composer • performer • scholar • arts activist
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Sometime in early 1995, Joe Tunis and I got together for a one-off improv gig for a show at the Pyramid Arts Center (RIP) in Rochester, NY. It was not a raging success, but we had a blast, and decided to keep making noise. Thus was born speedQueen. (We picked the name while waiting for clothes to dry at the laundromat on Park Avenue.)
speedQueen was an outlet for us to explore sounds and strategies that didn’t quite fit in our other musical projects. The mid-’90s were a remarkable time for underground heads like us, and Joe and I were sucking up ideas from all over the place — The Dead C., Tortoise, Glenn Branca, Brise-Glace, Jim O’Rourke, the whole Siltbreeze and Skin Graft rosters, etc., etc., etc. Our earliest stuff was semi-improvised, loud and crunchy; I played around with weird tunings and odd implements on cheap guitars, and Joe held it down on drums. Over time, we started switching instruments, experimenting with a wider dynamic range, employing lots of effects pedals, bringing in occasional collaborators, baiting our audiences, and eschewing any kind of identifiable song structure; most performances after 1995 were totally free-form. It was a hell of a lot of fun, even though (or maybe because) a lot of the people who saw our shows had no idea what to make of us.
We released two albums as speedQueen — “r” (1996, on cassette) and big leaves on a small tree (1997, on CD) — on Joe’s nascent micro-label, Carbon Records. (Carbon’s still going strong, with over 200 releases to date and loads of others Joe’s had some hand in getting out to the world. See here for full specs.) When I moved to NC in 1997, we shortened the name to sq, and continued to collaborate whenever we could get in a room together or share sound files (no minor undertaking in those days). We released several things under that moniker, mostly documenting the more abstract side of the project. (“Von Vier Bis Sechs” is one such example.) We never toured (our only show outside of Rochester was in Chapel Hill, right after I moved there), but our records seem to have had some legs, and I still occasionally run into someone who’s heard of the project… which is pretty neat, considering (a) we had zero ambition for self-promotion and (b) we did all this before YouTube etc. were things.
Though we’ve not been seriously active as a band since 2001 (that final gig was documented on the out-of-print Long Wires CDR), Joe and I keep threatening to make some new sounds together. We’ll see. In the meantime, if you’re so inclined, you can check out our release history here.
— MF, November 2017
In 2004, I was commissioned by the Dayton Chamber Music Society to write a short piece for a recital by my dear friends, the flutist Christopher Chaffee and pianist Joshua Nemith. After the premiere, Chris and Josh urged me expand this nascent piece into a larger work; Social Movements is the result of that request.
Much of my compositional activity is connected to the idea that my artistic output should reflect, in a more or less direct manner, my ways of thinking about the world around me. Accordingly, the music I write tends to emerge from a conceptual background dialogue between musical thought and social practice. In Social Movements, that dialogue manifests in the interpolation of a variety of sociopolitical metaphors (conflict/resolution, cooperation, resistance, and so on) with compositional techniques and processes. For example, the gradual deconstruction and transformation of serialized rhythmic and melodic constructs across the piece might symbolize the triumph of individual/collective will over the mechanization of modern society; the frequency of unison textures, especially in the pointedly jagged passages, might resonate with the notion of communal effort in the face of adversity. Further, a loose overarching “narrative” is suggested by the movement titles, drawn from a Mexican socialist manifesto.
Philosophical musings aside, Social Movements is ultimately very much about the essence of musical interaction itself as a social phenomenon, a give and take between living, feeling people, with all of the quirks of any human relationship. In writing it, I was conscious of an attempt to capture and capitalize on certain features of Chris and Josh’s specific musical strengths and personal characters. For me, the piece feels like the musical embodiment of a spirited conversation between three friends – sometimes in agreement, sometimes argumentative, but always building toward a satisfying conclusion.
During the process of working on For Jennifer Fitzgerald, I came to a sobering realization: the period during which I knew Jen as a dear friend and colleague constituted virtually her entire career as a composer. Jen came to Duke as a graduate student in 1999 with only a handful of pieces under her belt; her musical and personal growth in the 8 short years that followed was nothing less than astonishing to me, and I am honored to have been witness to her transformation(s). In the months that followed Jennifer’s passing, I often returned to music for which we had shared a deep admiration. Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari held a special resonance for me; virtually every afternoon, I found myself drawn to play through as much of the piece as I could find time for, as if through the sheer force of repetition I might be able to hold on to her presence. For Jennifer Fitzgerald is colored indelibly by that experience. (Those familiar with Feldman’s last work will undoubtedly recognize the many quotations, especially its plaintive opening four-note motive, which is obsessively repeated and reworked across the present piece.)
The work is cast in three overlapping movements. After a loud, ringing attack on a single note in the piano, the first movement immediately retreats into a searching, unsettled mood, contrasting long, quiet violin lines with more pointillistic and/or polyrhythmic piano writing. The movement’s middle is explicitly structured around a series of “moments” from Palais de Mari – sustained chordal sonorities upon which the violin freely extemporizes – before the movement draws to a close with a revisit of the opening material that briefly swells before tapering away again. The second movement begins and ends with two alternate versions of the same long solo for violin – besides the piano, the instrument I most closely associate with Jen – which draws on some of the first movement’s pitch and interval material, but within a more virtuosic and dramatic mode. The first version, having reached an apparent climax, skitters to a halt as the piano interrupts with its own solo, built almost entirely around the primary Palais motive. The piano tapers away to an indistinct rumble, and the violin returns, as the second version of the solo unfolds with more assurance and closes with a chant-like passage. With a meandering chromatic figure that recalls another late Feldman work (Triadic Memories), the third movement aims to evoke a sense of calm contemplation; as the piano gradually drifts toward the topmost, chime-like range of the instrument, the violin alternates between long lines and a repeated “sighing” gesture. While not by conscious design, there is, I think, a quality to the overall architecture of the piece that could be perceived as a reflection of the grieving process, from the shock of discovery to acceptance (and everything that comes between).
As the process of composing For Jennifer Fitzgerald drew to a close, I became preoccupied with the notion that the piece was not “saying” everything that I wanted – about Jen, about my feelings about Jen, about her loss and what comes next. I hope that this piece communicates some small portion of that mountain of feeling.
For Jennifer Fitzgerald was composed at the invitation of John McDonald, one of Jen’s teachers and mentors, for a memorial concert at Tufts in October 2008, and I am deeply grateful to him for this opportunity to pay tribute to Jen.
The title refers to a conversation I had with one of my colleagues about a common practice among academics, especially when we’re put on the spot with a question we don’t really know how to answer. “I hate the way we get into this habit of smiling and nodding knowingly,” she said. “It becomes a veil for honest, open dialogue about the limits of our knowledge.” (Or something like that – memory’s an odd thing.)
In composing Smile and Nod Knowingly, I was aiming to capitalize on many of pulsoptional’s strengths – especially the group’s capacity for managing complex superimpositions and juxtapositions of rhythmic activity – while also pushing us into new musical turf. I was also interested in experimenting with an almost imperceptible mutation of musical material. Thus, the first two-thirds of the piece is dominated by a busy but relatively quiet and static texture of polymetric patterns in the winds, guitar, piano, and rhythm section; the music’s evolution is steady and rigorous, but intentionally subliminal. This flat landscape is intermittently shattered by jagged outbursts that ultimately overtake the proceedings. A brief moment of musical focus – obliquely referencing drum-and-bass – passes quickly, and the piece draws to a quiet, unsettled close.
Is there a connection between the title I chose and the music I wrote? In response to that, let me just smile and nod knowingly.
In the course of my research into the sociocultural history of Appalachia and its place in the American and global mind, I’ve been struck consistently by the dichotomies inherent in observer’s views of the mountains, its people, and the cultural heritage they’ve produced. In my mind, Appalachia – or perhaps, more accurately, some “idea” of Appalachia – has long represented a crystallization of the essential conflicts at the heart of our ongoing national dialogue: conservation vs. industrialization, preservation vs. progress, rural vs. urban, and so on. As a native of the Blue Ridge foothills, I possess firsthand knowledge of the often-devastating impact of those battles upon the region’s lands and communities; on the other hand, I’ve also witnessed the persistence with which the people who call the area home have fought to maintain social, cultural, and land-use traditions in the face of overwhelming odds.
In the summer of 2013, I was honored to hold a residency at Wildacres, an artists’ retreat in McDowell County, NC. The small mountaintop cabin where I was lodged had two magnificent views: the south-facing windows, looking out through the trees across the peaks and eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge; and the west-facing wall, on which was hung a large and colorful tapestry, hand-woven in a nearby town. When the sun had set and my workday was done, I spent each night reading, listening to the wind and the animals, and, especially, looking at and reflecting on that tapestry: the untold story of the person(s) who made it, of the generations through which the knowledge of how to make such things were passed, of the countless hours spent passing the weft through the warp with love and care. Warped + Wefted is my attempt to weave a musical tapestry out of my own personal history of and with Appalachian culture.
The first movement is based on two ballads. “One Morning in May” is a variant on an 18th-century English song, and is sung from the point of view of a young woman dying of syphilis. Varied repetition of this melody creates the primary formal skeleton of the movement. The other ballad, “East Virginia Blues” (also known as “Dark Holler Blues,” and dating from around the beginning of the 20th century), is threaded throughout the movement, first in fragmentation but gradually in a more complete and prominent form by the middle. I had in mind a kind of “Appalachian nachtmusik” – solemn, melancholy, and reflective – to mirror the sorrowful themes of these (and most) ballads from the southern mountains. The idea of evolution – a basic fact of the transmission of music in oral traditions – was central to my compositional strategies here; the melodies are subjected to constant transformation and recontextualization as the movement progresses. Another influence – the lining-out of hymns in Old Regular Baptist chuches – is evident in the heterophonic textures present in several spots in the movement.
By contrast, in the second movement, I aimed to evoke something of the ecstatically celebratory quality I hear in the performance of dance music in the southern Appalachians, especially in the string-band heritage of North Carolina and southwestern Virginia. I began by analyzing a number of fiddle and banjo tunes that I’m particularly fond of, and then set about composing several themes that maintain some of their prominent features – rhythmic ideas, melodic contours, and so on – filtered through my own compositional identity. These new themes form the primary content of the movement, but there are also direct quotations of three tunes that were primary influences in the process: “Cluck Old Hen,” “Johnson Boys,” and “Pateroller Song.” (The first two are common throughout the southern mountains; the third is an obscure variant, by Virginian multi-instrumentalist Hobart Smith, on the well-known “Salt River.”) All of this material – old and new – is subjected to a variety of manipulation as the movement progresses. Architecturally, the movement reflects the repetitive structure of these dance tunes, which typically cycle through two or three sections until the performers are done, yet I also aimed to achieve a narrative arch to the entire movement; the slow coda, which returns to the themes and mood of the first movement, completes this strategy. The movement’s subtitle references both the community of Turkey Cove that one drives through on the way to Wildacres, and the Moral Monday demonstrations that took place in the state capital last summer, and which were on my mind as I drove into the mountains. Setting aside political opinions, I think we can all agree that public expression of one’s views is vital to a healthy state and nation; certainly, many of the local residents with whom I spoke during my stay at Wildacres were inspired by these events, and spoke of a desire to join with others in Raleigh…
In borrowing old tunes for new uses, one always runs the risk of engaging in a kind of “cultural colonialism” – of stripping the music of its context and meaning, and somehow cheapening it in the process. But (to paraphrase Alan Lomax) traditions aren’t static – or, as old-time fiddler Mike Gangloff recently told me, “this music isn’t a thing to be revived – it’s living and evolving just fine.” I hope that what I’ve done here is viewed as a personal and respectful contribution in the evolution in that musical tradition.
I am grateful to Dr. Ed Jacobs and Dr. Jorge Richter for inviting me to contribute this piece to the 2014 NewMusic@ECU Festival, and to the musicians of the ECU Symphony Orchestra for taking on the challenge of putting the piece together. I dedicate this piece to my wife, Leslie Vincent, and daughter, Silver Vincent-Faris, whose love for me and enthusiastic support for my work are the warp and weft of my life’s tapestry.