COMPOSER ERIC MOE IS MESSING WITH YOUR EARS
Kiera Coffee: You write classical music that’s called New Music. I don’t think I’m qualified to describe that.
Eric Moe: I think there is a useful distinction to be made between commercial music and art music. I’m writing art music. There are plenty of people writing art music in different genres. A lot of jazz has little commercial appeal, it’s designed to invite deep listening, deep attention.
KC: Your compositions often have unusual elements, they might include something as odd as an ice-cream-truck jingle and as a listener I think, What? And then the music moves on to something else completely.
EM: I’ve been trying to figure out why I like music better than anything. The way music feels in relation to time is what makes it special to me. It makes me aware of the particular moment I’m spending in the present.
KC: How does it do that?
EM: Even if you’re not listening to music very carefully, you’re remembering what happened before – maybe just that there was a beat going. And then music is also setting up an expectation of what’s going to happen next.
KC: I’m not really aware of expectations, do you mean an unconscious expectation?
EM: That’s what I’m talking about, an unconscious expectation. Listening has all kinds of baggage with it. If I start a sentence and don’t…
You probably just supplied the ‘finish it’ in your head, right?
KC: Definitely, yes.
EM: The same thing happens in a piece of music. I have a piece that starts with a C major triad, and as somebody hears that, they’re going to have an expectation about how the rest of that piece will sound. They can’t help it. It’s maybe ‘Ah this is wonderful!’ or ‘Oh crap, that?!’
KC: You think non-musicians do this?
EM: Yes. If I have a driving pulse, followed by a long high note where the drums drop out—there’s a good chance that after doing that a few times you’re going to expect the process to continue. Or if there’s a popular drumbeat you think, ‘Oh that sounds like something I’m familiar with.’ So that generates its own set of expectations. You think it will keep going until the end of the piece because that’s what typically happens when you have one of those beats.
KC: Right. But if it’s your piece, it probably won’t.
EM: Right. (Laughs)
KC: You toy with our associations.
EM: The piece I’ve done that with most is Tri-Stan, based on a David Foster Wallace text. One of the climactic moments has the Man From U.N.C.L.E. theme song (from the old TV show). And that is juxtaposed on top of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan, combined with a little swerve from Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, heading into a boogaloo beat.
KC: Why did you place those together?
EM: It comes at the moment in the story where the villain realizes his need to attain the heroine ‘-only in the unionized melt that is death’s good night’. In the text there are references to Wagner and Romantic love. And the goddess of Codependae, disguised as Robert Vaughn, works on the villain’s psyche talking to the villain through a 2am broadcast of Hair Loss Update. It’s a very fateful moment in the piece so then the Mahler comes in.
KC: The text contains a good amount of layers and then your music is also very layered.
EM: But they fit together, I mean I worked weeks and weeks and weeks before they fit together. Musically it is a satisfying moment even if you don’t know any of the pieces that are being alluded to. Probably no one but me will recognize them all – it’s such a mix of high and lowbrow.
KC: What arrives when you remove predictability?
EM: Edmund Burke wrote about the sublime, the terror of something you don’t see coming; there is a wrenching dislocation. In the safe context of music, you get the feeling of ‘Ah!’ when that happens.
KC: And are we possibly more in the moment then?
EM: Yes, although we’re always desperately scanning forward. There is also a more Aristotelian point of view: if there are no surprises, everything is very very boring. And if there are nothing but surprises, it’s very very boring—because you don’t create any expectations at all. There has to be enough predictability so that you can pull the rug out. In most commercial music there are no surprises.
KC: Right, there is a lot of predictability.
EM: For me the big distinction between commercial music and art music, is how familiar you want everything to be. But that said, people get really frustrated with art music, with unfamiliar music of any kind.
KC: I’ve had moments of, ‘What is this? I have no idea how to see it!’ So I understand that frustration.
EM: Oh I do too.
KC: I feel like your work is your own personal ride….and then you share the ride with us.
EM: (Laughs) Yes.
KC: When I listen to some music it feels indefinable but as soon as it ends, my brain tries to assess it, define it, and then it’s gone, the music can’t exist in those parameters.
EM: Which is maybe the point in a way. It is ephemeral and if you really like it, you want to hear it again. That is part of it.
KC: When did you start thinking about expectation and memory, in relation to music?
EM: The biggest jump was when I read a book by David Huron called Sweet Anticipation. He set out to identify the source of the sublime experience in music. He tied it to certain kinds of surprise, and sort of what happens psychologically when you anticipate the future. After I read it I wanted to exploit that consciously on a small scale (as well as a grand scale).
KC: What were your compositions like before this mindset?
EM: I had very little repetition. It was always, ‘Okay I’ve done that, I can’t do it again. I’ve got to do something else.’
KC: And so what were you expressing in those pieces?
EM: It was very exciting. It was, ‘That’s a cool sound. Here’s another cool sound. Now you’re expecting another cool sound and… here it is!’
KC: So the ride was a rocket ride.
EM: Right. But that gets exhausting after a while. It’s hard to make a long piece that way.
KC: In your work process do you ever get stuck?
EM: Oh god, all the time. The one thing I now know is: it will change. The scary part is when you’re working and you get dissatisfied with the beginning of a piece and you can’t work around it.
KC: Sometimes a thing can’t be saved.
EM: At the very least you know, okay I’m not going to do that again.
KC: Is there part of your process that always works?
EM: I don’t have trouble coming up with stuff that I think is really interesting music. It may be tricky to continue it, know what to pit against it, but coming up with engaging things, I can do that.
KC: Is there ever a response from the audience that let’s you know they’re getting you?
EM: Yes. But sometimes when there is a really funny moment in my work, the sobriety of a concert music setting makes people feel they don’t have permission to chuckle. People will ask me afterwards, ‘That was really funny right?’ There’s this inhibition.
KC: And your work might evoke a chuckle, or maybe a subtler, ‘Oh!’ There is a lot of surprise.
EM: I’m often going for a feeling of delight. Or intense emotion.
photo credit: Mathew Rosenblum