Sputter Box’s debut album, Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, features more than 25 brand new miniatures, each scored for bass clarinet, voice, and djembe.
“Unremarkable Brain” is Track 11 on the album.
NATASHA NELSON: I wanted to of course ask you about your piece, “Unremarkable Brain,” for Sputter Box. Would you begin by discussing the composition and its text?
MATTHEW SLAZIK: So the piece arose out of convenient timing, or inconvenient timing, depending on how you want to look at it. I got a message about the collaboration opportunity the same week that I ended up having a medical issue. I was walking up in the woods and out of the blue, my vision just went doubled vertically. It was really weird. I thought it was a fluke thing, because it was the first week of online classes, and I thought maybe I was looking at a screen too much, so I said I was going to give it 24 hours to clear up.
That day went by and it didn’t clear up, so I contacted my doctor’s office and told them my symptom. They suggested I either go to the emergency room or see an eye doctor immediately, because that kind of thing is symptomatic of some pretty serious stuff. Given the pandemic, that was kind of tricky to manage because not many places were open and we didn’t want to go to the emergency room. Fortunately, we got in with an eye doctor. She wasn’t sure what it was, so she sent me in for some MRIs.
I had an MRI done and it came back all clear. After a couple more tests, they determined that it’s perfectly treatable. My vision is pretty much 99% normal, so it’s not a big deal, but this MRI scan kind of became representative of the whole situation: this uncertainty of what it could be and this fear, and the report itself coming back entirely normal—kind of looking back on a really scary situation and seeing, in retrospect, that it wasn’t that big of a deal, but it was at the same time, if that makes sense.
I got my hands on the MRI report, and I looked at the different language used in it. I found the most interesting bits from it and I basically wrote a poem out of the MRI report. I used that text as the basis for the piece, trying to convey this idea of anxiety associated with an unconfirmed diagnosis, and then in the end finding out that it’s not really anything all that serious, and life goes on, and all those sorts of things.
Was “Unremarkable Brain” the first piece you’d written for this particular instrumentation?
MS: Yes. In fact, aside from soprano voice, I don’t think I’ve ever really written for bass clarinet or djembe before, so it was definitely an interesting experience trying to write for those—not only those instruments individually, but also together as an ensemble.
Would you describe your compositional approach applied to this piece?
MS: Generally when I’m writing, my personal process is I tend to think about harmony pretty heavily. Whether it’s tonal, functional, or non-functional, I’m always thinking vertically. In this case, I figured that really wasn’t going to work quite as well because there are really only two melodic instruments, and that’s going to be kind of tricky to convey harmonic information.
What I ended up doing was thinking in terms of line: thinking horizontally. First, I wrote the vocal line: I analyzed the scansion of the text I had and set that for soprano voice. Then, I determined that I wanted to convey this idea of things being out of focus – things being shifted – so I wrote a tone row for the bass clarinet. It’s actually a derived tone row on the tetrachord “HEAD,” using the German spelling of “H,” and then I shifted that by one note so that it’s kind of out of focus.
I really focused on how those two lines were interacting, and the djembe serves to accent different points of importance, and different points of things being out of focus and coming back together. It was really interesting to experiment with that and also figure out, for example, “How’s the singer going to get her pitch?”—especially when I have a lot of these clashing intervals to convey this idea of things being out of focus and not being quite right.
Does the score use traditional notation?
MS: For the most part, yes. There were a couple points where I [wrote] a spoken-word part; Alina, instead of singing some parts, just spoke the text. Even then, that’s pretty traditional notation: x-noteheads. I was happy that I was able to create what I think is a pretty interesting sound for the ensemble without having to do anything too crazy. I wanted to avoid that. For a one-minute piece, especially, I wanted to make sure that it was really accessible and really easy to understand.
Something that really interests me with regard to compositional choices is Sprechgesang or Sprechstimme, and the options a composer has in notating spoken text. When crafting the vocal part for this piece, how did you decide which phrases to take out of the overall context to be spoken, rather than sung?
MS: That’s a really interesting point actually. In fact, I was looking back, listening to [Sputter Box’s] performance, which was fantastic. They did a wonderful job. It would’ve been interesting to hear it as Sprechstimme throughout, especially because the piece is cusping on this mesh between German Expressionism and the frivolity of Les Six, [a] countermovement to Impressionism. I particularly think of Poulenc in this instance, because his lyrics are just so funny sometimes, and so lighthearted, even though he’s oftentimes talking about sometimes serious subject matters. That’s what I was trying to go for.
Got it! Yes, I’m a huge Poulenc fan.
MS: Yes, he’s wonderful. The text for “Unremarkable Brain” is not lighthearted, but it’s definitely got some moments where it isn’t meant to be taken too seriously, which was an intentional choice. So it’s for that reason that I had those lines spoken. I think it was “Incidental cystic lesion / There is no midline shift.” Those were a pairing in the MRI report, so that’s part of the reason that I had those phrases spoken. Part of it was intuitive, because I wanted a break in the sound. It was a lot of singing and I wanted to break that up a little bit. The other reason is because it adds to that idea that this isn’t meant to be taken too seriously.
One thing I noticed with this piece was, there’s a lot of medical jargon in it:
“Flow voids at the skull base; Incidental cystic lesion; Vertical Strabismus.”
It’s kind of representative of diagnoses and how there are oftentimes a lot of these scary terms that are thrown around that, in reality, really don’t mean anything significant. I wanted to add to that idea by having those lines spoken.
That’s very interesting. Were there other extended techniques indicated for the piece?
MS: I don’t think so. I considered doing some timbral trills in the bass clarinet, but I decided to leave it where it was.
Is there a particular style or instrumentation that you are most inclined to write for, or have written for?
MS: Early on, definitely. I started writing for Big Band. In fact, the very first piece I ever composed was a Big Band chart, fully notated, which is kind of weird [laughs]. I’ve been making a really conscious effort to try and expand what I’m writing for. I’ve been trying not to fit in any box because right now, early in my career, it’s a great time to figure out what I like, what I’m good at, what maybe I don’t like, what I’m not good at. I’ve been trying to dabble in everything.
I did this piece, I just finished up an electro-acoustic piece, I’m currently working on a progressive rock tune, and I’m actually going to be doing another Big Band arrangement. I’ve been dabbling into art songs, and eventually next year I’m going to do some choral arranging. So I don’t necessarily have a style, but I do tend to find in general that writing for instrumental ensembles is something that I really enjoy.
And when you composed this piece for Sputter Box, did you compose at the piano or did you notate directly onto staff paper? How did that part of the process develop, with regard to envisioning the timbres and other aspects of the piece as you were writing?
MS: It’s one of those things that’s changed a lot. I went through a phase where I was constantly composing at the piano, and I found that that was also very restricting at times.
MS: You talked about timbre, for example, and also range, and things that are pianistic don’t always translate to other instruments. I’ve been making a marked effort to shift away from that, and now I primarily compose away from the piano on staff paper. I’ll have the piano nearby so if I need to get a pitch or to make sure I’m audiating something correctly, I can do that. But I try as much as I can to write away from the piano these days.
This piece started on staff paper, entirely. I notated the vocal line and then figured out the primary tone row that I was going to use. Then, I did a matrix to show all the different transformations of that tone row. From there, I started sketching ideas on staff paper, and then I moved to notation.
Has this process – with regard to composing for a digital medium, specifically, and writing during this time – been a somewhat novel experience?
MS: Yes, it has been. In a general sense, this whole thing has really taught me just how much I rely on people to be creative. I never thought that I did, but I realize that now. I come from a very small town. And even then, contact is so hard in this whole thing (the pandemic). It can be really challenging. So it’s definitely been different: trying to figure out how am I going to stay creative, and how am I still going to make contact with people?
It’s become more focused for me. It’s become a very inward form of composition. I’ve been doing a lot outside. The electro-music piece that I wrote used entirely field recordings that I gathered myself from various locations around my house. I went to a waterfall, a couple streams, the woods. I even went to my friend’s farm and got some recordings there.
I’ve also been doing outdoor recordings. That’s the big project I’m working on right now. I have a piano piece I wrote, and it’s got seven sections-ish. And I’m going to record each section in a different location outside around my town, and then stitch it together to form this continuous piece with changing scenery.
What town is that? Is that the same town you mentioned earlier, where you’re from?
MS: Yes. It’s Tully, New York. It’s definitely a very beautiful place. It’s kind of a hidden gem in New York. So it’s shifted, I would say—a lot of my creative inspiration comes from the other musicians and people around me, and nowadays – not to say that it doesn’t, because it still does – but there’s definitely a larger portion now that comes from the places around me and the things that are happening to me. And that’s been really interesting to experiment with and translate to my music.
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