If you were to do a deep dive of #country on Soundcloud, you might find something a bit out of place. Floating around there is cellist Jay Campbell’s two and a half hour arrangement of Berlin-based composer Catherine Lamb’s descensus. The only musician to ever receive two Avery Fisher Career grants, Jay has a very active career as the cellist of the JACK Quartet, the Junction Trio and as a soloist. While he would not normally have the time available to spend weeks recording a single page of music, he devoted himself to learning and recording descensus for months in his free time during the pandemic. It was a personal project, not intended for release, but I’m grateful that he decided to share it. It was such a treat to speak with Jay in his garden in Brooklyn about this work, his process and the subjectivity of hearing.
Fair warning, we nerd out in this conversation and some of the concepts may not be familiar to everyone. Catherine Lamb has an abundance of resources on her website about her work, including texts, scores, interviews, definitions and videos (don’t miss this interactive sonic spiral). I’m continuing to explore her site and love what I’ve been finding. I think the most reassuring aspect of my conversation with Jay was hearing him speak about the learning curve that he’s encountered while hearing beyond the first layer of sound. To me, it’s an invitation and it’s my hope that it sparks the same sense of curiosity in you.
Anna Heflin: Let’s start with you telling me a little bit about how this project came about.
Jay Campbell: I was playing around with recording a bunch of stuff. I was working through Bach’s The Art of Fugue and a microtonal madrigal by Nicola Vincentino that I was getting into. I listened to a lot of recordings and never felt quite satisfied with what I was hearing. I have a microphone and this was a good way to get a grasp of the DAWs I was using. It was a purely selfish thing, I wanted to hear The Art of Fugue a certain way so I did it.
I can’t remember how it came up but Cat sent me the string trio version of descensus after we had premiered her second string quartet, divisio spiralis. There wasn’t a recording of descensus at that time and I really wanted to hear it. I recorded one page at a time to hear the sonorities and harmonies, and to physically feel how the harmonies interlock. Without really thinking about it, it was a way of keeping my tuning chops in shape while I couldn’t play with other people. And it was really challenging without getting live feedback from another instrument, there was a weird balance of tuning to something that was already recorded. So you’re hearing it partially in “real life” and partially in headphones. Having the time to really zoom in on each vertical sonority, to stretch it out and listen to every single beating speed looking for the super fused sonorities became a little bit of an obsession. I learned a lot about how to tune certain intervals that I hadn’t before and how to hear them quicker. That was something that I was always really frustrated with before, it would take me a while to know how a 7 and 11 beating pattern would lock in. It would take me a couple minutes to start listening to the combination tones and overtones. I think I got a little bit faster at it, it was good for my brain! As I was working on it and was three quarters through the piece, totally coincidentally Cat sent me a version out of the blue for three cellos with an alternate ending.
AH: The ending is where it’s at.
JC: Yeah, and you can only do it with three cellos.
AH: I don’t know the other ending.
JC: The other ending keeps falling in the same pattern.
AH: That’s what I was imagining would happen, I was so sure it would happen.
JC: Yeah. There’s a beautiful thing that is such a satisfying touch at the end is when you keep on going lower and lower into the tessitura of the instrument: there’s a point in which the pattern starts to subtly reverse and you get ascending lines. There are other points in the piece with ascending lines but it’s not a prominent feature of the music until the end. Once you get to the lowest part of the cello, you reascend as high as the cello will go. Like, in my interpretation when you’re going for two hours of descending and descending, when you reascend to the C spectrum it’s so satisfying to unfold that way.
AH: Totally. There’s so much to get to and I’m curious about your approach to learning this. But first, a technical question, how many parts are there? It’s so lush and hard to tell at times.
JC: Right? It can sound like a string orchestra. There are only three parts. Sometimes there are double stops, there are some selective moments in the piece where it goes into six notes. About an hour in, there’s this G Major ad sixth thing where it’s Major but everything is just a little too sharp. Some pitches are throbbing very slowly and others are buzzing very fast. It feels like the universe is about to crack open. But I would record one page at a time starting with whichever note was easiest to tune against. I would record the more complex parts last, meaning anything over the seventh partial. So I’d record the simplest parts and move my way through the complex lines, listen back, and probably re-record most things again while listening to the recorded parts.
AH: I was thinking that this couldn’t just be something that you can record once and move on. Would it ever happen that pages wouldn’t line up properly or was that not an issue?
JC: That wasn’t an issue. With each page I was checking in with my open strings and how things were resonating in this process of recording and re-recording things on top of each other over and over again. The parts were slowly getting closer to the intonation. It was like tuning with myself all the time but stretched out in very slow motion. I would record something, listen back and when all three were down I’d hear something a little off. So I’d rerecord that line and something else would get messed up, so I’d rerecord that. I recorded each page like many, many times.
AH: Like, how many?
JC: Many. There are some complicated parts in the piece that were very hard for me to hear. There was one page that took weeks. I was also fitting it into my spare time. I recorded half of it once stuff opened up again when JACK was rehearsing and recording
AH: The quartet released a ton of music!
JC: There’s been a lot. We bunkered down in a recording studio. But yes, some pages took quite a long time.
AH: What was the timing for learning the piece? 4 months? 5 months? 6?
JC: Yeah, five or six months. I took some of my first takes last August, maybe earlier than that. But some pages went quickly, the last two pages are pretty low and straightforward in the overtone series. Although it’s quite hard to tune stuff when it is that low.
AH: Well, our hearing is less accurate down there.
JC: I have a hard time even tuning a major third really low. Or a minor third between an E on my C string and my open G string, that’s a very hard interval for me to hear. But relative to tuning 13th partials or things that have to sound Major but are all the 13th of a fundamental, things like that, stuff around the end was easier to hear.
AH: Can you talk about the relationships between the overtones and how you navigated that? It would also be interesting to hear your thoughts on the role of overtones in general in the work.
JC: For most of it, I’m trying to be guided in what’s happening in the overtones between multiple notes.
AH: That’s so hard!
JC: In a way it’s easier because you have a fixed part that doesn’t move. When playing Cat’s music live, with the quartet for example, one of the trickiest things is knowing when I should move. Even though we’re shooting for something very rational in music like this, which has a number attached to how you tune it, and there’s an objectivity to the correct or incorrectness of it, I think that our perception of these things is very subjective. You hear people saying that they hear things sharper when they’re hungover or that when it’s humid their instrument resonates differently.
There are a million factors that go into the actual execution of striving for objectivity and it’s fundamentally subjective. People are very sensitive to different ways of listening and ways of trying to hear these things. It’s tricky to do it live because everyone is constantly adjusting, in the quartet nobody is just sitting there on the note. But sometimes you’re close to really locking it in and it just slips through your fingers because too many people adjusted to each other. So, when it’s fixed, in a way it’s easier because you have a note to record against, which isn’t moving. And you kind of know which overtone locks in when it’s really in tune, and you shoot for that.
AH: It’s so clean.
JC: Thank you! I was trying to go for something that was as locked in as possible. There are moments when you can hear the overtones wobbling…
AH: Sure, but don’t you think that’s something that she was striving for?
JC: Well sometimes in the recording you hear a common harmonic between two notes, I’ll play a note and it starts off wobbling and then it comes into focus. At first, I was being a little bit nuts about it, just right at the get-go trying to have it locked in. At a certain point, it just the sonority itself was wobbling about. You could do the piece electronically and that’s not really the point. In the end I started to enjoy hearing the notes come into focus, when you hear a searching quality. It gives it a little more life.
AH: And in a way that it would be difficult to hear live.
JC: Maybe, it’s hard to know. Because the perception of music like this is so strange. Sometimes in spaces that feel very far away with bad acoustics, after a while my ears adjust, and I start hearing stuff that I wasn’t expecting. At a certain point when your ears adjust to that level it starts sounding very loud and close, it feels like it’s buzzing around in your head. The overtones are the most important thing for me, while trying to tune the piece. That’s what I hear, other people would be focused on the difference tones or something. For example, the violinists in JACK listen to the difference tones more attentively than I do because they can hear those better on their instruments. I’m sensitive to the combination tones, whatever the lowest resonating frequency is, probably because my instrument is lower. Also, the cello isn’t right up against your chin, and I think that changes how you hear your own instrument. I was focusing on the harmonics and that dictated how long certain things took and the tone that I wanted to play with. The inner content of the sound drove most of my decisions, conscious or not.
AH: It’s always two and a half hours though, right? That’s a set length?
JC: No, she wasn’t envisioning it being that long.
AH: It made so much sense to me because I could really settle into everything and feel it in my body. It was slow enough that sometimes I’d often start singing some of the notes, that really helped me ground myself in what was going on. So yes, why did you go with that pacing?
JC: It was purely selfish. First of all, I wasn’t ever planning on showing it to anybody.
AH: I was about to say, you released it on Soundcloud with #Country as the genre tag (laughs).
JC: Yeah, I wasn’t really planning on doing anything with it, it was a personal project. Like I was saying earlier, it takes me a little while to hear beyond the first layer of sound. Getting beyond hearing pitches as something with a one-dimensional identity, like simply a C-natural, and starting to hear more of the harmonic complexity within it.
AH: But you have some of the best perception around that. So don’t you think that if it takes you a while it also takes other people a while?
JC: I don’t know. I haven’t talked to too many people about their perception of hearing and harmonics. I remember my first time working on a piece that was using specific just interval ratios and when people asked me if I heard this or that harmonic lock in, I was just like, ‘no, what harmonic?’ It took a while to slow down and be patient enough to listen to a tone for long enough to realize that there are other pitches in that tone, I just wasn’t hearing them. The pacing was slow because I just wanted to hear how each sonority locks in, how they fuse and vibrate together. The first that I recorded, my first attempt at it, was quite a bit too fast.
AH: There’s some Bach excerpt that you shared once at a lightning rod speed. It seems like you take a lot of freedom with tempo from what I’ve heard of your solo recordings.
JC: Well, there’s a blurry line that I was interested in, and that Cat is interested in too, between vertical and horizontal motion. I didn’t want descensus to sound like it was exclusively about tuning. I wanted to keep the directionality of the line intact so that you hear that it’s descending but it’s still slow enough that you perceive the overtones in the background as something that is very important too. The counterpoint of it is important too, if you go too fast it just sounds like you’re leapfrogging. You don’t want it to sound like things are happening in rapid succession even with an overall slow pacing. There are a lot of little things to take into consideration. If there isn’t a lot of counterpoint, maybe you can go a little faster because the perception of motion isn’t as rapid. But there are some points where things are very close on the page.
AH: I don’t know about the page but there were moments where it moved.
JC: Yes, I think that’s a feature of the counterpoint. If I were going faster that stuff could be quite rapid. I found it more productive for me to do it very slowly.
AH: What do you make of the continual resolutions downward, which move step by step? At least that’s how it felt to me. That every time we moved down it was a step in a downward direction so that we were constantly arriving and then the arrival becomes a kind of dominant tonality that leads into the next resolution. It felt very optical in that way, like a spiral.
JC: I think there’s two levels of descending that happens. There’s the global move downwards in the range and then there’s the more local descending, phrase by phrase.
AH: Yes, the local descending is what I’m referring to.
JC: Yeah, those fit together almost in a self-similar, fractal-like way. Her whole aesthetic is so structurally clear, that’s something that I really admire. With every one of her pieces, apart from the way that she uses these far-flung regions of tonality, the pieces are so clear, they do a thing. You see that in her early music too. There’s a viola and electronics piece called cross/collapse that is just so clear in an almost visual way where you can hear two lines crossing in the middle. It’s a very straightforward idea and the local details of it propel the macro aspect of the piece. I feel like the smaller descension is what has to generate the larger scale downwards. I think that’s what structurally keeps this piece intact, it has direction and motion to it on several levels that are working together. Does that make sense?
AH: It does. The piece as a whole fits into a liminal space for me. I don’t know if you’ve spoken with her about the title? I’m not implying that the work has religious implications and “descensus” has other meanings as well, but in Christian theology the descensus refers to the period between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection when Jesus descends into hell before ascending once again. This is particularly poignant with the new ending.
JC: With the coming back up, yeah. I hadn’t thought about that and don’t know if she’s religious. But certainly, the metaphor is interesting.
AH: At least as a gesture, even if unconnected, it feels as if you are walking down in this very beautiful way.
JC: Kind of step by step.
AH: And she’s leading you psychologically deeper and deeper throughout the piece.
JC: Going back to the micro and macro levels of music too, even that macro level of each phrase (because each phrase takes a while) is just as much driven by the sonorities themselves. Often it feels like the pacing and direction are driven by the complexity of the physical sensation of a particular sonority, and that can propel or pull the music in different directions. One thing that was interesting when I sent it to her was when at the end, once one of the lines finally gets to the low C, one of the risks she felt about the pacing I’m taking is that it could lose directionality. And I understand that, because once you get to the C you’re not going anywhere for a while. I could just chill for an hour on a C spectrum, which I love but that’s a very subjective thing because I have twenty years of just loving the C string. I think that is a testament to how her music holds up to many different ways of playing. That approach is built into her music; sometimes notes are very close together but are intentionally left open to interpretation.
AH: Are there dotted lines to indicate synchronicity?
JC: Sometimes, yeah. But often there’s an ambiguity where you just use your taste because she seems pretty open.
AH: And you have a premiere of hers coming up in August at Little Island! Can you tell me about that?
JC: Yeah, that’s going to be fun. It’s called the additive arrow for synthesizer and cello. Conrad Tao is playing synthesizer via a programmed keyboard. It’s kind of related to her prisma series. I don’t know if you know that series?
AH: I believe I’ve seen one of those pieces live but I’m not that familiar.
JC: I'm not sure if every prisma piece is like this, and honestly I don't really know all the details about her approach to synthesis, but I think the idea is that there are microphones outside of the performance space and the mics pick up ambient sound. So, we could be playing in an apartment and it would be picking up the wind, the rustle of the leaves, the construction etc. and then the keyboard player can control the degree of how it’s filtered and how sounds from that ambient sound are let through into the speakers. You’re sourcing the sound from the outside and filtering it into the harmonies and you can move the gradient of how much original sound is in there versus sound filtered into a pure sonic spectrum. So that’s subtractive synthesis, and she’s thinking about our piece in reverse. I’m not sure exactly how that’s going to work but it starts out low and ends high, there’s also this simple concept of us crossing a little bit. I start off on what she calls ‘spectral bow’, where you’re trying to bring out harmonics. In my case it starts out with really low double stops and I’m trying to really bring out the lowest partial between the two notes that I’m playing. As it slowly comes into focus, I move up the tessitura and start playing something more like a melody.
AH: How long is that piece?
JC: I’m not sure, probably 45-minutes to an hour. Not too long...by my standards! I really don’t know that much about it and am interested in hearing from her how additive synthesis plays a role in it. And I have no idea how the synthesis works, so it will be a discovery for me.
AH: I reserved my ticket and can’t wait to hear it! You’ve played a few of her string quartets as well, yes?
JC: Yeah, there are two string quartets that we’ve played (divisio spiralis was written for JACK) and she made a quartet arrangement of prisma VII which we haven’t performed yet. There are some similarities between divisio spiralis and descensus. It’s a little more melodic, which makes it hard because you’re tuning but also maintaining a sense of directionality. It’s a very difficult, blurry line. The harmony and melody dictate each other. Melody becomes an outline of harmony and harmony is the underlying thing that needs to be outlined. I’ve performed cross/collapse too, I made a cello arrangement for it. I made the electronics for it also.
AH: I think the last thing I want to ask is what you’ve learned from these deep solo dives that are all focused on counterpoint, whether they’re old or new. What parallels do you see and how are you coming out of this exploration and bringing it into your chamber music practice?
JC: I don’t think I learned anything that I could bring back into chamber music. Because when you’re playing with other people you’re trying to find some balance. And I think that the more one tries to make someone else sound like yourself it runs the real risk of not only disappointing yourself but creating not a great working environment. And this is just different, I get to play every single line how I hear it. It’s fun for a second, but ultimately that’s not what I want to do and would get boring really fast. I think I learned about certain ways of tuning. I have a new appreciation for how generative counterpoint can be and how it’s never gone away in Western art music. But what does that mean for a cellist? I’m not making stuff, I’m playing other people’s music so I don’t think it’s affected my practice that much to be honest (laughs). I love Bach and Cat’s music, it was a personal joy to do all of those things. And that was a big thing for me during the pandemic.
AH: Finding joy?
JC: Just with playing, I didn’t have any motivation to get better at the cello or keep my chops up. I would keep my cello in the closet for a long time. I haven’t not played the cello for that long since I was in single digits. The first time I put the cello away, I thought more about music than the cello. And when I would play, I wanted to play out of a sense of my own pleasure. I just love those pieces; I wanted to hear and play them. I wanted to get more familiar with them than I normally would just for a concert because I had a good stretch of time, which is normally not available to me.