In some experimental music circles melody is virtually verboten, but you have often embraced it in your work. Do you feel that you are to some extent going against the grain in this?
AG: First off, I think melody can be defined separately from harmony. I think of melody as a single voice or layer, and with multiple layers, I like them to overlap in non-structured ways. I am interested in homophony more than polyphony or harmony, where if you take a cross-section through these independent lines you might see something like texture or harmony, but it is not intentional. In a way, that cross-section is your soundscape. So where a lot of music is focused on the texture or cross-section, laying it flat and mapping out a scene, I think of my work and Fraufraulein’s work as passing through a number of views of this same scene, rotating around it or watching it at different times of day. A lot of the melodic content I have generated and used in the past comes from found elements, be they transcribed speech or heavily-processed resonances. A lot of works I discovered in college, while working on my undergraduate thesis, got me started on this path. Heiner Goebbel’s Hashirigaki, Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, Akira Rabelais. Some work Billy was doing at the time with answering machine messages.
I think one of the reasons melody is shunned is because there is this idea that it is programmatic, or it has to imply a narrative. But when you think about it, composers like John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown all have these melodic fragments in their work that have an eerie absence of context that heightens the experience. And what we are doing in our work, like any kind of collage on paper, creates a somewhat arbitrary meaning by juxtaposition, but it is definitely not program music. There are no Wagnerian themes, or characters assigned to the melodies. When I use transcribed speech, for example, different instruments are playing different harmonics from the same syllable. Lines from different characters are played as a single melody by one instrument.
Now that I’m talking about this, I realize that one thing that would be really cool is to hybridize this, take the traveling melodies to a certain point in time and stop, stretch it out, move into cross-section. Suddenly melody becomes texture and stops for a while, before moving back into the chronological stream. Maybe that will be worth trying in the future!
Yes, do it! Moving on to Extinguishment itself, are the three pieces conceived as ‘movements’ in one work, or are they each separate compositions?
BG: Our process in creating this album was not fixed, but iterative, with the goal being coherent and intuitive, rather than being guided by a compositional conceit. These pieces started with performance - recording, rendering ideal materials (“good sound”) - and later passing through stages of editing, arrangement and eventually titles and descriptions. This doesn’t feel like an arbitrary assignment, rather a structure that reveals itself naturally after the elements are in place. This process has come about gradually through years of playing together. We often start our sets with a rough idea or image, one of us usually says “I will start with this material” and we have sorted a signal which means “we should wrap this up,” but otherwise we let a performance develop as it will.
On this album, each track stems from discrete improvisations. While the pieces retain identities they use a common language which ties them together as an album. Each track began with a recording from a dedicated session which was layered and combined with live recordings from our tour last summer, so each session take was paired with one tour take. Additional raw material was added while we were editing.
AG: A note on the title: as we were wrapping up this process we came across a concept called socionics, which seemed to resonate with what we were doing. Socionics appears to describe the psychology of interpersonal relations. In particular, the relation of “extinguishment” described quite closely our experience of creating this album. Our understanding of this concept is that extinguishment occurs between two very similar individuals who share an idea, but approach it in different ways or come to different conclusions. This difference creates the collaboration in our practice.
That’s nice; I suspect socionics could generally provide a much richer set of tools for exploring authorship in experimental music than the received notion of the composer creating in splendid isolation. It’s interesting that – on the pieces on Extinguishment at least - you use improvised material as the starting point for the process of composition that you describe. In theory you could work in a similar way, but using pre-composed fragments, or found musical material (similar to the way you use field recordings). Is there a quality to improvised material that particularly attracts you?
BG: Our most salient sonic dialogue tends to arise from a subconscious, instinctive response while listening to each other and our environment. Practically speaking, the more we try to control our output, the less interesting it gets, although we often benefit from some simple yet flexible boundaries. Of course, this pure stream-of-consciousness material still requires editing, shaping and layering after the fact. Working with improvised material is similar to working with field recordings, in that it produces a large chunk of audio we can mine for novel and resonant events/timings that wouldn’t be available through a more traditional means of composition. As a duo, we come to ideas through practice and performance, not as much by creating in isolation. We don’t have a particular statement we are trying to make. We have a practice through which a space for expression is formed, and that is where we feel most articulate.
Excerpt from Billy Gomberg and Anne Guthrie interview.