“For organic materials such as shells or leaves, the DNA within these objects can be traced back over multiple millennia and further. To interact with these objects in a musical context is to juxtapose the limited nature of human time with that of the environment.”Jeremy Rosenstock
Jeremy Wei Rosenstock is a composer and sound artist currently based in Los Angeles, California. Jeremy’s artistic interests include the integration of natural objects into chamber music, field recording, feedback systems, and just intonation; Jeremy recently graduated from CalArts, where he studied with Michael Pisaro, Tim Feeney, and Wolfgang von Schweinitz. His work has recently been showcased at festivals such as International Composition Institute of Thailand, Festival Mixtur, International Contemporary Ensemble’s ‘Ensemble Evolution’, and the Westben Performer-Composer Residency. Jeremy spoke to PRXLUDES about his upcoming album Abalone and after (releasing on People Places Records), the sonority of abalone shells, his use of natural objects, and his relationship to duration, postmodernism, and post-genre.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Jeremy! Tell me a bit about ‘Renunciation of Time’, and the record it stems from, Abalone and after – how did you approach the process of writing a piece for abalone shells?
Jeremy Rosenstock: Hi! Abalone and after is a concert-length piece I composed for speaking performer trio and abalone shells. The first movement, ‘Renunciation of Time’, is a text setting of Simone Weil’s essay (also titled ‘Renunciation of Time’) from Gravity and Grace.
For ‘Renunciation of Time’, I did three 11-minute [recordings] of the shells. The first recording is calcium carbonate on calcium carbonate, which is the exterior of the shell; the second sound is calcium carbonate against mother-of-pearl, [which] is the iridescent interior of the shell; and the last one is mother-of-pearl against mother-of-pearl.
I layered three readings of ‘Renunciation of Time’ on top of each other, and created what I would call a “speech canon” – because the text consists of aphorisms– the first part comes in, the second voice comes in with the third aphorism, the third voice comes in with the fifth aphorism… When I re-recorded the vocals, I mixed the voices slightly so [that] they would fade in and out of each other, so that there’s more of a sense of lines moving up and down.
Do you see the record as the final product of the piece – or how would you see the piece performed in the future?
I created the whole piece considering that it would be performed. It would require amplification, definitely… There’s no way of doing this without it. I have a score, too. I kind of like the absurdity of trying to notate natural objects, because notation wasn’t built for that.
I planned it [so] that each voice is paired with one pair of shells. Most often, the performer doubles their own voice using the shells. It was written with the intention that there [are] three performers – all of them, of course, have one voice, [but] due to similarities of timbre and rhythm compared with those of the speaking voice, the shells act as a secondary voice for each performer.
Would you consider the abalone shells to have another kind of language, on top of the spoken text from the performers?
Yeah, a little bit. This is more of a thing I’ve been thinking about after the fact, when I’m explaining the piece to people; in a way, it is a secondary language: while these voices aren’t speaking in a language we understand, they speak to one another much like the performers who produce their sounds. The shells themselves have their own rhythmic and pitch qualities; the pitch material kind of lines up with my voice. In mixing, that also came up as a problem, because I had to deal with masking of frequencies between shells and my voice. -laughs-
Do you see the shells as instruments, then – at least in regards to your practice?
I think of shells as time and death objects. They’re indexes of time and death; organisms such as abalones produce exoskeleton shells over the duration of their lives. Once they die, the shell stops growing (obviously), at which point we are left with an object of profound iridescence, an iridescence that is the byproduct of whatever seaweed the abalone ate.
“Index” is a term from [Charles Sanders] Peirce, who [was] an American semiotician, who in a way was corresponding to [Ferdinand de] Saussure, in terms of the development of the language of the signifier and signified – except his idea was a bit more eccentric. He has three kinds of signs: icon, index, and symbol. The most interesting one to me is the index; an indexical relationship means the signifier and signified have a dynamic relationship with one another. Like seeing smoke coming out of a chimney, or seeing a footprint in the sand. There’s an indexical relationship between the shell and death. Beaches are graveyards, essentially; they’re graveyards of shells which have been ground up over time into sand. We don’t think about it, because we just see the shells and they’re quite pretty – but there’s a fundamental aspect of death within any beach.
Wow. I’d never really thought about beaches like that…
I learned this recently, but the interiors… I learned this recently, but they gain their colour from whatever seaweed the abalone ate. This is partially why we care about the shells, because it has an iridescence in the mother-of-pearl. If you see the ridges on the shell, these show layers that are built over time as the animal grows. All these stripes and such are the result of it living. Of course, we have these pores [as well], which are the means by which it breathes. In addition, we can usually see how the mollusk within the shell died. If the animal was consumed by a non-human entity, there’s often a small hole drilled somewhere in the shell. Altogether, death makes its presence known throughout the shell. What I’m doing, essentially, is playing with a skeleton. A skeleton of an invertebrate, who is a lower life form, but it is still a skeleton. There’s something to be reckoned with there.
That’s a morbid thought.
The fact that we are dealing with objects where you can see time pass, where time has passed. We are playing with the passage of time, as a physical index.
Does this thought of the passage of time in nature impact the way you regard duration in your work?
Duration is generally a thing I think about, because we all do. -laughs- We all have to. We’re musicians, we work in a temporal medium. We can analyse things in the frequency domain, and we can listen to frequencies, but they still occur over time.
Duration is the language of the natural world. A stone is a fossil, even when it contains no formerly living material; they can be as old as the earth itself. When we touch or interact with a stone, we are engaging with the history of our planet, from a point earlier than recorded history. For organic materials such as shells or leaves, the DNA within these objects can be traced back over multiple millennia and further. To interact with these objects in a musical context is to juxtapose the limited nature of human time with that of the environment. Plenty of prestigious musicians use instruments that are prided on being centuries old; what does it mean to juxtapose that with an object that predates humanity itself?
That’s such a fascinating way of looking at it…
The important thing for me is that duration is change: everything is changing endlessly. We perceive out lives as passing from state to state, but we only perceive change when enough has occurred that we presume that we moved into another state. Whereas everything is changing constantly. That’s the basic idea of Bergson… slightly bastardised, potentially. -laughs-
What it means is that there’s two ways you can go along with that. We can create stasis, knowing that change is going to occur anyway, and we do that all the time – if you hear a sine tone, there’s change, [as] a sine tone is endlessly changing its amplitude – and the other option is we go for endless change. You know, going full John Zorn. That’s two polarities I’ve thought of in relation to duration. Either way is valid; sometimes they’re valid in the same piece. At least for me, it helps me put together where Wandelweiser would fit in with John Zorn.
Those aren’t two approaches I’d necessarily put in the same position.
I mean, they do have a common ancestor in Cage, to a degree. There’s always an element of [change] – like, ‘Cobra’ is a game piece, there’s chance music there – and Wandelweiser are post-Cage, but in a very different sense. They often embrace something that’s a bit more austere and pensive.
Do you consider your work with natural objects as field recordings?
I field record constantly – I have a couple field recordings [on] my Soundcloud, but I wouldn’t consider my pieces to be field recordings. I don’t think of [it] as a piece, necessarily, for myself. It probably can be a piece – I’m sure it can be – but I do it more for the act of listening to the world. Also, as someone who enjoys mixing, it’s fun listening through [and] figuring out how to bring out certain elements – what it means to, say, try and bring out a band of the EQ, so the birds appear a little more brightly.
Like a way of amplifying the experience of listening to nature, or experiencing nature?
Our ears attenuate sound in the way a microphone can’t. Our ears can focus in on something, whereas a microphone just captures everything semi-objectively. So, mixing and EQ’ing [are just ways] of replicating what our ears can naturally do, which is: listen through the noise, and find certain elements you want to listen to. It’s practical analysis.
“Plenty of prestigious musicians use instruments that are prided on being centuries old; what does it mean to juxtapose that with an object that predates humanity itself?” Jeremy Rosenstock, in conversation with PRXLUDESTweet
Tell me a bit about your compositional journey – you initially trained as a classical pianist, right?
Yeah. Classical piano taught me how to perform. It always shows up whenever I have to play in front of an audience; it taught me how to centre myself and listen. I spent most of my undergrad learning Ives’ ‘Concord Sonata’, and I played it [in] my junior recital on piano. That was really important to me. I always loved composing, throughout that, but I found it hard to fight, I guess. I don’t know what it’s like in Europe, but in the US, being a new music pianist feels like an endless fight. Whenever I played Ives and Messiaen, people would have nothing to say – they just didn’t know how to deal with it. Like, “how am I supposed to get better at this stuff if you’re not even gonna give me notes?”
Eventually I realized I didn’t want to be a pianist. I didn’t want to spend my life as a new music pianist fighting against conservatives who only played Beethoven and Chopin. I love the piano, but most classical pianists hate new music, and hate anything that’s after Prokofiev or Scriabin. They don’t care about the twentieth or twenty-first [centuries], besides maybe Bartok – and Bartok is a little too weird for most of them, too. Anything like Schoenberg… they just think it’s a joke. It wasn’t worth fighting for my entire life. I realized that I’d rather be a mediocre composer than a mediocre pianist. Everything I do’s going to be forgotten after I die, or probably before; might as well do what I enjoy.
I completely understand that – if you’re fighting your whole life, you might as well fight to do something you enjoy, right?
If I’m a composer, I guess I’m fighting. Sometimes you have to fight your performers to get what you want. -laughs- Sometimes you have to explain things in an increasingly angry number of ways. Sometimes you throw a bottle at the percussionist… -laughs-
I will say, I still write piano music. I’ve got three hours of piano music that no-one’s played. This is my secret. -laughs- I wrote this set of four books of music called cairns. They were all piano pieces. Formally, it was somewhere between Catalogue d’oiseaux and the Well-Tempered Clavier. Each cairn was two movements long: for each first movement, the rule was that everything was in major or minor ninths, and the pedal was down the whole time, to create washes of sound. For each second movement, I could do whatever I wanted. I did one that was me trying to create a bagpipe pibroch, using sympathetic resonance and creating drones based on [melodies] in the right hand. Another one was a piece that was all perfect fifths.
I had no idea that you had such a huge catalogue of piano music. -laughs- Was the process of getting into electronics also natural for you?
I was the only person who did Max at my undergrad. I taught myself Max/MSP, because I learned about it at a music festival I was at for piano. No one else at my school knew how to do it. Eventually, after three years, I managed to piece together a Max patch and come up with a piece for it; again, this is after three years of learning how to do this by myself.
A lot of it comes down to the fact that my undergrad was very “classical”. [The] musicians were brilliant, and I work with a lot of them to this day, but they didn’t have a real infrastructure for new music. They have one now – after my new music ensemble was created, and collapsed because we couldn’t keep it going – eventually, they realised they had to make an ensemble, and they had to have professors involved.
Most of my current aesthetic is a result of going to CalArts for my MFA. I learned about just intonation and experimental music at CalArts. It was cool, [but] I realised I was not that experimental, at the time, at least. I was in Michael Pisaro’s experimental music workshops, and people would do the most brilliant and out-there things. You know, I’d read Cage, I’d read about Fluxus, but I hadn’t experienced it in a meaningful sense. My undergrad taught me theoretically about experimental music; CalArts taught me about it by making me do it.
Did you find going into that environment daunting, after your initial classical training?
I don’t know. I was very nervous. It was hard – being the person who’s considered one of the more “out there” people at your undergrad, to being aesthetically conservative compared to everyone around me – being a “normal” composer, comparatively, to everyone at CalArts. I’m sure in retrospect, a lot of people felt the same way in my class at CalArts – they felt they weren’t radical enough, maybe, in certain cases. I don’t think I’m the only person who felt that way.
Do you feel like everything you do in your work has to be radical?
I feel like I have an obligation to do something, you know? Not do something new, but try, at least. There’s no point in writing a Beethoven sonata over and over again. I remember my undergrad: there were people who wanted to pretend that the twentieth century never happened. Like nothing had happened after 1910. Our job is to reach the twenty-first century, on some level; no matter how bad the world is, we have to hope that there is a twenty-second century, and we have to hope that we can create art for it.
I guess there’s an argument to be made that we need to find the next paradigm shift to get us there – whatever happens after postmodernism, maybe.
Postmodern is a weird thing, because we’re all postmodern at this point. If you look at Frederic Jameson’s understanding of postmodernism as the language of late capitalism – or neoliberalism – then we are all postmodernist, because we are all living in the neoliberal era. If we want to actually escape that, then we need some sort of radical economic change, otherwise we’re going to be stuck in this loop forever.
So about your upcoming projects: Abalone and after should be coming out sometime in the next few months, right?
It should be coming out in the spring on People Places Records, which is a New York and Canada-based record label. They’re cool people.
I’m also writing an album for solo performers playing stones or playing instruments with stones; it gets somewhat murky where the dividing line is between those two things. There’s a piece for piano played with stones on there, so the piano thing comes back again.
That sounds like a really cool progression – are there any exciting collaborations in the pipeline for that record?
I’m working with [a] koto player on a piece for [the] album. It’s a piece for koto played with stones. What I’ve learned is that the koto is kind of an amazing instrument; you have thirteen strings with movable bridges. At least for me, it’s the ideal just intonation instrument – because you can retune everything. Hopefully that piece will work out.
The current tuning that my collaborator Marie [Carroll] and I – the koto player – have been working on, is six strings in A, and seven strings in G. The G is generally tuned to the seventh harmonic of the A – so that means it’s gonna be 440Hz to 770Hz – 4/7 ratio, which is a [just intonation] natural 7th. In case anyone wants to know, that’s -31 cents from equal temperament. -laughs-
As a final question: do you see your work as post-genre?
I don’t care about [that]. There’s kind of two different ways of thinking about it. People who call themselves “post-genre” generally are thinking about the tropes of a genre; they’re actively trying to take parts of genres and put them together, and juxtapose them. For example, a classical [composer] who puts an electric guitar in their Pierrot ensemble, or something. I would call [that] post-genre, I’d call that “poly-genre”, maybe. Whereas if you actually wanted to be post-genre, you’d just stop thinking about it. -laughs- I am theoretically “post-genre” insofar as I don’t really care. If you are thinking consciously about genre all the time, then you’re not really post-genre; you’re just reinforcing the tropes of the genre by putting them against each other, and amplifying the contradictions between those things. There’s a lot of people in Los Angeles who you could theoretically call post-genre: do you know who Julia Holter is?
I’m not aware of the name, no.
She went to CalArts a long time [ago]. She does music which I would call and not call “post-genre”. She’s not actively reinforcing genre tropes, she’s just being herself. I think that if you want to avoid genre altogether, you just have to radically be yourself and that’s it. I don’t mean this in a hyper-individualistic way, but more in understanding who you are in your social context. If you think of yourself purely as an individual, then you’re not considering the world around you: we can’t really separate ourselves from our friends, and our professors, and our family. To understand ourselves is to understand our relation to these things.
Jeremy’s work can be found at:
- Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (1947)
- Pierce’s Theory of Signs, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006)
- John Zorn – ‘Cobra’ (1984), performed at the New England Conservatory, 2014
- Charles Ives – ‘Piano Sonata, No. 2: Concord, Mass., 1840-60’ (1915)
- Frederic Jameson – Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1989), PDF