The Lewis Center’s CoLab is a bright white box. Seventy-two chairs are set out, but 8 PM has come and gone and less than half the seats are filled. By the performance’s twenty-minute mark, at least eight people have left. I hear an elevator ding. For a moment, I’m intrigued; how did the performers make the ding sound so far away? Then I realize: It was just an elevator.
Composers John Bischoff and James Fei have come together on this Monday evening for a collaborative, improvisational, electronic music duet. Earlier in the day, Bischoff visited a course I’m taking, STC209, “Transformations in Engineering and the Arts.” We’re in the midst of a unit on sound. Professor Jeffrey Snyder told us that pure randomness is boring; parameters are prerequisites for creating art that has meaning or beauty, even just interest. Based on Bischoff’s talk to my class, his sound art does seem to possess parameters, so as the performance continues I listen eagerly for the sense of a thread throughout the work, the striving toward sense, or, at minimum, the semblance of enjoyment.
Of course, not all music is going to work for everyone. But I am not a music snob. My musical palette is generally non-judgmental. When I was a child, my dad used to buy a CD or seven wherever he went and play them in the car. One road trip, we listened to Gregorian chants, West African drumming, and Brazilian bossa nova all before needing to stop for gas. I thought they were all pretty good. As long as it’s generally recognized as “music,” I’ll probably listen to it. In fact, I could be the target audience of Bischoff and Fei. I like the idea of algorithmic musical compositions, and when I first heard the term “programmatic” referring to music, I excitedly—but mistakenly—assumed it referred to a musical work following an algorithm (it actually refers to narrative-driven music, which also sounds cool to me).
I also believe I have a higher tolerance for “weird” music than the average person, given that I once sat through Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, an incredibly repetitive six-hour performance with three electric organs (one played by the composer himself), a singer, four saxophones, and two flutes. (I found it a transformative synesthetic experience, and I would go again. But over half the audience was gone by the intermission.) Similarly, early last semester, I attended Grady Trexler and Sara Ryave’s performance at Yard Parties on 2 Dickinson Street, an event which distressed the eardrums of some and terrified others. My roommate, who was in our fourth-floor dorm up University Place with the windows closed, could vaguely hear everything, and came to the conclusion that our room was haunted. But, if another audience member had started it, I would’ve happily started screeching too.
Yet while sitting in CoLab listening to a sound that evoked icicles, or maybe ice picks, I had to resist the urge to get up and leave. The sounds did express something—the feeling of being on edge, like there was a needle tracing my skin. Then I just heard static, and I watched my phone clock tick through three minutes before Bischoff stopped pressing a dime into a circuit. The man next to me was checking his email for the fifth time in five minutes; he still had no new emails. I want to know: What drives this sound art? What is the improvisational philosophy? I asked Bischoff this last question in class; he said had no philosophy. What, then, I wondered, defines whether or not the improvisation has “worked”?
Bischoff (b. 1949) is an experienced sound artist, with the first composition on his website dated 1970. In the 80s, he performed at the New Music America festival, which specializes in experimental music. Nowadays, even though Bischoff’s music is certainly not the type of music the average person has actively listened to before, it cannot be called experimental: the experiment has already been done, forty-plus years ago. But it is still electronic, even if the technology has been upgraded in some ways—his 20th century compositions didn’t include a MacBook.
James Fei (b. 1974), Princeton Class of 1996, wasn’t even born when Bischoff began composing. Both Fei and Bischoff teach at Mills College at Northeastern University in Oakland, CA. Throughout the performance, Fei’s work lay heavier on the pedal tones and approached naturalistic sounds. One part sounded like elephants in distress, another like clanging metal. I found his work to be more organized-sounding than Bischoff’s; I had a stronger sense of the parameters which might have gone into his work, despite the fact that I had not heard him speak on the topic as I had Bischoff.
In the post-performance Q&A, the two composers claimed that they did not discuss their compositions beforehand and that their sound was completely improvised. But I noticed a pattern in the performers’ entrances and exits—they occurred every 13-17 minutes. At 8:33 p.m., after 16 minutes of silence, Fei stroked his chin, perused his plugs, and began to move them around. Bischoff looked up at Fei and clasped his hands in his lap. Bischoff remained silent until 8:47, at which time he rejoined the composition. At 8:57, a series of twinkly noises abruptly replaced the screechy noises Fei was producing. At 9:01, the composition faded out. The performance was supposed to end at 9 p.m., but to give Bischoff and Fei some grace, they also did not start exactly on time. Regardless, the timing of the piece’s end gives me pause. Someone in my class asked Bischoff how he determines when a piece of music is finished. His answer was simple: Practice. I have no doubt he has practiced a great deal, but I must wonder if checking the clock regularly so that he knows to switch to an easily fadable set of sounds when his time is running out is what constitutes practice.
Why was this performance “sound,” as opposed to music? And what makes—or fails to make—this sound art worth the time I spent listening to it? Of course, this is subjective. For me, works with repetitive structures (not necessarily as repetitive as Philip Glass) are what would (very) generally be defined as “music.” Elements of randomness tend to push a work into the realm of “sound.” The way that I felt Bischoff was playing his instruments was that he was just pushing buttons. At one point Fei was rapidly plugging and unplugging a cord. The action did not look calculated or deliberate, but it also did not look impassioned and practiced the way some musicians look in the heat of a work. Watching a talented friend of mine play piano, I sometimes note that his hands are moving too quickly for him to possibly be thinking about what they are doing, let alone what precise keys they are hitting. It’s muscle memory, driven by passion, because the work never sounds quite the same.
Practice does not make perfect, but interesting, nuanced, purposeful, and masterful. Bischoff says practice taught him how and when to end his works. Then why does the timbre change abruptly and then fade, or, in some of the works of his I looked at online, simply cut off? I struggled to follow the musical choices as deliberate. Not that improvisation must be deliberate, but that, as a listener, I strive toward sense-making, and the sense that my time is being taken up by something or someone earnest and thoughtful. But I didn’t know why I was there.
Bischoff also referred to Thelonious Monk as his primary inspiration in both philosophy and gesture. Monk is famous for his unique improvisational skill on the piano, his comfortability with employing dissonance and abrupt changes, and his skill in never letting the audience know his next move. One thing that makes Monk so engaging to listen to, and even watch, is his energy. He always looks invested in his own music, and when he lets other musicians solo, he often stands up and dances or sways to their music. What makes his music great may be ineffable, that doesn’t mean it’s nonsense sounds, or that there’s no narrative arc. There is melody, harmony, crescendos and decrescendos, moods and cadences. When the piece ends, it’s not sudden, but thoughtful.
If Bischoff hadn’t compared himself to Monk, I wouldn’t be searching for these elements in his work. I know better than to look for the point-projection perspective in Pollack. (Fei says on his website that he is inspired by saliva, which comes through in his works.) But Bischoff not only suggested influence, he claimed relation. I need to ask where the joy is in his performance, or the intensity. Why can he and Fei only nod vaguely when the other is performing? Does the music not move them? If we define narrative arc as the ineffable quality of feeling as though one has moved some distance, or something has been accomplished, then I would describe the performance’s narrative arc as rectangular: there was no sound, then it began, then it ended and there was no sound again. Investigating would be a fruitless exercise, as would interrogating the rest of the namable elements which I enjoy in Monk’s work.
Throughout the performance, I kept finding myself easily distracted by external noise. Because the CoLab doors were wide open, exposing the whole left wall of the room to the atrium (for acoustic effect, or to allow people to leave without making too much noise?), I heard people talking, singing in another part of the building, coughing, and at one point a phone alarm. Weirdly all of these “noises” were more interesting and distracting than the actual piece. The outside world felt propulsive, instead of turning around in one spot like my dog kicking her blanket into a nest. Sure, the world might be random, but as humans, we’re adapted to perform sense-making in it all day long. Bischoff, even more than Fei, has the ability to shut off time and make it feel endless. There is no progression—time is moving backward.
At first, I thought this lack of narrative arc was the result of my own poor listening skills, distracted as I was by the occasional pockets of silence in the work (the lack of pedal tones genuinely bothered me). But Monk pauses between chords for dramatic effect too. And John Cage’s 4’33” engages it, as do “moments of silence” at funerals, religious services, and other ceremonies. Silence is understood in our 21st century Western culture to be valuable in itself, charged with meaning without requiring further elaboration.
No, it was the randomness that prevented the formation of a narrative arc. Bischoff’s algorithms, by his own declaration, exist. I don’t doubt his honesty. But if my ear, which can estimate the speed of a moving curling stone by listening to its rumble, can’t make sense of his work, then perhaps the event should have been ticketed, with the tickets only going to music majors and faculty. Those of Bischoff’s works which have been posted on YouTube have fewer views than the limited access live-streams of my curling games. There may not be many music majors and faculty in the world, but there are certainly more than there are college-age curlers. Evidently, Bischoff’s demographic of interest is even more niche than simply the musically trained.
Not that demographics are relevant to Bischoff: He admitted to not taking cues, feedback, or even opinions from his audience, even though he also said it is “the most important thing.” He was wearing a Patagonia vest during the performance, and both he and his father (a renowned artist) have Wikipedia pages. Whether or not his events are ticketed, or the audience appreciates the experience, is perhaps not something which needs to matter to him. Music is always more interesting than its popularity or lucrativeness, and I can’t hold it against him for pursuing his dreams. But was my time well-spent? Or did I just listen to nonsense for an hour?
So, let’s try to abandon sense-making. Let’s say Bischoff’s music simply exists. I attempted to have it on as background music while writing this article, but suffered so much I defaulted to my favorite 10-hour compilation of jet engine noises (what? It’s relaxing). I would not attend another of his performances unless paid to do so. The percentage of the audience who seriously enjoyed the performance and was not there for the meme of it, or out of politeness, is not something I can determine; however, I will say that the audience was disproportionately white, male, bearded, and wearing corduroy. Unintentionally then, a demographic gravitates toward this work. (An exploration into how and why this particular demographic feels more comfortable in such spaces is an article for another day.)
Regardless, Bischoff’s self-professed association with Thelonious Monk complicates his motivations and how his work must be understood. Contrary to Rita Felski (if you know you know), I do not believe that context stinks. Without context, or his claim to algorithmic purpose, Bischoff’s work is just noise. Without the ability to see the man pressing buttons and affecting electrical current with a dime, one might perceive the sounds to be a poorly designed computer program generating what it perceives to be music. Except that a computer program designed to produce music would have some parameters on it beyond “sounds within the frequency of human hearing.”
No, both Fei and Bischoff lay claim to the idea that their sounds “work.” Fei said he could ignore everything Bischoff was doing while they were concurrently improvising and the sounds produced “would still work;” he added that sometimes he doesn’t listen on purpose to see what happens—implying his sound art “works” most, if not all of the time. Likewise, Bischoff explained that when improvising he never imagines a whole piece but simply a given “sonic behavior.” When he tries to recreate the “sonic behavior” of his imagination, he is either successful in doing so and it “works”; or, he fails, but it still “works out.” Regardless of what happens, it seems that both Fei and Bischoff see themselves as having incredible luck with their compositional endeavors. Somehow, everything always “works out,” no matter what they do.
I think my favorite sound in the piece was the one which evoked a sustained hospital beep, the kind you hear in a movie when the patient’s heart rate has stopped. Hospital beeps are an effective demonstration of the utility of sonification, or the conveyance of data via sound. When I heard this beep from Fei’s (self-professedly “analog”) machine, I experienced déjà vu, recalling the scene in Dr. Strange when Dr. Palmer has to use the AED on Dr. Strange. (If déjà vu is the point of Fei’s occasionally hyper-realistic sonic creations, then maybe he should try ASMR). There’s a part of me that wants to enjoy it, and be impressed that the composer is capable of producing these familiar sounds—such as the sheet metal clang which came next, reminding me of the time I visited an airplane hangar—and with only a little circuit board and some plugs. But another part of me has lost trust in the composers. So much seems so random, with the composers occasionally even looking surprised by the sounds they have just created, that I’m no longer able to be impressed. Ultimately, there just isn’t a part of me that wants to listen to clanging sheet metal. And that’s the case no matter how realistic or hyper-realistic, sensible or senseless, the sounds may be.