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Progress Report — The State of the Art after Sixteen Years of Designing and Playing Electroacoustic Sound-Sculptures

A detailed examination of original instruments and reflections on their cultural context

Originally published in New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century vol. 4 — Electronics in New Music, edited by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox and Wolfram Schurig (Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2006). Republished with the kind permission of the publishers. The author has integrated a brief postscript for publication in this issue of eContact!.

A technical and æsthetic investigation of the design, construction, and application of my sound-sculptures needs to be first located within the context of my musical work as a whole. As such, I hereby present the tripartite A.C.E.T., or Applebaum Creative Endeavor Taxonomy at the outset. Such a grandiose device aspires to be as illuminating as it surely is pretentious.

The A.C.E.T.

I refer to the first area of my creative work as non-vernacular composition1[1. And, rather glibly, uncompromising and unmarketable music. Over the years I have settled on the least offensive but not-too-helpful term non-vernacular music. Other composers prefer the equally unsuccessful moniker art music, the dubious serious music, or the unsavory highbrow music.] These are solo, chamber, orchestral, choral, and operatic works, occasionally with electronics. The compositions run the gamut of æsthetic orientation, instrumentation, and form. Despite their diversity (read: collective chaos), listeners will note multitudinous recurrences (read: obsessions) among them, the retracing of several artistic themes (read: fetishes), and the conservation of various compositional devices (read: hermetic fads). But their hidden commonality is their professional heaviness to me — a kind of assumed burden — that underscores the accumulation of a career. Whimsy, humor, and absurdity are frequent and welcome visitors to my non-vernacular composition (alongside the more abundant gravity, angst, and more angst). The point is that stylistic variety and formal multiplicity are not evidence of levity in the matter of professional commitment.

In contrast, the second area is trans-idiomatic improvisation and instrument building. Somatically, the design and construction of sound-sculptures, which involves hammers and saws and electric drills and soldering irons, feels like a radically dissimilar activity to composing non-vernacular music. Because these instruments are intended mostly as vehicles for improvisation I cluster them together with trans-idiomatic improvisation, a catch-all label for my activities as a performer (on piano, live electronics, or sound-sculptures), in a solo context or with a group such as my ensemble [sic] — the Stanford Improvisation Collective (whose repertoire includes John Zorn’s Cobra) — and in various inter-media collaborations such as That Brainwave Chick, in which neural activity is converted into sound, and the Concerto for Florist and Ensemble, an improvisation score for chamber ensemble who accompany a performance florist. My investment in these activities and my commitment toward methodically evolving relevant sensibilities is considerable. But, perhaps because I have almost no formal training in these activities — and certainly no pedigree — I find that there is a liberating fluidity and easiness in my approach to them. Put another way, I am expected to be able to write a good string quartet, but any contribution that I might make to the field of instrument design is a serendipitous dividend. The string quartet’s historical abundance — a saturated glut — erects an even greater impediment in the way of composing a good one; whereas the obscurity of building sound-sculptures makes the relative imbalance of these ordeals even more pronounced.

The third area of my work is jazz piano improvisation. The fact that this activity needs no further explanation should be underscored; broadly speaking, this is the only exoteric activity in the taxonomy. This suggests a rough classification of these activities’ centrality or marginality as they are apprehended in four cultural contexts:

Figure 1
Figure 1. Applebaum Creative Endeavor Taxonomy Cultural Status.

What constitutes “a generic sense of culture” could be debated exhaustively. If we can, for now, evade this aggravation we notice a startling contrast between generic culture and the culture at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) where I undertook my masters and doctoral degrees from 1989–96. Jazz is not popular music in the sense of gross record sales, but most Westerners have heard of it, and some even like it. Whereas non-vernacular music and trans-idiomatic improvisation and instrument design are completely off the radar for most individuals. Although jazz was a prominent component of the undergraduate curriculum at UCSD, it was a pariah in the graduate program. Or more accurately, it was a respected genre of music that composers were not supposed to be spending time working on. The composition of non-vernacular music was central to the culture. Building instruments was at least tolerated, and when for the purpose of extending a timbral palette or refining a system of intonation it was highly encouraged, as were improvisational endeavors that were stylistically abstract or shared a kinship — in method or surface patina — to celebrated historic schools (e.g. the New York School, Musica Elettronica Viva, etc.). None of this was official policy and no one was responsible for it. It was a vibe. It effectively relegated my jazz piano playing to the “closet” as a covert avocation for many years — the quintessence of a don’t ask, don’t tell praxis. At the same time I have no complaints about this. I undertook my graduate degrees at UCSD precisely because of those things that UCSD cared about deeply. My attitude was to engage that community at the intersection of our mutual interests, which was happily plentiful. 2[2. And, out of instinct, I continued to play jazz concurrently in other milieus.]

When I assumed my first tenure-track teaching position at Mississippi State University (MSU) I found that all of my creative endeavors were marginalized. A school that conferred only a bachelaureate in music education and maintained an obscenely deified zealousness for its athletics, Mississippi State University worshipped its marching band above all else and to the near-exclusion of other interests — arcane oddities such as music history and the performance of classical music. Improbably, my work was always warmly received by a large and eager public who, I believe to this day, saw my work as a local rarity — an exotic curiosity to some, and a unique panacea to a few. In 2000 I joined the faculty at Stanford University where all of my creative endeavors have found a happy, nourishing home among several overlapping groups of receptive colleagues, students, and audiences. 3[3. I concede that the difference may not be institutional. Perhaps I am somehow more capable now as a spokesman for my work, or that I am simply willing to share all of its facets broadly.]

The multiplicity of my creative endeavors have sparked some to call my work schizophrenic (in the popular, not clinical use of the word). A more accurate diagnosis would be dissociative identity disorder. The DSM IV-TR provides a number of symptoms, some of which seem, from an artistic standpoint, to be highly desirable qualities:

… two or more distinct identities or personality states, each with its own lasting pattern of sensing, thinking about, and relating to self and the environment; and at least two of these identities recurrently take control of the person’s behavior. 4[4. American Psychiatric Association, “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” 2000. Dissociative Identity Disorder is disorder 300.14.]

I will concede that other symptoms are less desirable such as “failure to integrate aspects of identity, memory, and consciousness.” However, my diverse musical pursuits, which may appear autonomous, are in fact interconnected. The semantic conception of my non-vernacular music has a total influence over my trans-idiomatic improvisation and instrument design, and a partial influence on my jazz piano playing. That is, the musical material that comprises a sound-sculpture performance sounds very much like that of my chamber pieces. (And furthermore, the two categories of creative endeavor are likely to share similar venues and audiences.) Even as a jazz musician I am partly influenced by insights as a composer of non-vernacular music; I find myself thinking in terms of set theory layered upon blues changes, for example. 5[5. As they say: “you are what you eat” — whether the nutrients are culinary or intellectual.] Conversely, the essential procedural mode of jazz — improvisation — informs my sensibilities when I improvise on my sound-sculptures. There is little remnant of any stylistic residue from jazz, but how I think, how I relate to other individuals, how I conceive of expression and communication all descend from insights as a jazz musician. Furthermore, the improvisational impulse partly manifests itself in my non-vernacular composition during those flights of compositional improvisation, moments that seem to me to be more akin to the spontaneity of jazz than to the rigorous, schematic, pre-compositional 6[6. I invoke the term pre-compositional because some composers will understand these activities as such; however, in actuality I do not distinguish between pre-composition and composition.] planning and sober calculations that consume so much of my time as a composer.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Score of 56 1/2 ft., measures 13–16. [Click image to enlarge]

Some influences are transformed in nature as they are exported to neighboring creative endeavors. The freedom that I associate with jazz 7[7. Is jazz free? This is a question worthy of an entire debate that I will simply dodge here.] manifests itself as performance indeterminacy 8[8. As distinguished from compositional indeterminacy (aleatoric procedures) — which are uncommon in my work.] in my non-vernacular composition, those moments in which players are invited to adjust particular morphological details, often on the fly during performance. 56 1/2 ft. for chamber orchestra is an example of a hybrid of highly wrought, conventional, determinate notational specifications positioned alongside provocations for tightly-circumscribed indeterminate performance responses. Nested among conventional notations (measures 13, 15, and 16), figure 2 depicts a triangular “mobile” (measure 14) in which players begin at any of three given materials and proceed clockwise or counterclockwise such that all three materials are played during a brief and scrupulously conducted 7/8 measure. 9[9. Peculiar to 56 1/2 ft. are its annotated quotations that run along the bottom of each page, a kind of “Talmudic” commentary that refers to the immediate measure and to the work as a whole. They are “intended at once to be hermeneutically hermetic and exegetically exigent.”]

Figure 3 illustrates other strategies: an early-Feldmanesque box notation in which only the number of high and low articulations are provided per beat; a measure to be repeated x+1 times where x is the number of times it takes three or more players to stand up in protest; and an abstract graphic notation (rotated 90 degrees for each instrumental section) marked simply 5" and necessitating a pre-mediated or sudden exegesis by each player.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Score of Mark Applebaum’s 56 1/2 ft.,measures 33–37. [Click image to enlarge]

Conversely, the verbal rationale that characterizes the academic tradition of non-vernacular compositional pedagogy — like all things, for better and for worse — has the transformed effect of engendering increased pre-determination in my jazz works, various tightly planned and consciously argued arrangement decisions, formal schemes, and so forth.

Over the past two decades I have divined an imprecise æsthetic metabolism that governs their interrelation. For example, at the times in my life when I am not playing much (enough?) jazz, I find that my non-vernacular music is increasingly indeterminate. And when I am not composing much non-vernacular music, I notice that my jazz works become highly specified and fraught with rigorous arrangements (things that can be played right or wrong), the spiritual antithesis of a bandleader snapping thrice and calling merely “blues in F.” This is simply an observation that seems to suggest something about my own artistic food groups. I am not arguing for the purity of these endeavors, and I have been a beneficiary time and again by the crossing over of thought from one realm to another. In fact, in the larger sense, I can attribute all of my creativity to the simple formula of observing phenomena in one context or discipline and importing it into another. The sound-sculpture resides at the heart of this practice.

A Brief but Immodest History of My Sound-Sculptures

The conjunction of distant or neighboring disciplines, such as the intersection of visual art and music, brings us to the very definition of a sound-sculpture: an instrument intended equally for its arresting visual appeal and its alluring sonic qualities. There is a subjective distinction here because all instruments have some degree of visual appeal, such as instruments with elaborate, non-functional decorative ornamentation. And all pieces of visual art can conceivably be “played” (regardless of whether or not such an action will cause its player to be arrested or simply ejected from a museum). The matter may simply be one of intention.

Although contemporary sound-sculpture is a somewhat esoteric field, it is nonetheless populated by numerous dedicated if collectively unorganized practitioners. I began building sound-sculptures in 1990 when I became a graduate student at UCSD and chanced upon a neglected sound-sculpture by Tom Nunn that was collecting dust in contrabassist Bert Turetzky’s office. Nunn, a former UCSD student and San Francisco Bay Area musician, continues to make beautiful and extraordinary sound-sculptures. Nunn’s instrument, the bug, made an immediate impression on me and I set off to build my own instrument.


That first instrument was the mousetrap. Outfitted with a mousetrap, the name owes even more to the maxim “to build a better mousetrap”. 10[10. I succeeded only in the sense that this instrument is better suited to my own musicality, a more personal mousetrap.] The mousetrap is a tabletop instrument, roughly in the shape of a basketball backboard. It is 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep, mounted on three legs that place its surface roughly 27.75 inches above the floor. The soundboard is made of 1/2 inch Douglas-fir plywood. Attached to the soundboard’s surface is a surfeit of hardware, found-objects, and junk that can be plucked, scraped, bowed, tapped, stroked, etc. These objects include:

Figure 4. The mousetrap.
Figure 4. The mousetrap. [Click image to enlarge]

These objects are all securely mounted to the soundboard so that their vibrations transfer to and are amplified by the soundboard. The soundboard, which is painted with a texturized spray paint (a bumpy, simulated blue granite composite underneath several layers of clear enamel) itself may be played — tapped, scratched, etc. — and is outfitted with eight cheap, surplus piezo contact elements that are arranged in a stereo configuration: four piezos on the left (three topside and one underneath) feed a four-channel passive resistance mixer that consolidates its inputs into one single unbalanced 1/4 inch left-side output; a mirror image of the piezos and resistance mixer constitutes the right-side electronics.

Originally the mousetrap soundboard was one solid piece of plywood. When percussionist Steven Schick programmed my mousetrap solo Zero-One at the 1992 Darmstadt Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, I found myself in a quandary over how to transport it affordably to Germany. The solution was to disable the majority of the mousetrap’s attachments and legs, to cut the soundboard in half and “fold” one side over the other, and to secure the parts in a custom commercial flight case. The act of cutting the mousetrap in two was a traumatic one for me but it had an unexpected benefit: the stereo separation of the two groups of piezos became more distinct. 12[12. In fact, there is a substantial amount of “cross talk” among the piezos; later I found that one piezo per soundboard was sufficient.] A decorative aluminum strip was added to cover the mousetrap’s scar; because the cut had to be made slightly off of the instrument’s center axis (in order to bypass electronics running beneath), a second aluminum strip was added so as to look symmetrical.

In fact, the mousetrap has a great deal of symmetry. Lead pipes on the player’s left are balanced with PVC pipes on the player’s right, a mirror image. The same is true of the placement of combs, springs, nails, strings, threaded rods, and doorstops. Meanwhile, the placement of the two steel wheels on the player’s left is balanced by the placement of the shoehorn and ratchet in the commensurate location on the player’s right. The symmetric balance, something that is absent in my most of my musical formulations, appeals to me in the case of the sound-sculpture’s ergonomics. For example, it is handy to have sets of nails on both the left and right so that trills (with single chopsticks placed between two adjacent nails and oscillating among them), or continuous glissandi (produced by stroking along the row of nails), can be executed simultaneously without the necessity of reaching over to one side with the opposite hand. And if I do turn my body toward one side of the instrument, I find that I have a near-complete complement of objects within that side.

Seven threaded rods are attached to each side of the mousetrap, but because they reside in one adjacent arc, a glissando across them will be heard clearly crossing from left to right in the stereo field or vice versa. The corrugated copper gas tubing, which is usually played like a guiro, has ends attached to both the left and right sides of the soundboard. As such, a “guiro” stroke from one side to the other creates a particularly potent sense of movement across the stereo field.


Figure 5. The mini-mouse in the foreground, sitting on top of the mousetrap.
Figure 5. The mini-mouse in the foreground, sitting on top of the mousetrap. [Click image to enlarge]

The next sound-sculpture was, however, fundamentally different. The monophonic mini-mouse is a miniature mousetrap, small enough to sit on the music desk of a grand piano so that both new and traditional instruments can be played simultaneously. The mini-mouse, as well as all of the subsequent instruments, can be seen as refinements of the properties of the mousetrap. The mini-mouse’s portability is particularly attractive. Its rectangular soundboard is made of solid pine 21 inches wide, 7 inches deep and 3/4 inch thick. The four legs — steel bolts with rubber end caps — vary in length so that the back of the instrument is higher than the front, the soundboard sloping down toward the player at a 36 degree angle. There is only one piezo contact pickup, wired to a 1/4 inch jack.

Many of the attachments seen on the mousetrap appear on the mini-mouse, including the signature mousetrap. The twisted bronze braising rod — the so-called tam-tree whose complex tam-like sound can be produced by striking or bowing — was so attractive in sound and look that I made nine of them for the mini-mouse, a veritable orchestra of tam-trees. In fact, I made easily thrice this number of tam-trees and, using a tap and dye set, threaded their ends so that they could be screwed into and out of the soundboard, easily replaced at whim. 13[13. However, over time I discovered that pine was too soft to maintain a good connection for the tam-trees after they had been repeatedly removed and replaced.] Another transformation was in the disposition of the threaded rods. On the mousetrap the threaded rods extended straight up from the soundboard, arranged like tubular bells. This made trills to neighboring rods, glissandi, the vertical stroking of individual rods, and plucking easy. However, unlike tubular bells, the threaded rods are very narrow (1/4 inch wide) and played typically with Japanese chopsticks, not hammers. As such, striking an individual rod requires rotating the wrist 90 degrees and approaching the rod almost from the side. Therefore, the mini-mouse’s four threaded rods are bent at right angles, extending off the right side of the instrument, each subsequent rod elevated above the prior one like a set of stairs.

Figure 6
Figure 6. Tam-trees, bronze braising rod heated with a blowtorch and bent into erratically curled “trees”. [Click image to enlarge]

Some objects on the mini-mouse were entirely new, such as a Schwinn bicycle logo that bounces noisily (or can be disabled) along a spring — a kind of sympathetic noisemaker akin to the jangling bottle caps loosely affixed to African mbiras. Similarly, a nail balances loosely across the koto string and bounces on it as the string vibrates. The koto string itself terminates in a standard guitar tuning mechanism because the turnbuckle is too awkward for quick tuning changes. The mini-mouse also contains a part from a Volvo gearbox that serves principally as a mount for some of the tam-trees. On the other hand, some desirable objects had to be abandoned: there was no space for the shoehorn, ratchet, or corrugated copper tubing. Other objects were easier to dismiss: the lead and PVC pipes, which looked great on the mousetrap, never inspired a proportionate musical response.

The mousetrap’s texturized spray paint was forsaken on the mini-mouse in favor of an abstract paint job — swirls of brightly colored, pastel acrylics — on top of which I overlaid stick-on numbers at random angles, a reckless bit of postmodern pastiche that resonates with the physical assemblage of assorted parts.

Further Developments

The subsequent sound-sculptures were the duplex mausphon, the midi-mouse, the six micro mice, and the mouseketier. The duplex mausphon heralded my first attempt at a multi-tiered design consisting of multiple soundboards placed at various levels. This strategy would be central to the design of the mouseketier with its three soundboards. The duplex mausphon comprises two rectangular pine soundboards. The lower soundboard measures approximately 9 inches wide by 17.5 inches deep; suspended 6.5 inches above it, the upper soundboard measures approximately 13 inches wide by 9 inches deep so that it protrudes off to the right side above the lower soundboard. Each soundboard carries its own piezo contact pickup. In performance I tend to pan the soundboards so that the stereo field corresponds to the vertical axis.

Figure 7
Figure 7. Duplex mausphon double koto (on lower soundboard). [Click image to enlarge]

The duplex mausphon has two significant features. First, the steel caster wheels found on the mousetrap were repeated except this time an egregiously squeaky caster wheel was sought out, one that howled with the slightest motion. Second, while the top soundboard has a koto (as found on my prior instruments), the bottom soundboard has what might be called a double koto: two strings, one above another, traverse a double pulley. While the physical arrangement makes bowing the strings more cumbersome, it allows easy double stops (a pinching/plucking motion with one hand) and quadruple stops (when articulating the strings on both sides of the pulley).

My affinity is to tune the two strings microtonally so that double stops produce a dissonant crunch that can be, with finger pressure on one string, brought into and out of unison in a rapid adjustment or in an agonizingly slow glissando. Or the strings can begin in unison and diverge violently with tremendous finger pressure (like the enormous deformations that a sitarist wrenches with the fingering hand). Because the duplex mausphon’s koto strings terminate in standard guitar tuning mechanisms like that of the mini-mouse, changes to the basic tuning can be easily accomplished during performance. 14[14. The complete list of the duplex mausphon’s lower soundboard attachments include seven threaded rods bent at right angles and extending off to the left; galvanized steel caster wheel; two short and one long spring; two rows of nails (11 and 9); double koto; medium plastic comb; and doorstop. The upper soundboard attachments include one tall vertical threaded rod, five threaded rods bent at right angles and extending off to the right, and one tall unthreaded rod (that can be bowed) bent at a right angle and extending off to the left; one koto string; two rows of nails (10 and 9); small plastic comb; and tam-tree.]

The midi-mouse takes its name from the 5-pin DIN jack that appears on its soundboard. The jack is not wired to anything — a sarcastic jab at MIDI and at the naive optimism of electronic music in general. 15[15. I realize that some years later I perpetrated a similar dig in the That Brainwave Chick project. On a stage littered with computers and high tech music gear we ran an Ethernet cable from me to my colleague so that I could communicate with her during performance. In fact, the cable was tied around her wrist; when I wanted her attention I simply pulled on the cable.] My sound-sculptures are low-tech and lowbrow: the instruments are principally made out of junk, hardware, and found-objects and their contact pickups cost less than one dollar. The prestige and cachet that might be associated with rarefied materials and arcane craftsmanship elude these instruments. Instead their legitimacy comes from the rich and musically efficacious world that they stimulate despite their modest ontology. Within the context of an endlessly escalating race toward smaller chips and higher bit depths, these sound-sculptures remind us that technology also includes the familiar and the prosaic. What is the “state of the art?” An artist endowed with the most modern, expensive, and (purportedly) sophisticated tools is not guaranteed artistic success. Bad art will always be an equal opportunity endeavor.

Figure 8. The midi-mouse.
Figure 8. The midi-mouse. [Click image to enlarge]

Structurally, the midi-mouse is roughly a repetition of the mini-mouse. The number of tam-trees increased once again, and a thicker bronze braising rod was added alongside the ones of thinner dimension. From the duplex mausphon, the indispensable squeaky wheel was incorporated. Chronologically, the six micro mice followed next; these are discussed later in the explication of the piece Scipio Wakes Up (and Smells the Coffee) for which they were constructed.


This brings us to the last and most important sound-sculpture: the mouseketier. The mouseketier takes its name from its three multi-level soundboards, two small and one large equilateral triangle made of 1/2 inch solid maple. The two smaller soundboards (approximately 10 inches per side) are perched atop corrugated copper gas tubes and radiate up from the central soundboard (approximately 20 inches per side) to the left and right. As it happens, the tubing serves three purposes: the architectural function of supporting the smaller soundboards; the familiar guiro function as seen in the mousetrap; and as a wiring conduit that connects the smaller soundboards’ pickups to a central set of output jacks located on the bottom of the main soundboard. The gas tubing terminates in threaded twist connectors on both ends, and its wiring easily connects to simple RCA jacks; this makes disassembly of the mouseketier particularly facile.

In fact, the speed at which the mouseketier can be set up and taken down was a design criterion rivaled only by the demand for compactness. Remembering the difficulty associated with transporting the gigantic mousetrap, the mouseketier’s case was engineered first based on the maximum checked baggage dimension limits imposed by airlines, and the sound-sculpture was actually designed afterward. 16[16. I am tempted to one day undertake an analogous pragmatic approach to composing orchestral music: page turns will be decided first, then mallet changes, then brass mute substitutions, then moments for wind players to take breaths, etc. Banal details like pitches and rhythms will be determined last.] The tier system of the mouseketier, first suggested by my wife Joan, makes its compactness possible.

Figure 9. The mouseketier.

The mouseketier sits on top of a commercial aluminum camera tripod. The look of the tripod is somewhat regrettable, but its compactness, height adjustability (to accommodate both sitting and standing as well as permitting azimuth modifications), and particularly its low weight — another imperative for airline travel — made it an ideal choice. The bottom of the main soundboard receives the tripod in a standard threaded camera mount located at its central balance point. Next to the camera mount is an 8-channel audio output — a small blue plastic electronic project box with color-coded RCA jacks — fed by eight piezo contact pickups. The eight pickups are divided into two groups: three pickups, one on each soundboard, serve as the main sound transducers; the remaining five pickups, which may be thought of as buttons, are clustered together on the upper right portion of the main soundboard and can be used as a gate to trigger various external electronic processes — for example, to turn reverberation on or off, to start or stop a loop sampler, or to send a bang to a Max/MSP patch.

The five “trigger” pickups are painted yellow, blue, pink, purple and green, and sport corresponding stick-on numbers. The main soundboard on which they sit is pink; the upper left soundboard is yellow; the upper right soundboard is blue. Although the paint has a flat finish, the soundboards are slightly shiny on account of an additional spray coating of silver glitter paint that produces a sparkly sheen and also provides a superficial micro-texture somewhat like sandpaper.

Figure 10
Figure 10. Close-up of the mouseketier. [Click image to enlarge]

The player confronts a high density of objects on the mouseketier but their ergonomic arrangement demonstrates the consequence of the trial and error process undertaken in previous sound-sculptures. From nearest to farthest from the player’s perspective, the main soundboard consists of four plastic hair combs, two large (blue and purple) and two small (pink and green), each with fine and thick teeth (the combs are stacked, pink over blue and green over purple, so that each pair consists of four sizes of teeth, a veritable “SATB” comb choir within a few inches); a koto string with three segments of varying length, terminating in a guitar tuner, also passing through a turnbuckle, and incorporating a bouncing nail as pioneered on the mini-mouse; a small triangle of Astroturf; a mousetrap, painted blue; two metal dome-shaped bells (salvaged from alarm bells with clappers and motors removed), painted purple and yellow and stacked one above the other — a very short bell tree; a row of 11 vertical nails, consisting of four different sizes, placed one inch apart, and pounded first into a strip of ornamental molding (painted green) and then into the soundboard below (which creates a more secure adhesion) 17[17. A small, removable metal coil, which may be spun, resides on one of the larger nails.]; a piece of white, texturized non-skid adhesive; a small blue wooden wheel that spins loosely on a central axle; a spring stretched to 12 inches; large and small galvanized squeaky steel caster wheels 18[18. The squeaky wheels that I somehow found so abundant in San Diego proved nearly impossible to find in the Palo Alto area where the mouseketier was constructed. I had to visit some eight hardware stores to find suitable wheels (that presumably slipped through the manufacturer’s quality control). To this day I occasionally have a recurring nightmare about a do-gooder stagehand with a bottle of WD-40 lubricant.]; the aforementioned “trigger” pickups; and a single 23 inch vertical threaded rod, quickly removable by a wing nut.

Figure 11
Figure 11. The mouseketier. [Click image to enlarge]

The left soundboard includes a doorstop with purple end cap; five thin-diameter tam-trees, interchangeable and secured under a metal brace that is held in place by two screw knobs; a mousetrap, painted pink; a small steel ratchet; a small-gauge spring stretched to 4.5 inches 19[19. This spring is the only object on the mouseketier that is particularly difficult to access owing to its flat profile and proximity behind the taller tam-trees. I am not critical of this because the spring is really an afterthought, an addition made at the end of the design process in order to employ an otherwise unused bit of real estate.]; and four graduated threaded rods (ranging from 4 to 16 inches) that, like the mini-mouse, are angled horizontally and extend to the right and over the main soundboard.

The right soundboard includes “push” and “pull” door signs — 2 inch by 8 inch sheet-metal “thundersheets” that extend off the front edge of the soundboard; three thicker-diameter tam-trees, interchangeable and secured under a metal brace that is held in place by two screw knobs; a mousetrap, painted yellow; a doorstop with pink end cap; a spring stretched to 8 inches; four graduated threaded rods (ranging from 6 to 9.5 inches) angled horizontally and extending to the left and over the main soundboard; and a copper toilet tank flotation bulb perched atop a 9 inch brass stem.

In the tradition of Rauschenberg’s combines, Warhol’s ubiquitous and commercial subject matter, and even Duchamp’s urinal, the mouseketier gets some of its cultural “buzz” from its use of familiar objects — plastic combs, doorstops, steel wheels, push and pull door signs, toilet parts — introduced into a foreign musical environment. The loud, deliberately grotesque colors are more reminiscent of Fender and Gibson than Stradivarius and Steinway. 20[20. That is, the grand piano as typically associated with artists other than Liberace and Elton John.] The material importation and stylistic whimsy tickles or disturbs the viewer and forces us to consider our assumptions about “proper” methods of cultural transgression and to ask how silliness and absurdity might coexist with seriousness and sincerity.

Mark Applebaum performing
Figure 12. Mark Applebaum performing on the mouseketier.

Harry Partch, Sound-Sculpture Sculptor

Tom Nunn’s work triggered my initial proclivity as a builder of sound-sculptures and has served as a principal blueprint in the design of my instruments. Around the same time that I discovered Nunn’s sound-sculpture I found myself increasingly enchanted by Harry Partch’s work. There is much to admire (and criticize) in the music of Partch. But Partch’s lasting effect on me has been in his identity as a martyr of American culture (a person, like Nancarrow, who tirelessly pursued a unique and idiosyncratic artistic vision during a lifetime of work at the expense of broad professional affirmation and critical success), and as a prolific builder of remarkable sound-sculptures. Despite Partch’s puissant inspiration there are several noteworthy contrasts among our work: Partch’s instruments are acoustic, mine are electroacoustic; Partch’s instruments are large, sometime behemoth, whereas mine are comparatively miniature; Partch’s instruments are, with only a few exceptions (e.g. xymo-xyl, spoils of war), mono-timbral (like most orchestral instruments) and materially monolithic, whereas mine are polytimbral, polymorphous hybrids (the one-man-band approach) — consequently, much of Partch’s music is for ensemble whereas the majority of my work incorporating sound-sculptures has been, until recently, solo; Partch’s instruments feature mostly natural materials, whereas mine have an industrial ancestry and thus a pre-defined cultural locus; in a sense we are both bricoleurs — but while my instruments are made up of found-objects, Partch’s ensembles are populated by found-players, amateurs he trained to play his instruments; Partch’s instruments have an ancient, timeless sensibility, whereas mine have a modern and time-specific sensibility; my sound-sculptures have a camp quality about them (objects seem to appear in quotation), whereas Partch’s work resists camp in the sense that it is too important, too good, and not marginal enough 21[21. I invoke principal #6 from Susan Sontag’s definitive “Notes on Camp” from Against Interpretation.]; and lastly, Partch’s instrument-building was driven at the outset and throughout his life by the demands of a specific, determinate intonation, whereas a conception of specific pitch is — for my sound-sculptures — irrelevant, replaced by the matter of general pitch contour, harmonic spectrum (in the sense of color), and register.

Partch and I agree on the value of seeing the act of musical production. As a performer my kinship with him lies in his conception of the corporeality of playing music. The aspect that most compels me to build new instruments is the pursuit of a new ergonomic/haptic/corporeal experience. I design instruments that “feel” musical. Or more accurately: I make instruments that engender idiosyncratic physical (and thus sonic) responses. Most instrumental improvisers — especially pianists who have to deal with the court-appointed piano at every new venue — will understand me when I say that different instruments invite me to invent different musical ideas. The sound-sculpture is an extension of this concept.

Fickle Electronics, Capricious Computers, Incompetent Humans

If the power goes out I can still play my sound-sculpture, albeit for an intimate audience only. It is an acoustic instrument first. But in practice the sound-sculpture is part of a hyper-instrument that includes a battery of live electronics — signal processors and controllers that warp the acoustic sound in countless ways. In concert the mouseketier sits in front of me. To my left is a large rack with a number of analog and digital signal processors. 22[22. At present, these are a Peavey Kosmos Pro, Electrix Repeater, Roland SRV-3030, Digitech DSP 256XL, DOD D12, Ibanez DM 1000, Korg SDD-2000, Line 6 Echo Pro, Yamaha SPX50D, Lexicon MPX1, Behringer Virtualizer Pro, Electrix Filter Factory, Samson S-phone, Juice Goose PD-2 line conditioner, and a multiple outlet strip. These are mostly multi-effects units with a few notable exceptions: the Kosmos is a bass frequency enhancer; the Repeater is a loop based recorder; the Filter Factory is an analog filter; and the S-phone is a 4-channel headphone mixer that is used split an auxiliary signal so that processors can receive identical signals (as opposed to an audio daisy-chain) thereby allowing many more loops to be returned separately to the main mixer. At times my rack also includes the receiver for a wireless microphone attached to the Church of Sound, a silver church collection plate with red velvet lining and a label that reads “The Church of Sound thanks you for your contribution.” When passed among the audience, members can jangle keys, tap on the plate, sing into the microphone, etc. In this manner the audience can play duets with me, making sounds that pass through my electronic processors.] Next to the rack and somewhat under the mouseketier is a 24-channel analog mixer. On my right is a low table constructed out of the mouseketier case. Atop the table sits a Muse Receptor VST plug-in player which has dozens of custom patches, each of which contains dozens of electronic computer processes that mangle and contort the mouseketier’s sound; my laptop sits above the Receptor and, connected by a crossover cable, displays its GUI but does no processing itself — it simply happens to be my most portable monitor. On the floor rests a Digitech RP-6 multi-effects pedal and some seven pedals that control various functions of individual processors. There are three MIDI controllers with assignable faders, knobs, and buttons that populate the rack case and table: Peavey 1600x, Behringer BCR2000, and Doepfer Pocket Fader. Finally, I should mention that remaining space is utilized for holding chopsticks, a short violin bow, thimbles, plectra, knitting needles, mallets, corrugated Lego rail, brushes, wind-up toys, and other assorted doodads that are used to play the mouseketier. Audio, MIDI, Ethernet, AC, and pedal cables run amok; even so I can build the mouseketier from scratch and get everything wired together in about 45 minutes.

Despite their idealistic aspirations these electronics are less than perfect. They freeze up, they distort, they feedback. Sometimes the “ghosts in the machine” burble and coo unpredictable sounds that they should not be capable of rendering. The super-abundance of gear means that there are additional chances for strange incompatibilities and the unexpected magnification of a “problem” down the line. 23[23. Although one could also view the superfluity of electronics sanguinely: as redundant backup systems.] The mouseketier itself, with its attachments that come loose and pickups that short out, can be a wildcard. And above all else, I am an imperfect user and surely the unwitting cause of a lot of mayhem. But these factors, taken together, contribute to a kind of glitch æsthetic wherein complicated systems sometimes generate music of surprising complexity out of simple and/or misunderstood input. This changes in an ever-evolving hierarchy (in which some electronics can be counted on without fail while others teeter on the brink of randomness) superimposed against my ever-evolving æsthetic agenda (those phenomena which I seek to realize regularly in performance versus intentions which come and go, “slowly or swiftly, gently or with cataclysmic force” 24[24. To borrow a turn of phrase from architect Louis Sullivan.]).

Inventing a Mannerist State from Absent Pre-Classic and Classic Antecedents

I try to massage the many electronic controls as deftly and transparently as possible lest they distract from the mouseketier. One might argue that the human interface with the electronics is an equally focal part of the performance. I am more inclined to consider it ancillary, at least in comparison to the sound-sculpture. 25[25. I am only slightly hyperbolic when I compare the invasive tweaking of the electronics to the addition or removal of a tuba mute that, as anyone who has ever seen this colossal feat in performance knows, is distracting to the point of canceling the ears’ input.] But together with the sound-sculpture, the electronics form a kind of hyper-instrument. And because the electronics change from performance to performance (due to artistically banal but consequential airline baggage limitations) I find myself obliged to master several hyper-instruments. The situation might be likened to a pianist finding a piano with the customary 88 keys at one concert hall, a piano with no sustain pedal at the next venue, and a piano with no black notes at another site. Complications in my set-up magnify and multiply the challenge of achieving instrumental mastery.

Let us not forget that the sound-sculpture alone requires skill to play. I am a master mouseketier player. Among the dangers of inventing a unique sound-sculpture is the fact that the inventor becomes the world’s best player instantaneously. But that distinction is automatically paired with being the world’s worst player. How does one develop an intermediate and advanced mouseketier technique? A “culture of one” affords ample latitude for electing an artistic direction, but there are no guidelines for progressing and no comparisons to depend upon. One does not have the benefit of traditional instruments’ abounding legacy of historic performance praxis.

And herein resides the problem: with a new instrument, how does one mature beyond trivial novelty? The temptation to show off a sound-sculpture’s gee-whiz factor is profound. One abiding self-criticism is that my solo improvisations tend to use all or almost all of the sound-sculpture’s attachments, particularly in performances that serve as an introduction to the instrument for a particular audience. In the same way that a composer given only one opportunity to compose an orchestral work will be tempted to use all four sections of the orchestra, I find myself showing off the range of the sound-sculpture. Whereas when I am performing for an audience that already knows my instrument — either from a prior concert or from a preceding improvisation on the same program — my improvisations tend to be more timbrally focused.

A performance should not be a demonstration of an instrument; the instrument should work in service of explicating a deeper musical idea. But what if, as Marshall McLuhan might suspect, the instrument is the idea?

I continually reflect on these issues. 26[26. Ideas about building original instruments and inventing a corresponding musical culture are discussed further in my essay “Culture Sculpture,” in Community Matters, a reader for writers, 2nd edition, edited by Marjorie Ford and Elizabeth Schave Sills (Addison Wesley Longman Press, 2004).] The inquiry defines a mission to become “accomplished” in my esoteric artistic habitat, to develop a mannerist state of the art from absent pre-classic and classic antecedents. But my cultural space is not disconnected from the external world. There is indeed a community of sound-sculpture artists to whom I look for direction. Performance practices associated with other instruments are consulted. And the most general but efficacious insights are gleaned through a broad consideration of æsthetic models from sculpture, painting, textiles, architecture, and dance, as well as from far-reaching musical traditions, both oral and written.


Formal Works for Sound-Sculpture I: Two Early Compositions

Although intended primarily as tools for improvisation, I have been inclined on several occasions to compose notated works for my sound-sculptures. The first work, Zero-One (1990), is a seven-minute solo for mousetrap, amplified but otherwise without sonic transformation. I first chose to notate the work in a rather conventional manner: horizontal lines corresponded to various objects (e.g. multi-line staves for the 14 threaded rods, a one-line staff for the three springs, etc.); various noteheads designated particular articulation types, wavy lines for continuous sounds, etc; beaters were prescribed for each articulation; dynamics were notated traditionally; etc. As one might expect, the horizontal axis described the passing of time. The vertical axis did not describe pitch, but correlated instead to the physical distance of the object from the player. None of these decisions were particularly radical.

However, after hearing the piece I became aware that, as a composition, it was too fixed. The notated score seemed to be only one of many possible realizations of a skeletal sub-structure. I found that the integrity of this particular artistic endeavor resided in the performer’s interface with the sub-structure from which he or she could realize a manifestation of the work. By analogy I imagined Stockhausen or Cage composing determinate works and, only afterward, deciding to withdraw them in favor of Plus-Minus and Variations as substitute texts. So I created a second score, a so-called “performer trap for mousetrap” that traps the performer in the compositional realm. The performer confronts a series of 22 “cartouches”, each of which describe a musical passage consisting of a given number of phrases. Phrases, in turn, are defined by their number of articulations (“contacts”). The pitch, duration, and dynamic relationships among these articulations are governed by three corresponding contour sets. For example, a three-articulation phrase with contour sets <012>, <201>, <102> might be realized:


Furthermore, the resulting timbres (the mousetrap objects employed, whether to articulate a given note with a fingertip, a mallet, or a bow, etc.) are left to the performer’s discretion within a limited number of mousetrap objects depicted in the cartouche (from a kind of bird’s eye view of the soundboard) and defined as either occurring on the left or right side of the instrument. In the “performer trap” version of the score each cartouche is numbered (corresponding to passages within the piece) at the bottom left of the soundboard’s illustration. The duration of the cartouche is provided at the bottom right. Between them is a map of the piece’s global dynamic, a continuum along which a cursor travels so as to situate the given cartouche within the full duration.

Figure 13
Figure 13. Score of Mark Applebaum’s  Zero-One, cartouche 3. [Click image to enlarge]

Both versions of the score are provided to the performer who may choose to play the first determinate version, the second indeterminate “performer trap,” or a hybrid of the two.

Scipio Wakes Up (and Smells the Coffee) was composed in 1995 for the Paul Dresher Ensemble: two keyboardists triggering samplers, two percussionists (one electronic marimba and one electronic drumset) triggering samplers, amplified violin, and amplified bassoon. To this instrumentation I added six amplified but otherwise unprocessed sound-sculptures, the micro mice, constructed specifically for the ensemble.

Figure 14
Figure 14. Score of Mark Applebaum’s Scipio Wakes Up (and Smells the Coffee), excerpt from 0:50–1:01. [Click image to enlarge]

There are two aspects of this project worth mentioning in this context. First, the micro mice are unique among my instruments in that they each consist of a soundboard with only one object. The six micro mice are:

Instead of making multi-timbral instruments I created the equivalent of orchestral instruments, single-minded tools, each with a specific role. The timbral focus of these instruments is suitable because Scipio Wakes Up is a determinate work that does not invite improvisation; the micro mice are not designed to enable a player to react to unpredictable musical events (that necessitate an arsenal of available timbres for every contingency). Moreover, Scipio adds a further variation a propos the treatment of sound-sculpture personnel: the piece opens with its six players standing downstage, each one at his or her assigned micro mouse sound-sculpture. 27[27. The micro mice — made of 3/4 inch thick pine boards, three of which measure approximately 10 x 10 inches" and three of which measure approximately 18 x 8 inches — have threaded microphone stand mounts on the bottoms of their soundboards. Thus the ensemble may use local microphone stands thereby obviating the need to travel with designated micro mice stands.] Soon two players depart, migrating upstage to their regular instrumental stations (in this case one keyboard and bassoon) and contribute to a background drone; the remaining quartet now play all six micro mice in a carefully choreographed manner, moving around one another, reaching left and right to play multiple sound-sculptures. Later, two more players depart to contribute to the upstage drone (on the second keyboard and violin) leaving only two players to manage all six micro mice before they finally join the ensemble (on electronic marimba and electronic drumset) for the second half of the piece, a new musical discourse that is performed from the upstage stations. Unlike the typical ratio of sound objects to performers — 16:1 in the case of the mousetrap’s plethora of varied bric-à-brac — in Scipio it is 1:1 at the beginning, but then “improves” to 3:2 and again to 3:1.

Audio 1 (12:48). Mark Applebaum — Scipio Wakes Up (and Smells the Coffee) (2005), for ensemble. Performed by the Paul Dresher Ensemble. Released on Intellectual Property, Innova Records [602], 2003. Used with the kind permission of the publisher.

Meanwhile the drone sounds that emanate from the electronic keyboards in accompaniment to the remaining micro mice players — as well as all of the sounds heard by the keyboardists and electronic percussionists in the subsequent section of the piece — are transformed versions of mousetrap samples. Thus the piece begins with an electroacoustic (and physical) presentation of sound-sculptures and then progresses to an electronic (and virtual) manifestation of them.

Formal Works for Sound-Sculpture II: Mouseketier Concerti

One of the unexpected insights from the Zero-One and Scipio Wakes Up projects is that my sound-sculptures are not easy to play well. The top-notch, professional musicians who took on these pieces had to practice longer and more diligently than I had anticipated, suggesting that I take for granted the familiarity, physical acumen, and musical awareness that I have acquired over my now sixteen years as a sound-sculpture player. At the same time, I have returned to my conception of the sound-sculpture as a vehicle for improvisation. So I have chosen to feature myself in a recent series of works, concerti with improvised cadenzas for mouseketier with live electronics and ensemble. 28[28. As a player I am inclined to think of these pieces as mouseketier features. However, the solo parts are marked soloist, not mouseketier — an indication that any idiosyncratic electronic instrument might be substituted.]

Martian Anthropology 1•2•3 (2004) is an orchestral work whose three, incongruously juxtaposed movements collectively attempt a surreal alchemy. The first movement is an expressionistic romp for full orchestra with peculiarities such as a septet of percussionists hammering nails in accompaniment to a lyrical cello melody. The second movement is for string orchestra only, a sincere lamentation for my recently deceased sister. The final movement startlingly introduces the mouseketier sound-sculpture which improvises in the context of an orchestral improvisational game piece: orchestral players are assigned three materials — a drone (continuous sounds or repeated material), a mobile (a sequence of articulations to be played once), and synchronous chords (loud blasts performed in unison). The conductor initiates the various materials improvisationally through a system of distinguishing hand gestures that apply to each section of the orchestra. Materials may be called upon once, more than once, or not at all. Passages in the movement are designated for the orchestra alone and others are designated for mouseketier solo. But much of the piece involves both simultaneously, the discourse progressing as the result of the conductor’s responses to my playing and my response to the orchestra.

Audio 2 (05:06). Third movement from Mark Applebaum — Martian Anthropology 1•2•3 (2005), for mouseketier and orchestra. Performed by Mark Applebaum and the Stanford University Symphony Orchestra. Released on Martian Anthropology, Innova Records [617], 2004. Used with the kind permission of the publisher.
Figures 15a Figures 15b
Figures 15a and 15b. Movement 3 from Martian Anthropology 1•2•3, pages 20–21. Three orchestral materials — mobile sequences, continuous drones and synchronized chords — arranged in three columns. [Click images to enlarge]

Agitprop (2005) is a concerto for mouseketier with jazz orchestra. Given the opportunity to work with jazz musicians I chose to increase the possibilities for individual players to improvise. That said, the work is mostly in an experimental idiom and sounds infrequently like jazz stylistically. Players are just as often called upon to tear paper, clink glass bottles with pencils, tap rocks together, and drop ping-pong balls on the floor as they are to perform on their saxophones, trumpets, and trombones. The sixteen minutes of Agitprop are divided into four continuous four-minute sections, each scored on a timeline referencing various “sub-pieces” that are faded in and out as directed, improvisationally, by the conductor. Like the third movement of Martian Anthropology 1•2•3, the mouseketier soloist is given free license to play in any manner (or to remain silent) during most of the piece; only during specified “tacet” periods must the soloist remain silent.

Figures 16a Figures 16b
Figures 16a and 16b. Score for Agitprop (2005), concerto for mouseketier and big band. Showing 12:00-16:00. A horizontal timeline appears across the top referencing various “sub-pieces” below. [Click images to enlarge]
Audio 3 (16:23). Mark Applebaum — Agitprop (2005). Performed by Mark Applebaum and the Stanford Jazz Orchestra. Released on Asylum, Innova Records [646], 2005. Used with the kind permission of the publisher.

The Blue Cloak (2005) for mouseketier and sextet of flute, clarinet, cello, percussion, piano, and dedicated piano interior player was commissioned by Champ d’Action for the 2005 Transit Festival. The Blue Cloak was inspired by the Pieter Bruegel painting Netherlandish Proverbs and consists of 100 measures that parallel the 100 proverbs, maxims, popular adages, puns, and biblical sayings depicted in Bruegel’s wimmelbild. The soloist is fixed at the center of the stage but the individuals in the sextet assume peripatetic comportments, changing location at designated moments. The sextet’s 22-minute discourse is, with few exceptions, predetermined. In contrast, the mouseketier soloist is invited to improvise during the entire span.

Audio 4 (21:52). Mark Applebaum — The Blue Cloak (2005), for mouseketier solo with sextet. Performed by Belgian ensemble Champ d’Action at the 2005 Transit Festival. Released on Asylum, Innova Records [666], 2006. Used with the kind permission of the publisher.

Unlike Martian Anthropology 1•2•3 and Agitprop there are no restrictions as to when the soloist may or may not play. The score is, nonetheless, verbose. The soloist is provided 109 pages of graphic pictograms that may be carefully interpreted, vaguely considered, or ignored entirely. I included these visual provocations in order to give future soloists a view of the mercurial, whimsical, loquacious, and rapidly inventive sonic discourse that characterizes my current approach, materials sometimes cross-fading into their consequent and other times getting abruptly interrupted in kaleidoscopic succession. Like many composers, I care about the way my scores look. The pictures in The Blue Cloak take this conceit to a new level. 29[29. Under normal circumstances I would never have devoted the time to such an elaborate project with such limited functional utility. But the timing of the project coincided auspiciously with the birth of my daughter and the desire to spend the first month of her life focused on her, and yet not cease my professional creative activities altogether. This was the rationale that allowed me to spend a few hours each day drawing carefree without the burden of more typical compositional decisions during her first month.]

Figures 17a–17d
Figures 17a–17d. Examples from the solo part to The Blue Cloak. [Click image to enlarge]

The Blue Cloak is first a musical work. But its score pushes toward the graphics arts. I should return to the aforementioned statement that my creativity resides in the synthesis of disparate impulses, the importation of ideas across disciplines, media, and fields of thought. Clear evidence of this is seen in many of my works prior to The Blue Cloak, pieces that similarly problematize the boundaries of music and outlying stimuli. S–tog (1991), for example, is a score based literally on the Copenhagen subway system; the actual map and timetables have been replicated but with station names replaced by abstract yet musically provocative verbal substitutions. Players, synchronized by stopwatches, follow the timetables in a group improvisation that mimics the real-life metropolitan extemporization tethered daily to the Copenhagen trains’ schedules. Tlön (1995) is a piece for three conductors and no players that explores traditional musical parameters such as dynamic, temporal dissonance, and polyrhythm in the ocular rather than aural domain; it was inspired by watching two individuals engage in a virulent argument in sign language (a “loud” experience producing almost no decibels) and reflections on the manner in which architects and visual artists employ terms like rhythm. The percussion duo Go, Dog, Go! (1999), commissioned by Skin & Bones, sounds to the audience like a conventional piece of music, albeit a virtuosic one in which both players navigate relentless and unwieldy changes in absolute unison. The alien stimulus in this piece, however, resides in its subtext, a hidden, virtual template of short, iconic bits from dozens of well-known popular music recordings that exists only in the minds of the players and allows them to make otherwise “impossible” metric-modulations to unrelated tempi upon every new measure. The paradoxical meta-piece Pre-Composition (2002), a work for 8-channel tape commissioned by Electronic Music Midwest, brings together music and music criticism. Its sound sources comprise only my voice, a synod of eight sub-personalities arguing about their plan to compose an 8-channel tape piece. Asylum (2004) for solo percussion and 9 superegos, is a chamber work commissioned by the Vienna Modern Festival that illustrates psychological disorders in sound; among its inventory of 22 disorders, Asylum consists of a schizophrenic trio, a narcoleptic quintet, a delusional quintet (with separate grandiose, somatic, erotomanic, jealous, and persecutory manifestations), a bipolar octet (with individual manic and depressive episodes), a paranoid violinist, a dependent violist, a narcissistic contrabassist, an obsessive-compulsive flutist, and a Tourette’s nonet that makes sudden and inappropriate outbursts. Wristwatch: Geology (2004) is a piece for players tapping stones in canon. The players follow the second hand as it passes over symbols appearing on the faces of custom wristwatches that serve as musical scores. Naturally, the compositional details of Wristwatch: Geology had to be worked out in yeoman fashion by means of essentially prosaic skills. And likewise technical issues had to be solved diligently for the fabrication of the watches. But beforehand came the germinal collision of timepiece and musical score wherein resides a more significant creativity.

Given this recurring penchant, this compulsion toward the amalgamation of far-flung impulses, it is hardly surprising to observe the increasingly visual character of my musical scores. And moreover, it seems appropriate that novel instruments rooted in their simultaneous dedication to eye and ear should engender the five formal works for sound-sculptures described herein, pieces that increasingly transgress the boundary between non-vernacular composition and trans-idiomatic improvisation and instrument building, “unimpeded” creative endeavor categories that, like all things in life, ultimately reveal porous, “interpenetrated” borders.

Postscript: Play vs. Perform

Magnetic North, a fourth concerto for mouseketier and ensemble, was composed in 2006. Commissioned by the Meridian Arts Ensemble, the work is scored for soloist plus brass quintet, with optional improvised percussion accompaniment. Like earlier works, Magnetic North was first conceived as a vehicle for the mouseketier but it may be performed by any sufficiently intrepid soloist. With the Meridian Arts Ensemble I have played Magnetic North in numerous concerts, from California to the Concertgebouw; but Meridian has given even more performances with other players.

Like The Blue Cloak, the soloist is presented with idiosyncratic pictographs that may be rendered strictly, consulted casually, or ignored entirely. But in contrast, the soloist’s musical outpourings are tightly sequestered into specific moments, eleven cadenzas ranging from two seconds to two minutes in duration.

The soloist’s cadenzas are cocooned within a mercurial ensemble discourse that twitches spasmodically among highly disparate notational conventions — musical specifications of radically different intention, design, and degree of indeterminacy. Compounding the private circus that is its notation, the piece calls for unexplained — but very public — Dadaist gestures, a parallel theater of absurdity. The ensemble virtuosity that Magnetic North demands is not merely along traditional lines (e.g. higher, faster, louder), but also the facility to convulsively substitute musical cultures with extreme precision, alacrity, and frequency.

To play Magnetic North is to undertake an enterprise of extraordinary rigor and levity, an amalgamation that most people (but not I) find contradictory. By indulging levity one may be led to play—as in the phrase uttered by any kid before he or she becomes a professional musician: “I play music.” In the decidedly adult realm of frightfully labored musical presentation (“I perform music”), play seems to be a forsaken verb in desperate need of rehabilitation.


Audio 5 (14:18). Mark Applebaum — Magnetic North (2005). Performed by Mark Applebaum and the Meridian Arts Ensemble. Released on Sock Monkey, Innova Records [706], 2008. Used with the kind permission of the publisher.

Sound-Sculpture Discography

Applebaum, Mark. Asylum. Innova Records [CD666], 2006. Includes The Blue Cloak for mouseketier and sextet performed by Champ d’Action, as well as Ensemble XX. Jahrhundert’s performance of Asylum at the Vienna Modern Festival 2004.

_____. The Bible without God. Innova Records [CD649], 2005. A double CD of live mouseketier improvisations including a 2005 collaboration with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and a performance at the Essl Museum in Austria.

_____. Catfish. Tzadik Records [TZ7094], 2003. Includes Licensed to Fail, a mouseketier duo with Paul Dresher and his long-string instrument the quadrachord.

_____. 56 1/2 ft. Innova Records CD646, 2005. Includes Agitprop for mouseketier and jazz orchestra, as well as 56 1/2 ft. for chamber orchestra.

_____. Intellectual Property. Innova Records [CD602], 2003. Includes Mouseketier Praxis (four mouseketier improvisations) as well as Scipio Wakes Up (and Smells the Coffee) performed by the Paul Dresher Ensemble.

_____. Martian Anthropology. Innova Records [CD617], 2004. Includes Martian Anthropology 1•2•3 for mouseketier and orchestra.

_____. Mousetrap Music. Innova Records [CD511], 1996. The first commercial recording of my sound-sculptures (improvisations for mousetrap, mini-mouse, and duplex mausphon) with limited live electronics.

_____. Sock Monkey.  Innova Records [CD706], 2008.  Includes Magnetic North for mouseketier and brass quintet performed by The Meridian Arts Ensemble.


Additional Discography

Applebaum, Mark. Disciplines. Innova Records CD628, 2004.

_____. The Janus ReMixes: Exercises in Auto-Plundering. Innova Records CD532, 1999.

The Applebaum Jazz Piano Duo (with Robert Applebaum): The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree. Innova Records CD565, 2002.

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