James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

Frances White: Centre Bridge

by James Pritchett

Copyright 2007 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.

Walking across the bridge

Centre Bridge is one of several bridges crossing the Delaware River, connecting New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It is a nondescript bridge, linking two small towns. It is not particularly attractive, nor does it have a grand history. Centre Bridge is just a squat, steel truss bridge on concrete pylons, painted with green paint that is flaking off in a lot of places.

What Centre Bridge does have is a beautiful voice. People wander back and forth on the timber-plank pedestrian walkway, perhaps stopping momentarily to enjoy the view of the river. And my guess is that most of those people never notice the sound of the traffic going across the bridge. The roadway on the bridge consists of a metal grating, and the cars passing over this create low drones, their tones shifting as they speed up and slow down. Most people probably just think of it as cars going across the bridge. But, while on vacation some years ago, Frances White walked across Centre Bridge and discovered the music of the bridge, and it opened up a whole world for her.

To walk across the bridge with Frances is to discover this world. When you start walking across the bridge, you hear the way the drones start suddenly when a car pulls onto the bridge – noise, then suddenly music. You hear the water, and the songs of the cars, and the interplay of them back and forth. When you get to the middle of the bridge, all you hear is the approach and departure of cars: the melodies one after the other as they come at different speeds, the counterpoint of the two directions of traffic, the call and response as they pass, slow cars, fast cars, the silence when there's a lull in the traffic. At this point, you're really in a different place: water below and sky above and these low drones coming and going like chanting monks. A trip across the bridge with Frances can take awhile to complete, since this middle section can become quite expansive. When you get to the other side you hear the drones approaching and then suddenly stop – music, then suddenly just noise – as the cars leave the bridge and return to the world of pavement and earth. But as you walk away, you still hear that music, lurking in the shadows of the sounds of the cars on the road.

This disc is titled Centre Bridge in part because that is the title of two of the works contained on it, works inspired by this bridge. But beyond this, it is because the role that the bridge has played in Frances White's work is so characteristic of her music. Her music is about listening and listening deeply: about encountering sound in the world (especially the natural world) and immersing herself in it. From this sustained attention to sound, she saturates herself with that experience, internalizes it, develops an image from it through intuition. It is this image, drawn from experience, that she then brings out again into the world through her music. To engage her work is to take a walk with her through her inner and outer sense of sound.

Electronic sound, natural sound, sound-space

"I have to have an actual sound" – this is how Frances White describes the start of her approach to composition. For her, music starts with her experience of sounds in the world, and she needs to enter into a deep relationship with them through the entire process. It begins with listening, but the act of composing is largely about her direct working with sound itself. Since 1985 almost all of her music has included computer-generated electronic sound. She loves the medium because it allows her to work with sounds in a hands-on, almost tactile way. Often using recorded "real world" sounds as a starting point, she uses the computer to transform those sounds in various ways: adding color, extracting rhythms, enlivening electronic textures with the energy of sounds she finds inspiring. The computer allows her to build up her music from scratch, and she works as painstakingly as a painter who creates her own pigments.

Walk through "Resonant landscape" No. 2 is a showcase for White's work with natural sounds. It is derived from Resonant landscape, a work that White created in 1990. Its starting point was her love of the woods and marshes around her home in Princeton. Having recently moved there from Brooklyn, she was completely entranced by the life of the natural world. She immersed herself in it and made extensive field recordings of the birds, frogs, streams, winds. She then sought for a way to do more than just a typical "concrète" treatment of the sounds, something more than a purely acoustic construction: she wanted to communicate the essence of her experience.

The answer for White was to create an interactive installation. The computer displayed a map of an imaginary place. People visiting the installation could move around on the map, and as they "walked" from place to place, the sonic environment would change – sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. The sounds themselves were mostly taken from White's Princeton field recordings. Some were left unaltered, but others were transformed on the computer. Still others were purely synthetic, but echoed qualities of the natural sounds. Visitors explored this virtual landscape, discovering the kinds of sounds that lived in different places. But beyond this two-dimensional spatial exploration, they were exploring Frances White's imagination, her memory of the sounds, the added dimensions of color that her mind supplied.

Resonant landscape is no more; all the equipment used is now obsolete and unavailable. But White had the foresight to make recordings of the installation in operation: "walks through" the original piece. What you hear on this disc is the result of someone moving around on the map, looking for what's in that corner over there, following the sound of that bird, being surprised by the flight of geese overhead as you go from point A to point B. This "can be thought of as a kind of journal," she says; "a record of observations made, together with interpretations and fantasies based on those observations."

Instruments in electronic sound-space

Resonant landscape used electronic sound to create a sense of space in a number of ways: the physical space of the woods and marshes of Princeton, the two-dimensional map and sound space, and the personal, emotional space of White's response to the landscape. Since this work, she has devoted herself more to the creation of works for chamber ensembles combined with electronic sound. In her chamber music, Frances White does not treat the electronic sound as another instrumentalist, but instead uses it, as in Resonant landscape, to define an acoustic, musical, and emotional space within which the performers play out their roles. The live and electronic parts are loosely coordinated, so the instrumentalists can play freely, finding their own way through the sound-space. Since she creates the sounds so carefully and in such detail, White feels that the electronic parts of her music are her own personal "performance" within the work, a place for her voice to enter directly into the music.

Centre Bridge was the first work Frances White created after discovering the magic of the ordinary bridge with the extraordinary sound. The sliding sounds of the cars going across the bridge reminded her of the bends and wails of Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute) music. As a result, she recorded the traffic on various visits to the bridge, and then "transcribed, transposed, and embellished" these to create the solo shakuhachi parts of Centre Bridge. The recordings also formed the basis of the electronic sound, heavily modified on the computer to suggest a foggy, murky space in which the shakuhachis emerge and recede, rise and sink. Thus the sound of the bridge has been transformed into music through two different devices: tracing (in the case of the flute lines) and filtering (in the case of the electronics). The duet is as much a dramatic device as a musical one, representing, among other things, the two banks of the river that cannot meet. In performance the two players stand at opposite ends of the stage, facing one another, calling in long cries to one another.

Like the lily is one in a series of White's "bulb" pieces, which include her Winter aconites and Lesser celandines. The common characteristic of these works is the quiet, indistinct, irregular pulsing electronic sounds, sounds that White thinks of as populating time in the way that colonies of flowering bulbs will spread over the space of a field. In the earlier bulb pieces, the instrumentalists play simple overlapping extended tones over this delicate texture. This formula is one of the clearest examples of how White uses electronic sound to create a sonic space to hold her instrumental music.

In Like the lily, there is some of this, but there is also another force at work: the Gregorian chant Alleluia: Justus germinabit. The text (adapted from the Book of Hosea) can be translated as "The just shall spring like the lily: and shall flourish forever before the Lord. Alleluia." White does not just quote the chant directly. Instead, she has taken it inside herself and then allowed it to resurface in bits and pieces throughout the piece. It is unrecognizable until the astonishing ending, where the fields of flowers vanish, and, entering the desert, we can practically hear the breath of God in St. Gregory's ear as the tune is dictated to him.

The sound-space of A veil barely seen is entirely about water, specifically the sound of small streams. The piece was commissioned by violist Liuh-Wen Ting as part of a concert of five new works based on the Chinese elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water). White went out to the woods again to listen to the streams running through them. She found herself transfixed and changed by their pitches and rhythms:

They change in subtle ways, depending on where you stand. ... Sometimes, I could not tell whether the pitches that I heard were really there, or were only sounding in my imagination. Finally, I felt myself disappearing into the water.

In A veil barely seen, the purling water is heard throughout, its natural pitches combined with White's imagined ones. The viola moves through this space as one stream flows into another, from bare outward sound to the various moods and tones of White's inner reflections.

The title refers to the eternal, primal female spirit that we associate with water. In the Tao Te Ching, she is referred to as a "gateway to the root of heaven and earth ... like a veil barely seen." The water sounds are delicate, to be sure, but there is a hidden power there, a power whose strength lifts the viola from fragmented mutterings into transcendental song.

Listening and transformation

A bridge, the traffic passing back and forth across it, and the river running beneath it; two shakuhachis calling to each other, unable to connect; a chant and the wind; the sounds of the forest; water, wind, birds, memories; the chuckles of quiet streams: these are the sounds from which Frances White makes her music. But these are also the sounds that make Frances White, and her music is a way of showing that the line between the making and having been made is hard to discern. Beyond that, her works are a way of changing us through those very sounds that have changed her.

Centre Bridge (dark river), the last work on this disc, is perhaps the perfect example of White's music as an agent of change. It uses the technical means of transformation I have described in other works, but beyond this it also communicates the theme of transformation through its very structure. On the material, acoustic side, the sounds of the piece are taken directly from the bridge. The backdrop is the sound of the Delaware River; the pitch bends and transitions of the low strings are simple transcriptions of the sounds of actual traffic on the bridge. But the deeper, more meaningful level of the work is how it draws from White's understanding of the walk across the bridge. "The bridge transforms the sound of traffic into a kind of music," she says, "into something beautiful and almost sentient." The structure of Centre Bridge (dark river) is a perfect expression of this experience. Once we have sunk into the sounds of passing traffic and rushing water, the world suddenly shifts, and we are transported elsewhere. After this, nothing can be the same, and there is a melancholy at the end, a feeling of loss as we return to the solid pavement on the other side.

Centre Bridge (dark river) reminds us that Frances White's music is demanding on us as listeners. Not demanding in the way of most "difficult" music – complicated relationships that we have to attend to, keep track of, and comprehend. But demanding in that we must sit down and be quiet (internally and externally) and listen to the music. We must open our minds and hearts and let it in, let it develop and "cook" there, even while it itself is changing. When the mundane sound of river is swallowed into a blazing electric shine, when the strings disengage from the limited range of slowly passing traffic and take off, skyward, into gradually shifting, exalted harmonies – we listen deeply so that, when all this happens, we are ready to take off with them.