10 for ’10: Timothy McCormack

Timothy McCormack (b. 1984) writes high resolution music. Music of razor sharp detail, printed on aluminium. No: not that. It is music magnified too far, so that the spaces between every RGB pixel on the screen are visible. Still no: it is both these, both micro and macro. Timothy McCormack writes music that occupies a fractal world of multiple, conflicting geometries.

It has a monolithic quality, certainly, there is no narrative pull, but it nevertheless inhabits and participates in the passage of time. The monolith is neither static in space, nor within itself. Like a body whose cells replace themselves entirely every seven years, standing on a ball of fire and shifting continents, exploding to the edge of the universe at the speed of light. It’s all a question of where you look from. And yet in all locations there are still the same universals, the same forces acting in the same ways. Hyper-activity, completely caged.

The extract above is from the opening of McCormack’s The Restoration of Objects (2008), for four strings. Although McCormack’s output is still relatively small, and some compositional preoccupations are still coming into focus, this is, for me, a very accomplished piece. The sound of four string instruments, and the striated treatment of their technique, give the whole a sonic homogeneity that belies the intensity of activity beneath the surface. Again, it all depends on where you stand. As is apparent from the interview below, questions of perception are central to how McCormack writes his music.

Disfix, which ELISION will play tomorrow night, is a slightly earlier work. Scored for bass clarinet, piccolo trumpet and trombone it doesn’t have Restoration‘s sheen. Instead, however, it has a sharper grain; the margins between parameters – breath, embouchure, fingers, tongue – are wider, the difference between instrumental timbres similarly so. It leans, therefore, to the intensity of those RGB pixels, brought bright and burning right up to the eye. This video is of ELISION’s performance of this piece at Huddersfield last year. A pdf of the score may be downloaded from the link below.

Disfix – pdf score

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Timothy McCormack: There are a number of reasons why I’ve stuck with composing. When I first started seriously composing, I appreciated music’s ability to remain completely abstract and non-representational, or at least more so than other art mediums. This sentiment as been expressed many times throughout history (‘All art aspires to the condition of music’ etc. …), but it was an important early realization for me. Any mirror that music attempts to hold up to the world is a highly subjective one. Thus, I find the medium of music is more adequately described as a filter – and I find that filtering the real is more interesting than merely representing it.

Something else I find fascinating about composition is that it includes a confrontation with other artists and interpreters as a condition of its process and its completion. Meaning: my music gains its significance after having had a confrontation with a performer and listener – it does not end with the double-bar line that I write once I’m finished with the score. I view performance as a confrontation between composer, score, performer and perceiver and, in this arena, each of these forces has the ability to influence the experience. Thus, ‘the piece’ exists on many levels at once, including but not limited to: the piece as realized by the performers (taking into account their unique approach to interpreting music and the individuality of that performance); and the piece as perceived by the listener (who continues to shape their perception of the piece even after its performance has ended). I find the latter to be particularly interesting, as I think that what the listener remembers surely cannot be ‘the piece,’ but an imprint of the piece; a memory-object – something non-aural yet created from and triggered by an aural experience. The possibility of such post-musical experiences is something that my recent pieces directly address through an attempt at preemptively creating a dialogue with the perceiver’s memory and inducing a listening state in which the remembered sound is more prescribed, narrowed and in focus for the perceiver after the aural event has ended. In a way, the piece attempts to become its own self-reflexive filter, doing so to itself as would a performer and listener.

In short, I am a composer because music continues to provide objects of inquiry that I find interesting: spatiality vs. temporality; density perception; sensation; acoustics and mechanism; the performer-instrument apparatus (which I’m sure I’ll discuss later in this article). The fact that music invites the study of such divergent areas is a large reason why I continue.

Switchboard operator. Now that’s an anachronistic career.

Tim R-J: How do you think composing, being a composer, now is different from 20–30 years ago?

Tim McC: Obviously the Internet has had a huge impact on a composer’s ability to connect with performers, ensembles, listeners and other composers. But, more interestingly, I believe that the performer situation has changed in the past 20 to 30 years. It seems that more performers are getting interested in pursuing contemporary music performance at a younger age, and are engaging with it very seriously. I see more and more young performers investing a significant amount of time and employing a rather developed, advanced degree of thought into their performances and their role as contemporary music interpreters. I went to Oberlin Conservatory, which is an exclusively undergraduate school, so: students in their late teens and early twenties. There was a tremendous interest and investment in contemporary music performance practice at the school, and the students were interested and proficient enough to tackle some pretty incredible projects (I’m thinking specifically of three portrait concerts of Lachenmann as well as a fully-staged, US première of Olga Neuwirth’s opera Lost Highway). More indicative of what I’m talking about were the equally ambitious and, importantly, student-initiated solo and small chamber group projects. I use Oberlin as an example because the performers who attend are so young, but I’ve seen ambitious projects being tackled by young performers all over the place.

As a young composer, this means that the relationships I make with many of my performers become lifelong engagements, and the nature of the relationships become highly exploratory and collaborative. It is a truly special situation when both composer and performer forge such a close relationship, and develop as artists together over years. Which I suppose leads us to your next question.

Tim R-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

Tim McC: My relationship with the instruments I write for, and how I write for them, is typically a product of my personal relationship with the instruments themselves. The sound world explored in a piece is largely a consequence of the specific techniques and physical operations I myself explore with the instrument in question. That being said, working with performers is a hugely important and valuable part of my compositional process. My personal work with instruments is perhaps a testing-ground for the elements that will eventually comprise a piece of music, and it is with performers that these elements are cultivated into material able to sustain significance throughout a piece’s duration.

It is more important to me that my relationship with a performer is one that continues through multiple pieces rather than one that begins and ends with one piece. This goes equally for performers specifically for who pieces have been written as well as for performers tackling pieces not written for them. Since the basic elements of my pieces are yielded from my own private work with instruments, it is always interesting when another performer takes them on. As long as the performers or groups approaching my music do so with interest and intent, I don’t think that there can be a ‘definitive’ interpretation. The performers become mediators of the music I have written – the music bends to their personalities as artists. (Despite its apparent rigidity, my music is actually quite malleable.) Thus, ‘what happens’ when a piece is taken up by another player/group is an accumulation of significance, as it continues a dialogue between myself and the two (or more) interpretations/interpreters. In this way, the pieces I write can be seen as invitations for collaboration and discussion between myself and the performers who choose to accept them. The pieces suggest and request a long-term engagement and exploration. I believe that it is this ongoing dialogue, experimentation and collaboration with performers that takes my personal exploration of instruments from technical research to artistic endeavor.

Tim R-J: What is musical material for you?

Tim McC: Anything that I find I am able to use to circumscribe the musical territory in which a new piece may operate would be considered ‘musical material,’ even if its originally non-aural. That is, anything that suggests to me how a piece might behave (not necessarily how a piece might sound).

Though a number of forces may influence and shape a piece, it is the instrument itself, as well as the performer-instrument apparatus, that is the greatest factor in determining how a piece behaves and sounds. I view the relationship between body and instrument to be one of mediation whereby they each have the ability to articulate and actuate the other and circumscribe how each operates within the context of the other in order to create sound. The nature of this relationship has become the basis for most material in recent pieces. To narrow it even further, the actual point of contact between the body and the instrument, and the space created therein (which I conceptualize as a catastrophically violent, albeit microscopic, space), has served an increasingly more significant role as material and thus in determining both aural and behavioral aspects of the piece in progress.

Tim R-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

Tim McC: How to deal with time has always been one of the most interesting and terrifying compositional issues for me. Olga Neuwirth once said to me: ‘Every second is a decision, which is a horrible thing’. Though it resonates deeply with me, I attempt to overcome this sentiment by composing a space in which the decisions I make yield multiple relationships between gestures and events. I employ a developmental and contrapuntal approach that is deliberately interested in musical events relating to other events in a multitude of ways. In doing so, the piece becomes a three-dimensional object for me, conceptually. In such an ‘object,’ I no longer need to connect events and gestures linearly or teleologically; rather, I see the temporal flow of the piece as charting a path of exploration within a spatial territory, even if that territory is highly conceptual or aestheticized. In a way, I like to think that my pieces explore the spatiality of time, and vice-versa.  To use this approach may be a decision that is made before the piece itself, but it informs how I proceed through the compositional process.

Tim R-J: What projects are on your desk at the moment?

Tim McC: I am currently working on a new voice and trumpet work for ELISION called Map of Glass, as well as a flute solo for Richard Craig. The projected ELISION première of Map of Glass is at King’s Place next November.

Tim R-J: Here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

Tim McC: There are so many forces and influences that would have to convolve before that middle C exists. I would first need to know the instrument from which it is produced. The answer to that would then suggest what physical operations the performer and instrument are engaged in. Chances are, in the end the middle C would be pulverized, and robbed of its ‘middle C-ness’. If a wind instrument produces it, the middle C would become more a fingering than a pitch, providing a mechanical ground from which god-knows what horrible sounds would be issued; if a string instrument, it would be more a hand position than anything, and the likelihood that the hand would rest upon that middle C and that the bow would rest on the string on which it exists for any significant amount of time is slim.

All that being said, what would I do now? Probably, and generally speaking: move away from it as quickly as possible.

5 thoughts on “10 for ’10: Timothy McCormack

  1. If Tim McCormack’s compositions continue as original and expressive as his example, the possibilities are endless and the music world is in for decades of innovative and powerful pieces. SG

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