James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

The electroacoustic dream theater of Frances White

James Pritchett

This essay was written for the CD In the library of dreams, from Pogus Productions.

Copyright 2012 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.

Frances White invites us to take a walk through her Resonant Landscape. Where are we going? We are walking through the woods, marshes, and streams of New Jersey, that much is clear. She points out the birds and frogs that make their home there, the water that flows through it and the wind that shakes the trees. These sounds are familiar to us. But then we turn and there is that other sound world, the one in which these woodland sounds are transformed, or in which we find sounds altogether new: spectral birds singing to us through a sparkly haze; distant colored winds, like the breath of giants; the air around us, alive, charged with long, low drones and sudden electric crashes.

There is something magical about this other world, and (like most magic) there is something disturbing here as well. We move between the two worlds almost at random, bumping into one sound after another. We find ourselves rising off the path and floating, then falling abruptly into silence, reappearing in a marsh full of geese and blackbirds. This is more than a sonic postcard from Princeton: it is a journey into the inner world of Frances White. We could call it an electroacoustic dream drawn from her memories of hikes in the woods. As in a dream, real experience is placed in a surreal context, a play of inner and outer. We fill in the gaps, supplying connections among the random fragments of reality, memory, and imagination.

This gets to the heart of White's music. She has made a body of work in which she takes the real, brings it into her being, transforms it there, and then brings it out again in her compositions. Technically, she works by using the computer to manipulate recorded sounds and to synthesize wholly new ones. She mixes her timbres by hand as a painter would mix colors, and she applies them lovingly and painstakingly to her canvas of silence. But the power of her work comes from her ability to take listeners on journeys through her inner sense of sound, finding something luminous, exalted, dramatic, and at times frightening there. Her music is like the work of dreams, both the pleasant ones and the nightmares. It is not by accident that Gus Van Sant set the calmly-executed bloodbath of his film Elephant to one of White's Walks through 'Resonant Landscape'. White's unsettling juxtapositions of real and imagined sound work well with Van Sant's matter-of-fact treatment of almost unwatchable violence.

Walk through 'Resonant Landscape' is the last of White's purely electronic works; she is much more interested now in pairing this with live performers. Her approach to the combination of live and electronic music is her own and fits with the dialog of inner/outer that characterizes her musical world. The electronic sound creates a sonic space within which the instrumentalists move, the performers taking their parts within her elecroacoustic dream world. Her sound design acts in a way like stage lighting in the theater, but it is more than that. At times it retreats to the background, but at times it draws attention to itself, turning space and time into actors themselves, changing and pulsing before our ears. With the incorporation of live musicians, Frances White begins to move to a kind of electroacoustic dream theater.

In The ocean inside, the point of contact with the outer world is the traditional shakuhachi piece Chōshi. This is a short, introductory piece, a prelude for settling the mind that focuses on the breath. White has studied shakuhachi for several years and has played this piece thousands of times. It is the first thing she plays after warming up every time she picks up the instrument.

Chōshi acts as a cantus firmus in The ocean inside. Its notes appear in the electronic sound very quietly and very slowly, stretched out to about three times their normal duration. Just as in a medieval motet, the six instrumentalists then build their worlds on top of this slowly moving cantus. As this subliminal Chōshi moves from one tone to another, the players move from one world to another, constructing an elaborate counterpoint of thought and experience on top of the melody. Chōshi is hidden from our hearing at times as we get caught up in the dramatic world of the performers, but the cantus surfaces periodically, appearing unmoved in the pauses. It is like a sound heard while sleeping, appearing simultaneously in our dreams. And as with waking from a dream, there is an inevitability at the end as both cantus and counterpoint approach the same conclusion.

With In the library of dreams the drama is unambiguously front and center, and the connection to dreams is explicit. The viola d'amore is playing the role of searcher, wandering through this library and asking questions in expressive, at times wrenching lines of melody. In this case, the performer is wandering inside one of Frances White's actual dreams. In this dream, she was in a library full of music, searching for a lost medieval troubadour song. This song was known to be the most beautiful melody that anyone had ever created, although no living person had ever heard it. But even as she wandered through the aisles of books, the library was disintegrating around her. She was unable to find the song before the dream ended and the library disappeared.

It is easy to map this story against the piece. The violist is the visitor to the library, thrown into its silence from a painful, violent world. Just as the viola d'amore has hidden resonances created by its sympathetic strings, the library is full of subtle resonances of its own. These flicker like shadows around the viola's soliloquy. Eventually he reaches the heart of the library, a place of depth and quiet resolve. But does he get an answer to his searching questions from the library itself? The ending, a return to the external world of the opening, is ambiguous. He has returned to the world, but how has he changed?

In the last work on this disc, The book of roses and memory, drama has become completely explicit: in performance this piece is staged, with the narrator sitting onstage in an armchair holding an elaborate book. This reflects the direction of White's more recent, deliberately theatrical music. In 2004 she collaborated with soprano Kristin Norderval and librettist/director Valeria Vasilevski to create the monodrama-opera She lost her voice that's how we knew. More recently there is Maurice remembered, her opera-in-progress for the singer-pianist Thomas Otten.

The book of roses and memory is part of a projected evening-long theater piece with instruments. The story is simple: a dying woman has difficulty sleeping, and so a man reads to her. Specifically, he reads the names and descriptions of various roses from horticultural books. He is also a storyteller, making up details and at times whole fanciful histories for these roses. The couple first appeared in White's The old rose reader for violin, and the story continues in The book of roses and memory. A third piece for violin and viola together will complete the series.

As with the other electroacoustic dreams, The book of roses and memory is also about the appearance of the outer world within the inner one of the couple. In this case the outer reality is that of the earlier piece, The old rose reader: narration, melodies (including references to the traditional shakuhachi piece Tamuke), electronic sounds, and the recorded performance of violinist Mari Kimura enter at various places here. The events of The old rose reader thus have been reconfigured, creating the ground upon which this new character—the viola—plays her part. She has heard the stories of the past, and as she listens to the new stories from the live narrator, she contributes her own response to both of them together.

Who is this new character? What role is the violist playing? At the end of the piece, the violin and viola play a touching duet, a counterpoint of electronic and live, past and present, inner and outer. What is the viola saying to the violin? And the violin to the viola? When we awaken from Frances White's electroacoustic dreams, as with those of sleep, we are left with unanswered questions. The exact meanings of these dreams remain elusive, but we are certain of their significance.