5 questions to Dan Trueman (composer)

Composer and innovator Dan Trueman tinkers with gadgets new and old in search of novel musical sounds. As a faculty member of Princeton University, Trueman directs the school’s Laptop Orchestra. He is also a master of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, which often plays a prominent role in his compositions. A recording of Trueman’s work “neither Anvil nor Pulley” – a collaboration with Brooklyn-based ensemble So Percussion – was released on May 28, 2013. “neither Anvil nor Pulley” features several of Trueman’s unique instrumental creations, including drones powered by speaker drivers and audio samples controlled by repurposed golf video game controllers.

In neither Anvil nor Pulley, you utilize a wide variety of instruments, ranging from wood blocks and bass drums to turntables and drum machines. Your music criss-crosses the boundaries between acoustic and electronic sound. Tell me more about your compositional process and how you envision these complex soundscapes. What influences you in the creative process?

I have a studio full of good stuff, like fiddles, drums, laptops, gaming interfaces, and custom things I’ve built, and I spend a lot of time using all of them in various ways as I wrestle with trying to create new situations for making music (in other words, composing new pieces!). For me, composing is one of the most difficult and engaging things on the face of the planet to do, and I find that I’m usually most successful when I’m really not quite sure what I’m doing, or what the final piece is that I’m after. So, rather than imagining a target soundscape or composition, I mostly think about what people will be doing when they actual play the music I’m creating. In the case of So Percussion, I really wanted to create instruments and music that challenged their musicianship but were also inspiring to play, getting them to musical places they’ve never been before. This meant that while composing I spent a lot of time building instruments, trying them out, seeing which ones inspire, and then trying to find good notes and rhythms to compose for and with them. With neither Anvil nor Pulley, I knew I was getting somewhere when I found myself getting lost for several days playing with one particular digital instrument – the “synchronic metronome” used in the second movement – while finding seemingly endless possibilities.

Dan Trueman

Dan Trueman

In neither Anvil nor Pulley‘s second movement, titled “120bpm (or What is Your Metronome Thinking)”, repurposed golf video game controllers are used to generate sustained ringing tones. Members of So Percussion pull on a pair of pull-string tethers to produce sound. Can you tell me more about the process of transforming the tethers into musical instruments? How did you come upon these game controllers and what inspired you to incorporate them into a piece of music?

I first learned about these from Dan Overholt, a brilliant music technologist based in Denmark, and they have since become a staple in laptop orchestras everywhere. I have used them for a number of musical instruments, including the one in “120bpm,” which basically allows each hand to “freeze frame” through an audio sample in each hand, transforming it subtly, using a process known as “phase vocoding.” It invites a sort of expressive exploration of a sound, allowing you to slowly pull it apart and focus on particular details of the sound (like, for instance, taking bow changes in a fiddle sample and lingering on the noisy details of the change). Like I described with the “synchronic metronome,” when I first put this instrument together I found I could get lost for hours playing with it – a good sign!

neither Anvil nor Pulley requires performers to play a variety of different instruments – both acoustic and electronic – over the course of the piece. Live performances require a “choreography” of sorts as musicians jump from instrument to instrument. What challenges did you and the members of So Percussion face in preparing the work for performance and recording?

Well, So Percussion is masterful at this sort of thing. So many of their performances, from David Lang’s “So-Called Laws of Nature” to Steve Reich’s Drumming, are beautiful, ritualistic choreographies, but the choreography primarily emerges from the compositional requirements, and I think that is the same in neither Anvil nor Pulley.  So worked extensively to find ways to locate the instruments so they could most naturally move from instrument to instrument, or play various instruments simultaneously, and they are super smooth at it now. But there are still challenges, like in “Feedback” (the fourth movement) when they have rotate through instruments, sometimes quite quickly.

neither Anvil nor Pulley explores the musical potential of computers and technology in today’s world. As a composer, you regularly incorporate laptops, electronic gadgets, and software tools in your work. Are there any emerging technologies that you find particularly exciting? How do you see computers and digital technology continuing to change composition and music-making in the coming years?

Machine learning, which can enable us to work more intuitively when building digital instruments, performing, and composing, is the most compelling current field of research in computer science to me. My colleague Rebecca Fiebrink in the Computer Science Department at Princeton is on the cutting-edge of this work, using machine learning to develop rich contexts for “creative computing.” With machine learning, we can “teach” the computer about the kinds of things we’d like to be able to do, and almost collaborate with it in constructing new instruments or compositional environments, rather than explicitly telling it what to do and how to behave.

On the other hand, while I am impressed with new touch-free interfaces like the Kinect and Leap, I’m concerned that their popular appeal will overshadow more old-fashioned interfaces that I think are actually more interesting as musical interfaces. For instance, the tether video game controller, which is technologically super simple, is a terrific musical interface because it features resistance, tension, and it locates the body specifically, constraints that are key to most conventional instruments. There are reasons why the theremin, cool as it is, remains a fringe instrument. It’s just so inspiring to play with things that push back and resist us in various ways. This leads to a second kind of new technology that I’m interested in: so-called haptic interfaces that literally push back at you (a simple example is the vibration that you can get with the Wii and other interfaces).

In coming years, I expect the computation to continue to become more embedded, less visible, and less audible as “technological”, but simultaneously becoming more physical, more sweat-inducing. At some point, the notion of a “laptop orchestra” will likely become anachronistic, though we aren’t there yet.

All this said, I actually don’t really care that much about “cutting-edge” when it comes to technology. There is SO much amazing stuff out there, new and old, that we have only begun to explore musically, and sometimes being drawn to cutting-edge can be a bit of a trap, relegating music and music-making to a secondary priority, which is fine, but not for me!

What other projects are you working on currently? Do you have plans to build upon the musical ideas you explore in neither Anvil nor Pulley?

I just finished a set of eight etudes for “prepared digital piano” that build directly on the “synchronic metronome” instrument from “120bpm”. In this case, instead of just having a metronomic “click” that we are interacting with, the metronome takes on pitches from what is played on the digital piano. Basically, it is a software piano, played with an 88-key controller. Instead of having paper clips and other things preparing the strings to create different sounds, I have virtual machines of sorts attached to the virtual strings, creating a set of “preparations” that are really only possible with software.

I’m also collaborating with the great Irish sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionaird on a number of things: Some orchestral arrangements of the traditional songs he sings, and also a new piece for him and me (him singing, me on fiddle, and both of us playing laptop instruments derived from instruments used in neither Anvil nor Pulley) and string quartet, for which the poet Paul Muldoon is creating an incredible new text.