Music, Time & Wax: An interview with Ethan Frederick Greene

by HRM on September 20, 2011

by Lendl Barcelos

We witness the beginnings of a deep relationship between time and the melting of candles. It used to be that night or cloudy weather – moments where the movement of the sun or its shadows could not be measured – made timekeeping difficult. In response to this, the candle clock was created. The instrument is simple: a lit candle and markings of consistent distance. As the candle burns and reduces in its size, duration is measured.

Turning this process on its side, Ethan Frederick Greene’s piece ‘For Candles’ (2011) uses the melted wax dripping off four horizontal candles to mark the passage of time with sound. One of the four candles, dubbed the “maestro candle”, does this literally by controlling the tempo of the piece. Meanwhile, the other three candles become semi-autonomous performers as they incite sound impulses with every drip which then expands and develops through Max/MSP processing.

Lendl: Firstly, can you describe the generation of this piece?

Ethan Frederick Greene: I had a pretty clear idea of the arc of the piece from the start: from drip sounds alone, to rhythmic patter, to pitched chorale. I wanted the listener to first focus on the individual drip sounds, then to hear the candles’ patterns with respect to each other, and finally to hear those patterns take on elements of pitch and harmony. So the piece takes, roughly, a thesis-antithesis-synthesis course. Of course, this is all subject to the whims of the candles. Though they generally produce a metronomic pattern of dripping, sometimes they’re a little less predictable, and—as happened in this particular performance—they get less and less predictable as they burn down. However, the rates of delay and harmonic progression are affected only by the first candle, so the unpredictability is tamped down somewhat. And at the same time, I am at the software adjusting feedback rates, so there is some control I can assert.

L: There are multiple sections that can be heard in the piece. They shift between an “electro-acoustic” or “sound art” territory and a more harmonically driven music territory. Can you describe your interest in these disparate areas of aural practise and what you achieved in ‘For Candles’ more specifically?

EFG: I want the piece to feel like it progresses organically from raw sound—the unaffected phenomenon of candles dripping wax—to compositional artifice. That is, I hope the listener will begin to notice the subtle differences between individual drips and rates of dripping at the outset (this is much easier to do when the piece is in four channels), to hear the candles as not just inanimate objects, but as performers in an ensemble. Once I feel this has become apparent, I begin to process the sounds. It starts with reverb, which is the first move toward a more “electro-acoustic” sound world, and continues on to delay lines. Once the delay reaches full saturation, I introduce pitch, which is the real tipping point—the revelation that there is another force (me) at work.

Ethan Frederick Greene

L: Besides composing for inanimate performers (candles) you also compose works for animate performers, do you approach these two differently? How much do the performers influence your work during the conception and creation of a piece?

EFG: In most of my pieces, no matter who or what is to perform, I start from harmony and rhythm. In the case of this piece, the rhythm was largely aleatoric, but I wrote the candles’ chord progression out in full before I started on any of the electronics. The same often happens when I’m writing for ensembles of humans. I’ll come up with some pattern of pitches or rhythms in my head or at the piano, and everything will grow to and from that. Once the central germ is established, I take a lot of cues from the performers—what it looks like when they play, how difficult it will be to enact a certain idea, if they can be as expressive or inexpressive (since expressiveness is not always the goal) as the music I’m hearing demands. In this piece, I’m a performer alongside the candles, so I like to think that I can answer all of my demands.

For Candles

L: Dance is intimately related to music. As a composer, what is your relationship to dance? Is there a particular piece or style of music that you can’t help but dance to?

EFG: Interestingly enough, ‘For Candles’ was first performed last year with an accompanying choreography… But as to the question, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with dance. I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop—Nas’ first album, Illmatic, remains one of my favourite albums—and when I started composing, I tried to blend Charles Mingus with Steve Reich in a sort of Third Stream style of music. So you can see there’s a lot of rhythm and pulse in there. I guess I love to dance in my heart, but it’s always sort of made me uncomfortable to do it out in the world. Maybe it brings me back to my pre-teen years and all the Bar Mitzvahs I went to. That is not a good feeling to relive. So unless you count bobbing my head, I’m not much of a dancer, but I would love to compose more for dance—maybe even write a full ballet one day.

L: On your website you are listed as a “composer, sound designer, and friend”…can we be friends?

EFH: Lendl, even now we are friends. And we shall be for some time.

More on Ethan’s website: ethangreene.org

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