hearing. When we see/hear something we know we couldn't have seen/heard under ordinary circumstances, and we see/hear that it was done with intention and technique, we start thinking in a new way. 

Of course, from a performer's point of view: to bring technique to something you haven't done before requires a lot of rehearsal. And in my music, in particular, that rehearsal frequently needs to go to a microlevel: you have to repeat some beats a lot of times to discover the right way of performing them. Maybe I want you to stop your bow on the string, choking the string sound, while simultaneously beginning to speak in the middle of a word. It should sound like the second half of that word is the continuation of that string sound. You're going to have to practice that, to get the dynamic balance right, to make your voice sound like it's really starting in the “middle” of something — all this can be learned, but it takes rehearsal!

Fortunately I'm a performer who loves rehearsal! And so are the other Nonsense Company members. There's that cliche about knowing someone so well you can “finish each other's sentences” — in my pieces, performers are often required to finish each other's words. So, really, when I'm looking for performers to write for, I'm looking for people who love to rehearse, especially with groups of friends. Wet Ink is absolutely such a group.

Right now, I'm finishing a piece for PopeBama, Dennis Sullivan and Erin Rogers (who are actually quarantined together). I approached them (long before the quarantine!) and asked if I could write them a piece — I love them both as performers, and I know that as a duo they'll relish rehearsing those moments (and some very long stretches of those moments) that require really precise integration into each other's sounds. A lot of what I'm writing wouldn't even be possible to imagine if I didn't know the performers would be excited by this kind of micro-rehearsal approach.

My dream is to create a workshop — literally, a week-long workshop, which a dozen people would attend in a big rehearsal space — in which actors and musicians would share skills with each other. Actors would teach musicians to speak sentences in lively and engaging ways, without sounding like robots (or sounding overprojected — sometimes it's hard to be audible without sounding like you're shouting, but it can be learned!). Musicians would teach actors how to synchronize rhythmically with other performers without looking like robots.  And so on.

I have nothing against robots, by the way. But I'm very interested in humans, and in human interaction on a human scale. I am really only interested in writing chamber music. The performance style I'm aiming for isn't like a large celebrity magician escape-act production number. It's more like a card trick. Hopefully, it's a card trick which expands our idea of what the scope of a card trick can be — just as, hopefully, the human interactions we invent (with all this technique and all this rehearsal!) will expand our idea of what the scope of human interaction can be.

Writer headshot

RICK BURKHARDT is an Obie-award winning composer, performer, playwright, and director whose original music, theater, and text pieces have been performed in over 40 US cities, as well as in Europe, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan. He received a PhD in Music Composition from the University of California, San Diego, where his primary teacher was Chaya Czernowin, and an MFA in Playwriting from Brown University, where his primary teacher was Erik Ehn. Presenters and commissioners include the Lucerne, Donaueschingen, Wien Modern, and Darmstadt Festivals, American Repertory Theater, New York Theater Workshop, LaMama NYC, PS-122, and ensembles such as ICE, Wet Ink, sfSound, Yarn/Wire, PopeBama, Radical2, Ensemble SurPlus, Ensemble Dal Niente, Hand/Werk, the La Jolla Symphony, the Olympia Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble XII, and Red Fish Blue Fish. Rick Burkhardt’s work has been supported by grants from Chamber Music America, New Music USA, Meet the Composer, Jerome Foundation, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Millay Colony, Thomas Nee Commissioning Grant, Boswil Foundation, DAAD, and the US-Mexico Fund for Culture.

Writer headshot

JOSH MODNEY is a violinist and creative musician working at the nexus of composition, improvisation, and interpretation. Josh has worked with Rick Burkhardt on numerous projects over the past decade, including TED for speaking violinist and speaking pianist (written for Josh and Eric Wubbels), Alban (with Wet Ink), Warka Vase (with the International Contemporary Ensemble), and You My Mother (with Yarn/Wire and the Theater of the Two Headed Calf), among others. Josh is violinist and co-director of the Wet Ink Ensemble, and a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).