Do you find it easier to write music inspired by other pieces of art or the natural world?
I really can't say. Ideas just emerge. For example, recently I was listening to the radio and heard a report about manufacturing in China and the exploitation of Nigerian workers. During that sad story, I heard the sounds of boxes being packed, and it inspired me to go into the studio and record myself packing boxes with tape, and ripping, cutting and scrunching tape. The result is a piece called Tape Music.
Tape Music also has a particular musical meaning—in the early days of electronic music magnetic tape was used for recording. One had to cut and tape each bit of tape, and it was frustrating to say the least. My own Tape Music is a meditation on the sonic qualities of throwaway items in a society that throws away so much.
What are some of the favorite compositions you've written or projects you've worked on, and why?
Certainly one of my favorite projects is Rotunda, a collaboration with filmmaker Robert Arnold, whom I met when we were fellows at the Rockefeller Bellagio Center in Italy. It started with my sitting in my office in Old Cabell Hall, looking at the Rotunda and Lawn and feeling as though I were watching a movie unfold. The idea came to me to make a film based on a year's worth of images from a fixed point, with music to be created from recordings I would make during the same period. In the end we collected over 300,000 images, and I made thousands of sound files from ambient recordings and interviews. If anything, the project drew me closer to the meaning of the place, and to the original idea of the library rather than a church as the central locus of learning. Part of project's DVD sales proceeds go to the Rotunda restoration fund.
I also love composing orchestral and choral music. An example of the former is Piping the Earth, which resulted from a chance attendance at a lecture on the ancient philosopher Chang Tzu. There was a passage that talked about how wind passing through different areas sounds very different, yet it is always wind.
Finally, creating my folk oratorio, COAL, was an amazing experience. COAL was inspired by the lore and culture of coal mining in West Virginia and was commissioned by the Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Arts Partners program. I spent a great deal of time researching archives and traveling throughout the state, meeting with miners, mine owners, labor lawyers and all kinds of other people. This was a project that involved a great deal of interaction with all segments of the community. In the end, I wrote my own libretto and scored the piece for chorus, Appalachian band and synthesizer. Pete Vigour, a terrific old-time musician in Charlottesville, was tremendously helpful in navigating the path between classical and old-time traditions.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I'm working on a special project, Being in Time, sponsored by a UVA Arts in Action grant. The piece is scored for the UVA Wind Ensemble with interactive electronics, including an interactive video, generated from data picked up by microphones that read the amplitude and activity level of the performers. It's quite a complex project. The premiere will be in April 2014.
Which musicians and composers inspire or influence you?
There are so many! Lavista to Ligeti; Monk (Thelonious and Meredith) to Mahler to Memphis Minnie—I could list many more. I listen to a huge variety of music and am influenced by equally diverse sources. I'm also influenced by and participating in the experimental work being done on rhythm perception in the Kubovy Perception Lab here at UVA. I'm fascinated by how we perceive and are moved by rhythm, and how it lies at the core of so much music throughout the world, both geographically and historically.
What have you been listening to lately?
I've been listening to a great deal of choral music as I develop a new course on choral composition. Pieces include such early music as Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis to modern pieces including Hands Free by Anna Meredith to Aglepta by Arne Mellnäs. Oh, and lots of other music, including Hurt by Nine Inch Nails.