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15 Questions to Aaron Cassidy

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi.  I’m doing well. I’m enjoying early summer in Chicago.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I’m trying to finish a piece for electric guitar for Daryl Buckley. It has been giving me significant trouble for nearly a year, now. I’m impossibly stuck. Everything about it is giving me trouble. 
After this project, it’s on to an ensemble piece for ELISION, which I’m exceptionally excited about, plus a few miscellaneous small solo pieces for friends.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
I think it’s generally thriving, though the fracturing of venues, opportunities, resources, and audiences probably gives the impression of a certain kind of crisis. The crisis is completely imaginary, though. There are probably more people actively involved in music – and perhaps, in particular, experimental music of one sort or another – than ever before. 

It is true that the funding cuts to arts organizations internationally are enormously problematic, but it’s my view that large-scale institutional support is often as much a hindrance as a help (serving only to prop up whatever sort of work happens to be in vogue at the time). And the dwindling of that large-scale funding encourages much more significant participation by what my friend Lou Bunk calls “guerrilla musicians,” and I think this is a very, very good thing indeed.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
It’s a very good question, and one I don’t think I’ve ever really asked myself. I just read a terrific article about the composer/performer/film-maker Tony Conrad (who I had the great pleasure of spending some time with while I was a student in Buffalo, NY, where he teaches) in Signal to Noise last night, where he says something along the lines of, “Important music isn’t made to be pretty. It’s made to shock the hell out of you.” While I think Tony’s comment is a bit tongue-in-cheek at best (and sort of flippant, at worst), I think the sentiment goes a long way towards defining what “new” might mean in music. 

For me, specifically, the “new” is defined most dramatically by a willingness to experiment, a willingness to probe and explore (sonically, formally, performatively, etc.), and most importantly, a willingness to fail. Music which fails to be legitimately “new” seems to me to be music that works within boundaries that are already established, works with sounds that have already shown a certain proven success, works to speak to audiences in languages they already speak, rather than offering entirely new modes of expression.

It’s worth saying, as well, that this is in no way limited to composers, and in no way limited to newly-composed music. Some of the most wonderful “new” musical experiences for me have been particularly innovative or inspired performances of old(er) work. (I’ll never forget, for example, the performance of the Brahms E-flat Clarinet Sonata by Carl Rosman and Ian Pace – it was more “new” than 90% of the “new” music I’ve heard in the last decade or so.)

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
Well it’s fundamental, of course. Everything I do as a composer – even the most esoteric, systematic, abstruse, or even pedantic aspects of my work – exists solely to generate a sonic world that I find compelling, energizing, intriguing, challenging, beautiful, and, in a sense, tactile.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I’ve never really done any work as an improviser. Frankly, I don’t think I’m particularly good at it – it always feels excessively self-indulgent, somehow. That said, I’ve done quite a lot of work with graphical scores and open notation, and most of the performers who I’ve worked with on those projects have been very active as improvisers (in some cases, at a very, very high level).

In any case, composing is quite dramatically different, for me. My working process is extremely slow, labor-intensive, and methodical, but more to the point, my process is fundamentally about setting up layers upon layers of constraints, about constructing walls and boundaries to push against, leap over, dig under, or, as in the case of this current e-guitar piece, bang my head against. For my personal musical aesthetic, those constraints are either missing or are altogether too malleable in much improvised music. 

How would you define the term “interpretation”?

The process of making hierarchical decisions about what and how to project about a piece in performance.

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?

I honestly think that it is now a non-issue, or at least should be. Shulamit Ran, a composer who teaches at the University of Chicago, said recently in a pre-concert talk in response to a similar question, “It’s 2006. The dissonance has been emancipated. Can we move on?”

I think her point is a good one. Dissonance has always been (and presumably forever will be) solely a matter of context. Tuning systems are flexible and evolutionary, harmonic tastes change, dissonant intervals become consonant ones.

At the moment, I’m not really working with pitches anymore, so it’s really a non-issue for me. My work since 2004 has all been in tablature notation (and in fact I started working with similar methods as early as 2001), often with indeterminate scordature or unpredictable detuning throughout a work, so it becomes almost entirely impossible to predict what the specific pitch content will be from moment to moment. This might be a passing phase for me, but for the time being, I’m not really interested in constructing harmonies.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?
I think this is absolute nonsense.  It seems to me that in the end these arguments come down to nothing more than this: “I like it, therefore it’s ‘music;’ I don’t like it, therefore it’s not (or “it’s just noise”).” Is the work of Lachenmann ‘music?’ Yes. Is the work of Max Neuhaus ‘music?’ Yes. Are the sounds of street noise and birdsong and wind ‘music’ during a Pauline Oliveros sonic meditation? Yes. 

If there is a border to be drawn, it comes down to intentionality. If an artist/composer/performer “brackets” an event/sound/concept, that’s all that’s required, from my point of view.

Though, with that said, my father, who is a photographer, just forwarded me the following snippet in an email:

Exhibit 1201 and the definition of art by the Royal Academy of Arts
Posted by JP at 19:05 on 6-21-2006

If we ever needed a cogent reminder that it's in the eye of the beholder, we got it in spades from the summer show at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. David Hensel submitted a laughing head jesmonite sculpture to its open competition in contemporary art. Somehow, apparently in transit, the head got separated from its base and both were judged as separate works by the Academy. The head was rejected. The base, a hewn piece of flat stone with a wooden prop, found itself labeled as "Exhibit 1201" and selected for display from over 9000 submissions. The Academy denies any error, firmly stating that the base was "thought to have merit."

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
I think they certainly can be different types of music, or, more to the point, they can have very different objectives. But there is just as much “popular” music that really seeks to explore and experiment and create work that is refined and courageous as there is “serious” music that panders to the audience of its day and is completely disposable.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
This is something I’ve struggled with for quite some time. I carry an odd sense of guilt about being a composer. I find it a very selfish, often solitary, and sometimes utterly useless pursuit. I don’t build anything, I don’t fix anything, I don’t offer any service that serves the general good. My work is esoteric and seems to find support only among a small fringe of even the already miniscule contemporary/experimental music community. And I’m fully aware that I get to do what I do because I have been lucky, I have been very well supported by family and friends and colleagues, and that it’s a privilege to even have the time available to pursue composition. 

I have never had any desire at all to incorporate explicitly political material into my work, but I do indeed feel a certain sense of duty. If anything, that duty is toward the field of new music – I take my teaching very seriously, and I’m trying to figure out a way to be a much better advocate for new music in general and experimental music in particular, hoping to try expand audiences for the work I really care about.  

True or false: People need to be educated about music, before they can really appreciate it.
True. In fact, I think there’s no question it’s true. And it’s true in every art form. This educating doesn’t need to be pedantic, and it needn’t be consistent from listener to listener, but it seems clear to me that one will understand a work better given some investment in acquiring information about the piece, its contexts, its methods and materials, etc. 

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.
False. Of course governmental subsidies go primarily to mainstream organizations. I don’t see this as a problem. Every arts culture needs a mainstream of centrist organizations and institutions that are well funded and well supported. I’d argue that the experimental arts community, in fact, needs these institutions to be reasonably strong. It needs something to push against, rebel against, speak out against. Most of the significant developments in contemporary music have emerged from the ground up, from composers who start their own ensembles or from performers willing to learn difficult and innovative work without significant compensation. 

This view perhaps comes in part from being an American, where arts subsidies are nearly non-existent and where all of the important musical contributions have come from composers well outside of the major arts and academic institutions. 

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
I’d make an attempt to show a balance of what’s happening across the board among composers who have truly unique and visionary voices, regardless of their aesthetic. I think the Bludenzer Tage Zeitgemäßser Musik in Austria is an ideal model for a contemporary music festival. They have programmed composers from all over the world, of a wide variety of backgrounds and ages, and with an impressively diverse list of aesthetic/stylistic interests.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
No, not at all. Most of my work has been for very small forces, and in fact a huge percentage of it is for solo performers. Much of it is also quite short. For me, a “magnum opus” might be a 10 minute piece for eight players!

In any case, I’m still exploring and still working to find a compositional space for myself that is uniquely mine. I’m still content thinking in reasonably small terms.


Aaron Cassidy

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