This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
The Wet Ink Ensemble's latest album features two large works: Alex Mincek's Glossolalia and Sam Pluta's Lines On Black. In this second part of a two part series, Sam Pluta joins me to discuss his psychedelic new work Lines On Black.
In Lines On Black, Sam Pluta places the electronics in the foreground, the background, in equal pairing as an ensemble member, and as a soloist. The work as a whole demonstrates the range of possible interactions between the electronics and the instruments while playing with the gradation between notated and improvised music. The interactive nature between the instruments in Lines On Black is a reflection on the nature of Pluta’s electronic instrument and is a metaphor for the functionality and relationships within the Wet Ink Ensemble. There are feedback loops musically and interpersonally within this work and between the composer/performer collaborators of the ensemble. It is therefore only natural that there are similarities between Lines On Black and Mincek’s Glossolalia; they both aim to bring the listener and the players to a higher state of consciousness while exploring the hidden virtuosity in the dichotomy between the “real” and the synthetic.
ROLE OF IMPROVISATION
Improvisation plays a prominent role in Pluta’s musical practice and Lines On Black focuses in on that role in a compositional context. The layerings of music and games between individuals in this work is influenced by Pluta’s improvisation-based collaborations with artists like Ingrid Laubrock and Peter Evans, and the ideas of artists he admires, like Craig Taborn and Roscoe Mitchell. Games, in this piece, range from being abstract to being notated, and Pluta even indicates specific “game” moments in the score. Musically, Pluta sets up two different scenarios: one where players are intentionally playing off of one another and another, where musicians are playing obstinately different material without altering to blend with the oppositional voices. “What often happens in an improvised setting that is less common in composition is that the musicians who have been consistently playing keep going despite the fact that musicians have entered who have introduced new musical material,” says Pluta.
In the first movement, Duo, the violin and flute range from conversationally playing off of one another to presenting starkly different material and sticking to it. What the violin and flute have in common as instruments is their high pitch range and one contrasting feature is their timbre. Pluta plays with these differences and similarities. To make the two sound more similar in timbre, in one spot the violin uses a circular bowing technique, causing the violin to sound more airy. In this moment, the two instruments briefly blend into one another. This is immediately contrasted with the flute sitting on a multiphonic while the violin continues playing the previously introduced running musical material. This fluctuation between instruments melding and musically asserting their own distinctive qualities is pervasive throughout the work.
THE INTERACTIVE QUALITIES OF ELECTRONICS
As an electronic musician, the relationship between Pluta’s instrument and other instruments in musical settings tends to be game-based. Functionally, the electronics often take in sound from other instruments and alter it. The instrumentalist can then change what they’re doing, the electronic performer can change the software being used, or both. It’s a constant dialogue. This interactive quality translates into the way that Pluta composes. “Messiaen composed at the organ. No matter what you do, when you listen to a Messiaen piece, you hear the organ, it’s always there. The orchestra always sounds like an organ in different ways,” says Pluta. “For me, my instrument is electronics so it influences how I write for instruments in a way that they also end up sounding like electronics.”
In movements like On/Off in Lines On Black, the instruments intentionally sound like the electronics. On/Off is a seven minute hockett between the flute, violin, and percussion as one group and the electronics as the other. “It’s a translation. It’s like there are two electronic drums going back and forth, but one of these electronic drums is these three people. The relationship there is almost 1:1,” says Pluta. “The trick is, the electronics are not going to change or mess up, which leaves the instruments in a completely exposed situation. These players are so incredible they play it perfectly, but it’s actually really hard.”
REAL VS. SYNTHETIC
Here we see two parallels between Lines On Black and Glossolalia. Both works play with the dichotomy between real vs. synthetic and employ the hidden virtuosity required when live musicians try to function like electronics. In Glossolalia, this was seen when Kate Soper imitated the electronic voices. The fixed electronic part in On/Off is natural to that instrument, just as the nonsense is natural to the electronic voices in Glossolalia. These moments emphasize what is special about working with electronics while calling into question what the most natural musical situation is for people. One key difference between the works is that Lines On Black utilizes the complete range of expression from performers functioning like electronics in On/Off to perhaps the most human situation of free improvisation. Glossolalia is standardly notated throughout.
The blurring of the lines between real vs. synthetic is most apparent in the Voice and Electronics duo on Lines On Black. One doesn’t know where Soper’s voice stops and the electronics begin. Her sustained notes turn metallic, fluttering sounds morph into pulsating beats, and air noises become aggressively static. Just when the lines are completely blurred, Pluta introduces decidedly electronic bass tones to draw a distinction between the two entities. Soper’s guttural vocalizations are distinctly human, but filtered by Pluta so that they sound like a person trapped in an electronic contraption. In another sense, the electronics are at their most human in this track as they converse with and imitate the voice.
Both Mincek and Pluta are interested in perceiving vocalisations as sound, but there’s a distinction, “I tend to not use language. I use sound to avoid language,” says Pluta. Glossolalia explores nonsense as sound, playing with how one perceives language and meaning. In Lines On Black, the voice is as instrumental as a violin. Even though the voice has this instrumental quality in Pluta’s piece, one still pictures Soper singing when listening to Voice and Electronics.
Voice and Electronics recalls the Wizard of Oz, Soper’s voice is the embodied electronic voice floating above and Pluta is the man behind the curtain. “Sometimes I explicitly try to make acoustic instruments sound like electronics, like in On/Off, but even when I’m not trying to do that I think they do. There are certain kinds of gestural and timberal language that’s inherent to my instrument that gets into the acoustic instrumental writing,” says Pluta. When writing, he will often first write an electronic track, orchestrate it for acoustic instruments, and then add electronics. “It’s always playing this game of what came first,” says Pluta.
ELECTRONICS AS A CIRCUIT
A common idea is that the human voice is the most “human” instrument. In Lines On Black, Pluta’s expert use of electronics allows him to interact with the one instrument as fluidly as any other. “In the beginning of the piece in the duo between Josh and Erin, the electronics are quietly floating in the background. In Cycle, I’m soloing over the top of the ensemble. The ensemble has this interactive game that they’re playing and the electronics are the soloist,” says Pluta. Lines On Black explores the many kinds of relationships between electronics and ensemble.
“I often think of my instrument, my electronic instrument, as a circuit that really is the essence of my music but the game is in seeing how that circuit will interact with other circuits, one of which is an instrumental ensemble,” says Pluta. This idea comes out of a tradition from composer/pianist David Tudor. Simultaneously, the acoustic instruments and the voice are being filtered through electronics resulting in everything being shaped by electronics in their composition and execution. Perhaps the most decidedly human aspect of Lines On Black is the relationships between the players.
The second track of Lines on Black is a brief but significant moment that encapsulates much of what Wet Ink stands for. Pluta gives composer/pianist Eric Wubbels an improvised solo, which functions as a transition between the tracks and an important moment in and of itself. “It’s placing your faith in somebody who you know and love and then putting them in a musical situation where you know that they can contribute greatly,” says Pluta. Part of Pluta’s composition process when incorporating improvisation is thinking of the players on stage and how they will interact as part of the composition, an idea that he got from free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker. “The music that came before, the music that comes after, and Eric’s understanding of me as a person are going to shape his performance,” says Pluta. “I don’t actually have to tell him anything, because I know that what he does is going to be great.” It is.
ANOTHER STATE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Improvisation has become one tool in Pluta’s musical practice used to attain a higher state of consciousness. “I often talk about finding another state of consciousness through improvisation. It’s this mindset you get in when you’re not thinking about what you’re doing and you’re allowing yourself to do,” says Pluta. He diligently plans ahead and researches, so that when it’s time to write, the music can flow through him. “All of my pieces of the last five or so years are about trying to find that improvisation place when writing notated music. The idea is that this state of consciousness is translated into the music to help the listener achieve that place as well.”
Musically, the listener will feel this most in Lines On Black in Canyon. Up until the track On/Off, there are an abundance of musical ideas and they fluctuate rapidly. The seven minute hockett where nothing happens, On/Off, precedes Canyon, providing a hinge that lets the music pivot. “The function of On/Off is to allow Canyon to be this total trippy space cadet land. The speed of the music changes and you’re floating,” says Pluta. “There’s a larger form of the piece, which is motion motion motion then stasis. Hopefully that allows a very psychedelic experience to occur in the second half.”
Alex Mincek’s Glossolalia and Lines On Black invite the listener and the performers to enter a higher state of consciousness. Just as Glossolalia leads towards Attunement, Lines On Black heads to Canyon. “I’ve been working directly with Alex for over a decade. His music has influenced mine greatly,” says Pluta. In Lines On Black, Pluta uses the electronics as a metaphor for the functionality and interpersonal relationships within Wet Ink. Each composer/performer in the ensemble takes turns performing each other’s music, and writing for the group. So it’s natural that Pluta’s electronic parts play many different roles in the work. This echoes his many different roles within the ensemble.
When Pluta plays the electronics, there is a feedback loop of interaction between the acoustic instrument(s) and the electronics. They are in constant dialogue and shape each other, just as the composer/performers of Wet Ink influence each other musically. In their performance practice, there is a circuit as well that allows for change. “I allow that cybernetic feedback situation to be a part of my work. In the design of my software there’s a loop, because I play the software and then I learn something and then change it, and continue the cycle of playing, learning and changing,” says Pluta. “When working with people or instruments, there’s this loop. This is something that we’ve been blessed with in Wet Ink. They can play a new work of mine and I can change it to create the best version of that work over time. It’s allowing these feedback loops to be part of my life, so that they influence what I’m doing, and then the next thing that I’m doing, and then the next.”
Throughout Lines On Black and Glossolalia, the sounds alternate between melding together into one unified essence and asserting their own unique qualities. Both works are masterpieces in their own right, but they are even stronger together. Lines On Black is a metaphor for the interconnectivity in the ensemble, which one intuitively understands when listening to the album as a whole. “We’re so excited about putting this album out together, it’s a long term project of us writing these forty minute pieces that premiered on the same concert,” says Pluta. “We recorded them together, now we’re putting them out together.” It was only natural to feature both composers on Classical Post in individual articles, but together.
Sam Pluta is a Chicago-based composer, laptop improviser, electronics performer, and sound artist. Though his work has a wide breadth, his central focus is on using the laptop as a performance instrument capable of sharing the stage with groups ranging from new music ensembles to world-class improvisers. He has received commissions from Yarn/Wire, International Contemporary Ensemble, Mivos Quartet, Spektral Quartet, and the New York Philharmonic and awards and honors from the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Fromm Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony. Pluta is the Technical Director for the Wet Ink Ensemble, a group for whom he is a member composer as well as principal electronics performer. He is an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Chicago.
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.