Composer David Coll, while living in Gent, Belgium for the calendar year of 2012 (I believe he’s there on business), had some time to chat about the recently-praised piece “Position, influence” and a few others.
Coll’s “Position, influence” was performed last April at the MATA Festival in New York, and this particular performance of the piece was by soprano Mellissa Hughes. Sadly, I missed the MATA shows, but I was very fortunate that in setting out to do this interview with the discussion of the piece, David let me take a look at an unreleased rough cut of the video of that performance as well as a clip of the premiere version at IRCAM in Paris in October of ’07, and it was really fascinating to be able to see those performances in contrast to the Vocallaab Nederlands version, and how the work differs from one performer’s style to the next.
CM: Who has been your biggest influence on composing? (To me, you are very comparable to Cage).
DC: Funny you mention our birthday-boy, Cage, because he’s someone I had trouble with for quite some time, due to an overexposure when I was 18, 19 years old. It’s hard when you’re just getting your chops up to understand that it’s not all about freedom, it’s about real decisions. You don’t see the implications and the responsibility of it all. Only later on did I solidly begin appreciating Cage, and this was via the Freeman Etudes.
To answer your question, itʼs Richard Barrett. I know he’s got a lot of tricks up his sleeve, but he’s the one who’s consistently writing significant works and building them from the ground up. All the way back to “Ruin”, to larger works like “Unterwasser”, “Opening of the Mouth”, “Dark Matter”, and the recent “Construction”–-I just don’t see any others who are at this level at his age. The thing is, he has really ‘found his band’ (as Ed Campion calls it) with the Elision Ensemble. Neither him nor Elision would be the same without the other. Itʼs a tightrope act, and he’s been walking it for a long time. He’s probably fallen off it a few times, but no matter. The thing is, I feel like music has got to add up– and it’s a real struggle. But yeah, he’s got a good thing going.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the real people who have influenced me, like Guy Debord, Charles Olson, Buckminster Fuller, Antonin Artaud, Ingmar Bergman… I could go on.
CM: Who has had the biggest effect on you of the people you have studied with?
DC: It’s a close call between Erik Ulman, Edmund Campion, and David Milnes. There’s no way that I could pick one over the other two. It’s going on ten years now that I’ve known them. Sure, I was gone living in different places during that time, but these were the people I was most in touch with.
1956-1958, for violin, cello, and percussion
CM: Can you talk about the piece “Position, influence” for soprano and electronics (the vocalist is controlling the thunder sheets with a laryngophone)?
DC: Yes. I think the simplest way to explain it is that the voice is amplified, there’s some magic that goes on in a laptop, then it goes out speakers. The only thing is that the microphone is a laryngophone, thus it grabs the sound from only the larynx, and the speakers are a custom-made electronic sound sculpture made with sheet metal (instead of the typical cone in a box).
EDITOR’S NOTE: David explains about the piece further here when asked about the source materials for the piece:
From Thomas Deneuville’s blog I Care if You Listen; 5 questions to David Coll, posted April 19th, 2012
DC: It was part of the journey of gathering material for the piece. I remember spending a lot of time with Pasolini actually, but his poetry was underwhelming compared to his highly charged films. I looked at Isidore Isou as well, but nothing came together. Finally, getting more into the Enrages and the Situationists, I realized I needed to look at some historical documents. I subscribed to INA (Ed. French for National Audiovisual Institute) and all of a sudden I see de Gaulle (Ed. Charles de Gaulle was a French general and statesman who led the Free French Forces during World War II. He later founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958 and served as its first President from 1959 to 1969). What an incredible look and figure, I thought.
In fact the piece’s opening line ‘Je ne me retirerai pas / I will not step down!’ (from office) is the only fragment that is De Gaulle. And it is his first statement after returning from abroad and having the Mai 68 events already in full force. After that, the piece moves in many directions, and the text is mine actually.
There were two muses for Position, influence: Segolene Royal and Hillary Clinton, both of whom were campaigning at the time (2007). I am a deeply political person, and this work was the beginning of it all. This is a longer story, about some very formative years abroad.
CM: I am really intrigued by this work! Although it had been premiered beforehand, Mellissa Hughes gave a very strong, definitive performance of it at the MATA Festival in April here in the US in NY, and between hearing the recordings of the premiere version, the version by Vocalaab Nederlands that’s on Vimeo and the MATA version, it’s no wonder it was one of the major moments of that festival.
DC: Mellissa made the piece hers, and thatʼs the thing. The performance speaks for itself. She did away with ideas of good and bad and went straight to rapture and cannibalism. Whatʼs most important is having that audience right there, playing off of them, demanding something from them, then playing with it more; the audience laughs, so then you smile, but then you disapprove. It was all there in the performance.
CM: The biggest difference for me is that Mellissa uses the instrument a lot heavier, plus she has a much more over-the-top performance of the character (that moment with her arms spread out is the one captured by the NY Times, of course).
DC: Itʼs interesting that you say character, because this is where we’re getting, no? Performing is about finding the right interpretation based on who you are: it’s as person specific as it is site-specific. I can tell you more about how I act as director during rehearsals but, like you mentioned Cage earlier, itʼs more about making one aware of the territory I have carefully chosen, and how to enter into the intentional space that is performance. Here, itʼs clear that I’m working with intensely dramatic material, but in other works, thatʼs not so much the case.
CM: Did they all have the same instructions where to stop or pause anywhere in the piece? There is a definitive pattern where they have the same moments of silence and and there is the big wall of noise that goes on for what seems like a couple of minutes before it concludes.
DC: Yes, but certain things in the score are left for them to decide, like the exact timing. Also, the piece has two clefs: the treble clef, and a speaking-voice clef, which is unique for the way each person communicates, and how they interpret the text.
CM: Where you got the idea to have the laryngophone setting off the thunder sheets. And you’ve said you wanted to try it with a male vocalist?
DC: I’ve been working with this breakdown of text and mixing utterance since my work, “Inferno” (ten years ago). The challenge in “Position, influence” was using it to drive my sound sculpture (transducers + metal sheets). Furthermore, I needed a situation where the sound source would be upstage to the soprano, so as to create the mise-en-scène I had hoped for. This of course is impossible with air- mics because of feedback– at least for my purposes. The idea was to run some really hot piezos to do the trick. It kinda worked, but really I owe it to Yan Maresz, who told me about laryngophones (these old things, of military origins, used for an old Ferneyhough piece).
CM: I guess what you were trying to get at with Position, influence was that public speakers have such strong nuances?
DC: Yes, you hit the nail on the head! Itʼs about how speech can be deadly.
CM: I think Mellissa definitely makes the piece more like performance art than the other 2 vocalists–They were really good, but Mellissa’s blows me away!
DC: I’m really happy that you bring up performance art, because a lot of my works have this sort of paradoxical quality to them. Essentially what I’m doing is trying to create situations for musicians where they take total responsibility for the work, such that what I’ve done doesn’t matter in the end. It’s all about them, up there, performing, and clearly wanting to be there. A lot of this has to do with connecting music composition with sound poetry and theatre. It ends up a lot like performance art, depending on what material I’m using.
CM: The pieces titled “Dérive”, I take it are all part of a series (all with clarinet and cello), but why did you arrange your piece “Dérive 2” optionally both with and without electronics?
DC: The first thing is that it’s using the term “Dérive” in a psychogeographical/situationist sense. There’s a point where, if I’m using a material of bio-mechanics and extreme physical states (like circular breathing), then I need a notion of a city, of a circus; something that is planned yet unplanned at once, where unexpected encounters appear. I think of the electronics (in the case of Dérive b, a sound sculpture) as part of this background.
CM: The piece titled “…t_ho_d th_ fu_ure unt__ _he _uture _ade ba_k to th_ spot…”–Can you tell us the story behind this piece?
DC: You know, it’s funny. With a title like that, you’d expect some tragic story of a typewriter exploding. there’s not much to it, really. It’s a pretty old piece. At that time, I was just getting a grip on some of the sounds I was getting into–really unstable ones, sometimes fragile, sometimes explosive. Sounds that tell you about the player playing them, you know? I’ve always been attracted to playing things out in an overly literal way, so what I did was take a passage from Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, from somewhere in the middle of reading out loud where I felt like I was really caught up in the thing, in the page, and my breath, etc. I then took this as my musical material. If it were for a clarinetist, I probably would have varied some aspect of the performative apparatus to make variation, like embouchure. Instead, I just very literally took out part of the text’s “apparatus”, as if it were a person, giving it a sense of that’s not so much about meaning–but still, if you really look at it, it’s there. The truth is that I did all of this much more spontaneously back then. Now, I have too many explanations for everything I do!
…t_ ho_d th_ fu_ure unt__ _he _uture _ade ba_k to th_ spot… (additional triangles and upright bowed piano. Performed under the auspices of the Berkeley New Music Project. Emma Moon, piccolo; Leighton Fong, cello; LaDene Otsuki, pianos. David Milnes, cond.)
CM: Any pieces on the horizon you can talk about?
DC: I’ve been dreaming up some big projects and proposals with some ensembles that I’m very excited to work with, but it’s this professional thing, where everything needs to find its successful grant or festival before it can happen and I can talk about it. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying my time in Gent, and finishing up a handful of projects, ranging form a symphonic work, to small ensemble pieces, and some solo works. On top of that, I’m in the middle of writing some theoretical texts based on my own work. So you see, it’s all happening quickly right now. The best I can suggest is to ask me again near the end of the summer and the end of the year. I’ll have more to say then for sure.