Last night the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco hosted the West Coat premiere of Daniel Meyer-O’Keefe’s composition/installation Stare Prone. As a piece of music, Stare Prone was scored for three guitarists, four sources of sampled guitar tracks, and live electronics. The installation provided a surround-sound configuration of loudspeakers in the Chapel of the Unitarian church building while the guitarists played from the interior of a tent-like structure situated behind the conventional theater seating arranged for the audience. In his notes for the program sheet, Meyer-O’Keefe said that he called Stare Prone a piece of “object music.” Those with memories of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s use of music that would coincide with the dance without ever deliberately coordinating with it may be familiar with the term “landscape music.”
Meyer-O’Keefe’s music arises from a multiplicity of indeterminate elements. Notation is used to specify pitch and playing technique, which is not just plucking but also other approaches to sound pitch (such as bowing) and percussive effects (such as striking the guitar). The score is a computer program that presents to each performer random combinations of these notational elements. The interpretation of what the software presents through elements of time, dynamics, and articulation are left to each performer to improvise. The overall composition then involves the superposition of what the three guitarists do with the audio processing of the electronic gear. The performing guitarists were Giacomo Fiore, Travis Andrews, and Meyer-O’Keefe himself.
It was clear even before the Chapel doors opened to admit the audience that this was going to be a very loud experience. Ear plugs were handed out at the box office table; but most of the warm-up work was audible from just about every location on the church grounds. Once the doors were opened, I found that I had to make a judgement call. Any space in the Chapel not occupied by either the tent for the performers or the loudspeakers was filled with seats for the audience. However, between the intense amplitude and all of the spatial thinking that had gone into the piece, I decided that I would not treat this as a sit-still-and-listen experience.
My first decision was to find a couple of folding chairs for my wife and myself and set them up by the wall opposite to the entrance to the Chapel. The Chapel door was left open; so we could rely on “natural muting” of the amplitude arising from the sound reaching us through a relatively narrow space. This made for a better sense of both dynamic and frequency range than would have come from plugging up the ears.
From this “vantage point” the experience was compelling from the very beginning. A loud single-pitch drone seemed to sustain itself throughout the performance. It did not take long to be aware of the diverse configurations of phrases with high pitches, and there was no need to worry about which came from a single instrument and which came from simultaneities of multiple performers. Every now and then a threatening rumble of low-frequency noise would overwhelm everything else, including the drone that provided the only sense of orientation. The first time that sound loomed, I was reminded of how John Cage had wanted to set that jumble of 100 vowels and consonants representing the voice of the thunder on the first page of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
Eventually, however, I realized that, even without those “thunder claps,” low frequencies were overwhelming everything else. So my wife and I moved to some benches in the church’s courtyard. I chose a bench close to one of the stained glass windows of the Chapel, because I knew that one of the loudspeakers was on the other side of it:
This allowed me to shift the focus of my listening to the texture of high-register passages that probably came from the performing guitarists. (There was also the occasional buzz suggesting that the speaker might have been damaged and was no longer responsive to all the frequencies within its range.) I was still aware of the drone; but, even if my listening was now limited to a single loudspeaker, I found that I had a clearer sense of the relationship between parts and whole. After dividing about an hour of time between these two locations, my wife and I decided that it was time to leave, taking some pleasure in having the sounds follow us as we left the courtyard and proceeded to the door leading to the street.
All of my decisions were based on the following text on the program sheet:
There is no correct way to listen to Stare Prone. The most important improvisation is the one executed by audience members by listening.
Indeed, I suspect that Stare Prone would have benefitted from a larger space that gave more audience members the opportunity to choose between moving around and sitting still. A more conducive venue might have been the Concert Hall of the Community Music Center (CMC) with folding chairs set up around the periphery between the loudspeakers. One could then wander around the center of the space or out into the CMC courtyard, allowing more (most?) members of the audience to enjoy the benefits of multiple points of “listening view.” In retrospect I would argue that such a “participatory” approach seems to be more faithful to the composer’s intentions than a setting in which the body just sits there while “things happen.”