About the Music


Wonderment and Misgiving (2018) is a pair of duos for low wind and low string instrument, meant as a kind of story-music. As I wrote I imagined music for a pantomime or monodrama, and strived to think of those genres as having specific qualities of time and temporality, even before the situations, and characters, are known. I also tried in these works to re-think some broad tendencies and assumptions about the roles of constancy and change in musical discourse. The two duos were separate but related thought experiments: in each, I imagined a solid object, with contours curving and jutting in all directions—each moving differently in a five-dimensional space, represented in the music by modal pitch, dynamics, timbre, harmonic quality (produced via a higher note’s emphasis of a simultaneous lower note’s partials), and time—with time treated, unusually, as a dimension in which meaningful qualities can be differentiated. Here, time is a dimension like any other—like hardness, like brightness, or even dimensions with less categorical clarity, like suspense, or repose. If that seems abstract, notice small rhythmic gestures in the first half of Wonderment, and allow them their individuated and momentary characters. Normally one has to find a beat before feeling a syncopation, but here, the intensities must be figured differently, figured from a quality of time that emerges freely, from unmetered pairs of timespans.

Finally, in a space conceived from those five dimensions, each of the two bodies undergoes change and movement. Its contours are malleable, and rotate around a fixed axis that mutes the space in that region, where, because it is an axis, movement is minimal, and stability is unavoidable. In each case, the axis concentrates information around a narrow range in one dimension, and renders it mostly inarticulate.

In Wonderment the axis of rotation crosses the musical space at middle D of the bass-clef range. (The axis is almost “perpendicular” to pitch, but not quite: the work’s notes descend in pitch, within about a fourth below D, as a direct function of reduced intensity and pitch fixity.) Its contours around that axis arise from differences in intensity, balance between timbres, shifts in degrees of syncopation, and shifts in the degree that pitch is fixed. Misgiving’s axis shifts within the piece: in most phrases it steadies itself around a particular and only slightly “unpulsed” quality of time, exploring contours in pitch and harmonicity; in others, the axis fixes around harmonic fundamentals to let the object ebb, flow, and waft into dry, weightless syncopations. The axes in both movements should draw our attention to types of motion that might otherwise seem subservient: the first object inures us to forces of dynamic contour as though they were melody, and the second undergoes a kind of bloom, accustoming us at first to a rhythmic world, but then wobbling as it spins toward more conventional melodic gestures, bridging—in the manner of an intermezzo—some unspecified and almost “unpulsed” story, or dance, to another.


In Marshall Field (2020) is a work for high voice, piano, and sampler, shaped by a year of volunteering for the Campus Natural Reserve at the University of California, Santa Cruz, supporting efforts by its manager Alex Jones, and director Gage Dayton, to prevent the endangered Ohlone tiger beetle’s extinction. It is also a setting of Laura Riding’s poem “The World and I” (1930). The inquiry of the poem, and a fragmented understanding of the life-cycles of the beetles, are reflected in the work through five kinds of agency, each its own layer of time. Together these agents constrain and influence one another to form a kind of voice-leading or counterpoint.

One agent—let’s call it the first voice—casts a gaze across a fragment of the lives of the beetles’ larvae in Marshall Field, which is one of only a few meadows where cicindela ohlone still survives. A brief tangent: for many naturalists, tiger beetles are elegant and even heroic— sporting sleek, waxy elytra and long, trigger-quick mandibles. Taut, galloping creatures glisten, burst up and around, mate, and oviposit for just a few spring weeks before dying. But the animal’s fuller one-to-three-year life is spanned quite differently, in a peculiar, hook-footed, scorpionesque larval body. This younger, no less fantastic (but not at all similar) bug2 digs and maintains a perfectly cylindrical burrow where it lies in wait to prey on ants, silverfish, and tiny spiders. Ohlone tiger beetles can’t use “pristine” meadows; they need segments of disturbed, compacted, and vegetation-distressed ground3 where cows and mountain bikes have tread. Each larva will build a roof over its home, once or twice for shelter during a growth phase, and then destroy it; when unroofed, they periodically eject sediment with a powerful flick of the neck. Most time is spent below the surface; at times it reaches up to seal the burrow’s entry with an identically-rounded face-plate —its circle the same as that of its burrow entry, but adorned with an unshaven disorder of armor and hair-sprouts with which to apprehend the vibrations and atmosphere of its environment. These upward-reaching gestures can last for a risk-averse fraction of a second, or linger for precarious minutes. Finally—relevant to the question of their time-layer in this piece—I observed the beetles’ movement to and from this surface forms an erratic and slow rhythm, a tempo seemingly suppressed by the rise in heat between dawn and dusk on the scale of a day’s time, and also, on the scale of a year, at times nearer to the summer solstice. In Marshall Field carries those rhythms, captured on video, into the phrase-shapes and fine-grained metric modulations of an interaction between singer and piano. Beside this derived rhythmic structure, a complementary rhythm emerges, as the duo pivots between two characters: a nostalgic but hopeful reference to the “serious” Western art-song tradition in something of an apex state that it had reached around the time of Riding’s poem; and a more desiccated reference to that tradition. This is a rhythm in which a magnifying glass lingers on one detail or another, hearing that detail at a threshold of slowness, and then retreats from that threshold, back to the nostalgia of song. These two grand paths—the imagined path of a burrowing predator’s life, and the path between contrasting stances toward a song tradition—work independently, but pull and push at one another like a chant tenor and its duplum. Most of the “narrative” trajectory of the duo score—a kind of forward-moving scroll in which the non-narrative poem has to be set—arises from the interaction of those two paths.

A third layer—a labyrinthine formal rhythm—is constructed by the performers’ undetermined pathways through that duo score. The singer and pianist vary their repetitions, and alternate between ending-types, for phrases whose tempos often modulate, ending differently than they begin. As these modulations compound with one another, carrying forward their effects, the outcome of tempos for the piece can range widely from one performance to the next. In these operations, the progressions of the first two “voices”—the beetle-rhythm and the lied rhythm described above—remain intact, excepting their speeds and longer-term destinations. But the result is a three-voice world that in turn forms the essential context for the fourth layer, navigated by the sampler. The sampler, via a separate score, must reflect on a rhythm of the Marshall Field video record’s incidental sound—juncos, wrens, and flickers; wasps and flies; mountain bikers. My own breathy rustlings. Though not a coherent voice, could it be constructed that way, from within the burrow? What do the predators hear, or see, under my regime of observation? Could there be some response? The form of the sampler’s part is set by a 20-minute video, cutting across 20 hours of burrow footage, which itself cuts across 12 months of their lives. The video—find it at <http://benleedscarson.com/otb>—serves as a fixed-media graphic score whose moment-to- moment relationship to the more flexible duo score is unforeseeable. The sampler’s rhythm is fixed, but its harmonic and textural aspects bind, through improvisation, with that of the unfixed duo in each phrase, so that the more literal voice leading in the acoustic parts will cut across temporally independent forms.

A fifth voice (though it actually precedes the others), is the language across which these other rhythms break, and sometimes sway. Appearing first in a 1933 collection Poet: A Lying Work, “The World and I” begins in a familiar paradox of signifying. Representations, of whatever kind, are always reductions, always inexact (“is the sun...the sun?”), but the relational problems of representation itself, no less a feature of any life, also have no other available form, leaving us stuck in mysteries of our own making (“What hostile implements of sense!”). But this is so far just a prelude to Riding’s other questions: on how a thinker becomes thought (note the approximation in “...perhaps becomes such knowing”), how a thinker experiences intimacy’s opposite (“Else I think the World and I / Must live together as strangers...” [“...to love the other”]), and a question about the validity of flawed experience (that we might live “...and die—”, “...each doubtful / Whether was ever a thing [to love the other]”]). Through most of the poem, Riding’s near-rhymes and rhythms are sparsely deployed. For In Marshall Field, those texts are set twice—first in natural-speech contours and modal progressions in the duo score, second in fragments of those progressions under “magnification.” But for both settings they are distributed through the work in a spiral, “out of time,” as though question and answer refract repeatedly across the relationship between a growing “I” and its world. Near the end, the penultimate line’s “Exactly I” extends the starkly iambic line before, and then tumbles into sporadically larger feet—anapests and an epitrite—without disturbing the decisive pulse of the verse. I read those rhythms into this music as a cadence—and so, under most performance conditions, the rhythmic elements can collide, suspending counterpoint with unisons, despite a harmonic and gestural language that, in the duo score, continually opens, re-thinks, and re-interrogates.


Laura Riding (Jackson) 1933

This is not exactly what I mean
Any more than the sun is the sun But how to mean more closely,
If the sun shines but approximately? What a world of awkwardness!
What hostile implements of sense! Perhaps this is as close a meaning As perhaps becomes such knowing.


Else I think the World and I
Must live together as strangers, and die— A sour love, each doubtful
Whether was ever a thing to love the other. No, better for both to be nearly sure.
Each of each exactly where
Exactly I and exactly the World
Fail to meet by a moment and a word.

The Campus National Reserve seeks answers to the question of what limits Ohlone tiger beetle populations, and what might let them thrive. Jones initially directed me to track changes in the numbers of burrows and their appearances, over the seasons. But an old principle of empiricism intervened. Observations, of course, aren’t neutral acts: the thing observed cannot be disentangled from the act of inquiring into it. If the burrows I documented are any measure, the larvae’s numbers increased from about 40 to over 200, in my first year of visits. But these new burrows were found, almost without exception, in my own knee-, butt-, and footprints; my own acts of videography evidently expanding their habitat of gently trampled, compressed soil. Did my act of observation change their predicament? This we don’t know, because sadly, despite larger numbers, and despite my own record of their favorite prey skirting the edges of their lairs, none of my footage, now spanning two years’ time, captures larvae in an act of eating.

The problem of intimacy in Riding’s poem is part of a larger landscape in Riding’s work, always precariously alighting on, and lighting-up, our sense of what it means to look, see, think, be seen or thought, to face things, and to have faces, to be connected or to be estranged. That elusive threshold of becoming “such knowing” as is contained in intimacy was uncrossable in my hours on Marshall Meadow. A set of musical gestures emerged across these five presumed “voices”—gestures in which I heard something new, even if it was only my brain’s new struggle to see into their gaping dark cylinders, but we still await meaningful revelation about their lives.