Mia Cioffi Henry spoke with Laurie Spiegel about performing without an imaginary audience, the importance of losing track of time, why limitation is the vehicle of expression and why making art isn’t like following a recipe.
I don’t know if I could be really fully into the process of making the music if I felt it would be heard and judged. Composing is a private process.
Mia Cioffi Henry
Your music commands attention and concentration to me. I find my thoughts intensified and purposeful when I am listening to your albums. Can you tell me about who you imagine your audience to be? Describe the person that listens to your music and the conditions under which it is heard, terrestrial or not.
This is a hard question to answer because I really don’t think I think the way you think I think. It’s like you’re assuming that I make music as a communication to some imaginary other being, as though I’m always playing to some imaginary audience. But when I make music the relationship is pretty much entirely between me and the sounds and the tools I am using and nothing beyond them. I am immersed in the process of doing and in the sounds.
Maybe your question fits better if asked to a performer, someone who plays to an audience. It doesn’t really fit if I just spend time alone in my studio composing, not performing.
The exception is when I am working on a soundtrack or dance score or otherwise creating for a specific person who has asked me for music. Then I try to give them what they ask for. But generally I don’t think in terms of a final product or who might ever listen to it if anyone does or about anyone else’s reactions. I make music for myself and it’s a bonus if it turns out to be meaningful to and wanted by other people.
I suppose this goes along with the fact that I tend to be abysmally bad about getting my music out into the world. That just isn’t something I’m into, getting stuff out there and experiencing people’s reactions. The existence of a musical work out in public as a thing in itself, even as a product, that has nothing to do with composing. A finished musical composition is an artifact that results from the process of doing the music.
But I do try to listen from outside of myself. When I’m working on a piece, I try to listen as though I’ve never heard it even when I’ve been listening to and working on the materials for quite awhile, to try to hear it as though I’m an audience instead of its maker. I listen for any moments when my concentration or involvement seem to flag then I work on those spots, to make the material more consistently involving. But that’s still for myself, according to what feels most musically satisfying to me. I am not envisioning an audience.
Can I describe who listens to my music? That’s a question about public presentation, not about music. I really don’t really think about it. I’m often surprised who turns out to like my work.
Turning the question back on you, can you describe who your readership is? Probably, because you’re doing a publication that is concerned with stuff like building an audience, something I’ve actually tended to avoid even thinking about.
I’ve often thought that I should take more of an interest in getting music out into the world and building more of an audience, but it just isn’t me to want to think about that. I suspect it would be inhibiting to my creativity too, to be aware that there might be listeners who have reactions to whatever I’m working on. I don’t know if I could be really fully into the process of making the music if I felt it would be heard and judged. Composing is a private process. Privacy gives me more freedom. Nope. I don’t want to think about listeners.
I want to be free to get into a state of obsession with the music, so the channels of my mind can be holding and processing what I’m composing and not be all clogged up with other information.
Can you list the steps you must take before composing a song or performing your music?
You mean as though pretending there is a recipe to follow? Hmm. We’re talking about a creative process, right? So there aren’t any specific procedures laid out one after another as steps to be followed. Every piece is different. Every process of making one is unique to that piece. Each happens in its own way. I suppose there are people who do creative work by formula but I’m not one of them. And if you get to the point where you have it down to a formula, is that really still being creative?
Sometimes I might start by playing around with materials and seeing what grows out of them, or with a general structure I want to fill in with material, or with some feeling or emotion I have a need to document or externalize, or with a process I want to try following to see what it leads to, or with whatever sounds just happen to come out of the motion of my hands on a musical instrument, or sometimes a musical idea will start to take form inside my imagination or I might hear some noise or sound that sort of beckons me to build on it. It’s experimentation. You follow the music where it leads. Some experiments work. Most end up just being abandoned.
That being said, usually the first stage of making music involves making coffee or tea and cleaning up my studio or working area. These are a non-verbal processes that leave my mind free to work on and decide about what the specifics are where I’m going to start. And, very importantly, I need to clear a period when I can lose track of time so I can concentrate very fully before I try to compose. It’s not really concentrating if you’re watching a clock.
Speaking of time, although sometimes I can improvise and record and there it is, a finished composition. As in most of the tracks on my CD Unseen Worlds, there are other pieces that I come back to, having left them unfinished, sometimes for decades, because I hit a wall, and only quite awhile later do I find the solution for whatever is wrong with them or that I couldn’t see yet where they wanted to go next.
Other pieces can take form at their own pace in my mind over an extended period, weeks or months. Then, at some point I can go to the studio and within a very short time, realize what I’ve been thinking in recordable or notatable sound. It’s as though I composed the piece very fast, but actually almost all the composing was done before I even started doing anything that looks like actual composing.
It’s hard to do the in-the-mind thing when there can be hundreds of email and text messages, phone calls, etc. coming in during a day and also pressures from whatever directions. Ideally, I work best with unscheduled time and nothing coming at me that wants my attention or ties up my mind. I want to be free to get into a state of obsession with the music, so the channels of my mind can be holding and processing what I’m composing and not be all clogged up with other information. In our current info-rich world, this rare state is increasingly a luxury.
I find the visual language of your program Music Mouse to be as important and satisfying as the sounds it produces. What role do you think visuals play in your music?
You are elevating it beyond what it is by calling it a “visual language.” In Music Mouse, the visuals are simply a GUI (graphical user interface) to some of the parameters of musical sound. Music Mouse is a sort of a multidimensional music theory space that is available to move around in using a combination of computer input devices. With the Amiga version there were more visual options than for that era’s Atari or Mac, both monochrome computers at the time that I did MM. The Amiga had color controls and MM had additional display modes. But those visuals were still mainly just to help conceptualize what you are playing, and to be able to see where you are, what notes of the scale you hear, how the parameter values are currently set. I’ve done some software along the lines of making “visual music”, but Music Mouse wasn’t it.
Just as language determines how we conceptualize and think, the limitations of a musical medium or instrument are the vehicles for our sonic thought.
As a cinematographer, I love the challenges that my medium imposes, the limitations of film stock and sensors, output of a light, the sun rising or setting. These parameters make me work smarter and with a certain amount of discipline. How does your choice of medium as an artist effect you and what are some of your favorite limitations or challenges?
Just as you point out, the nature of the medium has a tremendous effect, right down to the most granular level. Laying sounds down on tape is completely different from writing notes on staff paper. The aesthetic domain of the flute is quite different from the piano’s. Playing one guitar or another one, each has its own voice and inspires with different musical ideas. Even the same guitar with different strings can lead to different music, listening closely and following each sound with what feels right as the next sound.
Musical instrument design such as Music Mouse is an exercise in introspection. You go round after round, making changes to the instrument then playing it, which tells you how you want to change it next. In each round of this cycle you keep refining your sensitivity to what you need and want to do, down to a more and more sensitive level. It’s a learning experience, a process of increasing self-awareness. You set limits, defining an instrument, an experiential space, and those limits are guidelines, maybe even guard rails that music will stay within, but on a road that can lead down many paths. You have to allow enough freedom but also support the player with constraints so there isn’t an overload of details to interfere with the sense of musical momentum. You select which decisions, which controls, the player will be actively focusing on, or you give the players a way to do that for themselves.
It’s like the Sapir-Whorfian hypothesis in linguistics. Just as it posits that language determines how we conceptualize and think, the limitations of a musical medium or instrument are the vehicles for our sonic thought.
Lastly, you have a very impressive collection of musical instruments, records, computers, toys, etc. What is the importance of collecting this things to you? If you were building your own time capsule, what objects would you include?
Geez, how big a time capsule can I have? Big enough for my whole loft? What would I include? Everything! If I had to select, is there a Bach in our own times whose work I can put in it? I don’t think I can answer that question, but I suspect I will think more about it.
What’s the importance of collecting creative tools? To both use and to preserve them, and also because I tend to love them of course. They each embody a domain of creative potential unique to their individual selves.
Curated by: Mia Cioffi Henry
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: November 29, 2017
Total questions: 5
Word count: 1827
Reading time: Seven minutes
Nature of media: Crucial
Experimentation: Mixed bag
Atari, audience, channel, coffee, composition, computer, creation, determination, graph, graphical user interface, instrument, introspection, language, Laurie Spiegel, Macintosh, media, mind, music, Music Mouse, nature, noise, obsession, product, readership, recipe, record, Sapir-Whorfian hypothesis, tea, technology, toy, Unseen Worlds, visual
About the guest curator
Mia Cioffi Henry is an American cinematographer who lives and works between New York City and Pescara, Italy. She travels all over the world to shoot movies, commercials and music videos which have premiered in major film festivals such as Sundance and Berlinale. With a background in dance and still photography, Ms. Cioffi Henry is inspired by Sirkian Melodrama, the work of William Eggleston and fantastical light in everyday life.
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