On Sympathetic Magic

I composed this essay after learning that Sympathetic Magic, my double concerto commissioned by Diagensis Duo for cello, soprano and improvising children’s workshop ensemble, had been selected and funded by New Music USA as a supported project.

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Starting in 2010, I got involved in designing and leading experimental music workshops for elementary and middle school-aged kids. My work with these kids–conducting them in improvisations, workshopping their compositional ideas, and in many cases simply getting out of the way and listening to the upwelling of their musical creativity–has been among the most fulfilling experiences of my entire life. What initially began as a sort of thought experiment–could one form an improvising experimental music ensemble with kids who have never studied music?–became a multi-year commitment, grew to be the center of my dissertation work, and indelibly touched my own music–most powerfully, in the work that has been honored this year (2015) by New Music USA, Sympathetic Magic.

When Jen Bewerse told me that she and her Diagensis Duo partner Heather Barnes planned to begin offering experimental music workshops for youth, I was immediately interested in offering whatever help or expertise I could, and saw enormous resonance between their goals and mine. When they asked me to write a piece that they could build a workshop around—showing kids what they as contemporary musicians do, what it means to realize and perform a new work—I jumped at the chance. The challenge, it was clear, was going to be bottling up and finding a way to notate the fluid and personal techniques I had been refining as an educator.

So, Sympathetic Magic is my attempt to orchestrate, to engender, and to pass on to others the sorts of experiences that I myself have had in working with improvising children’s ensembles, experiences which have been profound and life-changing. In the case of one particularly vivid outdoor performance, an unbroken 20 minutes of slow-burning, spontaneous collective creation by 12 middle schoolers squeezed under a tiny gazebo at the Carlsbad Music Festival, I can barely think of this music, of this situation, before I start to feel overwhelmed by the sense of possibility and joy I derived from leading this group. This togetherness, this joining together of disparate experiences in collective sound is what music is supposed to be, what Beethoven’s Ode to Joy promises but never quite delivers, what campfire singalongs are about, what ethnomusicologists are talking about when they depict many traditional musics as refusing the performer-audience binary that Western modernity takes as all too natural. Though the unscored music I made with these students in Carlsbad may have sounded like cacophony, it felt like harmony. I believe that we achieved a kind of deeper, more mysterious harmony, the one which Sun Ra referred to as the “space chord,” whose underlying consonance-in-dissonance our tin ears, bound in this imperfect place and time, may not yet be able to hear as harmonious.

Working with improvising novice musicians has powerfully inflected my sense of where the magic in music lies. Musical meaning occurs at the interface of the known and unknown worlds, between the familiar and the unfamiliar–I often give Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner as a signal example where the two plainly collide. In this performance, Hendrix begins with the mimetic: reciting an oft-copied, heard-before, ballpark anthem, and then suddenly takes a left turn into a violent differentiation from the anthem-singing, conformist mass, unleashing noise and improvisation that signal the artist’s own personal voice, the scream of the individual conscience, of the self that cannot and will not blend into chorale with the Other. Most music pedagogy, as with most musical activities available to child and adult novices, are all mimesis and no improvisation, all Francis Scott Key and no personal expression. What I had tried to do in my workshops with kids was swing hard to the opposite extreme: no familiar tunes, no a priori sound idea, no teacher dictating the sound you make at such-and-such a time. Instead, kids who putatively knew little about how to make music would be asked to be the authors and owners and creators all of the ensemble’s music, from conception to performance. When I encountered a book by the anthropologist Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, I knew I had found, in his title, the dialectic I was groping towards. Alterity, otherness, was where the magic in music was — in Hendrix’s eruptive feedback, not in the anthem’s familiar tune.

Yet, at the same time, I recognize the assault on culture, even the misanthropy, that such a position implies. As a trained musician, deeply grateful for the traditional music literacy I acquired through private lessons and school ensembles. And, as music education in the US is threatened both by funding cuts and structural inequalities, I feel that I need both to cry out both for the simple possibility of music training in kid’s lives, as well as in favor of the possibility of alterity (creativity, imagination, divergence, disturbance) within an already-beleaguered music education sphere.

As I read Taussig, I learned that mimesis and alterity are not, as I had heard them in Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner, mere opposites. They are locked in a Gordian knot, with one always following the other: copying is what we do to things that are Other, things we don’t understand. And through this assiduous and committed copying, we actually become a little bit Other. This wheel of alterity and mimesis, whereby we encounter the unfamiliar and then mimic and parrot it until it is part of us, is actually inscribed within the larger wheel of ontological becoming (as when we incorporate food, a foreign substance, into our bodies, but soon this formerly foreign stuff is what we are made of).

My contribution, the point I’m trying to make in Sympathetic Magic, is that this loop of mimesis and alterity is also the wheel of becoming-musical. Mimicry, raw uncomprehending imitation, is how the infant learns to speak a language, and it is also how we learn to “speak” in music. In fact, there is no other way to learn either system of sounds. After sufficient imitation, the former nonsense is magically transmuted into sense. Theories, notations, explanations—these can all help, but none can substitute for the raw experiential practice of imitative mimicry. So I decided to build an entire piece out of different forms of mimicry, different sorts of copies. Taussig points out the continuity between “mimetically capacious machines” like the phonograph and camera, which can often render copies so much more effortlessly and exactly than we. So I extended this insight into my piece, placing different sorts of transcription and translation (the writing and reading of the phonographic needle blurring with the writing and reading of graphic notations) next to more direct forms of sonic mimicry.

The piece’s title also comes from Taussig. “Sympathetic magic” refers to the widespread cultural belief in the power of the copy to affect the thing copied. Voodoo dolls are the best-known example: poke the copy and the “original,” the one copied, will feel the pain. Heather and Jen on voice and cello, virtuoso interpreters, masters of trompe-l’oreille musical illusion and effective sonic reproduction, represent civilization, law, literacy. As master musicians, they have the mimetic capacities to which all initiates might aspire. In this sense, it will be their assured musicianship which will be heard as the “original.” So, when, throughout the piece, the improvising children’s ensemble try, and inevitably fail, to copy as effortlessly as they do, the ensemble of bad copyists cannot help but affect the soloists, dragging their sonic professionalism into the noise and muck of amateurism. Yet, in another sense, the workshop ensemble represent the “original,” in that they represent musicality in its unformed, nascent state. Unlearned in music, all children are what Rousseau called “primitives” (I hate that term’s baggage and prefer the more neutral “novices”) when it comes to performance, and, when they encounter the musically “civilized” soloists, they cannot help but be affected by the experience: Every interaction of the musical “illiterate” results in some new literacy, each moment of participation an instance of pedagogy. Yet in this piece, I try to reverse or at least suspend the judgments of civilization about the value of novicehood—I ask the soloists to copy the amateur participants as well. While I understand that musicians can’t help but musicalize such raw and non-quantized expressions (I think of Messiaen’s transcriptions of birds), I hope that hearing these virtuosic and beautified copies will have a salutary effect on these kids, on their sense of musical possibility, on their beliefs about their own innate musicality, of the musical potential they might possess in simply making sounds, in noisily tearing into their world and leaving off from whatever song everyone else is singing.

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