Interview with Chris Mercer

Nina Dante : Your works often involve electronics, so I find it interesting that this piece revolves around finding acoustic means (i.e. three assisting manipulating the innards of the piano) to extend the abilities of a traditional instrument, a role that electronics would "normally" play. Why did you chose to take this path for Octoid? Beside the obvious, how does the final result differ from using electronic means?

Chris Mercer : At the time I wrote Octoid (2003-4), I was trying to reconcile a computer music mindset with a “notational” mindset.  I was wedding a sonic sensibility gained from staring at spectral and waveform displays with quasi-serial combinatorial strategies; deterministic, grid-oriented rhythmic operations; layered parametric thinking in the instrumental writing.  Nowadays I really do think like a computer musician.  That means, among other things, that I conceive of pitch as a subset of “spectrum,” not as a central organizational category, and I don't think of rhythm in terms of a grid (or if I do, it's in terms of a millisecond- or sample-resolution grid whose units are not assumed to be appreciable as a “beat”).  So this piece differs from purely electroacoustic work in that it has a lot of pitch-based and “rhythmic grid” thinking.  It also has a notion of musical “gesture” partly adapted from the language of New Complexity.

Maybe you could call what I was doing Lachenmannian in the sense of musique concrète  instrumentale, but it lacked Lachenmann's critique, and that's a crucial distinction.  I was really going back before Lachenmann to the musique concrète source, i.e. the concept of a “syntax of sound objects” pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer in his wax disc and tape compositions in the 40s and 50s.  So despite its acoustic realization and its exacting notation, Octoid has a central organizational concept that originates in electroacoustic music.  [I wrote an article in 2003 on this very concept in reference to another idealistic quartet of mine.]

The result is, perhaps paradoxically, less naturalistic and more “controlled” than most of my electroacoustic work.  In computer music, I tend to explore and reveal things about the underlying nature of sound objects.  The compositional processes in Octoid, by contrast, tend to impose lots of constraints that frustrate the natural development of the sonic material, cutting sounds off in midstream, switching abruptly between sound objects, extending textures or actions uncomfortably.  It seems I'm nicer to my material in pure computer music!

ND : The title of this piece Octoid conjures so many interesting images. The first that comes to my mind of course is an octopus, but I could also see this being performed as a tyrannical showcase, manipulators controlling the pianist or vice versa. How did you envision the role of the pianist versus the role of the three manipulators?

CM : If anything, the keyboardist has actually relinquished a lot of control, no longer being able to completely shape the sounding result and being forced to count on someone else to “be there” on time.  The only tyrant here is the damn click track!  In that respect, the keyboardist is on the same ruthless treadmill as everyone else.

I think the piece ends up as a mixture of a keyboardist-plus-assistants model and a four-distinct-players model.  Much of the time, the piece is a legitimate quartet with separate lines of activity.  A lot of the performative fun occurs, however, when there's a lot of assisting going on—the keyboardist collaborates with the other players to produce a sort of ever-shifting prepared piano.  That's when it's the most like an octopus.  So you're watching this creature splitting into parts and then reforming into an eight-armed beast...and lots of states in between.

ND : Could you tell me about the many objects that the three assistants will be using inside the piano? Did you choose them in groupings to create specific categories of sounds, and if so, what significance does each category have within the piece as a whole?

CM : That's right, I was trying to come up with a set of sound categories that could be physically manipulated with clear sounding results.  I wanted to physicalize the whole process of developing gestural material.   Hopefully, the listener can really hear the parametric knobs and sliders moving as the performers manipulate the various playing implements.  Things like buzzers, fans, metal/glass vibrating against the strings, etc. really announce their physicality, and you can hear a lot of grain in speed or pressure manipulations with those devices.  I think it helps to make the gestural syntax clearer when you can hear the parametric manipulation in such a raw way.  Each time a sound category returns, it takes on a new physical profile, and the global effect is that of gnarled and twisted gestural “sentence structures.”

ND : What inspired you to write this piece? Solo piano is of course a classic genre, but then add three assistants dedicated to manipulating the guts of the piano... you have something entirely new.

CM : I think that “something entirely new” is exactly what I was going for, as opposed to a comment on or development of traditional solo piano music.  To some extent, the idea grew out of a piece I had done the previous year for prepared piano.  In that piece, every single key is prepared.  I learned a lot about the inside of the piano doing that piece (!), and I realized that it might be interesting if you had someone changing the preparations during the actual piece.  So it's really like an extension of the old prepared piano idea.  But in the course of creating the piece, I began to think of the four players as a real quartet, at least some of the time, and not just assistants.

It's true there's an odd little “piano six hands” moment at the keyboard that feels like a bit of a wink at the audience—“Hey, it's a piano piece after all!”  But even that moment was primarily about getting the multi-handed beast to reform in a surprising way, sort of ticking off another practical combination of hands and gestures.