When I initially heard Dotter's “Isle” I thought the field recordings were from a hospital or emergency room. I confused the squeeking wheels for those of a gurney, the mechanical characteristics of the composition to be mimicking life support machines and various electronics. I was off; not way off, but off nonetheless.
The samples found within Dotter's “Isle”, a musique concréte composition by Alexandra Hay, are from a grocery store. The blips are not from a heart monitor, but a product scanner and as the track builds in samples and synthesized intensity we are experiencing a virtual transportation to one of the most mundane portions of our weekly routine – standing in line. At nearly eight minutes, Dotter's grocery line lived in real time would feel obnoxiously long, but her instrumentation is a softening of the situation, like being lost in one's thoughts as the line is held up by some lady complaining over an expired coupon.
Dotter is a fine moniker, but Alexandra Hay will most likely be the name that appears on her PhD in experimental composition from Stanford Univeristy. A member of the same program as Holly Herndon, Hay is originally from New Zealand, but her academic pursuits brought her to California. After hearing, “Isle” it was clear we needed more information on her academic aspirations and her theory and process. Listen to “Isle” below and read on for an interview with Hay.
When did the academic pursuit of music become a goal for you and how did that lead you to Stanford's program?
Growing up in rural New Zealand, we had one shelf of books at home: one was about sailing technique, another was called “Flags of the World”, the Oxford English Dictionary, and several on how to grow organic vegetables. Neither of my parents went to university. I really enjoyed school because I felt my world expanding, and I think my reasons for going to university were mainly about gaining further access: to an arts community, to dedicated people with fascinating brains, and to ideas, histories, different fields of study/practices. Universities can provide really great resources: space, libraries, studios. It seemed like going to university was the best way to get to all these things.
But I began to discover that music composition occupies a complex space in academia. 50 years ago, when Wolff and Cage and Feldman were starting out, the goal was to make art, not to graduate and leap straight into a tenure-track position. The composition PhD didn't exist. With Milton Babbit fighting for the inclusion of the field into universities as a scientific discipline, the way composers talked and wrote about music became more important than the music itself. The culture became more self-selecting and less diverse, cut itself off from so-called “popular culture”. Suddenly there were expert listeners and non-expert listeners. This I think was a mistake that we all need to keep working hard to address. Places like Stanford's CCRMA are pretty amazing examples of positive learning cultures in action: people are curious, welcoming and engaged, and suits, ties, and bureaucracy make themselves scarce.
For the track “Isle” it sounds like the field recordings come from a hospital. Am I hearing that correctly?
It's a scene at a supermarket checkout. I've been obsessed with musique concréte and the acousmatic for a really long time. Francis Dhomont, Jonty Harrison, Luc Ferrari, Hildegard Westerkamp; I totally eat that stuff up. Listening to voices and sounds when you can't see the sources that generate them creates a shift in the way you listen: familiarity is still there, but so are purely sonic qualities: subtleties of color, gestural form, relationships between moments. Most of the recordings I make are of mundane scenes like this one, and I'm fascinated by liminal spaces, the ones in between what we generally consider to be the action. Waiting in line you're in a kind of urban limbo. The bleep of the checkout scanner becomes meditative. In transitioning spaces there's a vulnerability and sense of being outside-time that I find very attractive.
Do you see “Isle” becoming part of a larger composition or body of work?
“Isle” is definitely part of a larger collection of pieces I'm working on.
Has there been any professors or classmates within the program who have helped your music philosophies or people you look to for guidance?
Robert Henke visited Stanford last year and had a tremendous impact on my musical trajectory. He is a brilliant teacher who really understands how learning works, and aside from his great Max/MSP and acoustics tutorials, he totally embodies the things he teaches: artist, engineer, teacher, human. He's part of the action, coding at CCRMA with us until 2am. Another super-inspiring friend and colleague is Holly Herndon: her work proves that intellect, experimentalism and pure physical sensation can join forces to make kick-ass art.
Who are some of the composers and modern influences that have helped shaped how you compose?
I really love the work of composer Helmut Lachenmann, especially his string quartets. His concept musique concréte instrumentale places equal importance on the sonic events and the way they're physically generated, resulting in a fragility and rich physicality. I hear the same quality in the floating micro-scenes and visceral percussion of Burial's music. Other modern influences are my field recorder and laptop: both fundamentally influence the way I listen to the world and make music.
What instruments do you use to make your compositions?
I'm not married to any particular instrument or language or technique: I'll use whatever sounds the piece needs: in the past this has meant custom electronics, or building my own metal and wooden percussion instruments, or writing for orchestral woodwinds. For the sounds in “Isle” I sampled over 20 pieces of orchestral percussion, and an analog synthesizer. There are some custom Max/MSP instruments there too. When I compose, I start with just one sound, and I listen to it again and again for a really long time. Eventually it will tell me what it wants.