MUSIC | Aaron Einbond

Clearly this is setting the stage for a literary revolution.

Or is it? From the looks of it, most writing proceeds as if the Internet had never happened.

—Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing

But what about music? Not only the Internet, but digital audio, whether heard from a computer, iPhone, or CD, has transformed the way we experience sound. This is obvious for artists in electronic music, sound installation, laptop improvisation, and many pop subgenres. Yet digital sound has also changed acoustic music—live instruments—in unanticipated and irrevocable ways.

In my music I want to foreground these sources of expressive experience. One of the most promising is a new way to work with performers. Using close-miked recording, recent computer analysis techniques, and creative transcription I weave the performers’ personalities into the final piece. I am extremely grateful to the members of Ensemble Dal Niente, Chicago’s most adventurous new music ensemble, for exploring this process with me over the course of a multi-year collaboration. The results can be heard on Without Words, recently released by Carrier Records.

Each work on the album began with a collaborative recording session with the performers in the ensemble. With Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, the soprano soloist of the title track, the starting point was a database of texts brought together through Internet searches—fragments, translations, and paraphrases from Jonathan Swift, Walace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Kenneth Goldsmith, and many others. I also brought a bag full of objects to sing through: whistle, kazoo, coffee mug, poster tube, and spring drum. As Amanda whispered, growled, stuttered, gasped, croaked, and even occasionally sung the texts, I captured her improvisations with my digital recorder. Then I composed a micro-montage of these samples, listening, rearranging, and transcribing them into musical notation that Amanda re-interprets with breathtaking coloratura virtuosity and precise gesture as she exchanges one object after another between her mouth and the microphone.

All of her material comes from the original session, so one could say the work is “performed” before it is “composed,” reversing the usual creative hierarchy. The composer becomes a curator, or even a DJ: pulling jewels out of a stack of vinyl records and arranging them in a new order, adding another expressive voice to a collaborative composition. Then when Amanda performs the work on stage, re-embodying my transcription of her own singing, she is accompanied by an echo of her original samples mosaicked by the computer live. So the piece is not only hyper-virtuosic, but hyper-personalized. If performed by another soprano or another ensemble, it would be a “cover.”


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Without Words for soprano, eleven instruments, and electronics, performed by Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, soprano, Michael Lewanski, conductor, and Ensemble Dal Niente.

his is no less true of the instrumentalists on the album, whether Ryan Muncy’s rattling baritone saxophone or Alejandro Acierto’s screaming contrabass clarinet. But they are not the only voices present: with recordings as the focus, boundaries are broken between inside and outside, present and past. Without Words begins with homemade field recordings of nocturnal frogs. Break decomposes a crackling solo break by Charlie Parker. In each case a computer analysis of the recording is used to build the accompanying instrumental score and electronic soundscape. In Post-Paleontology, the analysis is turned back on the instruments themselves, as the performers re-interpret each other’s fragile textures produced through a variety of instrumental preparations.


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Post-Paleontology for contrabass clarinet, violin, guitar, percussion, and piano, performed by Ensemble Dal Niente.

The clearest windows on my practice are the “Sonic Postcards” that intersperse the album. A single field recording, unedited, is transcribed into musical notation to be re-performed live, with or without the original recording a accompaniment. I base this process on the samples developed with the ensemble members, as I try to match the timbres—or sound colors—of the original landscape as precisely as possible using noisy instrumental techniques. In this case the Internet is not involved explicitly, but my personal digital audio archive is manipulated through open-source software that did not exist a decade ago.

Despite the technical control, these are some of the most intimate works on the album. Each field recording documents a specific time and place, then layered with the experience of working with the performer at a different site, coming together in performance or in the recording studio at another point again. Then all of these events are transmitted to the now of the listener, who traces them into her or his own micro-dramaturgy of time and place.


Aaron Einbond’s work explores the intersection of composition, computer music, music perception, field recording, and sound installation. He was born in New York in 1978 and has studied at Harvard, the University of Cambridge, the University of California Berkeley, and IRCAM in Paris with teachers including Mario Davidovsky, Julian Anderson, Edmund Campion, and Philippe Leroux. From 2009–2011 he was Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Music at Columbia University, from 2012-13 he was Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in New Music at the University of Huddersfield, and he is currently Visiting Lecturer on Music at Harvard University. Upcoming projects include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Musical Research Residency at IRCAM, and a Giga-Hertz Prize from ZKM to produce a new work at the SWR Experimentalstudio in Freiburg.


Matt Levin

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