Q&A: Local Composer David Smooke on the League of the Unsound Sound, March 20 at the Windup Space
On Sunday night the latest experimental music endeavor with firm Baltimore roots makes it local debut. Co-organized and -founded by local composer and musician David Smooke, the League of the Unsound Sound is a loose ensemble dedicated not only to exploring new composed music and improvisation, but to advocating for both of those camps occupying the same new music space. With a core membership of celebrated musicians—percussionist Tim Feeney, who currently teaches at Cornell University’s Department of Music; Peabody bassist Michael Formanek; Alarm Will Sound bassoonist and Ohio University School of Music assistant professor Michael Harley; Courtney Orlando, another fearless Alarm Will Sound member and a Peabody faculty violinist; founding International Contemporary Ensemble violist and Syracuse Symphony Orchestra member Wendy Richman; composer/toy pianist Smooke; and Peabody almuna/faculty member and pianist Shirley Yoo–LotUS kicked off its 2010-’11 debut season in October in Erie, Pa. It has since performed in Fredonia, N.Y., and performs March 19 at Catholic University before the March 20 Baltimore debut at the Windup Space.
The evening’s program includes a sound installation by composer Michael Boyd; an improv set with guests Susan Alcorn (pedal steel guitar), trumpeter Dave Ballou, and local reeds MVP John Dierker; and a repertoire including Sofia Gubaidulina’s Quasi Hoquetus, the local premieres of local composer Ruby Fulton’s “Half the Way Down,” Smooke’s “21 Miles to Coolville,” Catholic University’s Stephen Gorbos’ “Selfish Houses on Blood Strange Roads,” and the world premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ Toft Serenade.
City Paper met up with Smooke, who earned his masters degree at the Peabody Institute in the mid-1990s and has been a Peabody faculty member for four years, at a Mount Vernon coffee house to talk about LotUS’ formation and debut season and future—”I want to get through this season and see how it goes before firming up what it’ll be for next year,” he says—and ended up having a lively discussion about experimental music inclusiveness, composers as gateway drugs, the history of rock, and finding audiences in the 21st century.
City Paper: So tell me a little bit about how the League of the Unsound Sound got organized and why it got organized and that sort of thing.
David Smooke: It originally began with conversations between Courtney [Orlando] and me. We’ve been together on Peabody faculty going on four years now. And from when I first started there we had some mutual friends and from the very start we’ve been talking about how to increase the presence of new music at Peabody. And we tried various different ways of thinking about that and then gradually came up with this idea of a flexible ensemble that we kind of started together and then it became more something that she wanted to be a part of but not so much organize. And so then the organization fell onto me.
CP: When you say y’all talked about wanting to bring new music to Peabody, was that something that, not Peabody specifically, but institutions in general have been slower to focus on? I know in general it can be difficult to focus on new music whatever the format.
DS: It’s not so much the exposure because Peabody has been fantastically supportive. It’s more in terms of the access, where Peabody is centered around the orchestra and because of that there are certain structural things where the orchestras are the main things that Peabody does and there’s a lot of organization that goes into that and a lot of resources that goes into that. And so when that’s where the organization and resources are going, the question is then how do you fit in the other things that the students want to do but that are taking away from the central mission of the organization, if that makes sense.
CP: When you say the organization of the League of the Unsound Sound fell upon you, did you already have performers and repertoire in mind?
DS: Yes, this group of performers came out of conversations with [Orlando] and me and also then with some other people that I worked with for years and admired for years. And the difficulty with that is, these are all amazing players and incredible people and some of the world’s best performers, but they are kind of scattered all over the Eastern seaboard.
CP: And I can imagine very busy in their own right.
DS: Exactly. For example, with this concert, two of the performers who are playing on Sunday, after we had booked this they got calls saying, “Oh, we’d love to see you come out to Berlin and have a German tour,” and they said, “Sorry, we’re playing the Windup Space on Sunday.” But everyone has been great to work given these structural issues, and when everyone does get together there’s a very nice frisson. And the other thing, with this flexibility, I have this idea of there’s a core ensemble of people who will be playing with us over and over again, but then the idea of it being a league means that we can pull in other people. And so for this concert, Mike Formanek, who is very much part of the core, solicited a few improvisors from Baltimore to come play.
CP: Was new music and improvisation part of the League’s organizing idea?
DS: As a matter of fact, I would actually take a little bit of an issue with the whole idea of new music and improvisation. I feel that’s a real problem with the experimental music community because it’s all experimental music. It’s all together and yet there’s this dividing line between the communities for some unknown reason.
CP: That line being between contemporary composition and improvisation?
DS: Yes. And what I’ve found is that the improvisation community tends to reach out out to the written community a bit more than the written community reaches out the other way. The improvisation community tends to have really open ears and much more supportive audiences. And especially in Baltimore you have these incredible resources and places, like the Windup Space and 2640 Space, and various places around in the community, the Out of Your Head collective and various groups of improvisors who are absolutely open to hearing new music. And so it seems completely natural to invite the two worlds to come together a little bit—especially since Mike Formanek and Courtney Orlando and Tim Feeney are very much in both worlds.
CP: That totally makes sense. Now, I need to preface this with the fact that I have really only started to try to follow contemporary composition over the past decade, so my knowledge base is extremely limited. And because I don’t read music, without hearing new music in person my access to what it might sound like is very tiny. So I’m not sure if this impression is only because I’ve been paying more attention more recently, but I get the impression that there has been more effort in the past 5 to 7 years in people trying to present new music–not just in terms of things like the Windup Space, Mobtown Modern, and the Red Room, but venues like Le Poussin Rogue in New York and new music ensembles forming and touring and that sort of thing.
DS: It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in new music because of that very phenomenon. There are so many young performers who just don’t want to play the classics full time. I mean, everyone loves the classics and we all want to play the classics, but we want to keep the art vital and keep it moving forward. And most people who are entering classical music [now], they grew up listening to Radiohead and Björk and Dirty Projectors—to pick someone who [Orlando] has worked with—and Dan Deacon and Matmos. Groups like that are who are bringing people into the classical world. So, then, to be able to excite those young performers you find it in the experimental realm. That’s my background.
CP: So would you say this activity is performer, artist, and audience driven?
DS: I think it’s a matter of knowing the audience is there because that’s where we come from. For me, starting off, I was a goth. I know, it’s hard to imagine purple bangs and all that stuff.
DS: Los Angeles—so it was also that whole postpunk hardcore thing as well, the Minutemen and fIREHOSE as well. Then, when I heard George Crumb and [Anton] Webern and [Edgar] Varèse, it was one of those Frank Zappa things of recognizing, “Oh, these are related.” So I know there’s an audience out there of people who want to hear exciting music with an edge. I know it’s a smaller audience than are going to go to an orchestra concert or to hear Britney Spears, but there’s an audience.
CP: So for you, Varèse and Webern hit a place in the ears that postpunk and goth were at the time?
DS: Yes. I guess Brian Eno was the figure who was straddling both worlds. Because Brian Eno and David Byrne did a collaboration with [theater director] Robert Wilson around the time I was in high school, and Robert Wilson got me into Philip Glass. And then Philip Glass was the—the first drug that gets you hooked?
DS: Yes, Glass was the gateway drug. Although that’s not at all what I do anymore.
CP: It was just that thing that opened a door into a different world through which you found your own course.
DS: Well, eventually. And that’s the thing about the improvised world—they don’t draw those distinctions. And as a lot of the groups like Alarm Will Sound and So Percussion and Mobtown Modern, also aren’t drawing that distinction. Todd Reynolds came out last week, and it’s really no different from Kraftwerk. So more and more people are saying it’s music and we write music so let’s just do it all—like the 1971 concert. So that’s the idea for this—it’s experimental music, but it’s just music.
CP: So have how you gone about programming the League’s repertoire and that sort of thing?
DS: The nice thing about this has been from the beginning, the moment people heard about who these players were getting together, composers all over world, really, came out of the woodwork and I started getting communications from people. So a lot of it has been a balance of trying to include local people and brand new pieces, because there’s nothing written for this ensemble, so we want to try to build some pieces that we can play as a group. And the ensemble itself really formed around the Sofia Gubaidulina piece, which is a trio for viola, bassoon, and piano.
And then Ruby Fulton—who is local to Baltimore, a former student of mine, and a former teaching assistant for a rock music class I teach at Homewood—was the first composer I contacted. I adore her music and is someone with a very distinctive voice and who just lives and breathes this idea of musical inclusivity. And so those two pieces really started the whole idea, and then it was a matter of figuring out how to fill in things around it. So for this concert we’ll be doing the world premiere of a piece by a Catholic University composer, which was composed for this concert and involves staging elements and improvisational elements, so it pulls together all the ideas of the ensemble. And also a new piece by a composer named Michael Boyd, who used to be based in Baltimore and is now in Pittsburgh, and that’s going to be a sound installation that will involve movement and improvisation and recordings.
But I like this idea of the inclusivity of art because musicians, too often, we separate ourselves from all the other arts. But we are artists working in the 21st century, so we can think about bringing other genres of art, in addition to music, together.
CP: That makes sense. You mentioned that when the League started forming composers started contacting you, and that’s just one of those things that I never considered—the network of people doing that has developed in the same way that virtual and real-world underground networks of people developed in, like, postpunk independent American music.
DS: Well its not that big of an audience. And that’s one of those things that I absolutely adore about the internet, these very small communities can really stand together. I don’t kid myself—I know there’s maybe a few hundred to a little more than a few hundred people worldwide who might possibly dig the music I do. But because of the internet I’m able to reach about 80 percent of them—or at least find them, and they’re able to find me. Whereas before, 10 or 15 years ago, there was this sense of floundering and feeling of reinventing the wheel and feeling that it was impossible to reach the audience.
CP: That’s one of the things that’s, to me, been really fun to watch during this wholesale disintegration of the conventional music marketplace is that, yeah, maybe genres like jazz and improvisation and such were a little behind the MySpace DIYing of indie rock and such, but once those artists did that rapidly amplified the access people had to it. If you’re interested, you can find it much easier now.
DS: I was reading some figure recently that I believe said 1 percent of the recordings sold accounts for 80 percent of all recording sales in the United States. So it’s a very consolidated distribution of wealth, as it happens to be throughout the United States, but when you’re not part of that 1 percent, you are still able to reach an audience.
And that’s the thing I love about Baltimore. It’s the most welcoming city I’ve ever been in for experimental arts. So, obviously, anything where you’re not part of that 1 percent is going to be a labor of love but I also feel that in this community there are people who will understand that and dig it and be there.
CP: So you teach a rock music history class at Homewood?
DS: Yes. About six years ago Peabody began a Peabody at Homewood program, so we now administer a music minor on the Homewood campus and some general interest classes as well. So this class is through that.
CP: One semester?
DS: It’s one semester, it’s called Introduction to Popular Music, with the emphasis being on rock music, and it’s incredibly fun to teach—because it’s about the relationship between this music and society and I’ve learned so much about how music has developed. Before I started teaching this class I don’t think I had any real sense as to how quickly rock music developed. In 1954 you have Elvis going into the recording studio for the first time and in 1967 you have the Beatles doing Sgt. Pepper’s. So it boggles the mind.
And popular music these days is so fragmented, what’s out there, and yet when you look back 20 or 30 years, you can see everything comes from a couple of different strains. So I like the idea of giving students who already like this music a different perspective on it.
CP: Where do you start?
DS: I start in minstrelsy.
CP: Oh that’s smart. Having been out of college for so long I forget how much you can cover in a semester.
DS: What I do is all this background history in two weeks, with the idea being that because minstrelsy was the very first popular music in the United States that achieved worldwide renown. And then I get into folk music and the folk music revival—I think it’s important for them to know that Stephen Foster was writing for people wearing black face. So we kind of follow a couple of different paradigms we see throughout the semester. One is that art starting out as an underground art and gradually reaching the mainstream, and as it reaches the mainstream fragmenting and either becoming corporate or moving to the experimental. And you see that with the minstrelsy, you see that with ragtime, you see that with jazz, you see that with rock. And then also how the underground movement tends to be African-American being co-opted by the white society. So it’s set up in a way that hopefully gets students out of their comfort level a little bit.
CP: How is their music knowledge coming into class? I mean, they’re obviously coming in with some interest, but as a longtime music listener, when talking to younger people I’m often surprised at what they do know but also surprised at what they don’t know.
DS: Yeah. There are certain bands that remain kind of cultural touchstones, like the Beatles. But then their knowledge of the roots are generally just not there anymore. And I think a lot of the younger generation is growing up with an ahistorical perspective where everything took place at the same time. Even with my classical Peabody students sometimes will have difficulty with the idea that Bach and Brahms were hundreds of years apart, that’s there’s a huge space between them. So when things move that quickly [in rock] and many things can happen in five years, it’s kind of impossible to expect them to have a sense of that history.
Our parents’ generation grew up with that first era of rock ‘n’ roll, so my father instilled in me this great appreciation of the music of the ’50s and ’60s. So I know that repertoire. But the students today might have heard of Elvis, but not really much outside. So I often get a lot of complaints that I spend too much time on that early repertoire.
CP: I’m curious because how people consume music now shapes their perspective of it. I grew up listening to my parents’ records before I bought my own, so I know my Motown and Stax and Volt and Tamla. But if I had kids I’m not sure they would even go to my records because that’s not how they listen to music. The CD was born during our lifetimes but in some ways it’s obsolete to some music consumers. So even the personal experience of what you listen to when and how has changed and I have no idea how that shapes somebody’s music timeline—or if that really matters.
DS: Well, just look at sampling. Students know Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” but they know it through Kanye West. So a lot of the artists who are doing the sampling, they have incredible historical knowledge, but the people listening to it hear all this music happening right now.
CP: Right now, in my earbuds, from this one playlist. That’s fascinating to think about.
DS: It is fascinating. It’s an entirely different perspective. And there’s a different sense of education where, on the one hand, we don’t have this idea that Western culture is better than other cultures anymore, which is awesome. But on the other hand, with that leveling off, it’s almost as important academically to know all the plots of all The Simpsons episodes as it is to know the different Euripides plays. And of course it would be great to know everything, but how do you educate someone when everything is game?
For example, the Civil Rights era. For students now, it might as well have happened during Brahms’ time. And you try to explain that, no, Obama’s parents would not have been allowed to marry in 30 states [then]—and then draw implications from that. So then, in California, at the same time he was being elected by a landslide, they were also voting to make gay marriage illegal. During that election in California people were voting for somebody whose parents might not have been able to be married not that long ago while voting for another kind of marriage ban. And they just don’t always have a sense that these might be related.
CP: And popular music does provide a good prism through which to see the interconnected threads of the past. With something like the ’60s and Civil Rights, there’s a very potent narrative to be told through R&B, through jazz, about the American cultural fabric that becomes history as told.
DS: And the 1960s are an excellent time to come back to in this sense because in the ’60s, the Beatles really wanted to meet [Karlheinz] Stockhausen. They were very influenced by him. And now you have Matmos and So Percussion working together. You have Alarm Will Sound recording with the Dirty Projectors. And some of my friends in the New York scene were recording with Esperanza Spalding. And I didn’t know who she was until I started seeing pictures on Facebook of my friends backstage at Jay Leno with her. And then she goes and beats out Justin Bieber for a Grammy.
So now, again, there is this sense that it is all just music. Of course, this is the 99 percent that accounts for 20 percent of all the record sales, but at the same time as popular music—or maybe popular is the wrong term—as parts of that 1-percent world become marginalized, it’s almost like we’re able to reach out a hand and say, “It’s OK. We’re here—and you can have artistic freedom.”
The League of Unsound Sound plays the Windup Space March 20. Sound installation opens at 3 p.m. and improv set begins at 5 p.m. Suggested donation $10; students free.