Interview with Eliot Handelman
Up the Hill
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #472, 19 June 2004. In the WGDR studio. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:15:17–1:57:51].
Eliot Handelman has been hosting Where’s the Beat? — an i“rreverent, honest, no-holds-barred presentation of contemporary classical and electroacoustic music, punctuated by discussion of related issues” — for a number of years on CKUT, McGill University Campus-Community Radio. He can regularly be found challenging established lines of thought and modes of perception on the email list cec-conference.
[Kalvos] Eliot Handelman’s here. You’ve come down from Montréal.
[Eliot Handelman] I’m not Eliot Schwartz, but I do eat at Schwartz’s, the smoked meat restaurant in Montréal.
[K] That’s a great place!
[EH] It’s one of the things that one learns to do without in Vermont.
[K] It’s yummy, I haven’t been there in years. Does it still have the big jars of pickles in the window, there? There were some huge jars of pickles.
[EH] They were sold.
[EH] I’m sorry, I couldn’t…
[K] The pickles were sold?
[EH] Yeah. No.
[K] The jars were sold?
[K] The place was sold?
[Damian] Are we… are we missing some syntax here?
[EH] Moving on to the next thing!
[K] [Laughter] Welcome, Eliot, to Kalvos & Damian.
[EH] Thank you, thank you.
[D] Wait, you come from where?
[EH] From Montréal.
[D] I see, I see, uh-huh.
[EH] Yeah. Do you have any more detail you want me to go into?
[D] Yeah, what part of Montréal?
[EH] I live in the old part of Montréal called Lachine, which means “China.” The idea was that the discoverer of Montréal, or the European discoverer of Montréal, who I think was Jacques Cartier, but it might have been Samuel de Champlain, because I’m not completely sure, and I don’t know anybody really could be. He had been commissioned to find a northwest or northeast trade route to China, and he landed up, instead, in North America. So the cynical French land grant officer decided to name the place “China,” and this is where I happen to live. The ancient fur-trading capital of North America, where canoes would paddle up the Great Lakes, the Saint Laurence River, to do battle with the frost, trap animals, skin them alive…
[K] And club baby seals, yes.
[EH] Club baby seals, yeah.
[D] And so you were drawn to this location, with the seals.
[EH] I was drawn to it for a number of reasons, the first is an instinctive native love of water, and it happens to be by the water. The second is a kind of interest in old falling-apart parts of cities, bordering on but not quite attaining to slumminess, which makes me feel very comfortable, and also connects me with a sense of interiority that I wished to pursue in moving to Lachine to begin with. I had been living elsewhere, I was everywhere. I was in New York, in California, I had spent time in Europe.
[D] All three of the places we have water, we understand.
[EH] Um, do all of these places… which places did I just name? New York has water…
[D] And California has water…
[EH] Yeah, California can be said to have water.
[D] And Europe, I understand there’s water in there. Kalvos has been there before.
[EH] Well, I lived in Berlin, which I noticed we happen to be in Berlin again. Are we? Is this, in fact, Berlin?
[K] We passed through it, but this is Plainfield now.
[EH] Oh, okay. Yeah, it doesn’t jive with my recollections of Berlin, but you know, things supposedly change.
[D] Exactly, right. They’ve imported water to Berlin.
[EH] Yeah. Berlin supposedly was — if I may throw a kind of travel fact here…
[K] We are going to be pelted with a combination of irrelevancies and…
[EH] [Laughter] Digressions, diversions and holding off as long as possible until we get to the subject of this interview.
[K] And verbal running-over of the host of the show.
[EH] Right. So let’s not mince words: Berlin had the greatest number of canals of any… no, bridges, I believe, of any other city in Europe. That was just West Berlin.
[K] The ones they rebuilt, since they were all sort of blown up about 60 years ago.
[EH] Uh, well, it’s just a city… well, I don’t know how to respond to that, but… I don’t know if it’s true or not, but Berlin is a very watery kind of city, with a lot of rivers and canals.
[K] Is it polluted?
[D] And does this affect your compositional style at all?
[EH] My compositional style?
[K] Wait, wait! We can’t get to the compositional style, this is a dangerous question. We have to go to the official biographical part.
[EH] Let’s keep digressing, let’s get into Schwartz’s smoked meat.
[K] [Laughter] Eliot Handelman’s early days…
[EH] I don’t think I can hold forth much longer on the topic…
[K] [Laughter] …as a composer, your early days, how did you get into it, where you get into it, and how did you end up in Berlin, for example?
[EH] Excellent question!
[K] In that order, please.
[EH] Yeah, okay. In that order. Okay, we’re going to have to start again, but I assume that the main line was, “How come I was interested in trying to attain my own compositional identity in a place like Berlin?”
[K] I would never ask it that way, but yes.
[EH] Okay. This partly is in one of the pieces that we might be hearing.
[D] Or might not, depending on if there’s time.
[EH] Depending on how the time goes.
[K] Who knows where it goes?
[EH] Exactly, a question I’ve been asking myself the last 20 years.
[Brief pause to fix a technical problem]
[EH] This would not be untypical of the relationship that I have with technology. Okay, so the hum is gone? Okay, well, you were asking about the pursuit of compositional identity in old Europe, an old shattered, ancient part of Europe? Which had a very specific, un-germane relation to my own ethnicity?
[EH] Uh, okay. Okay, now we’ve broken the line of thought. The answer was, I went to Berlin to try to locate myself within a whole tide of things that I seemed disconnected from, or which seemed only to have a kind of symbolic meaning to me. One was the sense of intense fascination that I have with German culture. You know, Thomas Mann, the Faust myths, that kind of thing. Now, there was the feeling that the legitimate music for me, the thing that I was most passionate about, was somehow invariably connected to Germany. German music just always felt like, you know, that was it.
[EH] Yeah, Kraftwerk, exactly. Einstürzende Neubauten. But that too has a kind of special seriousness about that… maybe, I don’t know, because I’m not that knowledgeable about that kind of music, but it has a kind of special seriousness. When Germans want to do that kind of thing, they do it very seriously. Balzac made a famous comment about Germans: When a German wants to seem elegant, he leaps out the window. Things are always done in great excess in Germany, and the kind of particular magic that we find in music, the kind of dark irrationalism that always tied me to music was something that also seemed connected with all of these different hard-to-negotiate facts of modern Germany: Holocaust, Auschwitz, the Second World War… the German soul, that kind of thing. I was just drawn to try… so I wind up studying with a Korean, Isang Yun.
[K] That… that seems appropriate, somehow.
[EH] [Laughter] Let’s… look… let’s start all over again, I’m giving you a different lecture to kill more time.
[K] No, no, you won’t…
[EH] I didn’t want to go to Europe, I wanted to go to New York, I just thought Europe would be a lot cheaper, and I went to Paris.
[K] Ah, and you were right.
[EH] And I was right, you could live incredibly cheaply in Paris at the time, in 1978. I paid, like, $50 a month for my place, and I decided that wanted to study music again, because I didn’t feel like I had studied properly the first time around, so I went to Berlin, it being a very fascinating city. I had originally hoped to work with Ligeti in Hamburg. I found Berlin more interesting, and just decided to stay, and I was there for about seven years. We’re talking ’79–86, about there. So then, after that… am I continuing with this autobiographical sweep, or do you want to interject with questions, or something like that?
[K] Yeah, another ten seconds, and then we’ll…
[EH] Yeah, we’ll listen to a little music? You want me to set up a little music?
[K] “Set up”? Well, eventually we will set up the music, but I want to sort of jump into…
[EH] I mean, I talk on the radio all the time, I have my own show, I never play my music though.
[D] We may not have to do that either.
[K] One of the things that had you invited to this show was your penchant for kind of a philosophical questioning… a constant set of philosophical questions that would pop up every time you were asked about your music, or sometimes other people’s music. You’d say “Why do you compose,” or “What’s this have to do with great music,” or almost any question. Where did this sort of philosophical bent arise?
[EH] Okay, I’m not sure if I can really identify with “What does this have to do with great music.”
[K] Well, that’s not the specific question, but rather if there’s ever a sort of definitive statement made about music, I will find you jumping into the Canadian Electroacoustic Community’s discussion forum with a questioning of the certainty of almost any statement.
[EH] Because for me, music is basically about chaos, it’s not about certainty. It’s about exploring my inner chaos, compositionally. Listening, I think, also connects us with, as I was trying to say about Berlin, with a kind of irrationalism or darkness within us that… you know, maybe if you like German Romantic music, Strauss or Mahler, that kind of thing… you’re laughing.
[K] Well, yeah, to “darkness.” Strauss, I don’t associate that. You’re talking about Richard Strauss.
[EH] Yeah, R. Strauss, yeah. But maybe there’s a kind of darkness in J. Strauss as well, you know, that maybe Kubrick kind of exploded at the beginning, you know, the timeless quality of The Blue Danube. Can we catch these mosquitoes flying around?
So, why is there no certainty? For one thing, I feel very little certainty about myself in my relation to music, and in my capacity to act upon my musical needs as well… This is reminding me of an orchestral piece by Arthur Fiedler, by the way.
[K] Let’s jump into one of your pieces, and we’ll come back and ask you some questions that you can avoid answering about. Where’s a good place to start?
[EH] We shall listen to… piece #1.
[K] It’s called Jack & Jill, you want to introduce this for us, or shall we listen first?
[EH] Yeah, I had locked myself into my studio, and I was trying to put together a…
[D] You don’t think people lock you into the studio?
[EH] Um… it could be seen in that way without any question. Okay, I discovered myself locked within my studio, let’s say, I’ll use the passive voice in that way, okay? And I was trying to put together a lot of things that I had never been able to connect in my former life as a composer, because I had really gone in for, like, computer blah-blah-blah, and very fanciful-styled thinking about the relation of music and the mind and consciousness, and that kind of thing. But I didn’t feel the personal relationship with music any longer, and I decided that what I wanted to do was to try to just work it through and see if I could connect the different dots that had presented themselves over of the course of my former compositional life. One of the important things was cartoons. Not like John Zorn type of… you know, veneration of cartoon music, but the whole thing, and trying to figure out, “Is there a way to make cartoons in music?”
[K] You apparently love cartoons.
[K] We were talking before the show, that you started out with the Farmer Gray cartoons, and you had this period…
[EH] Alfalfa, yeah.
[K] Yeah, this period of time in the what you considered the bad era of cartoons, where they used the single character whose mouth would move, and sometimes whose feet would move, and just sort of moved on the glass.
[EH] Well, I absolutely love cartoons and identify with them totally, and also, you know we were talking earlier about Sigmund Freud coming to New York, and looking at Coney Island and saying, “Here’s the unconscious made visible.” I also had this very strong feeling that there was this kind of unconsciousness that I wanted to be able, somehow or other, to explore within myself, and I thought that this could be done by a kind of cartooning style, as it were. It didn’t work out like that at all, but I came up with something that seemed to me like a kind of musical animation that was sort of like a musical correlate to computer animation, where we move around things… anyhow, let’s listen maybe, just to get the idea, because I can never explain this.
[K] Yeah, sit back, relax…
[EH] Yeah, it’s a very short piece, this is a 30-second piece.
[K] That just blew my whole introduction to it. [Sigh] I don’t know, these guys that have radio shows, they jump all over you.
We listen to Jack & Jill by Eliot Handelman [0:28:02–0:28:36].
[K] Shall we hear it more than once? I think that’s a good idea, we’ll hear it again, but please, tell more about this.
[EH] Should I talk before we hear it a second time? It’s funny, because I’ve never played this for anyone who didn’t ask to hear it for a second time, which I kind of think is a good thing. It’s the only piece of this kind… I’ve made many other animations, but they never had as clear and as simple an idea as this one, and it was the first, of course, and in a certain sense was really just autobiographical, because I was feeling very nervous at the time. I had been working, and I wasn’t happy with what I was doing.
[K] It’s a really short autobiography.
[EH] It’s very compressed. It’s compressed into just the basic actions. I had the idea one day of this kind of music bouncing around and exploding, and I went to work, I explored that for a little while, and all of a sudden this piece just popped into place. It’s really just a kind of simple parable, that this very nervous pianist is trying to do a children’s song, which happens to be misnamed, as it happens, right? Because it’s really Frère Jacques, not Jack & Jill. It breaks up, and a tremendous buildup of hope and determination ensues, and of course, the thing’s just going to explode a second time, you know it from that point on. And a little voice comes out at the end, and the little voice I had pictured to myself as my own struggle to get my voice, which is what this has really all been about.
[K] Packing into just half a minute, all of that, incredible.
[EH] I could very well talk for half an hour about this.
We listen to a reprise of Jack & Jill by Eliot Handelman [0:30:33–0:31:05].
[K] One could learn to love that piece in no time at all. Well, what about this sort of looking at these short things and what they mean? We were talking before the show, and you said you spent, how long was it? Trying to make sense out of the melody Happy Birthday? You’re in the process of analysis, maybe you can tell us.
[EH] Yeah, this is totally unrelated, I started doing that kind of stuff years after. We were talking earlier about my feeling about music and vision, and how I think that at a brain level, that processing of music, the way in which music seems to happen to us so that we encounter it as music, is something that I think — I’m just guessing, because I haven’t, you know, done the brain research here — that we’re processing the music more or less in which the way the eye is doing vision, which the visual brain is doing with vision. We are visual, and where does music fit into this picture?
In Jack & Jill, one of the things that I was trying to do was to make a musical image that would be so compressed and detailed that you could really just hold the whole thing in your mind without any difficulty. Supposedly, you get to Beethoven and kind of thing, and you have people saying you can imagine the whole Third Symphony sort of as one moment. There’s the famous story about how Mozart… it’s the forged letter in which Mozart talks about how he composes. He says that as a certain moment he hears the whole thing simultaneously, and it’s like this enormous banquet of sound, this festival of sound that he hears all at once.
[K] So you’re thinking about image rather than narrative.
[EH] In a way, they’re the same. I’m trying to narrate something that is happening within the music, I’m trying to present characters. There are three characters, the piano, the celesta and the harp, right? The central, of course, is who we’re cheering on, the piano. The piano is the great virtuoso who explodes at the end, as it were.
[K] Well, I really want to get back to the idea of image. It seems to me that at one point you said, earlier this morning, that you don’t believe in the “chord.” What did that mean? I never followed that, and I think that’s a really good thing to explore at this point, because it might have to do with a little bit of this.
[EH] Well, that’s just kind of a technical point about how music theory goes and is obsessed with harmony. I guess that I am less obsessed with harmony, or feel less capable in harmony maybe, or think that music is more about not expanding a chord, but expanding a linear disalign.
[K] Which even this small piece has done. Even though there was incidental harmony as part of it.
[EH] Well yeah, of course, because that was the set up, right? But I think that for my music, there are many things I’m interested in. One is definitely movement, and the kind of kinematic movement that is the kind of springy *boi-oi-oing* sounds you get in cartoons. You know, where you get these cartoons by Tex Avery, where the character’s rebounding from one wall off another and his eyes are getting huge, and that kind of thing. So that kind of movement, to me somehow or other, realizes visually something that music has never done, but should do, or what I would like to do, in any case. It also connects with one of my great preoccupations, namely the computer, and trying to figure out a way to use the computer in making music that feels satisfactory… as a means of exploring new terrains and going to new possibilities, rather than using the computer as a tool to make it easier to do the kinds of things that we’ve already done. So, this is a very big thing.
So movement is very important, and the third thing, the other thing, of the two things that I’m mentioning here that is of central importance to me is the voice, and trying to figure out a way to use the voice. The voice is also interesting to think about from the point of view of sound perception, because things are happening in the voice at a very, very rapid pace. We are disambiguating all kinds of different sounds in a way that happens much, much faster, I mean, we have specialized centres to do this kind of thing. So I think of music, or some of the music that I’ve worked on, as also trying to explore possibilities at the speed of speech. It’s not necessarily of talking, but when we think about Western music where we have these flat, long notes… you know, you maybe add some vibrato, and that kind of thing. Or think about Asian music that has all of these complex pitch inflections.
For myself, because voice is so important, in the sense, first of all, of finding my own voice, and also in the sense that I’d like music to speak, or to cast images, or something like that. It means sort of jacking up the speed of music to that of speech, so that it becomes processed by different centres, the speech centres. I don’t know how successful I’ve been at this.
[K] Is that why you focus on the melody aspect of it? Because there’s so much going on if you add the harmony, in terms of ambiguity?
[EH] Yeah, because I’m seeing music first of all as movement, and second as speech, or “speech movement.” Harmony is a special magical thing that happens in nature, that we can prove using experiments, like, “the octave exists,” and “the perfect fifth exists,” and that kind of thing. It makes us feel that there’s a natural basis for music. But many people have spent lots of time trying to figure out what is the natural basis of music? How does it exist in nature? There’s the overtone series, it provides the chord of nature. I feel that music is completely brain-centred. It’s not about nature at all, it’s totally about how not only the brain, but how the mind works.
So instead of pursuing the idea of “What is the truth of music that I can find in the chord of nature or in harmony?”… “What is the truth, not only of music, but of myself?”… “What is my creative truth?” If I conceive of music strictly as a product of the human mind, of the brain, happening in a way that the thing is constructed specifically to be understood by humans, by the human brain. We don’t even know in what way it’s meant to be understood. We don’t know why a melody is a melody, really. We just have vague ideas. So I spent a lot of time studying some basic melodies to try and figure this out.
[K] And you have analytical tools you’ve developed to do that.
[EH] Yeah, a system that is actually called Jack.
[D] Part of the Jack & Jill?
[D] I see.
[EH] I understand there’s a bit of a language problem on the show, or… [Laughter]
[K] We have very serious language problems, we don’t speak English.
[EH] Okay, right. So Jack has various connotations that are probably also pertinent to my way of conceiving music, that we need not explore over [the airwaves].
[K] What shall we listen to next? Then we can get back, because I really want to pursue some of the analytical questions that you had brought up.
[EH] Okay, well, one of the big problems that I had with Jack & Jill was that it was rather short, and I wanted to try to expand it in some way. One of the things that I felt disappointed with in that piece was that the explosion at the end was really… it was simple, but I wanted to somehow be able to expand it into a big thing, where it would be not a representation, just go *boi-oi-oing*, not like that, just as a kind of simple wave, but to somehow invent a kind of kinematic force that would be throwing things around like the *boi-oi-oings* in Tex Avery and that kind of thing.
So this is actually my latest piece, it’s called White Themed, and it begins with a rather rhetorical type of simple variations, and suddenly switches to something that gradually merges into this exploration of how I could expand some kind of explosive kinematic force into something like a larger form, where you have a couple of sections to actually get into it, if you enjoyed it.
[K] This is an electronic piece, or it’s a live piece?
[EH] Yeah, it’s strictly SoundBlaster piano. It was originally going to be a piano concerto for MIDI piano and orchestra, and I kind of lost interest in doing this. And I like modest means, I don’t have to have the world’s greatest samples to do anything, I’m just trying to create movement.
We listen to White Themed by Eliot Handelman [0:41:50–0:53:20].
[K] Brings up lots and lots and lots of questions. The first reaction that I had how can one ever escape one ever talking about a mechanical device sounding like that, whether it’s a SoundBlaster piano or not, how can one escape the kind of rhythmic and melodic excesses, if you want to call them that, of Nancarrow?
[EH] I don’t know. I don’t think this reminds me at all of Nancarrow. Is that what you’re suggesting?
[K] I’m suggesting that because of the medium, and because of the incredible number of high-speed running figures.
[EH] But they’re different from Nancarrow’s, because they’re much more florid. For me, this piece was mainly a study, as I said.
[K] Well see, it shares the name.
[EH] Yeah, exactly. But that’s okay, because I know that Nancarrow may have had a kind of idealized music that he wanted to realize, and that he had to hit at many different ways of trying to come towards it. I completely identify with this thing, and as I said, what I mainly wanted to do is to try to create a study which would give me an opportunity to plan out larger-scale ejaculations as it were, and to do so in my way, that is to say, because I think it’s a lyrical piece, with hummable themes which I’m sure you can probably get at after another seven listenings!
[K] Hummable themes in that range of extremes, and where is that role of the theme? Where is the role of the melody, if you’ll take that one on, and what’s the expectation of perception in this piece?
[EH] Okay, well… I wouldn’t call it an animation, because animation, for me, connotes a specific kind of narration that definitely presents itself. The kinematic effects that are going to happen are something that you can easily relate to reality. Like it sounds like a piano exploding, and the piano’s going to try again, or the harp fell on top of the violin, or something like that. These are things that can be represented in ways that I think any listener will be able to hear. In this piece, I was just more interested in trying to formulate a more abstract kind of energy, but on the other hand, this always raises a problem for me, because I don’t really know how to go into completely abstraction and just make, like, abstract painting. I don’t really know what that is. There’s always a kind of figure-ground relation for me.
I’m a kind of guy who — and maybe this is something comes out a little more clearly in Jack & Jill — has a very serious attachment to lowlife kind of music, player piano stuff, boogie-woogie, barrelhouse, schlocky music. I love Jelly Roll Morton, that’s not schlocky, it’s great music in many ways. And of course, film music like we were talking about earlier.
I want to narrate or relate a kind of conflicting energy that is happening within a piece, and if I don’t have characters, if it’s not really an animation, then at least it has to have a sense of theme. The theme there, I think it was kind of mysterious for me. There are many unresolved issues for me in that piece. Maybe the piece isn’t really finished in that case. I say it’s finished. [Laughter] I say I don’t want to do this anymore.
[K] You’re done with it, in that sense. Yes, it’s not necessarily finished, but you’re done with it.
[EH] Yeah, I think I’ll just shelf it. You know, nobody’s ever going to want to perform it, so that isn’t an issue. It’s not performable, right?
[D] Oh, we don’t know that.
[EH] Okay, okay.
[D] Why do you say it is not performable?
[EH] Okay. Okay. Okay, that was a very good point.
[D] Well, wait a minute, that’s not an answer!
[EH] [Laughter] Well, I’m agreeing with you. I mean, you’re…
[D] No, no, no, you’re not supposed to.
[EH] I’m very ambivalent about many things, you know.
[D] No, you’re not.
[EH] Okay, I’m not really ambivalent about many things. I mean, the theme has a very rhetorical function in this thing. I went through it, it didn’t sound right to me sitting in the studio, but it seemed to me that it needed a kind of simple and obvious weight at the beginning of the whole thing, and that would gradually infiltrate its way through the piece. But it’s unanalyzed for me why I felt I needed to do that. I was really just more interested in exploring energy, but there’s a kind of issue of “What is the background to this?”… “Why is this happening?” You can’t just make explosions — or I can’t — just because it feels fun to make explosions. It seems to demand a kind of motivation.
[K] So what is the motivation, and what is the piece’s integrity? It certainly has the explosives, it certainly is compelling, it doesn’t lose you from beginning to end, what is that glue?
[EH] Well, I’m not really sure. I think that the glue is a kind of a very traditional sense of thematicism that is in conflict with a completely extraneous purpose. It has very simple, memorable themes, I think, that reappear in very obvious ways. There seem to be cadential sections, there is a new theme introduced at the right moment, or what seems to me to be the right moment. There is a subsidiary development… I mean, I didn’t really plan it that way.
[D] So this is arbitrary? Or did you set up some sort of algorithm to produce this, or how did you write this anyway?
[EH] Okay, as I said it was a study, and part of it is a study for what I thought at the time. Because now, once I write a piece, my complete thinking about everything is completely changed, so it’s back to square one, back to the old drawing board. I didn’t want to write this piece by hand. I wanted this to be the product of a kind of really alien, artificial mind that could dream music. And this piece was really — as I began it — just a sketch for what I thought the system should be able to produce, the kind of thing involving collisions and interactions and that kind of thing.
So as I was writing the piece, I was developing a system in which the piece was developing, and I called it a “collider” system, and the whole thing just became very complicated and difficult to use. I used all of the raw material that I produced for that over some months, quite a few months, really, just intuitively reassembling and constructing things, using that as the raw lines or spirals or figures. These are not things that you could do in an ordinary sequencer, because there’s a lot of notes and intense dynamic variation, curves and that sort of thing. So when I had abandoned the piece the first time, when I’d had enough of it, so I’d had the beginning of the piece, and a million billion Spiro Gyras to screw around with and to try to make a piece with. So it’s like trying to make a piece, you know, like the game the kids have, or that is to say kids used to have, where you have the felt and you know, you put the smile “over here,” that kind of thing.
[K] Those little graph things with the gears? The Spirographs? Did you start with a visual image, is that what we’re talking about here? Did you start out with an actual, either in your mind or on paper, an actual visual image as source material?
[EH] No, rather with a vague feeling, as I always do, that I hope telescopes into a very precise feeling about what the need or demand of a specific situation might be. You know, trying to compose something that will seem to have its own life. I know that I don’t always succeed in allowing the thing to have its own life, that I get in the way.
[K] This thing about having its own life is really important to you. Can you sort of expand on the notion of maybe music not merely as a simple means of self-expression, some sort of vanity, but rather animating… well, whatever words you would use?
[EH] I think I more or less expressed myself on that. I think that one of the deepest things that compels me in music, and that makes it seem so much deeper than anything else that I know, is precisely the feeling that I have. Which, for all I know, is just a misunderstanding, right? It’s my own weird way of thinking about music that doesn’t make sense to anyone else, music feels to me like a kind of externalized, living, thinking… Varèse used the expression that “music is intelligence expressed by way of sounds.” And we were talking earlier and I was saying that I assume that Varèse isn’t saying that we’re expressing intelligence in that I have a high IQ, and I want to demonstrate to the world how smart I am by manipulating sounds in some kind of way. I hate that! No kind of art can be about that. To me, my master is Kafka, in this thing. [Laughter] Making music is not about showing off how intelligent you are, or what kind of technique you have. If anything, it’s the contrary. It’s showing off how small you are. So, in a dubious conversation with Kafka and Janus, Kafka says that the poet is actually a much smaller man than other people. His feeling, his sensitivity to the world is therefore greater, and he feels the pain more acutely.
[K] And so what did Kafka and Varèse have to say about Coney Island?
[EH] It’s the unconscious made visible.
[K] Well, that was Freud.
[K] And Varèse and Kafka said that?
[EH] They’re different aspects, it’s the same family mind. European, you know.
[K] Where does the audience fit in all of this?
[EH] Good question. I don’t know.
[K] Do you have a listenership?
[EH] No, I work alone. No, I just locked myself — or was locked, as was suggested — in my studio to try to work out a few things, to try to just throw myself away and work out feeling the compulsion to do anything except but my own drive seemed to be dictating. That turned out to be an extremely complicated thing, that I had to try to expand by not, you know, “Okay, I need to use my mind more and feel a little less, because I’m dissolving in here.” That’s the thing.
[K] What about the whole idea that music is a form of communication?
[EH] I don’t know if it is.
[K] Alright. What dissuades you from thinking that?
[EH] What dissuades me from thinking music is a form of communication? Because we can never verify the message. We can never tell whether the guy got what we intended to say, if it is a form of communication. I mean, we’ve just been sitting here listening to one of my pieces, and I really have no idea what it sounds like to anyone else. I wish I could tell, but wouldn’t you have to be able to tell me that?
[K] Well no, that would be translated into words now, if we were in an improvisatory situation, maybe we would have a response that would indicate to you whether we got it, by improvising musically with it.
[EH] Yeah, yeah, there would be a kind of… but, okay… that’s a communication among the musicians, but even so, not all people who attend improvisations are necessarily participating. So there might be communication between performers, as there is communication between a conductor, let’s say, and the first violinist. There undoubtedly is, but we can’t say, for that reason, “Oh, well, music is communication,” or a form of communication. I think music is more basic than communication.
[K] Which is what? A gratification?
[EH] No, I think it’s about the whole possibility and hope of a kind of shared experience, of experiencing a kind of, you know, whatever. As we go to a concert, or to a dance or a rave or whatever, we wind up feeling or imagining that we’re all feeling the same thing at the same time. And we don’t really know, so it’s not necessarily communication, because nothing is being communicated. But there’s this kind of communal sense that a common emotional thing — a complex thing, not a verbal thing, not a message, not a thing with a specific agenda, a form of knowledge or something like that — is being imparted to us as a kind of pure experience, and we’re all collectively involving it. And I think that must have a great deal to with the fact that inner life — except for the ways in which we can try to imagine that we can express these things, as a movie, a novel, a poem or whatever — is an indefinite, private thing that we go around with, burdened by. And I feel that externalizing this… I mean, I’m simplifying a little…
[D] No, no, no, you’re intellectualizing this. I think this is a lot more simple than this. Let’s just hear another God damn piece!! [K laughter]
[EH] Okay, the next thing I’ve got is a sort of kvetchy piece.
[D] Well, what is it? Explain it, or at least tell us a little about it. Or don’t explain it!
[EH] Oh, okay, I just called it Konzert. It’s a piece in which I was, again, exploring the possibilities of making a kind of fake orchestra using samples and that kind of thing. I was not working in a MIDI sequencer, so I was not restricted to the kinds of things that you can do using conventional notation. I was specifically interested in trying to get to a kind of orchestral music that would be more like speaking. It came out more like a kind of weeping, a kind of kvetching, croaking… does the word “kvetch” need to be explained around here?
[K] Not at all, we do it all the time on the show. Next week, we’ll do it about you. [Laughter]
[EH] I’m sure. So, kvetching with all of this warbling and tremoring in the throat… Okay, so it’s kind of like a two-movement type of thing with a weeping section at the end, and then something strange happens.
[D] Do we dare ask when you wrote it? Does that have any bearing on the piece?
[EH] I don’t really know, because I just have a whole bunch of stuff that I work at whenever I want to. I think this is from a few years ago. I don’t date things, I’m sorry.
We listen to Konzert by Eliot Handelman [1:09:28–1:20:30].
[K] Well, more than questions than we can possibly ask in one radio program, about that. First of all, the actual technical process of putting it together. What did you use to create the sound?
[EH] Well, originally when I got to work with a MIDI sequencer, I discovered a Proteus orchestral module, and man, that’s what I wanted to do, create my own orchestra [laughter], do what I want, and not deal with the whole politics of trying to get a piece performed and so on. But also more importantly to be able to experiment and to learn, because I had two orchestral performances prior to that, and I didn’t feel I really knew anything about the orchestra, I didn’t have nearly the kind of experience that I had hoped to get. So I was hoping, in these fake orchestras, to be able to build up ideas about how to do orchestration, how to write for orchestra, and then maybe go back to writing orchestra pieces.
I somehow got caught up with the possibilities of MIDI, and I am really interested in what I can do with the computer. Not “What could I do with a live orchestra,” but “How could I use a computer to fake an orchestra so that the orchestral performance will be better,” something like that. But I got completely disgusted with what I was doing with MIDI sequencers, and I wrote my own MIDI system so that I could just do explorations, not being constrained. In a MIDI sequencer, it’s easy to put in quarter notes and half notes, and it’s much, much harder to sketch out rhythms any way you want to.
[K] Did you use a kind of visual input for this? Did you draw these shapes, for input? How did you get them in there?
[EH] Well, I tried that, I tried drawing. In fact, I wrote a little interface where I could draw MIDI, but I found that was no good, it was too laborious and unpredictable anyways. So I just worked, I’d just start with an idea and experiment, and keep going. If I liked something, I would push that envelope.
[K] Is it like a keyboard input? Is it typed in as a number stream?
[EH] No, no, you know, there’s something about this that it’s as though I don’t really want to admit to the listener… I don’t want to portray myself as a composer who is involved with writing computer programs. The music that I’ve written primarily served the problem of trying to realize my ideas about animation, my ideas about how to create an expression which was appropriate, which felt natural to me, which was my music, my voice. So the way in which I go about working, the whole computational baggage, to me doesn’t seem very interesting or relevant.
[K] Well, I know that among our listeners are people who are saying, “How can I do that?”
[EH] Okay, well, I don’t know how you could do this using conventional stuff, but you could definitely do it better than me. My audio chops are not so great, you know, I tend to think about music more just like it’s music, and you leave it to the instrumentalist and he gets the good sound, or she gets the good sound.
[K] So you’re going to dodge this question? [Laughter]
[EH] If the listener is asking, “How can I do this?”
[K] Do you have a program you sell?
[EH] Oh, I see what you’re saying.
[K] Do you give them software with this interface?
[EH] Well, what you need is a program where you can compute MIDI, and you have to be able to compute, you can get stuff off the net. At the time I did this, I mean, I don’t like using other peoples’ systems, but you can get equivalent systems like CM by Heinrich Taube, which I think would give you a lot of power, you could do pretty much what you wanted to do. I like being totally uninfluenced by other peoples’ design decisions, because… maybe I’m wrong about that, maybe I’m just very finnicky.
[K] Well, software heavily influences how you work.
[EH] I think it does, yeah.
[K] Do you have any experience with the work of Manfred Clynes, who talked about musical figures as being cross-cultural?
[EH] Sure, I know Manfred, I haven’t spoken to him in many years. I was very interested in his idea about sentics. He had an idea that there are certain kinds of movements that could be expressed. Let’s say, when you put your thumb into someone’s palm and you press it, you can communicate all kinds of different emotions just by how you’re pressing it. If you’re digging in very quickly and pulling out, that would be very aggressive, but you can also connote love or happiness, simply by the pressure of movement. So he thought that maybe the way in which we understand emotions has a lot to do with those kinds of effective pressure curves, and he thought that maybe music uses those curves, and that’s one way of getting to the affectivity. Why is music an emotional experience for us? Why is music about feeling, and that kind of thing. Maybe because there’s a continuum between hearing and touch, and music that’s perhaps… I think I’m adding a little to his ideas here.
[K] I asked the question because the sound — what you call the “weeping” — had the sense of some of those basic raw figures that he was using in his experiment, like that *boooiinnnng* which he said, “What is that?” You know, “I’m going to use that, I’m going to the Australian Outback, and I’m going to go to inner Mongolia,” and all these places which are rarely touch by broadcasts and other influences, and say, “What does this connote to you?” And I was struck by the very skeletal form, right there, sort of weeping at me out of that piece.
[EH] Yeah, the strange thing for me was that it seems to begin like the kind of typical, you know, you want to make music that wants to weep, so you’re going to go, *weeeaeahhhh… weeaeahhh*. But what I find interesting, what happened there (I say interesting because many interesting things happen accidentally) was how the beginning and ends of these *weeaaahh* would become more and more articulated, so that finally, when this chord comes in, if anybody can remember, in the first chord, there’s actually a trumpet, which unfortunately, with all of this processing, tends to lose a bit of its identity, it seems to be going, *weeaa-heh-heaahh* *heeh-heaaah* [emphasizing laughter]. It seems very, very human in the way in which the pitch and the volume of the thing is being changed, it seems to have arrived at a way of manipulating pitch that gets us to a feeling of “this is a human voice, this is expressing something.” Why this is, I don’t really know, and it would be really fascinating for me to pursue the direction. In fact, I have a project set up which involves a kind of talking orchestra, which will have to talk very intelligently with all of the instruments using an approach that has been developed by auditory psychologists, called “sine wave synthesis,” in which you can synthesize speech using just sine waves, and I think all of this can be mapped to an orchestra. So, what you can do is make a piece that would be like a talking jig, something like that. I’d like to make much simpler music than this kind of kvetching, rather abstract piece.
[K] Yeah, we were talking about a number of these things, including a composer by the name of Clarence Barlow. In his large orchestral piece, he had the orchestra speak. There are places in which the orchestra, through of the use of additive harmonics, says things like, “no money,” and I forget what the others were. He had three phrases that occur…
[EH] Yeah, it’s very funny, he got very good phrases.
[K] Very funny phrases that are done by the synthesis of these harmonics… in the violins, this is orchestral, this is not synthetic, it’s really quite something.
[EH] James Tenney also did a piece like this, I believe, in which he sort of figured out the spectrum of different vowels, or got some chart, and figured out how to make orchestrations in which this would happen. But how clearly do we hear this? Because I haven’t heard this Barlow piece, I’ve just read about it. How clearly do we hear the words?
[K] You hear the words only if you know them, but they jump out at you once you know what they are. Because there’s no articulated consonant, it’s mostly the vowel remnants.
[EH] Well, the thing is that the trick is not just to generate speech, but you know, when I was a kid, I had this recording called Sparky’s Magic Piano. I remember that one, which sounded like the piano was talking to Sparky. It said, “Sparrrrkyyyyy…” It was just a vocoder or something. “I am your piano, and why aren’t you praaaacticing meeee….” And it would sound like a piano talking. Or, it sounded to me when I was a kid like a piano talking.
[K] You were just terrified of your piano. [EH laughter] You had nightmares about it, you’re a nightmare person, aren’t you? You love nightmares.
[EH] Oh, absolutely, yeah, I’m a dreamist. Many things tend to appear to me in dreams. I dream music rather extensively.
[K] Whole pieces, or parts, or just concepts? Do you hear it in the dream?
[EH] Yeah, I can often remember, but I think that what I’m dreaming is some kind of strange cross-modality with all of the senses, so that although I can retain for years afterward the feeling of a certain music, I still don’t even know how to begin to write it down. But I could clearly recognize it if I heard it. So I sort of work towards actually the realization of the dream music, which is of course a very interesting thing, if I could do it.
The music that I hear is not necessarily very nice music. I mean, one music that I was dreaming was this kind of animation, it was this moving music that was moving, and it revolted me, it had this awful flavour, and I thought, “This is the most powerful music I’ve ever heard! I must stop and listen to it even though it’s disgusting me!” I mean, I woke up in the morning, and I was thinking about this, thinking, “What did this feel like?” And it occurred to me that there was a sausage that I had once tasted in Germany, in Berlin, that was utterly disgusting. I couldn’t get through it. I mean, I’ll try to eat anything, right? And if at first I’m disgusted, it doesn’t matter, I’ll try to get through it anyway and convince myself this is actually good. [Laughter] I couldn’t get through the sausage, and the music reminded me of that sausage. So this is clearly something that is just happening within my brain, but at the same time, it’s giving me a very specific sense of reference, and I can still feel that kind of music, for example. So, you know.
[K] And a piece like [the one we’ve just heard], do you number yourself among the spectralists?
[EH] Oh, absolutely not, I have nothing to do with spectralism. That piece was, as I say, it was a type of speech piece in which once again I was trying to find a way to talk, without necessarily very much ability to control what was being said, but at the same time accepting that, “Okay, I can animate some kind of force.” At the very end of the piece, there’s this kind of voice that comes in that sounds like Darth Vader, and he says, “Vadundara!! Ha ha ha!!” I mean, I didn’t plan it this way, I didn’t decide the guy will say “vadundara,” and it sounds like the orchestra responds, “Ohio!!” And I don’t know how that happened. But here it was, there was this guy saying, “Vadundara!! Ha ha ha!!” So I added the science fiction effects before, that was clearly me. The rest of it was the unseen forces that come when one simply works, and hopefully things happen without one necessarily even knowing why they happen.
[K] Maybe you could introduce this next piece, and whether or not you should warn our listening audience to put away their children.
[EH] Okay. Are we going to do this? This is a 20-minute piece.
[D] Of course, because we’re tired of talking to you.
[EH] Okay, this is a piece in which I’m actually talking. [Laughter]
[D] Ah. Have you processed your voice?
[EH] No, it’s just straight talking. It begins and ends with music, and in the centre, I try to analyze a dream that I’ve had. The dream involves two composers, one was Claude Vivier, who was killed in Paris, and the other is John Rea, who was one of my teachers at McGill University many years ago and became a personal friend when he did a bit of time in Berlin. I was absorbed for years just trying to figure out how to do a voice piece in which I would talk, and this is as close as I’ve come. So I guess this is a study as well.
We listen to Montréal by Eliot Handelman [1:35:10–1:55:30].
[D] You end up [the piece] with “Let’s go up.” Do you have a place to “go up” to?
[EH] I guess that underlying the dream was this kind of implosion and the idea of a kind of self-caricature by revealing the nature of the implosion, by making an auditory analog. The dream ends with John saying, “Let’s go up,” and it probably is the opposite of “Let’s give up.” So it actually ends with a hopeful note.
[K] Where are you headed, Eliot? What’s your next goal with your music?
[EH] Well, I’m interested in doing the narration thing, finally kind of clenched itself, and I felt, “It seemed to kind of add up for me,” and I’d like to pursue that in depth, possibly instrumentally. I kind of do the idea of trying to create the whole mishmash myself.
[K] That’s sort of Wagnerian in scope.
[EH] Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Yeah, it is really operatic, except, you know, there is this issue, is it real or not, right? I’m not pretending one way or another, but I’m also not being very explicit about how I feel about drama.
[K] We’ll look for it. It’s the end of the show, thanks so much for joining us on Kalvos & Damian.
[EH] Thanks for having me.
[K] It’s been a great pleasure. At last, Eliot Handelman.
Postlude: The Future, as I Conceive It
Stop writing this music, goddamit. No one cares and no one will listen to it. Instead, do it this way.
Our imperative is to create intelligence. Create music that is an intelligence, not music that is like a piece of music written 100 years ago. Create things that understand music, that create music by understanding. Invent a theory of how to understand music. Invent a theory of what a melody is. Create a program that sings beautiful new fresh-sounding intelligent melodies. Don’t use MIDI sounds. Make the intelligence sing about what it is doing, using a technical language of music that you invent.
Make an intelligence that takes a piece of music and narrates it, transforming the music into a flow of story line, or a flow of action. Make the intelligence know how to reason about motion in the supposedly real world, and how to interpret the music relative to the kinds of actions they imaginatively resemble, eg., “Here’s where the electric snake plows into the side of an ocean-going vessel and goes splat.” Invent a theory about how the motion in music is like the interaction of sentient agents with mechanistic obstructions. Write a program that interprets music in this way. How does the program understand the Eroica? Could a corresponding composing intelligence arrange to intensify the sense of power expended in attempting to surmount obstructions?
Reject all music theory (eg., reject the view that music is determined by harmony) in favour of a theory of music, which you should invent, that behaves like a theory in the scientific world, i.e. providing a descriptive model of music that makes predictions that can be tested. After some years, when you’ve demonstrated to yourself how your initial theories were wrong, you can improve the theory, in ways that pre-scientific theories — like Schenker’s — can’t. Can the model tell the difference between something random and something someone once sung that we still know about? Would the model be able to tell if something had been written by an especially dumb algorithm with no high-level concepts about music? Would it be able to figure out that there were missing measures in a Mozart quartet? Would it be able to tell that Take me Out to the Ball Game does not segue well with the overture to La Traviata? Would it theorize that Widor was a bore?
Don’t turn inwards — don’t listen to Wolfgang Rihm. Listen to Cage who said turn outwards to become aware of the reality you inhabit. You’re not alone. Others thought music, every song, every radio zinger is an act of thought that culminates in the action of music but which still needs to be decoded as thought. Music is thinking. Feelings are ways of thinking. The induction of feeling is a way of transferring thought. Music is a way of simulating consciousness. Discover how, and extend music’s capacity in that way.
Do so by making a model of the receiving intelligence. Make a really complex computer model that shines in the simplicity and depth of its design. It could be a new art form, you could be the inventor of a new art, a new way of representing the human experience. There’s enough music already, something has to listen to it all.
The new art is about creating intelligences. No one knows what an intelligence is, or what it’s like. We can only know metaphors, right? Poets create metaphors. We need new computational metaphors. Be a computational poet to do that. Don’t write programs that generate music or poetry, and never ask people if they can tell the difference. AI is not about fooling people who don’t really know. It’s about whether computers can be fooled. It’s about showing how to grow out of a mistake.
Don’t leave all of this old, great music lying in a heap but find out as much as you can about it. You need to understand the past to move beyond it. With respect to understanding, our knowledge is in its infancy. So too music is in its infancy, not yet a 21st century Music 2.0.
—Eliot Handelman, 7 July 2008.