In 2014 I was sleeping, on average, four hours a night. I had been a champion sleeper all my life and then one day I simply became bad at it -- it was a watershed year in both my academic and musical life and I couldn't shut my mind off at the end of the day, and irritation at being unable to sleep only compounded the situation. It began to interest me that insomnia, mania, anxiety, hallucinatory states, and the agonizing non-time of restless nights have been thematic red meat for card-carrying musical modernists for at least the last 120 years. They’ve also, curiously, been areas that metal music has explored productively — in music by bands like The Locust, Krallice, Isis, Celestial Season, to name just a small off-the-cuff handful. For my part, I was starting to work on music for a double drums/double guitar noise band drawing inspiration from both of those worlds; I also was doing research for my dissertation and spending a lot of time thinking a lot about asceticism and trance states, and musical cultures which prioritize these in both the making and receiving of music. I was particularly moved by two sources; the first was Andre Leroi-Gourhan’s Gesture and Speech, which was written in 1964 and is about as prescient and far-ranging a book as one could imagine. In it, Leroi-Gourhan writes:
"In exceptional rituals—ecstatic revelations, states of possession during which individuals dance or make music highly charged with the supernatural—one of the methods employed all over the world consists in putting performers outside their daily rhythmic cycles by breaking their physiological routines with fasting and lack of sleep. The end result may be excitement of the psyche, but the starting point is visceral. The change of register cannot be brought about unless it starts in the very depths of the organism."
The second source is Judith Becker’s book Deep Listeners, which covers a huge range of material relating the social, embodied, and emotional life of musical experience to recent work in affective neuroscience and psychology. Notions of the listener as being either unitary and/or solitary, removed from culture, are duly throttled and replaced with an account that is more sensitive to the culturally and ecologically situated nature of musicking. Becker defines trance as "a bodily event characterized by strong emotion, intense focus, the loss of the strong sense of self" (43), and this experience enables access to an array of corporeal and somatic knowledge that eludes our everyday experience. An experience need not be positively valenced to be extraordinary; there is an exquisite newness that textures profoundly unpleasant experiences, and the depersonalization that starts to set in after so many restless nights is nothing if not a loss of "the strong sense of self"—perhaps a more pessimistic manifestation of this aspect of trancing, one which dwells on the loss itself rather than on whatever comes after. These can become a productive force with an aesthetic dimension that I am increasingly finding worthwhile to explore.
I started to think about insomnia, anxiety, and mania as trance states, ones which I entered as I sketched a variety of music in my cramped and dark kitchen at 3:00 in the morning. (Most of that music ended up on the Happy Place album; some of it, a set of slow and whispery pieces scored for cello, piano, percussion, and electronics, will get a debut in early 2017). But it became important to me to figure out how to transmit that complex set of affects; anxious skittery mania could, for all we know, have been a major part of the composition of Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes. I choose the word “transmit” carefully, because an affect heard and an affect felt are two different things. This isn’t trance music; it’s music born in and about a fairly expansive definition of trance. It was more important to me to make an album that conveyed these themes, perhaps coldly, than to make one that actually made a person feel a particular way -- most days I think that latter goal is utterly quixotic. In writing these pieces I thought less about techniques and textures (which are my preoccupations generally) and more about narrative and about proportion, treating the entire Happy Place album as one long song broken up into movements.
The album starts with a digitally destroyed excerpt from the guided free improvisation that concludes the album ("processional/as deer"). Between those bookends there are six songs, five of which have concise material and clock in under 4 minutes. And then the last track is 13 minutes long and covers a fair amount of ground; it’s partly a nod to the epic “side B” monster jams from 70s prog albums. But it’s also meant to feel like a shift: a pacing is established and then subverted. Proportion had been the only constant for 20 minutes of music and then “Rapture” takes a few different processes and stretches them way out. The first part of the track I won’t go into in great depth, but you can watch a live performance of it here. The band plays a homorhythmic pattern, the meter for which is an ABABC pattern of 7+8+7+8+3. That cycles for quite some time while the guitars essentially just play the pitch A across registers, plus some microtonal bends and detunings around those same notes.
I want to focus on the last 5 or so minutes of "Rapture!" because I found them agonizing to write and I’m still not completely pleased with what I ended up with; every show we played up until recording the album has included a fairly different variation on a basic idea during this section, and the final version of this section was given to the band the day before we recorded. (It's worth noting, with something bordering on reverential appreciation, that guitarists Andrew Smiley and Will Chapin read and nailed everything I put in front of them, including playing this part for the first time in the studio.) At its core is this basic progression: an ascending G lydian bassline (harmonized in open fifths) with some E major-ish chords on top.
Figure 1: Pitch reduction of Rapture 3b
I wanted a progression that felt like it could go forever, and then I wanted to flesh it out into something that did feel like it went on forever — like it was improperly proportioned, too slow. In the full-band realization, the drums have a steady and interlocking “4 on the floor” pattern that is itself somewhat hypnotic (and hypnotic to play). I wanted it to be long without turning into a hyper-repetitive post-minimalist moment, repeating a short phrase over and over again until its meaning changes. So the thinking was to write something that felt cyclic and static, but also pulsating and unpredictable. To do that I created a fairly random scheme for the rhythmic attacks so that they didn’t seem to be obviously in time with the drum loop but so that there was a vestige of evenness to the attacks. I allowed for the fifths and clusters to occur in any register (in part because fifths in particular sound "out of tune" on guitars depending on the register, which is a sound that I love); and I made sure that the two guitars swapped parts, so that there’s a kind of hocket effect between the two. Nothing was consciously systematic about my decision when to have high or low pitches or when to swap parts.
Here’s the recording:
And the score:
Figure 2: Guitar parts for Rapture 3b
Sometimes I think it works; sometimes I think it's too long; sometimes I wish it were a lot longer, and that the G lydian ascent happened twice, maybe with the second time being compressed somehow. I tried all of these things and what went on the album was what I was happiest with.
And then how to finish? There needed to be some kind of climax or coda. A reasonably obvious thing to do, in my opinion, would be a kind of grand, Romantic, post-rock pitch cloud kind of effect -- the sort of thing that Liturgy does superlatively. Lots of swells, a rubato pulse, some kind of ecstatic or triumphant harmonic progression, lots of vi chords with some added dissonances. This totally could have worked but it's something of a trope (to the extent that music this weird can have tropes) and, more importantly, I didn't want the end to feel exultant; that wasn't the kind of experience I'd been having. It needed to feel like I was feeling: sickly, weird, pulled in many directions, unclassifiable. A kind of grotesque sublime.
I wanted to keep writing using perfect fifths and clusters following the previous section, and thicken the texture, while also slowing down the harmonic action a lot. (Peroration, essentially, for emphasis.) I also wanted to return to something homorhythmic in the guitars after so much separation of the parts. The dotted eighth note pulse in the previous section had been static for almost 3 minutes; I wanted to play with the way that we start to take a steady pulse for granted. The dotted eighth is *almost* the pulse for this last section, with just a little bit of push and pull in a few parts. The metric structure mimics the opening a little bit in its ABABC division; thinking in eighth notes, it breaks down as: ||:16+12+16+12+15:||. This part is easily the hardest chunk of music on the entire album and, unlike the constantly-revised section preceding it, this part has been the same since we first started playing. I think its difficulty is audible: the physical and mental awkwardness of the part conveys, I hope, a sense of straining and exertion without being self-consciously technically virtuosic. Here it is:
Figure 3: full score for Rapture 3c
The track "Rapture" is composed by Will Mason; it appears on the band Happy Place's debut album "Northfield" due October 28th on Exit Stencil Records.
Posted September 8 2016