Interview with Lois V. Vierk

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Harry Matthews (HM): I thought we could start by talking about your approach to structure. I’m particularly interested in how you develop a free-form approach, composing intuitively with the sounds you’re using. Could you tell me about this approach?

Lois V. Vierk (LVV): Free-form comes into play when I’m developing the raw materials that I will be working with. When my composition is at that stage I don’t censor myself at all, I’m not thinking about form or structure. This process might go on for a number of days before I start thinking about the overall form of the piece or how the materials will start to make sense as a whole. Often, after I’ve written things down and I’ve let them sink in for a while, I come back to the material and pick out the most engaging sounds, the things that I want to keep in the piece. And some of the other materials are not kept, I might look at them and think that the sound is not strong or engaging enough or that it just doesn’t fit in this particular piece. After this I start thinking about development, how one sound starts moving towards another and how the piece as a whole is going to develop. Often, the first sound that I settle on becomes the conclusion of my works, it’s normally the sound I’m most excited about – the strongest sound that I’m working with. My music is developmental, something that’s very satisfying to me, I don’t want extraneous things, I want it to go from ‘here’ to ‘there’.

HM: Your works frequently explore the repetition of material, however, we often hear subtle changes in each instance of its return. How do you go about developing material over longer durations?

LVV: Over some years I devised principles of what I call Exponential Structure, in which rates of change of musical materials are governed by exponential mathematical equations. You can experience this in Red Shift in particular, as well as some of my other works. Whilst studying for my Master’s degree at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), I was reading about acoustics and sensory perception – how the physical body takes in stimuli of all sorts. An example of this is how the eye will see two lines, the second of which is twice the size, your brain can immediately process that the second line is twice the size. However, other sensory stimulation that comes to the body is not expressed this simply. You may hear two sounds, for example, and intuitively say that one is twice as loud as the other. However the amount of energy needed to produce the second sound will not be twice of the first but there will be an exponential mathematical relationship instead. Scientists have shown that there are different mathematical relationships between how we perceive each type of physical stimulation, including visual, auditory, touch, and the measurable amount of the stimulation itself.

So once I was learning about this, I thought about how I could do the same thing with time. As an example, a piece could begin slowly and stay on the same pitch for x number of seconds, it then moves to a different pitch for, say, .9 times x seconds, and then to the next pitch for .9 squared (.81) times x, then .9 cubed (.73) times x, and to the fourth power (.66) etc. So by taking this exponential approach to time, throughout the whole piece, you get a telescoping effect. The accelerating pitch movement, which is supported by increasing complexity of musical material, produces the perception of a piece getting faster and faster and faster and faster right to its conclusion. Red Shift is one of my pieces with the clearest expression of exponential structure because I pretty much kept to the numbers for each pitch centre as well as for development of musical materials.

Red Shift (1989):

HM: You have written a number of times for the electric guitar (the instrument is present in your piece Red Shift). I’d like to know what attracts you to this instrument, as it still seems even now that it isn’t used as that often in contemporary music?

LVV: Some of it is attraction and some of it’s what grants were available! I have a piece called Go Guitars, go means five in Japanese, for five electric guitars which was written in 1981. It was originally for acoustic guitars, and this was because I was writing for John Schneider in Los Angeles at the time, and he plays classical guitar. A few years later when I was living in New York, there were a few electric guitar players around, and the electric version worked much better. I took the same score and worked with my friend Dave Seidel and it really turned me on to what the electric guitar can do. With Red Shift, it was my first piece in a long time that wasn’t for multiples of the same instrument, I had been writing for ensembles like five guitars, six trumpets, eight cellos or four accordions before that. Honestly, it was the grant that I had applied for that wanted electronics with electric instruments. So I gathered some musicians I had been working with, namely Dave Seidel, Ted Mook (cello) and Jim Pugliese (percussion), and I played the keyboard and conducted with my right hand.

HM: You have spoken in previous interviews about your collaboration with both ensembles and choreographers. It strikes me that working with others is quite an integral aspect of your work, particularly during the discovery stage of a piece. What is it about experimenting with others that energises your art? 

LVV: During the early stages when I’m developing materials I always sit down with the musician I’m going to be working with, even if I’ve written for that instrument many times before. A wonderful player can show you so much, things you haven’t thought about. At that stage of the process, I think it’s great to let the player lead me. I try not to come into it with any preconceptions. This doesn’t mean I will always use what they show me, but I think it’s important to be open because you’ll get a lot more ideas.

The main collaboration in my life has been with Anita Feldman, a tap dance choreographer. I won’t say all collaborations have gone this well. But with Anita, we always worked with dancers and musicians, experimenting. A dancer might show us a step, and we would ask them to repeat it say ten times – making it faster, slower, or louder, softer. I think things worked so well because Anita and I have similar aesthetics, she also wants experimentation and for things to be clear, not to meander.  Over the years we produced a bunch of pieces, it was very satisfying for both of us. For us, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Neither one of us could have produced those pieces alone. As a composer, because I am used to dealing with notation, it was easier for me to be more in charge of the structure and development. It worked really well.

HM: The piece contains sounds that you built on a Yamaha TX81Z synthesizer. How did you come up with the sounds we will hear in this piece?

LVV: It was totally intuitive. I’m not an electronics composer. I received some excellent advice from my friend and colleague David Behrman, who was one of the real explorers in electronic music. He recommended the TX81Z. So the Yamaha was one of the new FM machines of the day, and you could pile four different waves on top of each other and come up with one sound. Also, David liked this machine because there was new software by Dr. T to easily edit the synthesizer sounds on the Atari computer. Via the screen you could drag wave forms around and explore the resulting sounds. I just played with the sounds and came up with five different voices that I liked a lot. Again, it was the same process as I do with instruments and musicians, working back and forth between sounds and structure of the piece, keeping some sounds and not using others.

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HM: The cello and electric guitar make use of similar material throughout this piece. What are the roles of these two instruments?

LVV: The cello and the electric guitar are playing contrapuntally against each other throughout the piece. The percussion and synth have more supporting roles. But the cello and electric guitar are the backbone of the piece. Acoustically it’s quite tricky to bring off, because cello and electric guitar have to be heard equally in every way. Part of it is volume, part of it is timbre, part of it is articulation. When I’m trying to match two instruments which by nature don’t match, like these two, I’ll ask things like having the cello play more articulated than usual because the guitar is sitting there picking. The electric guitar will have to experiment with settings to match the cello timbre as much as possible. Those are examples.

HM: There is of course a performer who the audience, if done carefully, will not notice – the sound engineer. I found it fascinating to discover the importance of this role and enlightening to hear you discuss the part as an active and central member of the group. Could you tell me why you came to this decision, and whether sound engineers feature in any of your other works?

LVV: I do regard the sound engineer almost as a performer on stage. To make a balance between electronic and acoustic instruments, they have to be mic’d and EQ’d, and the volume has to be mixed very carefully. So it’s no small matter, when you have these very different sound sources and you want them all to be equal. You want them to all to be part of the same, one huge big sound. I really depend on a good sound engineer, or someone who’s standing out there in the audience listening and directing the sound engineer. A lot of my early pieces for multiples of the same instrument can be done with one player live plus recorded tracks. It’s the same kind of issue there, to make the recorded instruments sound as much as the live player, as opposed to live plus an accompaniment. A lot of the things I write demand that you need to hear what’s happening, quite clearly all the time. My music often has a dense texture, with glissando, crescendos and decrescendos, articulations, etc.  I have found that close mic’ing helps to pick up every detail of the sound. It doesn’t necessarily mean to make it really loud. I think of sound reinforcement as opposed to amplification for volume. At the end of Red Shift  though with electric guitar and percussion it will be loud. In other places in the piece I’m looking to include nuance that you may otherwise miss without close mic’ing. 

To find out more about Lois V. Vierk you can visit her website here

The interview was conducted by telephone on 22 January 2019.

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