Musical Science 101
Even within the confines of our research, it is a rare treat to host a guest such as Maayan Tsadka, as she embodies with her practice a true spirit of experimentation. Tsadka is a bona fide composer of through-composed scores, who claims to have always tackled her practice with somewhat of an exploratory nature. Going through the regular hoops expected of a classically trained musician (piano studies as a child, academic studies as an adult), Tsadka, like many others in her scene, leaves Israel in her 20s in favour of advanced music studies, in her case at UC Santa Cruz. It is here that Tsadka receives what she feels is the stamp of approval tying her prior classical training to her current practice as an experimental composer. In her own compositions, Tsadka attempts to strip down musical attributes and explore these bare essentials in a non-temporal/almost clinically scientific manner. A fitting example is one of her piano studies we discuss at the onset of the interview, where the pianist is asked to play the lowest note on the instrument in a repetitive ostinato rhythm, whilst an assistant slowly moves her finger on that same piano string, closing it on different nodes. The effect is clearly exploratory – the result of such an effort will always be different, and its process itself sways from attempts at traditional aestheticism. It is indeed more likened to a scientific experiment where sound attributes are explored in detail. Tsadka mentions her ongoing love affair with these types of materials, stating that whereas at first she attempted to shape them into what could be considered traditional aesthetics, currently she attempts to single out particular ideas, sound attributes or techniques and explore them exclusively. A similar example can be found in Tsadka’s first improv session for us in the studio, where she explores the effects of piano amplification through the inherent feedback of two walkie-talkies. This is an idea I’d seen Tsadka explore in a concert several months prior to our interview, and there too, the aesthetics were the artefact of a stripped down technique diligently explored by the composer.
Regarding her perception of herself as a true experimenter, Tsadka tells us: “In the past 4-5 years I’ve recognized an active attempt to drop ‘exclamation marks’ as far as my own compositions are concerned. Since, I’ve been attempting to put a greater emphasis on the compositional work-process and put into question ideas of material, form, process, and indeed to experiment with those in mind. Experimentation, in music as within science, requires diligence and rigour, a following through of a predetermined process, and an understanding that all of the above won’t necessarily facilitate outstanding or even interesting results. But this type of experimentation marks my own attempt to understand something about music and sound; how does this thing work, and what is it made of?”
I inquire with Tsadka why she doesn’t attempt to explore these ideas through improvisation, or rather – why she believes these ideas necessarily need to be explored within the confines of through-composed scores? Tsadka’s answer is long and deliberated, and discloses a thoughtful holistic approach: “One can gradually veer towards exploration via improvisation, but the result would necessarily be a different sound-piece when compared to the through-composed effort. There is something to be said for distilled ideas and rigorously following-through these ideas according to a plan that would, by default, disallow one to fall into comfort zones – a problematic place marking many improvisation sessions.” To Tsadka, the through-composed effort is a means to strategically set a musical goal brought about with utmost surgical precision, something an improvisation session will never truly be able to do: “If improv is planned in any manner, it is no longer really experimental. Improv requires a ‘space’ to which one cannot come with preconceptions or prepared ideas.” On the other hand, and in complete relation to popular conceptions of through-composed experimental pieces, Tsadka takes up the defence: “Through-composed experiments are not, as many seem to think, a whim! These experiments require both technique and skill. In fact, it is absolutely inherent to this musical practice that one be heavily acquainted with the medium, its history and traits. The misconception is that experimentation and indeed experimental improv do not require skill.” I personally must agree that there seems to have been an intermingling of technical and political ideas with many of the proponents of lay-practice. So much so, that one tends to forget how heavily embedded within the musical tradition and canon were the same practitioners that heralded these sometimes-reactionary ideas.
As many of our guests before her, Tsadka too seems to relate to the notion of experimentation as relativist and hence, all encompassing. In closer and more specific similarity to the thoughts of our former guest, Nadav Masel, Tsadka seems to believe that the experimental act can be transmitted towards the audience, and indeed engulf it as a consequence of deliberate intention on behalf of the composer/performer. Whereas the intention spoken of by Masel seems to correspond more with the spiritual, Tsadka offers an example from American composer James Tenney that corresponds more with the technical: As a means to demand of an audience commitment to a process, or indeed ask of it to let go of preconceptions as to the type of drama they require, Tenney would incessantly repeat an idea in the context of a piece. This would, at least initially, raise a subconscious question amongst the listeners regarding the drama of the piece, or indeed whether a given idea is bound be developed or perhaps completely obliterated. But at the point where the audience realise that the idea is a process, and that the music and aesthetics are a consequence of this process, they are inadvertently liberated from their ingrained expectation for drama and development. “Suddenly”, Tsadka reminds us, “there’s an availability to focus on other things.”
Similarly with the idea of time, and more so music as a temporal art, Tsadka’s recent compositional attempts focus on the treatment of sound as a timeless artefact, likening it to a museum piece. This allows the listener to approach the sound from different vantage points, and indeed ‘see’ it from different perspectives. All good and well, but I must inquire regarding how one goes about abolishing time from the inherently temporal? Tsadka describes for us a current piece in the making for string quintet, wherein a chosen fundamental and its built-in overtones are inspected through a notation devoid of any temporal indications. The same fundamental is used as an omnipresent, yet sometimes inaudible artefact, where the composition attempts its ongoing unveiling through an inspection of the potentially never-ending overtone series of that same fundamental. Indeed, the only aspect linking this piece to conceptions of time is its performance itself and the ongoing bowing of strings on behalf of the performers.
Thinking, as I often do when the subject of my interview is a woman, of gender issues and particularly gender equality within the arts, Tsadka and I embark on a critique of the still quite rampant denial of women’s place in the arts. However, having stated all we did during that exchange and perhaps due to my tendency to labour the point, it is Tsadka herself who makes the most poignant remark on the topic: “Notice that with men you will talk only of music, but with women you feel the need to talk about gender issues as well. It’s true that women should be the ones to talk about this with, and that this is a super important topic, but it should be left for a different type of forum. In this forum we should be discussing experimental music, and not gender.” Amen!