Drew Swinburne’s Totally Undownloadable “Canticle of Spring” Returns to Baltimore
Baltimore composer Drew Swinburne is a pretty reserved human being (look at that stare!) who makes pretty outgoing music — danceable 8-bit teen anthems (albeit with some college-level economics thrown in), extended party-type remixes and mashups, that kind of thing. And his 20-minute quadrophonic vocal chant “Canticle of Spring” epitomizes this everybody-get-together-and-feel-something musical impulse. “Canticle” debuted at the Bell Foundry in Station North as a communal celebration of the spring equinox in 2011. The vocal parts were performed in Zasaa, a language invented by musician and “spiritual transhumanist” Connor Kizer, and it was a one-night-only affair: no recordings were made. If you missed it, you had to wait another year.
It’s an audio spectacle that lives up to the mystique. The piece, which combines computer generated music with live human voices, is fully quadrophonic. That means the audience is surrounded by four speakers, each playing an independent component of the piece. Each speaker is paired with a singer, who is likewise singing his own unique part. And the spatial quality isn’t just window dressing. The chant is meticulously “arranged to simulate motion and to emphasize different sides and corners of the room.” It’s got to be the most wholesome psychedelic experience Baltimore has to offer.
The piece will have its third performance on March 20, this time at the Coward Shoe building. Drew took a break from preparing for the event to answer some questions about its inception.
How did the idea for “Canticle of Spring” develop?
I had interest in vocal chant and the sound of voices in harmony for a few years now. Laurie Anderson, Lexie Mountain Boys, and ceremonial Kecak chants were big inspirations for the piece. The sound of voices resonating in unison or imperfect intervals has a distinct quality that you don’t get with other instruments.
At a WORMS poetry reading in the basement of the Bell Foundry in late 2010, I was really struck by the resonant quality of the room — the poets were reading, but all I could focus on was the melody and reverberation in the room. I wrote the piece that winter with that experience in mind.
What’s your interest in quadrophonics?
I actually hadn’t given it much thought until I was in that resonant room and observed the different sounds I was hearing when I turned my head. This is especially noticeable with simple sounds like sine waves. I don’t quite understand the physics of it, but I included those sounds in the Canticle because they will sound radically different in a room depending on where you’re sitting and where your head is turned.
Why haven’t you recorded it?
I really like the idea of a piece you can only hear once a year, on a specific day. If you missed the show, you had to wait another year to hear the piece. Music is so easily accessible right now it sort of devalues it. The fact that you can hear basically any song at any moment leaves you with so many options that you can miss a lot of things.
What other kinds of performances have accompanied it. Has it inspired other composers to make quadrophonic pieces so that they can share a bill with it?
I like to work with the other performers on the bill to expand their sound to a second set of speakers; we’ve done live quad mixing and performances in the round and things like that. This is the first year that the other acts on the bill [Rod Hamilton and Peter Tran] are coming to this with prior experience working in quad, so I’m really psyched to see what they do.
How much does “Canticle” change from year to year?
This will be the first year that a new section will be added, but there are slight mixing changes every year. You should see what the project file looks like on a computer screen!
Is there anything else in this vein you’re working on?
I’ve been working on editing and manipulating vocal samples for more danceable music. I have been intertwining prerecorded chants, xenoglossia, and auctioneer competitions with heavy synth-and-drums-based dance music. Nothing as performance-based as this, though.
“Canticle of Spring” will be performed at the Coward Shoe (322 N. Howard St.) on March 20. The show starts at 8 p.m. Admission is $5.