Middle of the Road

Here is an excerpt from Middle of the Road in the mp3 format. [4.1 MB]

And here is the entire piece.

Middle of the Road is the result of a collaboration with the dancer and choreographer, Clay Taliaferro, a member of the dance faculty at Duke University. Our collaboration began at the instigation of Jairo Moreno, who wanted to present a colloquium on the relationship between music and gesture. Jairo suggested that Clay and I develop a piece that would serve as a vehicle for this presentation. Of course, the piece itself soon became the focal point for our work. We took the idea of collaboration seriously: Clay and I met every week for a period of three months, and I regularly attended rehearsals of the work in progress. Collaborating in this way (as opposed to working in isolation) changed the way I wrote music for the soundtrack.

We began with a song I wrote in 1989, a piece Clay had long been interested in setting to choreography. The text of the song is a poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade in a translation by Elizabeth Bishop called "In the Middle of the Road." The poem is simplicity itself, almost wilfully devoid of content, perhaps even mocking the idea of poetic content. Nonetheless, I chose to believe that the poem recounts a life-changing experience:

In the middle of the road there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
there was a stone
in the middle of the road there was a stone

Never should I forget this event
in the life of my fatigued retinas.
Never should I forget that in the middle of the road
there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

In addition to this text, Clay brought in a beautiful poem by Rilke, the ninth "Duino Elegy." The urgent rhetoric of this poem could not be more distant from the simplicity of Drummond de Andrade's poem. Clay's reading of the Rilke is intensely musical, with its unrehearsed repetitions and falterings combined with a quiet, almost whispered tone of voice. His reading is at once intimate and dignified.

Taking the texts and song as a point of departure, I went to work collecting other sounds: snapping sticks, clanking pot lids, spinning coins on a tabletop, breathing, ambient sounds of a rainy day outside my house, and highway traffic at rush hour. Later on I recorded melodies and sustained notes performed by my colleagues, Eric Pritchard (violin) and Susan Dunn (soprano). Working on my Macintosh with Csound, SoundHack, some home-made software, and a digital mixing environment, I started putting the piece together.

Composing is usually a solitary activity, and what's more, I had become accustomed to keeping my projects to myself until they were ready to be performed. No sneak previews for my friends and colleagues! The process of composing "Middle of the Road" was a refreshing change of pace. Clay choreographed the music as soon as I gave it to him, and I regularly attended rehearsals with the dancers, taking notes as I watched the piece take shape. Music I had completed earlier in the day would be set to choreography that night. On occasion it would be abundantly clear to me that a certain musical passage resisted being set to dance, and so I would go home and try again. In this way, the soundtrack was truly shaped by the process of setting it to dance.

I have been calling the piece a "soundtrack" because I still can't imagine it as a self-sufficient piece of music. In part this is because of the extended passages of spoken text, which are situated in particular ambient environments rather than set to music. Another factor is the heterogeneous nature of the composition, which includes singing and playing as well as less conventional textures characterized by the non-musical sound sources I listed above. One of the real pleasures of working with Clay was that he responded to music; he was generally not interested in what I was doing on the Mac, and, if anything, he tended to dislike anything that sounded like "computer music." This proved to be the perfect antidote to keep me from succumbing to some of the clichés of the medium, particularly the tendency to go in for surreal sound effects. Instead, I tried to construct a continuity in which musical passages naturally led to spoken text and vice versa. I hoped that the musical passages would provide an expressive focus for the ideas presented in the texted passages. The technology remains largely transparent.

"Middle of the Road" received its premiere performances on December 1-2, 2000 in Reynolds Theater at Duke University.