Sam Pluta and Peter Evans have been working together for over a decade. Their collaborations extend from duo improvisations to large ensemble performances of music composed by each. They have worked with the Wet Ink Ensemble, the International Contemporary Ensemble, Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Rocket Science (with Parker and Craig Taborn), and Peter Evans Ensemble. This conversation is centered around a new composition that Peter has written for solo piccolo flute, but extends into discussions of the psychology of creativity, the materiality of instrumental technology, and the walls we construct around artistic practice.
Sam Pluta: I will start by asking a relatively banal question. The reader might think that you started writing a flute piece [Message from the Stars] because of the quarantine/lockdown, but I heard about this from Chicago-based flutist Tim Munro before this whole situation began. What prompted you to write this piece and who is it being written for?
Peter Evans: I didn’t decide to write this during quarantine! In December , after the first week of the month or so, I had downtime. All the way from the beginning of December into early January. In retrospect it was like a rehearsal for quarantine, since a totally free few weeks with no traveling is really rare for me. After a little initial panic and general antsiness, I got way into it.
While contemplating how to best use all this time I decided to dive into composing.
I had an idea to write a piece for Wet Ink, but I thought that I should start out with something more manageable, and something that I can work on immediately. I had recently done a workshop in Porto and one of the students was Clara Saleiro, who turned out to be a killer flutist as well as a pro new music person, working mostly in Portugal and Spain. I talked to her and she said she’d let me bounce ideas off of her. So I just kind of just said to myself "flute is cool, why not?!" and got deep into this solo idea. I also wrote to Tim Munro right away, and we talked about concepts, historical rep, players, and instrumental logistics. It was fun doing that initial research. I discovered American flutist Hubert Laws, for instance.
Once the idea was fixed, it just grew. I had enough ideas that I’m working on expanding this into a multi-movement thing which will feature separate pieces for piccolo, flute, alto and bass flute. The first two are done now.
Separate from all this fairly practical stuff there’s a larger thing going on in the background; the conceptual gymnastics of reconciling the social and aesthetic dynamics of a fully scripted piece with my own philosophies and evolving ideas of music and creativity. The latter, as you know, involve improvisation, a focus on process, flow state and transcendence rather than "results". I know you’ve wrestled with all this stuff as well, and I’m super into the consequences in terms of how you’ve navigated these issues in the works themselves, such as in your piece for trumpet, two trombones, piano and percussion for the New York Philharmonic; MODULES, with exclusiveOr, AWOL, and the International Contemporary Ensemble; and the trombone duet, Matrix (for George Lewis), written for Rage Thormbones. For me the thing to own up to is that I want to unapologetically write a piece exactly how I want it to sound, but somehow also stay true to my ideals as a creative artist. It's about reframing what it means (to me, anyway) to "write a piece of music."
One of my ideas for all of my pieces going forward is to have an accompanying text for each piece that functions as a guide to the composition - an "ingredients" list or index of musical materials that could enable a player to actually compose, i.e. improvise, their own version. This would mean my notated version is just one particular "realization" of the piece rather than THE definitive piece. Maybe this is similar to the "lead sheet" concept in Jazz or whatever. I know composers have done this kind of thing, but what I'm trying to do is inspire people to do something pretty rigorous, to really spend time internalizing the nuts and bolts of super-specific musical relationships, and then "speak" in that language.
SP: These experiences we have had as improvisers, in solo to group settings can be, as you say, transcendent. Living in a “composition" world during much of my life, I am reminded of the scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Johnny Depp and Flea are in the bathroom tripping on acid. A business man walks in and is horrified to see the two men desperately sniffing the LSD off of Depp’s shirt sleeve. Not only does this business man not understand what they are experiencing, there is absolutely no way he could ever understand and there are no words they could use to get that experience across to him, even if he wanted to know. Words just aren’t sufficient in explaining certain brain states, but music is! (I just did a search on this and found an article published by the American Psychological Association titled Musical Communication as Alignment of Brain States that contains the sentence, “Music can communicate affective experiences that are ineffable, i.e. difficult if not impossible to put into words.” So, this is not just me being a wacko).
The thing I have been trying to do in my compositions - and what I certainly hear in your composition - is to find ways of notating that experience (of improvisation, not psychedelic drugs) so that:
I can access the brain space of improvisatory creation while composing notes on the page or writing the software system to be performed on: really getting lost in that place of focus and awareness
The performer can access a comparable kind of flow state in performance
The audience experiences the music and is able to access a similar brain space while listening to the sounds produced
The question is how to get that brain space across to the performer and then the audience in notated music, and it seems to be a subtle juggling act. Too much information on the page, and the performer will never be able to let go while on stage. Too little and a score may become completely meaningless.
In your flute piece, you have written all the notes, and many of them. And yet, the performer is able to let go and focus on the music rather than the notes. Can you share with us what kinds of parameters you are balancing and how this shaped the final result of the score?
PE: I should definitely check that movie out. It’s been awhile.
To riff for a second off the LSD analogy, one of the things I enjoy about that substance is that after having done it a bit, it’s possible to kind of “dial in” the effects of the drug way later, in complete sobriety. It’s a mental and sensory space that can almost be conjured or sometimes just bubbles up to the surface at unexpected times. It’s highly useful in terms of looking at things from different angles.
I find that the kind of body/brain space I’ve learned to feel comfortable in as an improvising musician has done something similar. Over the years I’m learning better how to “dial in” that space even if I’m playing chamber music or whatever (or even if I’m composing) as a way of getting myself to focus in the right way and not get distracted or nervous. Almost like rerouting the feelings that would otherwise lead to anxiety or fear and channeling them into that hyperfocus that characterizes the best improvisatory experiences. This doesn’t always work, obviously.
In terms of this particular movement [Message from the Stars] I wish I had something clever to say but it’s really just notes and rhythms on a page. It’s pretty specific and other than the repeated figures/loops, there really isn’t much space to wiggle around and get off the page. But I would love to hear players take pieces like this and inject new stuff into them. It’s sad that that’s not more common performance practice. For instance, a player plays the first two pages, repeats a measure of the music and starts improvising, then weaves their way back into page three. I sort of think all composed pieces should at least be opened up to that treatment if it makes musical sense.
In the composed music world this is a minority opinion. A long time ago I played the Berio Sequenza X for an all-Sequenza marathon. I think it was right after Berio’s death. I played the trumpet part straight up, as written, but the pianist ignored the resonant piano part for practical reasons - there was no amplification (plus to be honest I don’t find the resonance to be that effective) - and instead played these sub bass drones on a monophonic synth, moving very slowly with the trumpet part. I thought it was super cool but there were composers in the audience who were furious!!
SP: I think we are at the point where this kind of approach is becoming more mainstream. There have been composers putting improvisation into their compositions since the 1950s (and definitely before that in the classical concerto and such), but the approach only makes sense now because of the amazing group of instrumentalists that are currently active in the new music scene. I just don’t think there were players like Josh Modney, Alice Teyssier, David Byrd-Marrow, Ryan Muncy, or Eric Wubbels around fifty years ago. These people can play all of the notes on the page, but also are sensitive enough to improvise in a way that fits the music.
So I think the idea of approaching composition, as you describe it, makes sense now in a way that it just didn’t before. I also think that the composition world is being strongly influenced by music outside of its narrow sphere. I know I certainly have learned as much about composition playing in your band as I have about improvisation. We play your compositions in that band. As a skilled group of improvisers, we could just go out there and play, but the compositions are what holds everything together.
I want to float a theory by you. One of the key developments, in my mind, to music in the past fifty years, is our ability to explore instruments as machines with inherent function, and our interest in making “new” music by exploiting the function of these machines. This is counter to the approach of composition that I was taught, which is that you have these notes on the piano, the trumpet can play a range of those notes and sounds a particular way in specific registers. Write the tune and orchestrate it for the instruments. Done! The “new” approach is more focused on the trumpet being a variable tube with lips pressed to one side and an open end that can be modulated. And there are all these sounds that the trumpet can make by changing various parameters. To me, this approach comes out of the cybernetic revolution of the late 1940s to 60s, and it first appeared in music in the electronic realm. People like Don Buchla and David Tudor were fully aware of evolving cybernetic theory when they designed their revolutionary electronic instruments. With these instruments, you could create systems of interaction that were vibrant, volatile, and constantly moving to surprising new places.
My idea is this: while you definitely don’t get Evan Parker without John Coltrane, you also don’t get Evan without Don Buchla or at least without this idea of looking at the saxophone as a machine, with intrinsic qualities to exploit. As someone who has extended this tradition, do you think about this history? How do you see this evolving approach to instrumental performance?
PE: Oh man, of course! I wrote an article about this topic for Zorn’s Arcana series a while ago. The idea that the instrument has not only musical material embedded in it, but that the instrument (technology) actually wants to do certain things, interests me a whole lot - that it has its own volition which the user can override, submit to, be in dialogue with, etc. I wrote the article around the time I made a record which reflects these thoughts in the title: Nature/Culture. And yes: this concept, consciously invoked or not, is found in a whole range of music and musicians’ playing. I love how Art Tatum, in a super fast upward flourish, will smack the highest possible C on the piano in his playing no matter what key he’s in - as if his virtuosity has to for a brief moment submit to the worldly limits of the piano’s fixed range. It’s a moment of integrating the infrastructure of the piano as musical material into the conflicting context of harmony. And yes, obviously Evan courted this idea pretty consciously. This leads to a discussion that goes way beyond the subject of music, permeating any situation where humans are interfacing with their technologies. The whole subject matter interests me a lot.
A small wrinkle is that I actually feel in the through-notated, contemporary music world that composers using the body-instrument interface as “material itself” is overdone. I feel there has been an abandonment of abstract musical material independent-of-instrument, the result of which actually isn’t musical and prohibits the development of musical ideas. I’m saying this not as a composer but as a “new music performer” who has premiered a lot of pieces by young composers over the last ten years or so. In short, I think the idea of exploring instrument-unique sounds or the “sound of the body working with/against the instrument” has become kind of a tired fad.
Your other theory about the new generation of musicians having these interests and abilities I’d have to disagree with, or at least qualify a bit. As someone who has been crossing over between jazz/improvisation worlds and contemporary classical world a whole lot for my whole career, I have definitely developed a bit of indignance about the nature of this newfound openness to approaches in classical music. Or at least, it seemed to have been awfully one-sided for a long time. What I mean is, if you look for instance at the scene of young Jazz musicians who were kind of dominating the artsier side of Blue Note Records in the mid-60s - Bobby Hutcherson, Tony Williams, Joe Henderson, Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock, Richard Davis, Joe Chambers, for instance - these players were totally comfortable with highly notated music, complex solo forms, free improvisation, blues and bebop (Chambers is an interesting example who doesn’t get enough credit - check the B side of Hutcherson’s Components for example. Also, Richard Davis had a parallel career as a freelance classical bassist.). And this is fifty years ago. Ok, so these guys weren’t premiering Boulez pieces or anything but there are lots of reasons beyond personal taste (societal, racial, just the way the music scene was structured at that time) why that might not even have been on the menu of gigs available to them. Warren Smith, who I played with recently for a program of music by Charlie Parker and Edgard Varese, has been moving between all these areas since the 1950s in NYC. At the rehearsal I watched him play the lead snare drum part of Ionisation, then Parker’s Blues on vibraphone, both from memory. Then of course the next generation was the AACM, people interested in doing seemingly everything.
So what I mean by one-sided is that the classical players, while it’s great they are opening up and becoming comfortable improvising in a more developed way than the paint-by-numbers approach adopted by Cage and his disciples, are a little late to the game. I’m glad they’re there though. It’s an exciting time for sure.
SP: Of course, you are right about all these players, and I think it is our job in the 21st century to do everything we can to reveal these people and their accomplishments to the largely white new music crowd who wants to be woke about things, but can’t seem to grasp that their narrow worldview, when it comes to what composition is and what improvisation is, is largely a result of mid-20th century segregation and racism.
Also I imagine we are arguing two sides of the same coin here. For whatever reason, you are known as an “improviser” even though you can play pretty much anything anyone puts in front of you and write music for contexts ranging from your band to new music. I am known as a “composer,” even though I spend over half of my time writing software and using that software in improvisatory contexts.
The composition world seems intent - despite the enormous achievements of composers like Anthony Braxton - on keeping those worlds separate, continuing an isolationist approach that has been part of its attempts at legitimacy since its inception in academia. Bringing economies into this is interesting as well, because what economy other than the academy makes sense for Milton Babbitt? (FYI - the acoustic composition establishment does the same thing to electronic music - selling the music as “not real music” or lesser because of some combination of it not being written down and also reflecting a completely different skillset).
If anyone were to ask me why I am so vocal about the word improvisation even though it is seen as a four-letter word in the world in which I make my living, it is this: legitimizing the composer-improviser-performer model of music-making is my best way of breaking down the cultural barriers constructed by my predecessors. I don’t think we should go cancelling Babbitt and Feldman for being the people they were, but we absolutely can cancel the walls they build around their musicking. Hopefully young people will see that having a diverse approach or having an approach that is not just notes-on-a-page composition is also valid (And to be clear, having a notes-on-a-page approach is fine too! Exclusion cannot be part of an inclusive strategy. Think about that recursive loop.). This will either help change what the “club” stands for or get me kicked out.
This brings us back to your flute piece, and I wonder if me screaming “improvisation, improvisation, improvisation!” has a corollary in you screaming “composition, composition, composition!” in a piece like this.
PE: People put up all kinds of walls in their scenes/worlds to protect themselves from competition, maintain legitimacy, or maintain the illusions of normality/universality. Within the field of electronic music, and relevant to this discussion about putting up walls - Bob Ostertag wrote a great essay about this phenomenon titled Why Computer Music Is So Awful.
I know what you’re talking about in terms of dealing with institutions and the system at large (academia in particular) but I don’t feel like I’m screaming anything right now, I’m just sort of experimenting with these different approaches and trying to evolve a more personal relationship with them. I guess the big distinction I find myself making is not composition/notation versus improvisation, but process-oriented versus result-oriented. Or “relationships” versus “things”. There are lots of other ways to reframe this - I don’t think George Lewis’ “Afrological/Eurological” distinction is far off, for instance. Maybe the point for me is that the framework for thinking about these things has to stay general enough that it doesn’t prescribe or exclude any particular method of creation.
Concerning this little through-composed movement for piccolo flute, I hope that it’s just another step for me in terms of injecting the notation process and the “finished” piece with some of this process-orientated mentality. Particularly if I can get this score-supplement/index of materials thing happening, I’m hoping performers will get off the page and use the notation as fodder for improvisation, or even improvise completely their own realization. It would be really exciting to hear. We’ll see.