“I Think Of Myself As Listening Together With All the Other Possible Listeners”: Talking Sonic Exploration With Roarke Menzies


One sunny, spring afternoon about five years ago, Roarke Menzies, a composer, sound artist and longtime Brooklyn neighbor, showed up at my apartment with a laptop, a microphone and a small army of audio pedals. It was the first time we’d hung out and I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. I’d asked him to contribute a theme to a radioplay I was writing. And after listening to a portion of the script, Roarke launched into a captivating vocal improvisation that lasted maybe fifteen minutes. He then sat and edited the single take into a beautifully distilled theme, perfectly answering the demands of the show.

Since then we’ve become close friends and collaborators. I’ve spent hours listening, mesmerized, to his music. His soundtracks and scores have been steadily premiering on stages and screens around the country, most recently at the New Museum, for the New York City premiere of Chambre, a performance and installation created in collaboration with writer/choreographer Jack Ferver and visual artist Marc Swanson.

Now, after years of performing and composing for various collaborative projects, Roarke’s compositions will at last be available on a commercial release. Shapes, his solo debut, will see an October 13th release on all major digital retailers, as well as on a limited edition cassette. The collection will be the first title on an imprint he’s starting called Coup de Glotte, on which he’s already planning a number of future releases.

The sounds encountered on Shapes are dense with nuance yet sparingly employed. Throughout, moments of both ethereal calm (“Those Pretty Lights”) and melancholic terror (“Man in the Mylar”) emerge, often in the same track, sometimes simultaneously. “Forget My Fate,” (the title references the gorgeous, harrowing final refrain from Purcell’s aria “Dido’s Lament”) opens with a chorus of lush, plaintive voices, circling and echoing each other, which become progressively eclipsed by washes of static, which, in turn, seem to gather into an insistent, snaking loop that eventually devours the rest of the track. By the end, when the warm voices from the start are but a flickering memory, I’m left wondering how, exactly, the track had arrived where it had: was this stark destination and accompanying sensation of existential aloneness someplace new? Or had, in some sense, the feeling been present all along?

Roarke and I exchanged emails in late September about the upcoming release. What I wanted to know — as I want to know of all artists whose work I admire — is how he thinks about what he’s doing, and what he considers while doing it.

What do you see as the parameters of the music you’re making? Or put another way, what, if any, are the guidelines or guiding motivations behind the way you structure your compositions?

It really depends on the piece. On “Drones for La Monte Young,” for instance, I was inspired by a quote from Young in which he explains his concept of ‘standing waves’:

“When a single continuous sine wave of constant frequency is sounded in an enclosed space, such as a room,” he writes, “because of the parallel surfaces established by walls, ceiling, and floor of typical enclosed spaces, standing wave patterns are created when a sine wave is reflected from a given plane (without absorption) and then travels back, superposing itself with the original wave. The amplitude of the reflected wave algebraically adds and, at certain points, cancels the amplitude of the original wave.”

My curiosity about this notion that constant sound waves can crystallize the air molecules in a room, or create different geometric patterns, propelled me to compose “Drones,” which was guided by listening to what the air did in the space as I combined clusters of modulating frequencies and timbres using a simple software synthesizer. The track consists of only sustained notes that fade in and out.

Another important consideration for me is what the space feels like after the track has reached its conclusion. What are the impressions that remain?

As a composer for the stage you’ve created a lot of music that is highly influential in the context of an evening, and at the same time has a way of shifting into the background and influencing people’s experience on a subtle, maybe subconscious level. My impression is you enjoy this and that this relationship, between foreground and background in the audience’s consciousness, is something you consider a lot. Can you share your thoughts on navigating this?

When you’re composing music to picture or scoring a stage performance, you have to be comfortable not being in the spotlight all the time. It’s the same if you’re designing lights or costumes or doing other art department roles. Sometimes the best design goes completely unnoticed. But it takes a lot of thought and effort for the footprint to get that small. Take for instance the iconic Kikkoman soy sauce containers, which I saw not long ago in a show put on by MOMA’s Architecture and Design department. These are objects designed so well we forget they’re there. They blend into the dining experience. But who knew that designer Kenji Ekuan went through close to a hundred iterations before arriving at the ideal spout. When you’re creating a certain mood or feeling with sound, it’s not always about being noticed. In fact, sometimes that can shatter the effect. My brother, who’s a record producer and mixing engineer, will say things like “you want them to feel it, not hear it.”

How did you think about this foreground/background relationship on Shapes?

There are certain recordings where, as I’m listening to them in my room or in a car or on a subway, I find all the atmospheric noises suddenly feel as if they could be part of the composition — a passing car, distant sirens, the fridge or air conditioner turning on or off. Bill Fontana, a sound artist who began his career as a composer, describes something similar: “What really began to interest me was not so much the music that I could write, but the states of mind I would experience when I felt musical enough to compose. In those moments, when I became musical, all the sounds around me also became musical.”

Max Neuhaus, another pioneering sound artist, describes what happens when people first encounter his site specific sound works: “Often the moment the listener first walks into the space, it is not clear that a sound is there. But as you begin to focus, a shift of scale happens. At first you hear what could almost be a room sound, which then suddenly becomes huge. As you enter into it, you move into another perception of space because of the change of scale.” This shift in the perception of a space is something that fascinates me, as does the ability for music to invite ostensibly non-musical events to be understood as musical. With Shapes, I’m interested in inviting and catalyzing these modulations in perception. This is music that asks listeners to consider how and where they place their focus and attention. I think there’s something to be said for observing how you observe.

There’s a huge range on Shapes. The contrast, for instance, between the first two tracks is striking. How did you think about this set organizationally, conceptually? What guided your decisions regarding what tracks made the cut (I know you’re prolific) and how you wanted to sequence those tracks?

Because I’m also releasing this on cassette, I thought in terms of sides. In deciding the running order, I found that the effect of each track on the next was total. I aimed for a fair amount of variation in tone from track to track, but for the shift to feel like it ‘made sense’ myopically. There were a few other pieces I tried out on this collection but ultimately decided not to include because it felt stronger without them.

In the way a viewer might (productively or not) seek out a subject in a painting by an abstract expressionist, so too, it seems, someone might be inclined to grasp for a narrative in a piece of wordless music. Are narratives, linear or otherwise, something you think about when composing?

It’s funny you bring up abstract expressionism. I recently learned that the CIA was secretly promoting very specific readings of that work as ideological weaponry against the spread of communism during the Cold War. I know it may sound far-fetched, but if you don’t believe me, check out the 1995 article about it from The Independent. Apparently more and more ‘dirty laundry’ continues to be declassified from that operation. It’s fascinating, too, when you consider that a lot of the painters associated with that ‘movement’ (if you can call it that) were frustrated with how their work was interpreted, including Mark Rothko, who, as the story goes, went through great personal turmoil — right up to his suicide — because he felt his life’s work was so grossly misunderstood.

As for me, I don’t really think in terms of narrative or plot when I’m working, although I guess you could say I flirt with some of the trappings of narrative, like mood, setting, even character and tense. But I’m not really attempting to fabricate specifics, it’s more of a teasing of the signs associated with those elements.

I’m interested in making people feel, or more specifically, in how feeling happens and ways sound and music engage those processes. My work is often driven by a curiosity about sonic effects, and how readily they sometimes seem to beget, or abandon, meaning. Moving from observable, physical sound phenomena (physics, acoustics, sound production), to the intake of stimuli (proprioception, physiology), to the brain’s sensory faculties (neuroscience), how the subjective psyche interprets sound (psychoacoustics) and, finally, how conscious thought and emotional life are affected (cognition, affect study, etc.) — there’s a whole fascinating world there. Or maybe there are multiple worlds. Because for each listener, and in each listening situation, different associations are fired, sometimes yielding radically different readings of the work. I value that plurality.

Is anticipating a listener’s expectations something you concern yourself with?

Yes, definitely. It’s also a process of discovery for me. I sometimes feel like an audio work can be like the gas lamp in Ben Lerner’s “The Golden Vanity,” that each listener can be “briefly coeval,” in a way, each observing the sound unfold in their respective present tenses. So in a way, I think of myself as listening together with all the other possible listeners.

The idea of an “altered” mental state is admittedly a bit vague, but, for me, it’s hard not to associate sonic exploration (you’re described in your album blurb as a “sonic explorer”) with it. Is altering your own mental state, or the mental state of others, a focus for you?

I sometimes joke that I don’t need drugs, I just get high on experimental music. It’s a funny line, and in some ways it’s true. But I’m interested in more than just ‘getting high and playing music,’ which I have nothing against, but personally grew bored of a long time ago. Maybe I just wasn’t doing the right drugs.

In a recent interview for This Week in New York about the process of creating the score for Chambre, your recent collaboration at the New Museum, you said, “I ended up scrapping all of those references [suspenseful beat and dark, brooding piano melodies] in lieu of much more raw, uncomfortable, barely-recognizable sounds…” I wondered if this process of “scrapping” or paring down the material to its essence was part of the process of creating the tracks on Shapes as well.   I hear a lot of textural density and richness, but it also feels spacious and spare.

What I was describing regarding the score to Chambre was scrapping literally an entire show’s worth of music cues and rewriting from scratch. What I think you’re hearing on Shapes is an economy of the sound palette, which has as much to do with the tracks I chose for the collection as it does with the editing process.

There are several, quite different phases to my process. One is the performing of sounds, which most often involves vocalizing into a microphone that’s plugged into a series of hardware audio effects, as well as a loop station, that I manipulate ‘in real time’ while recording. This is often very active, improvisatory and exploratory, and is aimed at generating new sound material. Another is the editing and arranging process, which involves using audio software (Pro Tools is my go-to) to rearrange, transform, curtail, chop up, remove, slow down or speed up sound material. This tends to be much more analytical. A third is sitting at a keyboard or piano roll and writing specific parts that I can later rerecord on different instruments if needed. Depending on the track, I sometimes revisit each of these phases many times, or not at all.

You went on to say about Chambre, “As we got to the core of the work, it became clear that the real source of the horror in this piece isn’t the murder, but the horror of being embodied, the horror having to live in this cruel, terrible world.”

Even during the most overtly beautiful and meditative moments on tracks like “Those Pretty Lights” and “Forget My Fate,” I feel the beauty to be suffused with a sense of horror or suffering. I hear voices trying to escape. Do you think the sentiment that you were exploring with Jack in Chambre resonates on Shapes?

I wouldn’t be the first to say that suffering is an integral part of the human condition. Going back to Rothko (who apparently got a lot out of Nietzsche’s writing, which I’ve never read), he’s quoted as saying “I’m not an abstractionist… I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” I can relate to that, in a way.

On the one hand, I find myself with the inexplicable fortune of being able to earn a living in relatively amenable environments while having opportunities, that very few have, to devote my time to creative pursuits, and for that I’m grateful (why me?). On the other hand, the underlying context is a long and continuing history of oppression, violence, torture, genocide, enslavement, imprisonment (the list goes on). Meanwhile, increasingly manipulative propaganda, cover ups and misinformation somehow convince the majority (at least in the US) that these things aren’t taking place. I don’t know how to make sense of that. And I don’t know how to ignore it. I think that’s part of what you’re hearing.

At a time when most listeners use streaming digital media, why cassette?

I’ve used cassettes and microcassettes off and on in my work over the years. The early experiments I did on tape were really formative to my sensibility. So I’ve always had it in mind to do cassette releases.

I really appreciate the tactile relationship, not just to the cassette object and its case but to the cassette deck, especially with a Walkman. I find I listen completely differently, and I don’t know if I can articulate exactly why. Something changes ontologically. There’s something experiential that brings you intimately closer to the sounds. I’m interested in inviting that kind of personal relationship to the sounds, whether they’re heard on tape or any other format.

It’s a fun time right now for cassettes. There are a lot of independent labels and music makers putting work on cassette. My friends at Primitive Languages have a growing catalogue of brilliant outsider techno and noisy, experimental electronic releases. Bloomberg Business just did a piece on how well the National Audio Company is doing. Still, I understand that a lot of people don’t own cassette players. I’ve actually been collecting old Walkmen to sell at shows along with my tape. I’d love it if Shapes could be a gateway drug for people who don’t have tape players to start collecting new tape releases. There’s an aspect to making cassettes that, like with a zine, is just about participating in a community of makers and appreciators. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.

The record release party for Shapes will take place on Saturday at Bunna Cafe (1084 Flushing, Brooklyn, NY).

Photo: Josh Simpson

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