Q&A: Brendan Sweeney

Composer Brendan Sweeney discusses “PSA,” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.

Brendan Sweeney.

Sputter Box’s debut album, Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, features more than 25 brand new miniatures, each scored for bass clarinet, voice, and djembe.

PSA” is Track 09 on the album.

NATASHA NELSON: So your piece is called “PSA! Would you begin by speaking about your inspiration for the composition, including its notation and text?

BRENDAN SWEENEY: The whole miniature series was really, really cool. It’s an interesting way to do pieces and to see a bunch of different pieces from different composers. We started it right, I think, in the first month of quarantine. I said yes to writing the piece before I had an idea for it, which is how a lot of these first projects started—and that’s different from when you go to commission a piece with an ensemble, usually with an idea already in hand.

With everything that was going on, it felt really difficult not to address those circumstances. I felt like it was going to come out in what I was going to write in some way or another, so I decided to take a little bit of a [lighthearted] take on it.

At the time – around March – everything all across social media was about informing people: it was about telling people about social distancing rules, and informing people on how to flatten the curve and stop the spread of the virus. I made a piece that commented on that. It’s an actual PSA, using the CDC’s instructions for washing your hands as the text.

And so it was fun. It kind of became something that captured the weirdness of the time that the piece was made in, and the [uniqueness], not in a negative way, of making music with people who are miles away from one another, recording in separate houses. It captured that in a way I thought was a genuine reflection of what I wanted to do at the time.

What was it like setting a text that’s sort of clinical in nature, versus setting text from a poem? Was it a challenge in any way? Was it fun?

BS: It was fun. And that’s what I’ve been looking for more in my projects, too. The idea for that was in the spirit of another piece I was working on, exploring that idea of taking a text that’s not traditionally beautiful, per se, but still has something to latch onto, in either its bizarreness, or its weirdness, or a different kind of feeling. That’s a lot of fun.

It’s very different from a text I would’ve used for a large choir group. I like the freedom that writing for a single vocalist, within an instrumental [texture], offers.

Did the text’s vocabulary and style influence your compositional approach with regard to timbre or other aural characteristics we hear in the music?

BS: It definitely had an influence on rhythm, I find, because the vocal line came first, and then the instruments [join in] through mirroring, repetition, and supporting certain lines.

The rhythm was very key, because it set up motifs for the other instruments to play off of, especially if we’re talking non-pitched percussion. Having that little thing that the instruments can connect on – the middle part of the Venn diagram of what they can do – and exploiting that as much as possible is always, I think, a key ingredient to making a piece work. Finding a rhythm that would work for the text and for the vocalist, that could then be echoed and manipulated by the other instruments, was key.

This is so interesting. Would you describe the piece’s visual elements, and any extended techniques included in the score?

BS: I asked for half-keyed bass clarinet playing at some point, to generate some quasi-quarter tones – mainly as an effect, not really to be strict in the pitches – and the vocalist does that, as well. She sings in between the pitches on the line “Between your fingers.” It felt fun because it exaggerates a lot of the text with word painting. “Between the fingers,” being between the notes, was fun. I also asked the vocalist to mimic all the gestures that she was saying in the text.

Was the approach to collaborating here different from how it would have been if social distancing hadn’t been in place?

BS: Yes. I’ve never met any of the ensemble members in person. The first time we’ve ever really spoken to each other was purely over email, and I think maybe one phone call. And that’s different—I’ve done pieces with different collaborators across the country before, but usually there’s some kind of connection there previously; we might have met at a festival, or at a conference or something.

It’s different making music like that, especially for a new performance medium, which is really what all this new recorded music in different spaces is: it’s a completely new medium for people to experience art through.

It’s very different from a live concert, or even from a recording where everyone [involved was together] in the same space. Now, we’re taking three separate acoustic spaces and combining them—and non-traditional acoustic spaces, too, if you consider recorded music that’s mostly been created in production studios and [more standard acoustic] spaces. And so there are a lot of elements that are very different that kind of dictated creativity in the writing and in the rehearsing of this piece. The ensemble was very upfront with suggestions to avoid anything that was too intricately metric, or that required severe hocketing—anything that would be difficult to put together as three separate performances that then get layered.

Do you imagine “PSA” being performed live eventually, or is the work’s creation for a digital medium, specifically, an essential facet of the composition?

BS: I think it could be performed live—I’d like to see it performed live. It would be very different, though. Putting it in front of a live audience, you’d get the shared experience a lot more. So you take it from the individual experience of someone watching it on a device, just by themselves, and we turn that into an audience all sharing that experience at the same time – listening alongside the people next to you – which feels so weird to talk about now. People might laugh at the same parts—those interactions that happen are what would make it a little bit warmer, probably, and a little bit more of a collective thing.

I suppose a piece with a touch of humor in its tone would indeed be experienced quite differently when viewed with a group of people, versus by oneself: audience members, as you mention, tend to bounce energy off one another. Do you think that presenting the work in a live performance setting, versus online, could in fact transform an aspect of the music, itself, in some way?

BS: Well it will be inherently different, just because live music’s different every time you play it. It’s one of the nice things about live music. It would be interesting to see how the performers create the piece in real time, as opposed to separately, in layers.

It would really be that special element of everyone [experiencing a performance together]. It’s like when you go see a comedy in the movie theaters: there’s a big difference between watching a comedy with a bunch of people in the audience, all laughing and feeding off of each other’s energy, and then watching it at home on your couch.

Absolutely. Is there anything you’d like to add today that we haven’t discussed?

BS: I’m really grateful for the opportunity to work with Sputter Box. They’re a great ensemble and I really appreciated the professionalism from them, and the opportunity to create something during everything that’s going on. It didn’t quite take my mind off things clearly, but it gave me an outlet for the things I was thinking about.

Find Brendan Sweeney’s website at www.brendansweeneymusic.com.

This article is part of a series, featuring interviews with 16 composers whose work is featured on Sputter Box’s debut album. Read the feature article here!

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. #ShelterInSound

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