Option magazine, 1/89:
Dance scores often reflect more the interaction between sound and dancer than the music and the listener, and on this disc there are spots where sudden changes, silences and shifts signal a missing element. But on the whole this is an interesting, diverse collection that lends itself to visual fantasies on the part of the listener. Guitars, synths and drums make up the essential parts of most pieces, with tape tricks, voice fragments and other effects to add an edge. Extremes are often common, from a single snare drum to a sudden, aggressive synth/guitar attack on one track, and a solo voice blurring with tapes and rhythm section on another. The central piece, "Her Dance", is a half-hour collection of segments, all moody and cautions, that blend well but are not necessarily composed as a whole. In all, an intriguing 75 minutes, a bit unbalanced, but an interesting glimpse of the performances they were created for.
Face: Was "Her Dance" ever staged?
Etnier: The piece was done for the Bates Dance Festival that year, and I don't believe it's ever been staged again. The company that did it, Danceformation, was an all-female company, and a lot of the members had family commitments, so it was a company that was self-limiting. They lasted about a year, but it was a very nice year.
Face: When Sam Costa or whomever commissions you to do something like this, what do you work from? Do you go to a rehearsal and watch, or does the choreographer give you some sort of outline?
Etnier: A little of both, and it depends on the choreographer. Most dances or multi-media shows or video shows can be seen as blocks of different events. For some period of time, the artist is trying to get some sort of mood across and needs some sort of sound to reify that. So for the first stuff that I did with Sam, we arrived at a system. He would say, "I need a mood of this sort for this period of time that immediately shifts into some other mood." So the question for me became, "How long does this go on and what tempo do you want the dancers moving to." And sometimes the choreographer will say, "Oh, and I've been listening to Peter Gabriel or Elton John or something like that. I liked what I was hearing, and we rehearsed to this; maybe you should use it as a guidepost," although I usually do terrible at that, sort of copping stuff. So what you wind up with is a series of blocks: two and a half minutes of moody, introverted, stormy music at 106 beats per minute, then it changes, and you just go on like that until the end of the piece. All of the pieces here except the last two ["October" and "Music for Putting on Coats"] were done by that method.
Face: How were the other two done?
Etnier: The "October" score was a case of where I was asked to emulate somebody else, and you wouldn't believe it to hear it that it was Kate Bush. It's very lush and orchestral and doesn't sound at all like Kate Bush, but the choreographer came to me and said, "I've been listening to this, and I'm going to start working on a dance," and then the project sort of faded for a long time. I never heard from him - I'd just given him a real quick sketch of what I'd been working on - and then he called back and said, "We're going on stage with it in a month. What can you do?" [Laughter] So then I just had to pull it together as quickly as I could. And that was the first piece I'd done using MIDI, so it was very easy to take care of tempo and timing issues that came up due to the six or eight intervening months...
"Music for Putting on Coats" is the "October" score recast with no dance considerations. You're supposed to put on your coats and walk out of the theater.
Face: Take one of the longer pieces, maybe "Her Dance." When you finish recording something like that, can you listen to it out of context of the production that frames it and in the context of a free-standing piece of music?
Etnier: I wish I could, and I think "Her Dance" is a good example. Sometimes pieces go on longer than they're supposed to. In "Her Dance" in particular, there are stretches of music that go on much longer than I could support with a clean conscience as a musician. But because in every one of these cases you're up against a deadline, usually the additions in length requested come very near the deadline. I don't have time to say, "I've got to write another minute of music in the same vein." You just sort of comp it out. So if I was to view as strictly musical some of these scores, I would have gone in with a razor blade and really tightened. But I was also being sort of harsh on myself with that. I didn't remix anything, I didn't equalize anything... so musicality often suffers by the nature of this being a scored project. The time and musical values don't line up.
Another good example of this is "Bambiville," which, I suppose as a piece of music to someone listening to it, must appear to jump around a tremendous amount (though it is one of my favorites), and that's because it was done as a stage piece with all kinds of different actions taking relatively short amounts of time.
Face: It's not surprising that you'd come up with a long piece like that and have to stretch where, if it were done strictly for music's sake, you'd do something different, because it's asking two different artists - the choreographer and the musician - to interpret the same theme, and they aren't obviously going to do it exactly the same.
Etnier: And in the case of choreography you're really dealing with three viewpoints: the choreographer, the dancers - who are often in a very interactive relationship with the choreographer - and the musician. And a piece which I, unfortunately, had to pull out of recently - and it really broke my heart - would have been a video score with a creative director, plus the cinematographer (though it was actually done mostly film to video) and a musician. Another three-way process, but with much greater technical demands on it imposed by the video medium.
Face: Without, hopefully, belaboring the point, given that some of these pieces taken out of their original context might jump around or sound stretched or not complete, why did you decide to put them on disc?
Etnier: Because, to me, they all did the job they were supposed to do, well. That just left a question as to whether or not to edit them for the record. And I felt cleaner about simply saying, "This is what was done," and releasing it with the understanding that these were scores for dance and multi-media, and that someone listening to this should not expect a pop record or a very thematic thing.
Face: Well, this is not unprecedented. David Byrne did a similar thing with the score of The Catherine Wheel.
Etnier: He was lucky, because the thing about The Catherine Wheel, which is well worth getting on the CD because it's 70 minutes long, much superior to the vinyl version, is that the piece must be done in blackouts. They somehow managed to arrange that the transitions from one piece to the next are fairly cleanly done. You have a good way to get in and out [with the music], which isn't often the case. But that was a terrific inspiration to me; I love that record.
And there are film scores, too, by Morricone, Copland, for Christ's sake. I love that stuff, and again, the assumption is that this is not entirely musical. There are other forces working on the sound.
Face: In a lot of these cases [movie soundtracks], there's an assumption that they won't be bought strictly as hit records, but that you're more likely to use a soundtrack to supplement your memory of the film.
Etnier: [Laughing] I hope not, because probably a thousand people in the world saw all these pieces [on Performance ]. My hope has been - and work pressures have kept me from working on this as well as I'd like to - that I can use this as a launching pad for further work of this type out of state, and to build a reputation for doing this sort of work on a larger scale. Through Megaphone we're going to be sending copies of Performance to every modern dance company in the country with a cover letter and a resume. Also, this has been picked up by New Music Distribution Services, which Carla Bley and Michael Mantler started 10 or 15 years ago to distribute independent product nationally. It's the first national distribution I've ever had, so things are beginning to sort of percolate.
Face: Do you work a schedule when you're on a score, or whenever it hits you?
Etnier: It's largely dictated by the reality of this sort of work which is that you get propositioned to do the work, and they tell you, "Hey look, it's 18 months from now. You don't have anything to worry about, lots of time." And then you go and have a good time for 17 and a half months, at which point your client has gotten to the point where they can give you stuff to work from, and you've got two weeks to do the score. So you work when you can, whenever you can get studio time.
Face: You do everything here?
Etnier: I do now. I have a pretty substantial MIDI set-up at home, but I'm becoming sort of disenchanted with MIDI as a way for me to get the kind of music I like. Therefore, I have to be in a studio where I can get into cutting tape and running it backwards, playing with microphones and all that sort of stuff.
Face: Is MIDI a limiting way to work?
Etnier: Yes, it has its limitations. It's a tremendous medium that's allowed me to do things I could never do before. The "October" score, which has got all these strings and sampled acoustic guitar... It's got a lot of potential, but it does tend to make you write in a conservative vein. You have to really think hard and work hard to be weird. For me, in this medium, it's a lot more intuitive to do strange and inventive things in this room than it is in my basement.
Face: Okay, explain this: Bob buys 25 records a year, and he's seen M-I-D-I on the record sleeve. He doesn't know what it does, but he knows he's heard the results of it. How would you explain to someone who's a casual musical listener what MIDI can do, how it works, or what results it produces with which the average person might be familiar?
Etnier: MIDI is a communications protocol for musical instruments to talk to each other, and computers are the shorthand answer for that. The most immediate effect to the average listener is this intense... not homogenization but something like that. Sort of an intense flattening of pop music over the last few years. Everything sounds so perfect and polished, because with MIDI you can, well, perfect and polish.
Issues of timing, for example. If a drummer hits a drumbeat a little late, you used to have to let it slide. Now the tendency is to always straighten it out. If someone sings a little late you can use MIDI to sample him and slide him around. All of the chords will land as closely to perfect time as the composer wants to let them. They often let them get a little shaky just to provide a human feel.
You hear MIDI on, I would say, 90 percent of the pop music that's been released in the last five years, and I think the world is a much poorer place for it [laughs, but half-heartedly].
Face: Is there a way to integrate the two methods?
Etnier: Oh yeah, I don't want to come across as sounding antagonistic to the technology, because I use it every day. I have a lot of personal money invested in it, and the studio has a lot of money invested in it. There are all sorts of ways to work with it. However, because it's a numerical game - a computer-based system - it tends to want to put everything into neat little rows and columns. You have to spend all of your energies fighting that in a creative way and coming up with stratagems for working around MIDI's nature of being. The problem is that 90 percent of the time it's just easier to let it slide, to let it take the path of straightening everything out.
You have to be working with it a lot for this to be clear, but I'll give you an example. A drummer will do a drum track for a song nowadays and, instead of playing a real kit, will play a pad. The piece will be recorded as a MIDI sequence. He'll be working to a click track that keeps him roughly in tempo. What you've then got is a whole string of note events that are somewhere ahead of or behind the ideal position, because he's a human being. You can go in and individually try and correct all these notes so that only the really egregiously bad ones are fixed and the others are left alone. But it's a lot easier to hit a button called quantize which takes 'em all and pulls them into tight windows.
The other thing, and what I did for years with the tracks [on Performance ] is I used MIDI but didn't use MIDI sequencing. The only thing that was going on was that if I hit a keyboard, I could play three or four synthesizers simultaneously and layer their sounds. That's the most primitive use of MIDI.
Face: Can you tell by listening when somebody has used MIDI and left a few edges as opposed to when somebody is simply playing? Is the human ear good enough to do that, yours or anyone's?
Etnier: Yeah, I think so. Realize that, particularly with drums, the drum machines and sequencers tend to give you things in patterns. Every chorus will have the same drum part, so that's a tell. If the timbre of instruments is fairly rigid, if the bass doesn't really live, you can hear that it's a sampled bass done with MIDI.
Face: You do a lot of commercial work here, but about the local musicians who do come: are they particularly interested in using this kind of technology?
Etnier: This market doesn't have a lot of people who are trying to get that result, that '80s pop sound. We get a lot of band business not just because we have these capabilities but also because we're very meticulous. We do a lot of classical music here.
Face: You're a writer. Can you or have you composed anything like a pop song?
Etnier: "Music for Putting on Coats" was sort of an attempt to do that. It's the closest I've come to doing straight-ahead pop. It sounds like a pop song as Peter Gordon and the Love of Life Orchestra would have done it. They did stuff that was so stupid it was funny, but brilliantly done.
Face: How about in a performance. When was the last time you did perform?
Etnier: The 1983 Maine Festival. I put together a pick-up band with some friends of mine who were all great musicians. We played that one afternoon, and that was it.
I would like to be doing that more. Unfortunately, if you aren't in it for the money, it's a tremendous amount of hassle. I like to work with top-notch musicians, but for them to devote the amount of time it takes to learn my stuff... Also, I'm left-handed, and I play a right-handed guitar strung left-handed, so that makes [teaching] the stuff I write difficult, too.
I think from time to time about putting together a band like I had that played the Maine Festival in '83. I have a sort of big show that's been sitting in the back of my brain for a long time that I'd love to do at PPAC [Portland Performing Arts Center].
Up until 1988, counting "Arterial," there's been about a score a year. And given the way that I work, that's about what I can support and put my guts into and have it come out so that I feel pretty good about it.