Entrevue: Spectral Music and Hip-Hop – A Conversation with Erik Hove

This conversation between musicians and composers Erik Hove and Isis Giraldo took place in June 2014.

Isis Giraldo: Why does spectral music draw you in so much?

Erik Hove: I guess having listened to a few things that I found particularly striking kind of set me on that path.  The first was listening to Gerard Grisey, who is kind of the grandfather of spectral music. He’s one of the main guys in the 70′s who started doing it.  A friend of mine sent me Gerard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques.  He didn’t say anything about it being spectral. I had never heard of spectral music at that point, I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning that at any point in my education. So I listened to it and found it just great.  All of the things that I like about scored composed music. Sort of like a whole sound world, and like a very worked out structure.

Yeah, actually the first piece I was really drawn to was the Prologue.  A lot of people talk about Partiels, that’s sort of an iconic spectral piece because it’s built on the low E on a trombone.  It’s amazing sounding and also it’s very instructive if you’re interested in spectral music because it’s just the partials transcribed and assigned to the orchestra. So then, in a way it’s amplifying the higher partials of the trombone but it’s still just the naturally occurring partials. So you get this amazing cloud which is microtonal and somewhat reminiscent of Ligeti’s clouds of microtones, but it’s the harmonic spectrum so even the dense clusters have this harmonic quality that’s really beautiful.

The prologue is also based on the same pitch information, as far as I recall…. It’s a solo piece for viola.  It kind of does this expanding figure that keeps repeating and expanding and gets more involved as it goes along.  When you hear it at first, if you listen closely you might hear a bit of a dominant-seven sound but the way he moves it around it’s not as obvious as Partiels.  I just remember thinking it sounded amazing and checking out more of Grisey’s stuff after that.

It also appealed to me as a jazz musician, like a solo piece that takes a figure and then expands on it.  It’s a similar way of thinking.  Or when you solo… taking a figure and playing around with the different permutations of it.  So then that kind of lead to the other figure who was pretty instrumental which is Steve Lehman. He was the first guy to use spectral techniques in jazz music.  And again it was the same thing.  I can’t remember if I knew it was spectral, I think I just heard Steve Lehman’s new thing at the time and I was like ‘wow that sounds awesome!’

It also spoke to a lot of things I was interested in already. I was really into the M-Base collective in the 90′s and studied with Greg Osby and took masterclasses with Steve Coleman. I believed very strongly in that being one of the major steps forward in terms of jazz music and improvised music and black American music generally.  And Steve Lehman definitely comes out of that kind of school.  He doesn’t sound exactly like any of those guys but you can hear he’s checked out M-base music and holds them in high regard. And that octet even though it’s considered to be spectral jazz, theres like an undercurrent of an organizing beat sort of thing….

He’s also a hip-hop head, which I also am, so you can hear sort of an M-base thread….but not exactly the same.  So in a way it was like another step forward from this thing that I was already super into.

The pitch content struck me right away, like you notice immediately that the tunings are not standard tempered tunings but they sound harmonic.  Before you know what it is you hear that it makes sense but that it’s different from what you’re used to.  And I liked that, I’ve always liked that.  That’s something that I seek in music.  Not just tuning specifically but just that feeling of hearing something new and not knowing what it is, but knowing that it’s not just random sounds, although that can be appealing as well… But that there’s some sort of concept or thought process of organizing information that’s clear and apparent to the listener.

That’s what I liked about hearing Steve Coleman for the first time as well. As a jazz student in the 90′s, who had spent his time learning the history of jazz as best he could and learning how to navigate those kinds of chords changes and standards, there was a similar thing, the same feeling. Steve Coleman has this symmetrical concept, so it’s all chromatic but it’s all perfectly symmetrical. And that’s not necessarily clear when you first hear it. But you hear that there’s a logical approach that he’s using, some sort of concept or musical logic at hand, and you don’t know what it is, you just know that there’s something there.  Those are the big ones that I can think of off hand. But that’s a common thing that I liked.

I think in the composition world, like scored classical music, that’s a thing that you encounter more often because it’s like almost each piece has its own internal logic.  Maybe not every single piece but a lot of highly regarded pieces will have the composer doing a lot of research in any number of directions  and writing a piece based on a particular central concept and flushing it out musically.  So if you read an analysis you might know what that concept is, but if you just listen to the piece you don’t necessarily know what it is but you can hear that there’s something.

Sorry to cover such a wide span…

But yeah, that’s kind of the general thing that brought me to spectral music. And just the standard thing where you hear something you like and you want to check it out more, or you want to emulate it in some way.  I mean I believe quite strongly in not deliberately imitating, but there’s no way that you can completely avoid your influences, like anything you listen to will wind up in your music. But you don’t want to just redo what someone else has done, which can be a problem in jazz.

So that was something that I tried to keep in mind the whole time I was studying this, like I really admire Steve Lehman’s music but I don’t want to sound like him.  Luckily my saxophone style is quite different from his so right off the bat I’m going to go in different directions than he might, but even in the type of writing I did. I have one piece that I dedicated to him.  It was initially called Partials vs. Lehman, where I used a similar sort of almost overly straight-forward technique in terms of spectral harmony, where I just took a low Eb of my own instrument and then took a short band of the spectrum and orchestrated it for my ensemble, but then I wrote a sort of Lehman-style beat pattern, without trying to rip him off too much.  I had him in mind when I wrote the piece so that was my one thing to sort of nod to him, since he was the first guy to add it into jazz music.

But I really loved the sound of it and the technique of it and the philosophy behind it . Like reading about Grisey, there was a lot of emphasis on the natural world, and natural sound, the physical properties of music and the listener, the way the listener perceives music.  And that being an important focus for the composer, to keep in mind how the listener perceives your piece.

IG:  Is that like versus the tuned system?

EH:  Well…. somewhat, but also versus serialism, like spectralism was in some ways a reaction to serialism. With serialism, the emphasis is on the structure, the thinking is that if everything makes sense structurally then the piece will automatically be satisfying to the listener because the structure is without flaw.

There’s a bunch of brilliant serialist pieces but overall… there’s a quote by Ligeti that’s something along the lines of, after a while, everything sounds grey. It doesn’t sound the same, but it all sounds kind of similar.  Like all the parameters are being pushed around so that there’s no repetitive recognizable thing at all. Which can produce really interesting music but after a while the overall texture can become too similar.

I don’t wanna delve too much into it, ’cause obviously those techniques are also valuable.  But I think it became a bit of an orthodoxy where you had to conform to these techniques of serialism. So then spectralists were reacting against that, they wanted to create something sensual that was pleasing to the listener, but at the same time maintaining this goal of compositional rigour where there’s like all of this work with underlying theory that makes perfect sense but then the actual music sounds… not necessarily beautiful… it doesn’t always have to be beautiful, or pretty…

IG: Just attractive.

EH: Yeah, or striking.

IG: Before you discovered this whole spectral scene, did you have as much of a drive to write music?

EH: I’ve always written music, but I think I write more now, it definitely has given me more drive…but I wouldn’t say that it’s just spectral music.  When I went to McGill to do my masters I wanted to just study composition generally. And my ensemble I wouldn’t consider it to be a spectral ensemble, I just use some spectral techniques and have a few pieces that rely on them heavily.  But I was influenced equally by other composers like Ligeti, or Sciarrino, he shares a lot of ideas with the spectralists but he’s not considered a spectral composer. There are numerous others, just a lot of interesting and amazing music over the last 30 or 40 years. And it’s a world I got fairly into over the last few years but I still consider myself a neophyte, like I’m still learning, and I’m just trying to check that stuff out and familiarize myself with it well enough that I can bring it into my jazz writing and music with some currency.  I think the whole spectral thing  pushed my desire to learn more and to bring those concepts into the jazz world, and it definitely acted like a catalyst to write more but it was one of a few things.  I was kind of already going in that direction.

IG: What about the relationship with hip hop? What are the similarities between the two influences?

EH: I’ve never thought about the similarities.  I think they’re just two realms of music or musical….. communities…… nah community is too narrow…. I guess its a large international community, in both cases.  They’re both musical occurrences that I’ve found inspiring over the years.  Hip hop I’ve been listening to since I was about thirteen.  I just listen to too much different stuff to consider myself solely influenced by it. But hip hop is still one of my favourite types of music and I find a lot of similarities between hip hop and jazz. I think that was fairly common in the 90s, like jazz musicians that listened to hip hop and drew parallels between the two types of music. Sort of like personal expression, like you have an  MC…. that’s similar to a jazz soloist in terms of storytelling and expressing an individual voice.

IG:  And it varies so much on intonation, voice, and phrasing and language.

EH: Yeah.

IG: As I don’t know much about spectral music, and I’m learning just listening to you… in spectral  music, is there a focus on a groove?  Or is it mostly focused on harmonic movement?

EH: It’s not only harmonically based. It’s basically just analyzing a sound to derive information which you use compositionally…

IG: And what’s happening rhythmically?

EH: I have to look into it more… there are pieces by Grisey for percussion that wouldn’t necessarily use strictly harmonic information.  I think you can apply the information that you derive in different ways, it doesn’t have to be only harmonic. Or for example I have a piece where I have layers of increasing rhythmic values that correspond loosely to harmonic frequency, so the harmonic information is assigned rhythmically instead in terms of pitch. But the harmonic series is not the only information that you can get out of analyzing the sounds through various means. There’s also a lot of importance placed on time and duration.

In fact the composers that we’ve described as spectralists don’t describe themselves that way. It just became the thing, the term that people use to describe them. In terms of rhythm…I think you could apply, in terms of time, like the way a sound unfolds, and the various things that happen as it unfolds over time.

IG:  I guess the reason that comes to mind is when I hear your project, rhythm seems to be an important part.

EH: Yeah that would be more of the hip hop thing I think, and the M-Base thing. Or like electronic music too. Even metal.

IG:  What do you find to be so compelling when there’s a consistent beat through your music?

EH: I’ve always found that’s something you have to be sort of careful about because… on the one hand it could become monotonous, but on the other just having a repeating beat can be really compelling. There can be a trance like quality to it or a steadiness to it, but I find that works better with drum machine oriented music because that flawlessness in a way is self-effacing.  It can be less interesting but it can also have a musical function. Whereas when you have a drummer play the same groove over and over… it can be super heavy and it doesn’t have to erase itself, and it doesn’t seem to change but it does over time, there’s always gonna be some minute difference that makes it interesting over time.  When you hear a really good groove drummer you don’t get bored of what you’re hearing because it feels good, it sounds good.  So thats partly it.

Jazz music has elements of that, they don’t organize the drums that way, it’s more the bass that holds things down rhythmically and the drums add commentary,  and so when you’re incorporating popular beat structures you have to think how you’re gonna work it.  The other thing I find appealing is getting into odd time signatures.  Often a beat will function like a clave, and if you get more complicated rhythms it makes them a little more intelligible.  LIke if you have a swing rhythm it can be a little harder to follow. It still can be successful musically, just because it’s less easy to play off of, it doesn’t mean it’s not gonna be good.  But sometimes it isn’t as good….. there are guys who can do it, like Ari Hoeing.  There are guys that are so comfortable with any time signature in jazz drumming that it sounds musical.  I think that’s where the music is going but it’s sort of becoming niche, like it’s going in all different directions.

I mean…. I’m just influenced by hip- hop because I love hip- hop.   So I just have that.  I have one piece where I didn’t even try to draw from hip hop but the clarinetist in my band said it reminded her of Tribe Called Quest.  And when she said that I could immediately think of the song that she was talking about, but I didn’t deliberately do that. Really it was just the bass line I wrote was reminiscent of a certain Tribe bass line.  And I’ve been listing to Tribe Called Quest for like twenty years or whatever, so it’s not surprising.

But it can serve a utilitarian purpose as well…. ’cause I’m more interested  in something that interlocks in different ways.  So having written out the part will facilitate playing it, and it will also help to line things up compositionally. Like some of the jazz musicians we talked about are very adept at taking those rhythms and improvising over them and having them be super clear.  Which is wicked.  But compositionally you sometimes need to it to be locked down because you have to synchronize the band.

I also just like how that music sounds, and that way of approaching it as an option.

IG: As a composer and a performer,  what do you think about intellectualizing music rather than feeling music?

EH: I’m not sure that I agree that there’s a dichotomy. Personally I think that everybody “intellectualizes” their music in some way, as much as possible in terms of preparation, whether in terms of composition or in the way you play.  Like you put an immense amount of thought into it behind the scenes, but then you just play.  I guess…. people are unnecessarily divided on that front.  And no matter how complex the music might be, when you’re playing you’re just listening and you’re just putting it out there, and you’re only concerned with the sound and the energy in the room.  Like sometimes I think about that in terms of concerts, like a successful concert is something that is created by the audience and the musicians.  It’s something that happens with everyone in the room.  The musicians are the ones creating sound, but you can play brilliantly and it doesn’t have the same effect as when there are people listening closely.

IG: Do you think that’s the meaning of performance?  Like if you can really have a show where there is no wall between the audience and yourself and there’s true communication… beyond practising or being skillful at your instrument.

EH:  Yeah it’s like everyone’s brain in the room is lit up.  Thats what you aim for but I think it might not happen every time in a given performance, and it still might be a successful performance on a lot of other levels you know?  So it’s something that I don’t think about too much in terms of aiming for, but just something that happens when it happens and hopefully it happens often.   As a musician I just listen and immerse myself.

But to go lack to your initial question.  That’s why I was saying it’s a false dichotomy.  Like there’s people who don’t read and play only things that they can hear, and they still are intellectualizing certain parts of their music, they’re still putting a lot of thought into it, they’re just using different avenues.  I think that you just use whatever methods are comfortable to you in terms of what your upbringing is as a musician.  And I think you can only gain by learning more of those types of tools.

For instance, there’s amazing music happening all over the world without sheet music.  Where there’s just a strong and in depth oral tradition.  You can still have stuff that’s immensely complex it’s just approached in a different way.

In a way written music is a shortcut.  Which can be great ’cause it can get you quickly to a musical result without spending the time teaching it to that person until it’s orally ingrained. And the better somebody gets at reading the more quickly they grasp it just by reading it, understanding it.  But ultimately the goal is the same, where both the listeners and performers are completely immersed.

IG:  Can you pinpoint a moment where you where like realized this music’s power?

EH: I can’t think of one off hand.  For me its more of a overall kind of thing….where you combine all of your experiences over time and it becomes this amazing thing.  Like there’s a thread in my entire life where it’s been a source of stimulation and wonder. And so different concepts I’ve gone through address different parts of that.  And usually it’s more of a cumulative effect like when you see something amazing and you think about what was amazing about it.   And you see something else and think about what was amazing about that.

IG:  Where do you see your music going, or your compositional process going currently?

EH: Well I have currently been writing more music for the ensemble you heard.  We’re recording an album next month after our performance (at Suoni Per Il Popolo).  So I’ve been writing new stuff that will eventually be another album. The stuff that I wrote in the past,  there’s places that seem boxed in, like it could breathe a little more, maybe develop a little more.  So I’m trying to continue with various elements thats I’ve been working on but develop them so they flow a little better, I also would like to expand them a little further and so that’s where my effort has been recently.  I did rewrite the old pieces a little bit, some of the little things that bothered me.  But instead of putting too much effort into redoing those old pieces I’ve just been trying  to correct some of that stuff in my current writing.  And just go a little further.  Like in terms of spectral techniques, we talked about the harmonic series thats kind of just one element of spectral technique. I want to like learn more and apply them more.

IG:  And whats the general intention… or energy that you’re trying to push out there?

EH: I guess something that is stimulating?  Something that is trying to express my own musical voice, and to present certain things that I find important in the music I listen to. Part of it is trying to find a place for my saxophone playing. I’ve spent years developing an individual voice on the saxophone, so in a way one of the things I’m trying to accomplish is to find an ideal setting for my own playing.  As a composer that can be a bit limited but as a saxophone player that’s kind of what my goal is. I’m also trying to satisfy two goals, where I’m trying to expand my capabilities as a composer but I’m also trying to do this thing where I’m not trying to write music that is solely composed, and I’m not trying to write music that is solely improvised. I’m trying to mesh the two.  And there’s a whole bunch of people doing that, and so I’m trying to exist in that community of that music that is composed and improvised and free and structured, and has all of those elements at play but work in a coherent cohesive way.

And just stylistically trying to juggle various things, like I’ve been operating within the jazz tradition for years, and I still try to maintain those roots but also reflect on my love of hip-hop and my love of composed scored music, and electronic music, or pop or rock… any music that I have listened to and enjoy.  Obviously genre labels are somewhat limiting but it’s about the various ideas, and ways of organizing music, and recognizing what people that I love and respect do, and trying to weave those into the types of things that I do.

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