An Interview with Barry Schrader

Barry Schrader, current photoTokafi has published an interesting interview with electroacoustic pioneer Barry Schrader:

“Monkey King” and “Wu Xing – Cycle of Destruction” are both recent works and they both deal with China. A coincidence? Or is there a special interest you’ve taken in the country, its culture and spirituality of late?

“Wu Xing”, on the one hand, is an effort at musically capturing the traditional Chinese elements. On the other, they are part of a superordinate concept, which assigns each element a function (or “stage”) within a particular framework. Was it part of the compositional process to make both of these aspects audible? Or to put it differently: Would the “Cycle of Birth” have sounded vastly different from the “Cycle of Destruction”?

I’ve always been interested in ancient cultures and their mythologies. One of the first books I read as a young child was Hawthorne’s “Tanglewood Tales”, a retelling of some of the Greek myths for children. I went on to read many histories of ancient cultures, books on their mythologies, as well as many volumes dealing with archeology. I didn’t read a translation of “Journey to the West” until I was in graduate school in the late 1960s, but it made quite an impression on me.

My first visit to China was in 1988 as a guest of the Ministry of Culture when I gave lectures and concerts at the conservatories in Beijing and Shanghai. I was quite taken with the Forbidden City and other historical sites I saw. I had composed a live interactive computer work for that trip, “Twilight”, based on a poem of the same name by the 19th century Chinese poet Chen Yun, and I used a traditional Chinese melody type as the basis for that piece.

So I guess by that point Chinese culture had entered my mind in a fashion similar to that of other ancient cultures, and this fascination continues to grow as I learn and read more. In subsequent visits to China I’ve seen more historical sites and there are many more I’d like to see, perhaps, someday, even Huaguoshan Scenic Spot in Jiangsu Province which is the site of Monkey’s birthplace, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.

So the decision to use scenes from “Journey to the West” as the basis for a programmatic composition came from my fascination with the book as well as the culture.

I had begun to work on “Monkey King” in 2005 when I was approached by the remarkable jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who also teaches at CalArts, to do an “overlay” piece with him for one of his Creative Music Festival concerts at REDCAT in November of 2005. I was quite nervous about this, as Leo is an incredible improviser and I am mostly concerned with fixed works. But his overlay concept allowed us to each create a piece simultaneously and then Leo would perform his over mine, allowing the fixed structure to influence his performance.

Leo’s side of this unusual duet was “Pacific Light and Water”, and we had an early discussion about what we would do in which Leo gave me a drawing he made depicting the various frequencies of light that would filter through the Pacific ocean at various depths. My mind was filled with things Chinese at that moment from all of the research and work I had been doing on “Monkey King”, which I had already started composing, and so the water idea led to using the Chinese concept of “wu xing”, of which water is one of the five elements (metal, wood, earth, water, fire). These are usually ordered in one of two ways: the cycle of birth, which ends with water, and the cycle of destruction, which ends with fire.

My decision to use the ordering of the cycle of destruction was based on my thinking that it would be more dramatic to end with fire. Had I used the cycle of birth as the ordering, I think it would have been a very different piece, and I would certainly have composed the water and fire sections differently. I also liked the architecture of the cycle of destruction in terms of what I imagined the various levels of energy of the sections of the piece to be, which, I think, I realized fairly well. The “Metal” and “Wood” sections both build up energy fairly quickly, while the “Earth” and “Water” sections are at relatively low levels of energy, both ending with considerable dissipation. The “Fire” section continually builds up energy and the piece finishes on a high point.

We published an in-depth Barry Schrader interview a couple of years ago, talking with him about electroacoustic music, the role of classical electronic composers, collaborating with pigs, and more!

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