loss, found

Incorporating EDM and Social Justice into Concert Music

loss, found was commissioned and premiered by Daniel Heagney, who performs in the video above. To coincide with its release, I’m going to share some thoughts about the genesis of loss, found, offering them framed within two narratives. The first focuses on certain musical elements of the piece, while the second centers around moral ones. I want to emphasize that these narratives are loose, that they aren’t mutually exclusive, and that they are starting points rather than full stories.

Narrative 1

The first narrative corresponds to the musical orientation we traditionally expect when talking about mechanics of craft. I’ve been exploring different ways to realize elements of electronic dance music within a purely acoustic realm in my chamber pieces for several years now. Trying to create acoustic analogues for side-chaining, for example, has pushed me to reconsider how I think about instruments, sound production, and composition. These translations from electronic to acoustic often entail prioritizing groove, timbre, texture, pulse over harmonic motion, and acoustic dance music is the result.

Delay
For loss, found, I emulate the delay effects that are so common in electronic music, employing them in a more “new music”-y way here. The obsession with cross-rhythms throughout loss, found makes this piece a departure from much of the conventional solo vibraphone literature and a stylistic departure for me as well.

As we can see in the score, the follower is delayed by a beat at the start, and the rate at which it repeats gradually increases over time. The rhythms grow faster and more complex as the piece unfolds, the hands occasionally snapping to the same subdivisions only to diverge again.

Like most delay effects, the follower has a softer dynamic. The need for dynamic control in the two voices creates some idiosyncratic challenges for the performer. This is especially so when the lead line resets, switching from the right hand to the left so that the right hand, formally loud, now must play quietly while the left, formally quiet, must punch out the beginning of the new line.

Timbre
Much electronic dance music deals with manipulating shifts in timbre over time. Although it plays a fundamental role in defining any genre of music, timbre, along with rhythm, are primary features of electronic dance music. Entire subgenres emerge out of very specific sound worlds — I’m thinking of acid’s reliance on the Roland TB 303, or the sliced-and-diced Amen Break DNA of drum and bass, sampled from “Amen, Brother” by the Winstons.

In previous work, I have relied on extended techniques to expand the sonic possibilities of what we normally think instruments are capable of producing. loss, found uses the more conventional approach of mallet choice to coax forth nuances in color. As the piece progresses, the performer moves from medium mallets to really hard rubber mallets wrapped in moleskin, eventually ending with a bass drum mallet. I owe a special thanks to Dan for being so willing to experiment and for all his suggestions that ended up in the score in this regard.

Register
Electronic dance music conventions also inform the way I think about register in loss, found. You can be the worst DJ in the world in terms of selecting and mixing but still have success if you can strip out the kick, leave it out until the audience more or less forgets about it, then drop it back in. It’s a win every time. Adapting this model to acoustic music, I often clear the lower register so that I can re-enter in dramatic fashion. loss, found approaches the end with an extended passage in the high register of the vibraphone, so that the eventual reemergence of the bass, in groupings that collapse inwards, becomes a powerful event. While this treatment of register is in no way unique to electronic dance music, it nevertheless shapes my own approach to thinking about form, pacing, and the like in my music.

Narrative 2

The second narrative involves examining loss, found from a moral framework. Since the 2016 election, I have been thinking more urgently about the ways in which art can be an effective mechanism to bring about social change. I continue to wrestle with questions about the relevance of art and its role in society, especially something like “new music,” whose immediate audience tends not to be those directly impacted by the worst of this administration’s policies. Incorporating social justice in my teaching, research, and writing has been more organic than doing so convincingly in my music. I’m working on this.

loss, found is roughly structured as a large A B A’ form. I had originally intended the piece to be shorter and consist solely of the A material. The morning after the 2016 election results came in, I woke up, sat down, and began writing the following material, which became the B section.

The start of this section (5:20 in the video), seen in the second score excerpt, gives loss, found its name. Although the material begins as a lament, it eventually ignites and rises up, undergoing a redemption of sorts as it leads determinedly back to the A material. This reflects my attempt to capture my own feelings of loss in reaction to the election and my subsequent resolution to fight back through a deeper social engagement. I’ll add that there’s no extra-musical narrative buried deep within the pitches and the patterns. The quotation serves as a reminder for me and as an invitation to the performer for reflection.

It’s true that Michelle Obama spoke these words before the 2016 election results. It’s true that these sorts of triumph narratives are common enough in music. It’s also true that Obama’s words and the 2016 election had a profound influence on my thinking about this material and my shaping of the piece. My own experience of loss, found is inextricably linked with this event.

I want to state again that these narratives and their usefulness are limited. There’s an artificiality imposed in trying to draw clean breaks between the two narratives. No matter where I try to position myself relative to my work, whether in the musical narrative or the moral one, I’m still me.

This does bring up a larger question for me though, and that is how can I engage as an artist with what is happening politically in this country. And the short answer is that I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure this out. What is the role of art in a situation like this? Many of the traditional methods of artistic engagement feel ineffective at best and disingenuous at worst, and so maybe the framing of the question is wrong, or the magnitude of the expected outcome is too high, or too short-term. I’m working on this.

A few months into my first semester teaching at Georgetown, Trump won the election. My deliberate incorporation of social justice initiatives into my teaching, research, writing, and composing has largely been in response to that moment and to the very real impact it has since had on me and my family, on friends and their families, on peers, on my students, and on the various communities I move in and causes I support.

This desire to engage with social problems, to look beyond the accumulation of knowledge as an end in itself, this desire, in short, to do good, is something I continue to think about daily and to incorporate into my life and my work. loss, found does this in a very small but very persistent way.