I recently read David Byrne’s book, “How Music Works.” One chapter, in particular, emphasizes the importance of the space in which a composition is performed. Byrne asserts that not only is the venue critical to the composition’s performance, but composers are writing to the venue, whether it is a conscious choice or not. He cites examples ranging from Bach’s organ works sounding best at more modestly sized churches (the intricate contrapuntal lines get blurry in large churches) to punk bands writing songs best heard in the cramped and sweaty CBGB.
This year, physical spaces have transitioned into virtual spaces. We’re all experts at Zoom and meet regularly (begrudgingly?) with our floating headed colleagues, friends, and family. So how does this inform the music written today? Notice I didn’t question if music would be written during this time, or written collaboratively for that matter. Artists are compelled to create and will naturally react to what’s going on around them.
All this pre-rambling is meant to set the table for a recent project I was a part of: Mutual Mentorship for Musicians, or M3, is a new program that pairs up remarkable collaborators from historically underrepresented gender identities to create new music. I was thrilled when my friend, Sumi Tonooka, hit me up to mix the work she’d been doing with collaborator Jen Shyu.
From a workflow perspective, the setup was pretty simple. Sumi and Jen would hop on to Zoom to record together. Once they worked out their ideas, the two would improvise together, each locally recording their parts to be integrated together later. That’s where I came in. They both sent me their stems to stitch together, mix, and master.
Besides the extremely high level of artistry, what struck me most is that the music is truly written for the “space.” As improvisers, Sumi and Jen are reacting to each other in a musical dialogue. Anyone who has tried to play music remotely with another person has instantly met the frustration that comes with internet lag or latency. It’s impossible to play in sync. But with the music created by Jen and Sumi, you’d never know it. The improv within the compositions develops in a way that is extraordinary considering the way in which it was written.
The piece premiered last night along with works by two other pairs of composers. Everything will be available for a limited time here, or embedded below. Jen and Sumi’s piece is a powerful ride, addressing themes of identity, race, family, and so much more (synced to a set of moving visuals done by Sumi). I was glad to be a part of this one.