Hiraizumi – Japanese Instruments and Post-Digital Distortions

I’ve been enjoying focusing my recent creative efforts on a new piece for wind ensemble and electronics, Hiraizumi.

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This work is a consortium commission spearheaded by Dr. James Smart, director of the University of Montana Symphonic Wind Ensemble, and, as I write on the consortium page, Hiraizumi draws its inspiration from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the same name.

Hiraizumi’s collection of temples were a quick trip from where I lived in Japan for many years, and I wanted to write a piece drawing from my memories of the site, centering on my relationship with the location as an “outsider.”

As I write the piece, it has been evolving from a simple homage to the temples into a larger exploration of memory and how the past is mediated by the present. My nostalgia about my time in Japan (and that time in my life) flavors my memory of Hiraizumi, and, in addition, the centuries of history embodied by the site is mediated by our experience as citizens of the modern world (who, for example, might go home from the site to our digital lives).

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Expressing these thoughts in prose feels a bit clumsy, so that seems good reason to unpack these ideas using the expressive possibilities of art and music.

Here’s a teaser of the electronics, a kagura-suzu brought into the post-modern world of digital distortion:

More updates to come.

Electronic Music and the Uncanny


Louis Dufort’s Zenith: Creepy? Awesome? Both?

In introducing electronic music to students, there usually comes a time in the semester where one of my students asks, “Why is all this music creepy?”

I’m not sure I agree with my them about the music being creepy, but, as a specialist (of sorts), though, I’m maybe too close to the subject, and I can sympathize with my students coming to terms with these new materials.


Ok… Stockhausen may be objectively creepy

So, in general, what makes something “creepy”?

In a TIME article a few years ago, Why is Scary Music Scary? Here’s the Science, Patience Haggin suggested that music used in horror scenes of films was similar to animal distress calls, and that these sounds “trigger a biologically ingrained response by making us this our young are threatened…” The dissonant and minor chords, then, are naturally unsettling, due to their “nonlinear chaotic noise.”

MONSTER
Rar! Nonlinear!

Katy Waldman quickly responded with an article in Slate point out the TIME article’s lack of consideration for the cultural components of music. Waldman says the minor chord isn’t something that is “biologically ingrained,” noting different world cultures have difference perceptions of dissonance.

Sidestepping this nature/nurture debate, though, perhaps one of the reasons that uninitiated students think electronic music is “creepy” has to do with Freud’s uncanny, “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

The uncanny is the distorted ordinary.


Yakusho Koji encounters his double in Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Doppelganger (2003)
A persons doppelganger is familiar, because it’s one’s self, but it’s also an impossibility, an aberration, and therefore a great example of the uncanny

There’s no shortage of uncanny images that exemplify this idea, but we have to take another step to show how audio can be uncanny. A example might be that of “hearing voices,” where a disembodied voice occurs without anyone around speaking.

That said, in the 20th-Century, audio recording makes sound portable across both space and time, allowing us to hear music performed by someone on the other side of the world, or even by someone who has died years ago. Composer R. Murray Shafer coined the term “schizophonia” to describe this separation of sound from its source:

We have split the sound from the makers of the sound. This dissociation I call schizophonia, and if I use a word close in sound to schizophrenia it is because I want very much to suggest to you the same sense of aberration and drama that this word evokes, for the developments of which we are speaking have had profound effects on our lives. -R. Murray Schafer

In recorded audio, then, all of these schizophonic sounds are uncanny, disembodied voices separated from their sound sources, like the severed body parts that Freud describes in his essay:

Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, feet which dance by themselves—all these have something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when, as in the last instance, they prove able to move of themselves in addition. -Sigmund Freud

CRAWLING HAND
The Crawling Hand, from the movie of the same name

That said, we don’t perceive all recorded music as unsettling. Schafer points out: “Modern life has been ventriloquized,” and perhaps we’ve become used to the phenomenon of sound reproduced by loudspeakers, visible or not. Speakers and headphones have become the surrogate sources for these sounds and prevent us from feeling all recorded sound is uncanny.

So why is electronic concert music specifically uncanny? Perhaps this perception has to do with a phenomena that has become a cultural trope: the Uncanny Valley

A term perhaps best explained in an episode of 30 Rock (“Succession,” Season 2, Episode 13 for die-hards), which I sadly can’t link here but you can read about it in this blog post from several years ago by Mike Arnzen.

Put simply: Real things don’t bother us, fake stuff doesn’t bother us, but when fake stuff gets to close to being real, there’s a threshold where it becomes perceived as “uncanny” — the distorted ordinary.

GRAPH

a graph showing familiarity over human likeness

So, for example, we can consider vocals in music. To paraphrase the “30 Rock” scene: On the right of the valley, you have a real singer, possibly singing in the room with you, and, on the left you have things like Daft Punk or DJ Q-Bert, but in the valley, you have something like this:

[audio:http://www.simonhutchinson.com/EwhaExcerpt.mp3]

…which is the audio equivalent of this:

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Hiroshi Ishiguro‘s “Geminoid-F”

…and maybe that’s a bit creepy.

Of course there are a number of other aspects common in electronic concert music that can make it challenging for new listeners–unfamiliarity, unpredictability, extreme dynamic range, to name just a few–but maybe what gives people the creeps is electronic music’s ability (nay, duty!) to manipulate and distort sounds that we might find familiar. Or, at the very least, put these sounds into new contexts.


Edgard Varese’s Poeme Electronique

FALLINGROCK
Josh Shalek’s “Falling Rock National Park” (guest comic by Reid Psaltis)

Rigidity, Formality, and The Book of Tea

Dusting off my old copy of Okakura Kakuzo’s Book of Tea, which I haven’t read for more than a decade (before my time in Japan), I found this quote in Liza Dalby’s introduction, talking about her training in Japanese tea ceremony:

American culture has traditionally stressed the Romantic notion that form and structure are things to be thrown off to discover the pure artistic soul beneath. In contrast, the idea that deep artistic freedom can lie within rigidly structured form is one of the most important lessons I have learned in my life, and I am grateful that I found it at an early age, in tea.

A wonderful quote that I completely understand. Though, instead of tea, this statement beautifully described why it took me learning the shamisen and shakuhachi in Japan to really appreciate the music of J.S. Bach.

…and why I love these guys so much:

“We Don’t Care About Music Anyway”

Taking my first afternoon off in a while, I sat down to see what had been lurking unwatched on my Netflix queue, and I came across a documentary that I added a while ago, We Don’t Care About Music Anyway, a 2009 film about avant-garde musicians and sound artists in Tokyo:

For a better idea of what this film is about, I think this review from the Seattle Times is pretty apt.

While not all of the performances in the documentary are to my taste (a statement that I don’t think would concern the artists in the least), I really enjoyed the film, especially in how it set “noise music” in the context of issues of modernity in urban life. Speaking purely from my anecdotal experience, I’m always impressed at how clear and confident Japanese artists are about communicating their creative impetus, and it was great to hear some of the musicians speak directly about how they feel their work fits in modern Japanese society.

If you’re interested in any of the above, consider taking an hour and a nineteen minutes to enjoy the film (especially if you have unlimited Netflix streaming).

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For me, revisiting some Japanese, electronic-musical, cultural anthropology was a worthwhile break before returning to grading some Classical, German/Austrian, tonal analysis assignments.

Some Tracks from “Lawn in the Sky”

LawnReading

I’m just now getting back to updating my homepage after a busy few months editing, recording, and defending my dissertation. But, with that all successfully behind me, I’d like to share some of the recordings from our reading of Act I of “A Lawn in the Sky.”

I had a wonderful group of volunteer performers (listed below) for this reading project, all of whom put in several LONG days of rehearsals to get everything sounding as good as it does.

And, of course, many thanks again to Katherine Hollander for producing and “enviable” libretto.

Please enjoy some of the tracks on SoundCloud:

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/92986890″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/92996615″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/92990692″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

And, as a bonus, here’s my favorite moment in the electronics from Act II:
[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/85850301″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Performed by:

Bobby Chastain, conductor;

Rebecca Sacks, Kozuka/the Teacher;
Daniel Cruse, Onoda/Search Party 1;
Addison Wong, Toshio;
Alex Johnson, The Bookseller/Search Party 2;
Julianne Graper, Keiko;
Kate Kilops, Mayu;

Sarah Benton, Piccolo (Nohkan);
Rianna Cohen, Flute;
Yinchi Chang, Oboe;
Bradley Frizzell, Clarinet;
Aaron Shatzer, Bassoon;
Colin Hurowitz, Percussion;
Dustin Shilling, Percussion;
Marty Kovach, Taiko;
Simon Hutchinson, Shamisen;
Evan C. Paul, Piano;
Corey Adkins, Bass.

Shin no Shin, for iPad and electronics

Here’s another contemplative work that I premiered at the Future Music Oregon Concert on November 17th, using iPad and the Kyma system.

It contrasted nicely with the Post Haste Duo’s performance of my chop-buster bioMechanics that was also on the concert (video of that performance coming soon).

Simon Hutchinson – Shin no Shin from Simon Hutchinson on Vimeo.

In his essay on Japanese Aesthetics, Donald Richie explains a three-part formula for classifying the arts, shin-gyou-sou:

“The first term, shin, indicates things formal, slow, symmetrical, imposing. The third is sou and is applied to things informal, fast asymmetrical, relaxed, the second is gyou and it describes everything in between the extremes of the two.”

These three divisions, though, can also all be subdivided in threes, such as shin no sou (the more sou end of shin), shin no gyou (medium-shin), and shin no shin (the highest level of shin).

Requiem, for Shamisen and Live Electronics

For some time now, I’ve been revising my 2010 composition, “Requiem,” and I finally had a chance last month to get into the studio to make a video recording of the new version.

Enjoy it on a system with bassy speakers:

Simon Hutchinson – Requiem from Simon Hutchinson on Vimeo.

This piece, for shamisen and live electronics, is dedicated to my friend, Kawamura Shinyu. Shinyu was the first person I met when I arrived in Japan, and it was through him that I came to study the shamisen. Sadly, Shinyu also grappled with bipolar disorder, and took his own life during one of his depressive episodes. Through this piece, I hope to celebrate his life and express my gratitude for his endless kindness, hospitality, and generosity to me.