Stairway Echoes: A Personal Reflection

My initial interest in composing Stairway Echoes came from the many times I have walked up and down the stairs of The Hartt School and listened to the stairway’s sound environment. The two most interesting sounds that can be heard are the footsteps of people going up and down the stairs and the voices/conversations scattered throughout all four floors. These sounds truly came alive when I would stand on the top floor and sounds from the bottom floor would resonate up to me. This allowed for the initial attack of the sounds to disappear almost entirely. I began to wonder what an extremely resonant instrument would sound like in that space. I immediately thought of the glockenspiel due to its extremely long decay time and complex overtones.

My hope was that by playing the glockenspiel on the bottom floor, the top floor would hear little to no attack. Instead, they would hear a sort of “harmonic cloud” created from the various excited overtones. My hope was that this (in combination with the natural sound environment) would create a really unique and interesting experience for the listener. I considered this to be the first piece in which I consciously thought of the performer as an installation. The duration of the piece is open, but should last at least an hour. This duration allows for communal meditations or discussions to evolve naturally over time.

The piece becomes an individual experience for every listener, if they choose to listen (it is probable to assume at least a few people will pass by without listening at all). This individuality became extremely apparent after my first experience performing it. Many people were very interested and came to me after the performance to tell me about the various phenomena they heard throughout each floor. Many people were extremely fascinated by the sonic changes throughout each of the floors, and intentionally listened over long periods of time to hear the gradual changes occur. Others stayed for a few minutes then came back later to experience a drastic change. People told me they heard many sounds that weren’t (intentionally) there. One of the most interesting “phantom sounds” was that rather than pulsing dyads in the right and left hand they heard single note arpeggi going up and down the range of the instrument.

Some listeners were not as thrilled to have a disturbance in the routine life of school. A few people complained about the noise and felt it was quite rude of me to “practice” outside of a designated practice room. Others were worried or annoyed that the music might be mistaken for the fire alarm. Even with several people being displeased, I think overall people seemed to be interested in the event.

My experience as the performer was very different from the listeners. I could not hear any of the ‘harmonic clouds” or “non-existent arpeggi”, in many ways I was envious of what other listeners were able to hear. So much so I am now in the process of organizing a second performance with a different performer so I may be a more active listener. The sound world is still interesting to listen to as the performer, but the physical and mental process of performing is much more interesting than the listening in this particular instance. After about thirty minutes of constant playing it truly becomes an out of body experience. The meditative process takes over and focus becomes intensified. It was not until after the performance that I realized how taxing the piece is both physically and mentally. While the piece has no traditional technical challenges, playing non-stop for an extended duration (of at least an hour) requires a special form of virtuosity. D.T. Suzuki once said to Cage, “If something is uninteresting after two minutes, try it for four minutes, if it is still uninteresting try it for eight minutes, etc.” With this piece (and other static pieces with long duration) I find that even if the first two minutes are interesting, the next four minutes will be extremely interesting in a new way, regardless of a change or lack thereof. After about forty minutes (more or less depending on the person) the ears, the mind, or perhaps the soul seems to be changing the sound to the listener. An experience seems to slowly emerge after intensely listening to very subtle music for an extended period. This may be the cause to the “non-existent arpeggi”. It is my hope that my music, even beyond this piece, will create this experience for the listeners.

A link to excerpts from the premiere performance has been provided below:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLCpC2aNsLgOy65EOKHk7in0SnQ56gyZE2

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One thought on “Stairway Echoes: A Personal Reflection

  1. cool. i like the thought of – by distancing the ideal listening space (ie top floor) from the performance site / source of the sound, it is a contrast of experience, that you can transition between gradually (ie by climbing the stairs).
    i dont know what your process is for deciding how/what/when to play, but it would be interesting to see if your approach to expressing the material changes in a scenario where you are listening (via headphone monitors) to only the sounds heard on the top floor. perhaps you may find yourself attracted towards particular resonances, or finding ways of letting the sound breathe.
    finally, i must admit i’m not keen on glock.. the midtones of a marimba would be my go-to here!

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