This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
In this first part of a two part series, Alex Mincek joins me to discuss his mind bending new work Glossolalia, which was released on Wet Ink Ensemble's latest album of the same name.
Glossolalia is the phenomenon of people speaking in tongues that are unknown to them, especially in religious worship. It is also the name of Alex Mincek’s new work for the Wet Ink Ensemble. “I’m interested in the idea of speaking a language that is only comprehensible to a kind of spiritual other that you’re tapping into. You’re leaving some normal version of communication, perception, or looking through a window into something else,” says Mincek. The seven movement work Glossolalia explores higher levels of consciousness through the use of nonsense, manipulation of pitch perception, rich references to the writings of Samuel Beckett and the repetitive bodily motions of the performers. The work as a whole is wonderfully dense, and as such, this article focuses on these themes. There is an emphasis on the final three tracks in particular - Attunement, Apmonia, and Isonomy, - which are musical interpretations of Mincek’s internalization of terms used by Beckett in his novel Murphy.
NONSENSE & THE INFLUENCE OF SAMUEL BECKETT
Glossolalia is a companion piece to the opera that Mincek is currently working on, which is an assemblage of Samuel Beckett texts, Gertrude Stein texts, and a 1980s comic book among other things. In Glossolalia, Mincek hones in on the text of the famed playwright and author of Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). “One thing that is really important to the title and the computerized voices that one hears in Glossolalia is the Beckett play Not I and the trope in Beckett’s writing of being trapped in a body,” says Mincek. Drawing from Not I as a source of inspiration, there is a contrast between the disembodied electronic voices in Glossolalia and the human voice of Kate Soper.
Beckett gives the following instructions to actors performing Not I: “Don’t Act. And you can never go fast enough.” With Not I in mind when composing Glossolalia, Mincek found that this type of performing comes more naturally to electronics than it does to people. To create the electronic voices in Glossolalia, Mincek used the text dictation feature on his Mac. The function of the dictation feature is straightforward, you type in text and it changes it into speech. To get the desired rhythmic consonant sounds, Mincek experimented by feeding the program gibberish. “This feature has such a rigid algorithm that you can really mess it up. As the work is associated with Beckett, nonsense is something that is attractive,” says Mincek. “In the movement Mimesis, Kate is most directly singing material like the computer voices. This reveals what is so special about the computer voices - it’s their lack of any kind of rhetoric. Not only do they not have a body, there’s no they there. It presents the sound in a completely different way.”
Perceiving words in music primarily as sound comes naturally to Mincek. “I’ve had real problems with karaoke when I’m out with friends. I’ll go up to sing my favorite songs and be like ‘These are the words?’ In the initial level of hearing, I don’t perceive the words first,” says Mincek.
This kind of hearing is applicable to the listening experience of Not I. There is a confusion about who is speaking and what the meaning is, if there is any. In this listening space of not understanding the words, one can perceive them as sound. “You have internal dialogues that are very meta and alternate between Beckett talking and his characters talking, who are often unreliable,” says Mincek.
PLAYING WITH THE SOURCE
Just as you can’t trust who’s speaking in Not I, you have to question what you’re hearing and the source of the sounds in Glossolalia. “There’s a mimed version for most of the instrumental identities in the piece. There’s a drum machine, but there’s also percussion. There’s a collection of electronic voices and actual voices. I use this technique to create an equal space for instruments to exist and to get people to listen in another way,” says Mincek. This idea of playing with the source of sound to invoke different listening experiences is a continuation of a conversation that’s been going on in new music for the past 50-70 years. Mincek acknowledged this historical trope and felt it could be explored further. In writing Glossolalia, Mincek took that idea and made it more literal to the voice and to language.
INTERNALIZING TERMS FROM BECKETT’S NOVEL “MURPHY”
Confusion over who’s speaking and the meaning of the words are ideas that apply to Beckett’s novel Murphy. The following is a brief quote told from the protagonist Murphy’s love interest, Celia. From the novel, “She felt, as she felt so often with Murphy, spattered with words that went dead as soon as they sounded; each word obliterated, before it had time to make sense, by the word that came next; so that in the end she did not know what had been said. It was like difficult music heard for the first time.” This idea of words going dead before they sound is taken to an extreme in Glossolalia, as Mincek uses solely short and stopped sounds. The reference to difficult music is applicable, there is order and reason amongst the nonsense in Glossolalia and Murphy.
A crucial link between Glossolalia and Beckett’s novel Murphy lies in the titles of three Glossolalia movements: Attunement, Apmonia, and Isonomy. In the novel, the protagonist Murphy meets a guru named Neary, who has the ability to stop his heart. This state is interchangeably called “Apmonia”, “Isonomy” and “Attunement”. This is stated in the book as the “a meditation between...extremes” between heart attack and heart failure. “Each of the movements deal with these ideas in a rather specific way. I was attracted to this idea of the Neary heart, suspended life, and the body as this mechanical thing, like a clock that you can wind down,” says Mincek. “The piece isn’t supposed to be a representation of Murphy by any stretch. It’s a reference, but my own kind of internalization of those words.”
When composing Glossolalia, “I was loosely thinking about this idea of equilibrium, which is an idea that’s attractive to me in many of my works,” says Mincek. “I figure out these opposites and try to create a continuum between them, resulting in some type of division point in the middle.” The division point in Glossolalia is the track Attunement. In Attunement, the duality and contrasts between the glitchy electronic sounds and the live instruments emphasize two musical components that are core to Glossolalia: duration and resonance. The stopped electronic voice is soothing in the same way as ASMR and its short notes are a contrast to the resonance of the piano and the duration of the beating synth. The notes of the piano float above and emerge only to return back into the drone.
In the brief track Attunement, there is the feeling that time has stopped or slowed, echoing the Neary heart in Murphy. Its effectiveness is due to the meticulous pacing throughout the work as a whole, “equidistant markers run through Glossolalia in the background, so that each movement has its own heartbeat,” says Mincek. One can deeply feel this heartbeat in the track preceding Attunement, Mimesis, in which the fluttering low chimeraphone calls to mind a breathing or beating spiritual other. The chimeraphone is an ad hoc woodwind instrument, which Mincek built from plumbing parts. The chimeraphone could easily and understandably be confused for the sound of a low synth as the two sound similar and synths are also used in the work. This is an example of Mincek demonstrating the dichotomy between “real” vs. “synthetic”; it calls the listener to question what it is they are hearing.
The stopped heartbeat is therefore all the more noticeable when the chimeraphone ceases, or transforms to a higher frequency in Attunement. On Attunement, Mincek asks, “What are these sounds doing to my body, temperament and state of mind? Holistically, how can I retune myself? It’s a distillment of what the music is really about.” This brief recalibration clears the slate to delve deeper into the study of harmony in the next track: Apmonia.
HARMONY & HIDDEN VIRTUOSITY
The word Apmonia is derived from the Greek word for “harmony”, so it is logical that harmony is the focus of this track. “Violin is the essence of the Apmonia movement because of the open strings’ stability, fixed against a non-fretted ability to have really fine ratios of intervals. The violin is capable of this in a way that woodwind instruments are less flexible,” says Mincek. The violin and electronics are more flexible to play microtones than the woodwinds and the piano are, and the combination of tonal and microtonal in this track creates beating.
While Apmonia might sound tranquil, there is a hidden virtuosity throughout the track and Glossolalia as a whole. The precision in intonation required from violinist Josh Modney is remarkable. The woodwind parts in Apmonia are equally challenging, holding sustained chords for this long of a duration is a quick way to get lightheaded. Much of the musical material in Glossolalia requires repetitive physical motions from the performers, the doing of which could propel one into a meditative state. The novel Murphy has another tie in here, as the protagonist uses the repetitive motion of a rocking chair to reach a higher state of being. Considering the physical sensations of performing is part of the Wet Ink Ensemble performance practice. “We’re really thinking about the “doing” aspect, and not just how it will sound to the listener, but how it makes them and us feel while we’re playing. There is a sensitivity to what people are doing,” says Mincek.
WRITING FOR WET INK ENSEMBLE
Glossolalia has been performed twice, but it changed over the course of those performances and much of the electronics were added in after the recording. The live premiere of the work will be in Fall 2020 in Chicago, fingers crossed. This ability to live with a work and make changes to it is a benefit of Mincek’s writing for Wet Ink Ensemble. Another advantage is due to the fact that the group has now been performing together for more than 20 years, they know each other personally and musically. This familiarity allows them to often enter into a flow state while performing. “There is a duo that I play with Ian that is physically strenuous and both of us feel now when we play that piece that we’re not reading the music, nor are we playing from memory, it’s this other thing. The music is there but we track how it feels to play it in different moments,” says Mincek. Glossolalia is so new that the ensemble hasn’t reached this place of being with the work yet, but Mincek imagines that they will.
When writing, Mincek asked himself, “What are the best ‘mouthpieces’ for each of the musical ideas I have envisioned for these terms?” The movements Attunement and Apmonia were best suited for a subset of the ensemble. However, as the term Isonomy is connected to politics, ordinances, and the equal division of work, it required the whole group. “The playing in Isonomy is equally distributed among the players of the ensemble and formal elements of the piece are equally distributed,” says Mincek. “That movement is about reckoning with everything that has gone on in the piece. I’m thinking of the group as this whole that can morph into the identity of the individual parts then also morph into an undifferentiated whole.”
The word harmony has two meanings; one of which has already been mentioned and is a musical reference. The other meaning of the word gets to the core of Wet Ink stands for, “an interweaving of different accounts into a single narrative”.
Alex Mincek is a composer, performer, and co-director of the New York-based Wet Ink Ensemble. He is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Alpert Award, and multiple awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His music has also been recognized through commissions and awards from arts institutions such as the French Ministry of Culture, the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, ASCAP, the National Endowment for the Arts, MATA, Radio France, the Barlow Endowment, and the Fromm Music Foundation. He is an Assistant Professor of Composition at Northwestern University.
WET INK ENSEMBLE
Wet Ink is co-directed by an octet of world class composers, improvisers, and interpreters that collaborate in band-like fashion, writing, improvising, preparing, and touring pieces together over long stretches of time. Named “The Best Classical Music Ensemble of 2018” by The New York Times and hailed for “sublimely exploratory” (The Chicago Reader) performances, Wet Ink has been presenting concerts of new music at the highest level in New York City and around the world for over 20 years.