Interview with Peter Hatch
Originally published in Whole Note Magazine, Toronto
SONIC MOSAICS: Conversations with Composers, by Paul Steenhuisen
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2009.
I tend to meet up with other composers at their busiest, on the cusp of large projects, and at the delicate point where their work makes the leap from imagination to realization. These moments are special, and rich with potential. Such is currently the case with composer Peter Hatch. By press date, he will have just completed a portrait concert with Montreal's Ensemble Kore, and will be preparing for the May release of Gathered Evidence, his new CD on the Artifact label. As well, he is about to present one of Canada's most multifarious new music festivals, Open Ears, of which heis artistic director (May 7 -12 in Kitchener, www.openears.ca). Fortunately, we were able to coordinate for an interview in between rehearsals.
STEENHUISEN: If I were... If I were to ask you about time... If I were to ask you about time in music...
HATCH: The psychological aspect of time - our experience of time - is endlessly fascinating. Our sense of personal experience in time, and then what's going on in clock time...it's quite amazing.Dealing with musical time, I don't think we know a lot about it. Any time you're working with duration and rhythm, in all the ways you can define rhythm, you're automatically working with time, but it gets complicated very quickly. There's the immediate moment, but then there's also anticipation, which is an experience of time, but not a present moment experience of time. It is, but it's concerning something that's about to happen. And then there's memory.
STEENHUISEN: If I were to repeat the same question, what would it be the second time?
HATCH: There's no such thing as exact repetition. It depends on how you look at it. If you look at it in terms of the fact of the question itself, then it is the exact same question, but in terms of the answer it would provoke, it's not. There's going to be a different nuance. It's then about memory, elaboration, and ornamentation. You could ask the same question exactly the same way, but in terms of the responses it will provoke, it's going to be different. Gertrude Stein was a master at understanding these kinds of things. In her writings she provokes responses to those kinds of questions in a very immediate way. You can read operas of hers where she'll have scene 3 preceding scene 2. It puts out the question of sequence, and about the way you're experiencing things through time. It's not just repetition - she goes beyond that.
STEENHUISEN: What about rhyming and music?
HATCH: You can have a sense of varied nuance and repetition. Stein uses rhymes and puns and things like that to bring up different connotations of what she's saying, sometimes in very abrupt ways. This thing sounds like another, but it brings in a completely different sound world, and a completely different meaning. The Stein influence on my writing certainly is very real, but rhyming in music is a little more difficult to talk about.
STEENHUISEN: More generally, how do you approach the relationship between text and music, and the possible worlds of relation between them?
HATCH: I haven't done a lot with text setting in terms of the sung word. Listeners divide into two types: those that are very aware of texts when they're being sung, and those that aren't. I'm in the latter category, for the most part. It's a way of listening, a way of attending to the music. On the other hand, the spoken word really thrusts the text into your face in a more direct way. It's a different kind of relationship.
STEENHUISEN: As a composer, do sentence structure and speech rhythm also interest you?
HATCH: Absolutely. If you're reading Stein - and she's the author whose texts I've set more than any other - for the most part the meaning that comes from her texts is not through the content so much as the form - the syntactical structure. She'll even do things that don't make sense in the normal manner of reading it, in a formal way. Those things carry huge amounts of meaning, whereas often the subject matter, the semantic meaning (which is also sometimes quite interesting) is often not the point.
STEENHUISEN: How do these ideas apply to your music?
HATCH: Sometimes it is kind of the opposite of theatre - I have a text interlude in the middle of a musical piece, instead of vice versa. The earliest example is a solo percussion piece I did calledWhen do they is not the same as why do they. It was sort of an epiphany for me, in which I made a direct connection between Gertrude Stein's short story called As a wife has a cow - a love story, and this percussion piece. The connection is between the rhythm of her text and the rhythm in the music - it's not a direct transcription, but a matter of transferring the formal syntactical structure into what I was working on.
STEENHUISEN: What about your interest in text as it applies to rap music?
HATCH: You know, I was doing/studying this kind of thing before rap really appeared, although I was aware of rap at the very earliest stages. There was a group in New York called the Last Poets that I discovered - they'd released an influential recording in 1970. They were basically street poets following up on the old bebop, and beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.But they were doing it out on the street with African percussion. A lot of their texts were very political. It's really early, early, rap.
STEENHUISEN: What do you like about it, and does it connect to your other, early 20th century literary interests and their application to your music?
HATCH: I can't say that I've really investigated rap in a thorough way, but I've enjoyed it, and my students keep me up on what's interesting. I think my use of spoken text came more from the percussion piece I was talking about. At one point in the piece, I thought it would be neat for the percussionist to speak the text instead of playing. That was the first time that I employed text that way. It's also tied to my interest in instrumental theatre and expanding what performers do. With instrumental theatre you have to be very careful about what you can ask of people and what their capabilities might be, but speaking is something that everybody does, and can relate to.
STEENHUISEN: Speaking in an instrumental piece is a tremendous disruption of the concert drama, isn't it?
HATCH: It can be. I love that kind of shock. That's the kind of thing I pursue in my music. That's the "Oh, wait a minute, where are we? What's going on here? I thought we were in a classical music concert."
STEENHUISEN: So you would do that to dislocate?
HATCH: It's really more to locate - to bring awareness to the moment. At that point in the piece, the audience's relationship to the player - and I suspect the player's relationship to the audience -changes dramatically, all of a sudden. It's gone from this known quantity of a solo percussionist doing his/her thing to this person who is speaking to you, and maybe conjuring up words from the world of theatre and so on. Hopefully it's shocking in a really nice way.
STEENHUISEN: What other elements of theatricality or unconventional musical practice have you incorporated?
HATCH: My opera Ask Alice is fully staged, but the score is two minutes long and is in two acts. Each act is about a minute long, but there's also an instruction in the score to repeat the opera five to eight times exactly. There are a lot of layers to this. The text is sung in a very traditional operatic setting. The words are attributed to Stein on her deathbed, said to her partner of many years, Alice Toklas. She said "Alice, what is the answer?" There was a pause, and then she said, "In that case, what is the question?" The first act is the first line, and the second act is the second line.The first act is frenetic, and very, very intense, and the second act is a rebound off that. The exact repetition does a few things. First, it obviously is an hommage to Stein and her love of repetition:"A rose is a rose is a rose." Second, it was intended to conjure up the idea of recurring nightmares. I think everyone has had the experience of a recurring nightmare, and it always seems to comeback exactly the same way - at least it hits you the same way, but of course, the experience of it is differently nuanced. I've been quite amazed when the opera has been performed how it wasn't until the second or third repetition that some people even knew it was being repeated, that they figured it out... It is interesting what that says about our attendance to things and assumptions we make.
STEENHUISEN: Jung wrote that nightmares repeat until one recognizes their reason.
HATCH: There's also a cubist influence. I love the idea of multiple perceptions of the same object. People have said that about my music - it's like you hold this thing up and slowly turn it. It was actually the English composer Christopher Fox who said, "It's like the twisting and turning of gathered evidence." The only time maybe I consciously tried to do that was years ago in a piece calledBlunt Music. There were these units - six or seven of them - that simply get repeated over and over again, but each one is just in a slight variation. And sometimes, it goes back to the original one.So you get the idea of basic cells, but exactly what that cell is, is hard to define because it's a combination of all the variations. All of them together produce what that thing is. I also don't think it's any coincidence that cubism arose at the same time psychology was being more or less being invented. Freud was absolutely at the forefront, with the idea of looking at more subconscious perceptions as being valid or very real. Picasso wasn't necessarily out studying Freud, but it was definitely in the air.
STEENHUISEN: You once quoted from Stein's Lectures in America saying, "The business of art is to live in the actual present, and to completely express that actual present." How would you define the concept of actual present?
HATCH: That's very hard. When I discovered Stein years ago, it came at the same time I had an incredible epiphany, something that is still working it's way through me. One of the things I was discovering was Joyce's concept of the epiphany, but also tied into it was an interest in eastern philosophy and the idea of the present moment and the eternal now. I had just studied the first part of Heidegger's Being and Time, and the concept of Dasein (being there). I can almost picture the camping trip where they all came together at one point and hit me like a thunderbolt, in the way that Hollywood likes to depict the way these things hit us. Suddenly everything clicked and made sense. They all went together. The actual present to me is reflected in all of those kinds of things - a definite sense of the immediate and the present moment. Of course, Stein was after, more than anything, what she called the continuous now. That's something that I, both in my music and my life, am trying to pursue, that sense of always being in the moment, being there.
STEENHUISEN: What is the present tense of contemporary music today?
HATCH: We're in a very interesting time, where things are shooting off in all directions at once. I think there's a sense of openness right now. Multi-directionality and pluralism is really fascinating. I get the feeling that we're kind of between things right now, and I think it's a wonderful thing. There's nothing really settled about what's going on - there are things that are settled, but I'm not sure that they are the most interesting things going on. I align myself with the classical music tradition, as many of us do, and think the whole position of the composer within the classical music tradition is really at a turning point right now - for the better. Right now living composers are more or less invisible to the general public and the classical music world. There is an increasing visibility going on, which is pretty interesting, because at the same time what's going on is affected by many influences outside that tradition.
STEENHUISEN: Is that a specifically Canadian situation issue, or North American?
HATCH: Obviously, all of this stuff is at some level, international, but there are differences. We feel the American influences obviously very strongly, but at the same time, there is more of a tie toEuropean traditions, especially in Quebec, but also across the rest of Canada. I think it really does make a difference that our general approach is multi-cultural as opposed to melting pot. We're a particularly interesting place in this whole spectrum.
STEENHUISEN: You've got your ear to the ground. You're aware of the street-level music making, as well as the conventionally considered classical music. How does this broad knowledge base affect you as artistic director of a major Canadian new music festival?
HATCH: Hopefully it's good. With the Open Ears festival, the basic idea is that anyone with open ears, with an openness, from any kind of background, can appreciate what's going on. As long asyou're open, you can come and appreciate it. We can all say that, but I think Open Ears tries to actually push that idea to the forefront. We have pretty eclectic mixes of things, and aren'tpigeonholed. There's quite a bit of crossover, but always in the sense of considered listening. It's not about making a connection to a bigger audience, it's about looking at a wide spectrum of what'sgoing, and playing what's interesting to listen to. I think the connecting thing is that they are considered listening. There are people coming from the background of rock and electronica and so on,who are listening well and coming up with quite interesting and sophisticated ideas, if you really sit down and listen to them. It's trying to break past preconceptions and say, "Look, this is interestingto listen to. Listen."
STEENHUISEN: Give an example of the breadth of programming.
HATCH: My favorite is the Saturday night of the festival. At 8 o'clock we're presenting the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony, with Hans Zender's reworking of Schubert's Die Winterreise. What Zenderhas done is taken the Winterreise song cycle and orchestrate it, but it's more than orchestrated: there are large parts which just have the sung line in a normal sense; there are other parts where the singer is using 'Sprechstimme', or spoken word. There are extended techniques in the ensemble, there's theatre involved. In a sense, you could call it a remix of Schubert. And immediately following that, we're presenting Paul Miller, or DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid, which is how he's best known. He's doing a remix of Pierre Boulez's Pli Selon Pli. Spooky is known mainly to the hip-hop or electronica crowd, yet he's investigated Xenakis and Boulez, and just had an installation based on the work of Marcel Duchamp. Those two concerts, in all aspects, from who these people are, what backgrounds they are, the spaces they're in, I think is an interesting juxtaposition. And then you get this connecting point in the idea of remix.
STEENHUISEN: We can identify the influence of popular culture on a lot of recent art music. Do you think there's any reciprocity to that influence?
HATCH: Yeah, I think you can get people like Spooky, the electronica people, who are acknowledging the importance things that were going on in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. There are remixes out of Pierre Henry, Steve Reich and Verve label jazz musicians. You get Spooky doing installations based on Marcel Duchamp, or remixing Boulez. They grow up in this tradition of a more commercial approach, but there are people that are doing things that are not commercially driven. Also, these divisions are breaking down, and it's all getting harder to define in some ways. The whole musique actuelle scene in Montreal is a mix of jazz, rock, electroacoustics, classical…. People like David Mott, Francois Houle and the Montreal band kappa all come from jazz-influenced backgrounds but it is often a stretch to call what they do jazz. Then there is electroacoustics versus electronica/DJ culture. Both sides are looking at each other very closely. Sometimes it's skepticism, sometimes with good results. It's all up in the air right now
STEENHUISEN: When you're spinning records, you're dealing with the past. When you're remixing Schubert, you're dealing with the past. What happens when every record has been scratched and spun, when everything has been referred to? Is there a finite point?
HATCH: I don't think so. It gets back to what we talked about earlier, where you hold that object up one more time, and it looks different. It will never be the same because the perceivers are always changing. Even if that sonic or visual object is the same, the perception of it never will be. If it does look the same, then the problem is with the perceiver.