Thailand New Music and Arts Symposium: What does it mean to be a composer today?
Anouk Dyussembayeva | January 7, 2021
Invited by Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri, a Greek-born composer and Assistant Professor at Cornell University's Department of Music, I had the opportunity to join Thailand New Music and Arts Symposium, which was presented by Thailand Music and Arts Organization.
Video provided by Piyawat Louilarpprasert, also available through the full playlist of Symposium's featured works
Joining the Zoom conference on December 16, the event was lead by Piyawat Louilarpprasert (TNMAS artistic director, Cornell DMA), Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri, Anothai Nitibhon (TNMAS co-curator, former dean of PGVIM), who were joined by Noppakorn Auesirinucroch (Tacet(i) co-director), Jean-Patrick Bedsingrand (ICIT faculty, CUNY PhD candidate), Pamornpan Komolpamorn (conductor, Mahidol University), and Cornell Composing network team: Miles Jefferson Friday, Han Xu, John Eagle, Joshua Biggs, Charles White, and Laura Cetilia.
Marianthi starts the conference off by explaining that the Composing Network seminar was centered around the question of what it means to be a composer today. "[We] also explored various ways of reflecting the conversation we had in the matter that we could even create pieces that are imaginary compositions," she says, describing how someone entering your mind in itself is already a collaboration.
Another focus of the seminar was experimentation with video, as the professor mentions that now composers face many challenges with the transition into a more visual world. The introduction was followed by a video demonstration of each of the musicians' works, and I recommend you listen to them before reading the rest of the article (video above).
The compositions were all very different in all aspects, starting from the visual picture to the pace and choice of editing software.
Once the video concert finished, everyone participating in the conference reacted with a clapping emoji as a way to demonstrate ovation in Zoom. "I miss the sound of applause — now [it] has been replaced by a visual icon," Marianthi notes, and the participants give out an inaudible laugh, their microphones muted.
The Cornell professor proceeds to pose an insightful question to begin the discussion: how is the technology changing the way musicians express their concepts and ideas?
Piyawat, the composer of My Tube is Spinning in My Head, talks about the importance of editing. Doing a 10-minute runthrough of tube spinning, he tried picking the most natural parts of the video that expressed himself the best. He called this editing post-composition, an interesting concept, as it is something you can't necessarily do during a live concert.
Anothai responds with the idea that composers are constantly hunting for what is unavailable, discovering new techniques that weren't there before and trying to make it happen. "Nowadays, because we discover [everything that] is already around us, it's really hard to invent something new," she claims. "A lot of composers get used to the idea of finding how to design what is already available around them, [so there is this] change of perspectives."
Laura agrees, sharing that she was very uncomfortable with the idea of making a video for this project, since she didn't think she thought visually. "I just decided to use technology [that was] already available to me — Keynote — [and was] able to manipulate it in a way that's in line with my aesthetic," the composer adds.
Han, on the other hand, talks about the struggles of trying to show his feelings while wearing a mask, and says that "informed me, especially in this pandemic, if I am able to use video demonstration to convey my idea, that will be powerful." Marianthi recalls his earlier work, where he was working closely with his father, and points to the fact that as a composer, you're not only relying on the technology around, but also on your friends and family.
"This situation really reminded us about the meaning of connecting with humans, and there's also the combination of human and technology," the professor thinks.
Returning to the topic of editing post-composition, Papalexandri-Alexandri realizes how unavoidable the temptation to edit is because you know it is possible. Spending time putting the students' compositions together, she found herself constantly changing the order of the videos and adding a dark screen in between to give the audience a break for the mind. "[We] use technology to witness and store the moment, [so] should I be editing [and] filming different parts of that, [or simply] set[ting] up the camera and let[ting] it run?" Marianthi asks.
Josh supports the idea of working as a hunter in a way that he tries collecting as many sounds as possible, cutting them up, rearranging them, and creating detailed collages. "For the video piece, partly because it was a different medium, but also because of the nature of the situation, it was very important to me to not cut it, to have one take," he says, explaining that having one take was unlike how he normally works with sound.
Anothai likes the hunter analogy and then comes up with another one. "When you compose with all these available materials, it's almost like you're cooking. You have to rely on what kind of materials you have: sometimes the herbs and vegetables are so fresh you just have to cook it without editing, but sometimes the material doesn't come in the way that you like, or maybe might benefit more if you stew it or cut it into pieces," the curator shares. "There is no right or wrong in cutting and editing, it depends on what you're cooking."
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For Miles, one of his goals in the piece was to look at musical objects around people that we usually don't question. "We normally think of a speaker as a mediator of that sound, and … I was trying to highlight the obvious, the thing that's right in front of you, and question that," he says. Putting that into play, the composer is treating the loud speaker more as an instrument with a personality that anyone can interact with and learn from.
Marianthi adds that this was also an act of offering an instruction that anyone could experience at the comfort of their homes. This statement is followed by a question: how do composers maintain this valuable pressure of one take which makes you stretch your senses and your awareness with that moment? When do we know that something is ready?
John conveys how the problem for him in this presentation format is the lack of a certain social tension that musicians always have to navigate in performance, even in the most distilled environments. "In video there's a notion of control over that presentation format. I appreciate it but … for those of us that are used to working with wide situations, that's very difficult to navigate.
Papalexandri-Alexandri appreciates that John didn't hide his struggles that he had while moving the vessels in his piece, and asks if he can speak about the tension that emerges in the process of manipulating physical objects by using tech. John admits that he was conscious of that, and claims that it can become very sloppy, to which the audience smile and give another inaudible laugh. In his words, being on camera makes you become more self-conscious of the fact that there are consequences of physical movement.
Piyawat wonders about the reason for the decision, how we choose the things we choose: "How [do] we composers choose those kinds of visual [and] sound perspectives and how [do] we combine them?"
Nitibhon introduces the concept of compromise, especially with video art that happens between artists and their audience. She talks about how Laura's video, at first, seemed too slow for her, but at the end the professor gradually adapted to the tempo.
With Keynote, you can control the pacing by triggering the next movement, but when you output the video you can ask the computer to do its own version of the pacing. Laura decided to try the latter option to see what the computer would do, and it actually took much more time than what she was hoping for. "I was really intrigued by that idea and translat[ing] it [with] the right pace, and ended up cutting a lot of stuff out of the computer's version because it took way too long," the composer finishes, coming back to this idea of compromise.
Marianthi continues and wonders whether it were the algorithm and tech that were trying to sense Laura's preferences? If so, the computer becomes a collaborator, making its own suggestions.
Pamornpan talks about how the video demonstration made her feel curious as to what's going to happen next, a statement with which the participants agreed. When asked for my opinion, I mention how the idea of engaging the audience dramatically changes with the advent of live streaming concerts and performances, and how musicians are challenged to create better visual experiences in order to keep the listeners watching.
Jean-Patrick agrees and notes that the works showcased during this event were engaging. "I was really trying to predict what can happen, what all these pieces can express, and how they catch my attention," he tells us. "It is very easy to catch the attention when the pieces are so compact. This pandemic affected my concentration, [which] is why I thought … this potpourri of pieces with all these different flavors … was very interesting."