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15 Questions to Mike Vernusky

img  Tobias Fischer

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hey Tobias. I'm well. I’m resting at home in downtown Austin, Texas, listening to the sounds of traffic outside and the quiet hum of a ceiling fan. It's peaceful.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I just wrapped a commission to score some detective stories by Edgar Allan Poe which I’m hugely excited about. Compared to the noisy nature of my more recent work, these pieces are for spoken voice, percussion and electronic sound. In a couple weeks I'll be premiering a few short works at the Blanton Museum in Austin, where I'm creating some ekphrastic soundscapes to accompany a few pieces in their collection. It should be interesting.

I'm also in the middle of setting plans with my label partner (sound artist Cory Allen) for some new releases on Quiet Design. Later this year, I will be premiering a work in Vienna, which I'm hugely excited about. It is looking like a fun and productive year ahead.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the country you are currently living in?
The US is a big place, so it’s daunting to analyze it from a single perspective. But after having done a bit of travel in the last decade and been inside a number of scenes here and abroad, I would say music in the US feels healthy and unpredictable. There are some great artists residing here. There are also more cities than ever which have flagship festivals, dedicated institutions or studios, as well as underground scenes that rival any country in the world. You might have to dig deep but its happening.

What do you usually start with when composing?
It changes with each project, as I hope it always will. But I would say the connecting thread is a huge, impossible pool of ingredients that don't necessarily fuse together. I'll begin by uprighting sounds like the legs of a table, finding a common language for these pillars as foreign objects. Text, language, and metaphor have also become a major component of my process, even when i'm working in abstract sound or sans voice. When I find myself furiously notating possibilities, cross-referencing some unrelated concepts and drawing scores across the pages of my notebook, I know something important has found me.

It can seem a bit opposite to how most artists work, but a project-specific language helps me work outside a single compositional mindset. And I can get a huge sense of reward from making something impossible happen conceptually, even though it may take six months to gestate.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
I try not to separate them consciously as in my mind they are inherently linked by perception. From noise to stillness, perception is the thing music will become when processed by a listener. My music is aimed at the exploration of this space. I also believe in the concept of a natural acoustic that every person is born with, developed by our early surroundings and evolving gently through the course of our lives. If I step back and observe myself experiencing music in this way, I become a reverberation chamber for that echo by bringing memory and semantics into every experience. In this sense, music is the relationship between sound and composition and the subconscious attempt by our minds to reconcile these elements.  It's beautiful.    

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Nothing is ever quite strict in my work, other than a certain level of musicality. But when working, I really listen closely to the impulse ideas, and let these spark-gaps inform the work. And being from a performance background, I always try to incorporate that edge-of-seat energy which brings unpredictability and risk to the foreground of every piece, even if it's a pre-determined or playback type performance. If this collision of inspiration and improvised thinking can be captured during the compositional process, I really think it can be intuited by a listener. That sound is the vibrating string of truth for me.

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?
Harmony and dissonance. But for me these terms are relatively outdated, agreed-upon names to describe harmonic languages that are merely consonant or complex. To my ears, both ends of the spectrum are beautiful, and even when its a grotesque beauty there is a resonance with something inside of me. Perhaps it is that natural acoustic instilled in me as a young person, or it triggers a sensation that words cannot really describe.

My music is often called dissonant, yet I really do not hear it as being all that difficult to get inside of. Challenging or abstract, sure. It takes more than one listen to catch everything happening in the sound. But where I think the term fits more appropriately is prepared dissonance in early music or as a byproduct of serialist techniques. Conventional usage aside, dissonance for me these days is found between notes on a horizontal axis, and less so on a vertical one. Or perhaps it could be the distance between a creator's vision and the actual musical creation, and the sound resulting from that. But with the infinity of tones and gradations available to composers in the current era, to rank one language over the other is like experiencing life with one eye closed. I want to experiment with all possibilities, being mindful of a liminal array, as well as any ambiguities or textures inside that rainbow.

Russian composer Alexander Danilevski said: “The musical innovations of the 21st century will not be intonational ones; they will be based on developing a new musical form and dramaturgy.” What are your thoughts on this?
It's a good conversation starter. Musically, we have come so far just in the last ten years that the quote above could already be outdated. Electronic music alone has shattered western forms and subverted the traditional lexicon of musical analysis. Dramaturgy is often discarded, as is the pursuit of formal structure.
In my personal experience with curating a label, a growing proportion of thriving composers and sound artists working today owe no direct allegiance or lineage to the classical canon that Danilevski is a part of. Music has spidered out to endless variations of composers taking a road less traveled, and yet no two should artists should feel obligated to go in the same direction. That's quite a shift in spirit, and I think that's great. There's room for everyone.

How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to work closely together with the artists performing your work?
I prefer the term collaboration over interpretation when it comes to working on music with others. For example, I may own the keys to the car but I enjoy letting others take the vehicle around the block for a spin. I'll see the world around me differently. This is quite different from the 20th century model of composer holding a whip in one hand and a baton in the other, but it takes a lot of faith and courage for a composer to be selfless in this regard.

Close interaction is essential and is the primary reason why I don't typically write for anonymous performers. I need to know what inspires a performer, how they hear sound, or what their wildest dreams might be. I want all parties to be awakened through the process of discovery. Between collaborators, we can find the best work inside that exploration.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social/other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
I have always felt this decision is at the discretion of the artist. In my own work, I do not believe there should be an obligation to anyone or anything else unless, as in the case of a collaboration or agreement, the piece actually benefits from it. But I am my first listener, and I must course my own agenda - whatever it wants to be - before a piece can accurately represent my vision. If I feel pressured or attempt to satisfy any other listener's expectations than my own, then I die before the act of invention.

Would you say that a lack of education is standing in the way of audiences in their appreciation of contemporary composition?
I imagine there is a lot of disagreement about this, especially among artists. I personally believe it is a lack of context that prevents listeners from discovering what the musical experience can actually entail. Almost any music delivered in the right setting can be appreciated on some level, be it emotionally, recreationally or intellectually.
On the creator side of the equation, an education in the arts is less tied to the idea of institution and moreso to the information being offered in a given environment. I've been fortunate to have made peace on both sides of the academic vs underground battle, or whatever terms folks tend to galvanize with. But we all benefit from learning, and the education can happen anywhere - be it in a seminar, bar, bedroom or concert venue. The important thing is listening.

How do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience without sacrificing their soul?
My experience with Quiet Design has provided me solace for this ongoing question. As a curator for the label, there's nothing more gratifying to me than receiving an album from a seasoned artist who resists the temptation of dilution, compromise, or marketability with their craft. These artists have learned how to tune out the excess noise and amplify the soul of their music, who constantly disregard the notion of commercial interest or success. These are the albums that will stand the test of time for me. We are fortunate in this century in that artists can make creative decisions in a sort of vacuum and have infinite means to connect with a listener. On occasion, the music will appeal to a broad audience. Sometimes not. Either way is right when the voice is pure. With a little collaborative effort on the part of a label, the right kinds of distribution and awareness online, almost any music can reach a wider audience than it currently has. That success will be relative, but the integrity was never compromised. And unless your musical goals extend into areas other than the artistic pursuit itself, the sacrificing of one's soul is nothing more than the call of a siren.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.

I’m honestly not sure who the wrong type of person is in this question. That being said, I have seen entire art forms overlooked by panels because an effort was never made to actually envision an artist's potential. Or maybe the organization didn't have the courage to take a risk on a volatile creative personality at first impression, even though these are often the most truthful artists working today.

On the other hand, there are plenty of success stories where institutions have taken an emerging artist and enabled them to do great things; giving them the necessary resources, surroundings, or even just time to do what they do best. Most artists dream bigger than most panels' realities are comfortable with, so when it finally works out and both sides trust each other, it can be somewhat magical.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
A number of years ago this was actually the case with a concert I curated at The Austin Museum of Art. I programmed some works that I cherished of course, such as Reich's Violinphase, a piece by a mentor of mine Russell Pinkston, a video work by Dennis H. Miller, etc, as well as involving the work of my peers. I also took suggestions, tuning my ears to as many voices that I was not familiar with - those in which I could not hear even a shade of myself. By the end, there was a textsound work, some circuit bending installations, some beat based work, among many others. The scope was wide and the concert was great. My hope was that everyone would be discovering something new that evening, and the level of energy afterwards was a good indicator for future possibilities.
Years later with Quiet Design, I still want to spotlight as many artistic voices as possible, housing sonic environments that encourage artists and listeners alike to challenge themselves in the listening process. It is a bonus if that person ends up being me. I've been quite privileged to be exposed to some of the best work on the planet in any given area of the arts, so my aim would be to pass along that gift to the audience, regardless of my personal taste for it. The art will speak for itself.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
As absurd as it may seem, I would want it to sound like every piece I have ever composed being played all at once. Perhaps the collage could be played through hundreds of different channels, where you could walk from the early works of the array through the later pieces in order to experience the various perspectives over the decades. You could also step back and hear it all like one beautiful and horrendous cacophony, where the reverberations and collisions are every musical inspiration that I've ever given voice to. I'd love to know what that would sound like.

Mike Vernusky Discography:

Blood That Sees The Light (Quiet Design) 2006   
Music For Film And Electro-Theatre (Quiet Design) 2010

Mike Vernusky

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