Composing the Tinnitus Suites: 2015
Composing the Tinnitus Suites: 2015 (a, b, c, and d)
In 2015, many new mutations developed in my ongoing project, Composing the Tinnitus Suites. I staged the project four times that year, twice at Wesleyan University, once in Connecticut, and finally in Dublin, Ireland—the first time the Lady’. The two outstanding developments I’ll mention in these pages are the creation of a Tinnitus Trio—the first time I successfully combined the Lady’s Harp with conventional instrumentalists, namely my collaborators Cleek Schrey and Ron Shalom; and the first self-operating installation of the Lady’s Harp—in which I discovered how to truly convert the Lady’s Harp away from a “concert instrument” and into a “gallery piece”.
I was invited to stage a new version of Composing the Tinnitus Suites at an art exhibit called Trauma, hosted by The Science Gallery at Trinity University. In Ireland! The art gallery suits the Lady’s Harp well—the forces that organize concert halls cannot often host a 12-27 foot long instrument, that may or may not be drilled into walls or floorboards. Even after creating my “portable version” in 2014, I realized that I still required some careful time to set up and tune the instrument—and for this, days rather than hours are the correct unit of measurement. But ultimately, whatever form this installation or instrument took, the presentation was consistently the same—I performed Composing the Tinnitus Suites upon it as a concert instrument.
Well, for this occasion in Dublin, my work was to be shown for an estimated 1000-2000 person audience daily, during gallery hours, 10am to 5pm. I don’t think Composing the Tinnitus Suites as a stable project—nor do I think of the Lady’s Harp as a unchangeable form. So I had to think of another way to conceive of the work, one that fulfilled the mandate of the project—to engage with my tinnitus through art, to make tinnitus desirable rather than despised….and maybe also to elaborate on the basic premise of my Lady’s Harp: piano wire, coil pickup, bridge-mounted pressure transducer.
the self-playing Lady’s Harp: Composing the Tinnitus Suites: 2015d (in Dublin)
I had been developing software to play the Lady’s Harp automatically/remotely as an installation since 2013—using Max to control digital filters/gain cells within the feedback loop, to toggle through different memory states of set feedback chords. But the problem here was that I had to completely re-imagine the interface, where the analog mixer I use was perfectly sensitive, a marvelous analog to a piano keyboard.
I found a different solution in my friend, the legendary engineer Bob Bielecki, who told to me one evening a powerful observation. I retell it now. Bob said, take a resonant situation—any room or transduced object—and produce feedback in/through it, as our ancestors of electronic music have always done. Now, if you simultaneously record that feedback “direct to tape” from your mixer, computer, or recorder, you have recorded a powerful spell. This recording won’t sound as interesting as the sound of feedback coming to life in the room. However, it can be used thusly: play the spell through the same resonant situation and you will stir a mirror image of the recorded feedback—the object/room is resonated at the same frequencies once more.
With this incantation learned, I realized that I could record my performances on the Lady’s Harp, and as long as the tuning of the strings is maintained (and the gain levels on the mixer), and use the recordings to sing the strings to life again! This would not be a mere recording, but a re-performance, for the strings would actually move in resonance to the source recording.
So, off I went to Dublin, shipping the Lady’s Harp, and all its electronics and miscellaneous hardware in a crate I built from wood found at the dump. I had developed a Max Patch to record 8 channel .wav files, and also made a scheduler to play them orchestrated on a timer, on a predetermined interval, every hour throughout the day. This patch would scan a repository of recordings and play selections in whatever order and timing I programmed.
Then, after installing and tuning my instrument, I recorded a number of spells to resonate the strings. One of these spells would thereafter run every hour, for three months, from morning to night.
…the careful viewer will take note of my hands on the mixer. In addition to devising this self-playing situation, I also performed twice—first, for a video of sorts, that accompanied the installation on a video monitor, audible through headphones. Watching this video was important for gallery viewers, for it made clear what transpired when it is played, in case they happened to visit during the time that the instrument was not making sound (most of the hour). The second performance featured my sweet friends, Ron Shalom and Cleek Schrey, who flew to Dublin to join me, hot on the heels of a newly discovered collaborative formation…and since this story is told in reverse…
Composing the Tinnitus Suites: 2015c was not exactly a public installation or performance, but an important moment of growth for the project. I had never combined the Lady’s Harp with conventional instruments before 2015. I spent my final year in graduate school with Shalom and Schrey, and during this time we developed a deep mutual trust, friendship, and conceptual rigor.
It started one night, in preparation for one of my ensemble pieces, consisting of four players playing the strings of the Lady’s Harp. It just so happened that no one but Cleek showed up for rehearsal. Cleek had his fiddle with him—why not just improvise?
At the time, Cleek was exploring continual scordatura, retuning as he played to change keys, utilizing open harmonics to make the instrument maximally resonant. This matched with the harp, which sings its feedback relationships based on nodal points of the string. It would have been my worst nightmare if a violinist heard my harp and “soloed over the drone”. But Cleek produced sustained, subtle changes in his playing that could actually force the feedback of the Harp to change. By setting the strings just on the verge of feedback, Cleek’s playing would emphasize resonance in the room, and the instrument would sing along in harmony.
This initial session was rich with discovery. The music was almost too beautiful. But, I wondered if the music we had made was no longer Tinnitus Music.
Ron Shalom is a conservatory trained bassist with perfect pitch, and the unevictable desire to challenge his classical training through weirdness. I asked Ron to bring his upright bass, and we rehearsed as a trio, abandoning the techniques of “placing” and “laying” things on the strings. Shalom’s presence balanced the situation. In comparison to Cleek’s natural enthusiasm for my instrument, Ron confessed to certain confusion—”sometimes I hear the sound of the Lady’s Harp and just have no idea of how to respond.” In these moments he would attempt to play, but then, having no idea how to play along with my long squalls, he would just stop. This dialectic enthralled me, because it captured the depth of my tinnital experience: the condition is both inspiring and confounding. By becoming lost in the sensuous beauty of music making, the conceptual project about hearing damage would be compromised. Ron’s confusion restored something in the piece that threatened to be lost—it preserved tinnitus as the governing principle.
Composing the Tinnitus Suites: 2015c, then, was the workshop of this trio, culminating in an unreleased album (recorded by Sean Winnik) and the video above, filmed by Catalina Jordan Alvarez, edited in collaboration with me. Amidst our improvisation, the governing principle in this piece is the Lady’s Harp—Cleek and Ron are actively trying to provoke its resonant feedback outbursts, or I crescendo above them by swooping levels with the mixer. Furthermore, this document shows the development of a nascent language, the formation of a tinnitus trio, which would go on to explore the tinnital principles of masking, hallucination, subjectivity and unison —in Dublin, as you saw, and later, once more in Philadelphia…but that story will be told for 2016.
insert gallery of ron and cleek and daniel pix
Composing the Tinnitus Suites: 2015b
…was a concert for Northeast Music Cognition Group (NEMCOG). My Lady’s Harp was set up in a studio, and since I could arrange more than a few hours for setup and tuning, I decided to perform remotely, and sent a mono signal of my instrument over telephone lines into the concert hall…
Composing the Tinnitus Suites: 2015a
…I decided not to notate pitch, but duration (After all, can we even trust the ear, now rendered unreliable, for specific pitches?)