Paul Rudy

Paul RudyI first met Paul Rudy at the Bourges festival in the spring of 2007. When I attended the EMM festival that October, Paul kindly took some time out to sit down and chat with me about music and life and whether or not I had a plan for this interview.

Asymmetry: You can talk about whatever you want.

Rudy: Well, let me ask you, “What are you curious about?”

Asymmetry: I’m interested just to listen to you talk.

Rudy: Well that backfired, didn’t it! But that’s the teacher in me. I don’t want to just tell you something; I want to draw you out.

Asymmetry: Well, an interview is a complete fake, anyway. What will appear in the magazine will be something I’ve manufactured out of this raw material we’re producing.

Rudy: That sounds kind of like how I work–it’s the Denis Smalley approach, the spectro-morphology approach. Here’s the material, I’m going to try to draw everything out of the material. I’m not going to try to impose anything on it—and that’s your interview approach, “I don’t want to impose anything on you by questions, I just want you to talk.”

Asymmetry: Yes, I like how you put that. And I’m a big fan of Denis Smalley’s music.

Rudy: He’s one of my heroes, a rare person in how he’s able to combine intuition and intellect. He’s one of the best electroacoustic composers to date, but he’s got this intellectual side that really knows how to dig into things and unpack them. And his research, his intellect, stem from his work. That is, his composing affects his research, but I don’t get the sense that his research affects his composing. His work is creation driven. It’s not about research for the sake of intellectualization; he’s really trying to unpack his own work. And I find that really fascinating.

I’m the same way; I really have a need to exercise my intellect, I’ve always had that, from high school, at least, from college for sure, but I’m an improviser in the way I live and work. The latest work I’ve done is almost entirely intuitive. The right brain is engaged fully, and the left brain is dormant until the right brain hits a roadblock and says “I’m not quite sure what to do here, can you help me out?” And then the left brain kicks in and says, “Well, it’s obvious, do this, go there, try that.” And then it goes to sleep again until it’s asked.

That’s been a hard place to get to. The way I took my early graduate school was that I really needed to think about things, to have intellectual rigor. I’m not sure if that’s the message I was being given, or if that’s just the way I took it. But I’ll never forget when Elliott Antokoletz came to the University of Colorado. Antokoletz is one of the world’s foremost Bartók scholars. In the seminar he gave there on Bartók’s string quartets, he showed the intellectual rigor underpinning the music. The symmetry, the mathematical connections between the folk tunes and the way he used them—and I thought, if this is what it means to be a composer, I don’t know if I can do this. That could have been a career ender; it came very close to it.

Now, I don’t think Bartók composed thinking that way, but it’s there, and what I realized later is that when you’re dealing with symmetrical pitch constructions, everything’s going relate to everything. That’s built into the material he used, and that’s what I didn’t understand at the time. If you’re dealing with a whole tone scale, relationships will abound whether you plan them or not.

At the time, though, after struggling with it, instead of shutting down, I said “OK”—and I think this was the first time I actively engaged my subconscious—“OK, I’m going to stop thinking about this. I’m not going to forget it. But I’m going to stop thinking.” I don’t think the subconscious forgets anything, anyway. It stores everything, and everything is in the brain. The subconscious isn’t restricted like the conscious is. In The User Illusion, Tor Nørranders says that our sensory instruments, our five senses, take in a bandwidth of about 12 million bits per second, but consciousness only operates at 20 bits per second. Which is why we have those “Ah ha” moments—our subconscious is making connections that we can’t make through thought. But we can them make through intuition, through feeling.

When I start a concert, for instance—and I practiced this throughout my tour of Europe recently—I put any thought of what I’m going to do when out of my mind and just literally try to open myself up to the energy in the room, so that I’m acting as a conduit and not as an intentionality in the performance of the piece. That is obviously an influence of Cage; it’s taking my ego out of it and allowing my ears to access the energy of the sound in the space directly, without going through my brain.

Asymmetry: Well, the ancient Greeks would probably have found the idea that we have, of the artist as doing something, completely foreign. It was very much conduit for them. You open yourself up to influences and they flow through.

Rudy: And I think we’re getting back to that. I know I am. I’m finding every possible way to disengage my brain.

And what’s interesting, is that at the same time I’m finding ways to supercharge it. You know it’s been said that after age forty, the only way to create new brain synapses is to have new experiences, or to do the old things in a totally new way. And I’ve found little ways to practice this. I’d developed some elbow problems in my right arm. Whether I was using the mouse or not, I was just sitting there, clenching. I was killing my own elbow. So I switched the mouse from the right side to the left side. And for about a month and a half it was the biggest mindfuck you could ever imagine. I would literally have to put my left hand on the mouse and then guide it with my right hand. But the point is, I had to think about it. I had to think about an activity that was second nature and practice it to make it second nature, again.

The one I’ve had the most fun with was pulling the mechanism out of a clock my dad made me and putting it back in upside down. People come in the house all the time and look at the clock and say “Huh?” And I tell them, “It’s just upside down.” You have to learn how to read it again; you actually have to make a mental calculation. Even now, a year and a half, two years later, I have to make a little calculation, a little retrograde inversion, to read the clock.

So I’m having fun with this paradox. I can continue to continue to exercise my brain, more for fun than anything, but the real richness for me lies in not using it, just allowing my subconscious to work. In lake’ch is a perfect example. I had lots of stuff coming in—I was recording sounds, I was gathering material, I was listening to material, I was editing material, so the material was getting inside of me without being a real conscious thing. At night, I’d decide which movement I was going to work on the next day; I’d put the thought, the concept of that movement in my head before I’d go to sleep. And in the morning it would be there. The music, the piece, was there.

Asymmetry: So all you had to do was give…

Rudy: …give my subconscious something to work on. Each movement of that was composed within a three to seven hour period. So the whole thing was a period of nine days. Not nine consecutive days, but the whole thing was composed in nine days. And then I did some editing. I shortened some movements, and I did some remixing after that.

And that was all about just letting my subconscious take over. It’s ironic it’s taken almost twenty years for me to do that, because I started out as a jazz improviser. Even in my teaching, I don’t write out lectures very often, because I just like improvising.

Asymmetry: So what have you been doing since In lake’ch?

Rudy: I’ve actually been rewriting the last two movements of that for wind ensemble.

Asymmetry: Really? Why?

Rudy: Well, because I was asked to write this wind ensemble piece for the cbdnapqgc3A9….

Asymmetry: Oh, yeah. everybody’s heard of that!

Rudy: The college band director’s national association is having a meeting in Kansas City, so our wind ensemble director wanted a piece. He actually said he wanted a slow, lyrical piece because there’re not so many of those. Wind ensemble tends to be higher faster louder balls to the wall kinda thing. So here I am trying to transcribe an electronic piece for wind ensemble. And I’m just doing it because it saves me having to come up with another idea, which is hard for me with acoustic music. It’s like acoustic music is something I’m only interested in because I’ve completely failed at it. So that’s one of the reasons I keep doing it. I don’t like to quit things until I’ve mastered them. And that’s one of those things that I don’t think I’m very good at. And there’s a lot of reasons. I don’t like studying scores. I don’t like reading scores. Because it’s not music. I’m writing for something I don’t like to read. It’s not the same process as working directly with sound. Some would claim that makes me a lesser musician, and it probably does.

Asymmetry: I would think it makes you a greater. One of the things Michèle Bokanowski said, and I thought it was dead on, was that when you write out music for instruments, you’re starting with paper and ink, and the sound doesn’t come until the very end of the process. But when you do electroacoustic, you start with the sound. That’s why she liked doing electroacoustic so much.

Rudy: Yeah, I guess my sonic imagination isn’t quite as vivid when I’m working with acoustic instruments as it is when I’m working directly with sound.

Asymmetry: And you’re thinking of a lot of non-musical things.

Rudy: Totally non-musical things. Like how’s it going to look on the page, or how easy it’s going to be to read. But I’ve learned a lot about my own process. First of all, that I am my own worst enemy. The more I sit around thinking how hard acoustic music is to compose, the harder it is to compose it. The more I think I don’t like the process, the less I like the process. I’ve been doing a lot of retooling of my mind in general in the last six months. Telling myself that I can do this. I’m trained to do this. And I can be good at this. I’ve started sending myself those messages. And also priming the pump as I originally did with that piece. Thinking about it the night before and letting my subconscious work on it.

And it’s amazing, sometimes things just pop in my head and I think, “That’s a good idea, I know I didn’t think of it.” You know, the receptacle was open and it received some data.

I think that’s true generally, not just for me. You know, the last three hundred years have been a non-creative period. You might think they’ve been creative, but they’ve been completely intellectual. We’ve focused on intellect, on thought, on knowledge as opposed to wisdom. And now we’re moving out of that time of intellect into a more intuitive, creative period. I think we see this all over the place with the increase in collaborations. Even in the business world. People don’t want to hire specialists. The intellectual era was about specializing and becoming an expert in one little thing that didn’t relate to anything else.

But it’s something I think humans had to go through. What it gave us was a lot of different understanding about things. Now if we combine that with our intuition, we are in a completely different place from where the human race has ever been. In a place to really progress as humans. So I’m tremendously optimistic. Even though it looks as if the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

One of the very clear messages of Deepak Chopra, for example—I don’t know if you’ve seen The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success or read that—is that we can basically create whatever we want. One of the ways to do that is through positive emotions. We want to feel good, we want to be happy, right? And so how do you do that? Well, you try to recast your life, your feelings towards the positive emotions. What is it that makes you feel happy? Put your thought energy there. Concentrate your intentions there.

It’s focusing on what you want rather than what you don’t want. I know very clearly what I want from here on out, and that is being able to create and being supported by that, by that act of creation. I want for my music to get out there and my music to start making me money. We’re often limited by our ability to think how things are going to happen. but that’s not our job. Our job is to know what we want, to put it out there in the clearest possible way, and then to disconnect from it, unconnect from how it comes about.

In other words, I’m not going to invest anything in how this comes about, or when this comes about. I’m going to put it out there and I’m going to forget about it. A perfect example is In lake’ch. I had a way of thinking about contemporary music and how it was distributed and how you get it out there and in what limited ways people like it and what limited ways there are to distribute it. And I just decided I wanted x amount of copies out in the next few years—I’m not going to tell you how many that is.

Asymmetry: That’s what x is for.

Rudy: [Laughs] Right, right! But it was hundreds if not thousands times more than I had ever thought of before. And whether or not it happens is almost irrelevant compared with what happened after I put that intention out there. I started thinking of all kinds of ways of distributing my music, to get it out there, to make it available, to start selling it. I started doing things that I would never have considered or thought about doing before. So it’s not like you put these intentions out there, and then you just sit in a lazyboy and wait for something to happen. The point is that my brain rearranged itself, and I started thinking “Ah, I need to do this and I need to do this and I need to stop thinking like this and start thinking like that and….” There was a domino effect of actions that just completely changed my thinking about what my potential was and what the potential of my music was to get out there. I’m currently negotiating the licensing of In lake’ch for a documentary film, for instance, which could put my music in from of hundreds of thousands of listeners.

I think a lot of things aligned to make all that happen. One of the most important is that I had finally written a piece of music that I felt good about and that I want out there. I’ve come close before, but In lake’ch is something I feel very convicted about. So I was confident, I was happy with what I’d done. Period.

This all started with November Sycamore Leaf. In December ‘05/January ’06, I had gone to the mountains to compose on retreat. I have access to this little A-frame cabin that’s at 9,600 feet up in the Rocky mountains. I just had headphones, which is a terrible way to compose, but I had good material, and in three days I wrote this piece which is just under nine minutes. And it’s that piece where I just said “OK, I’m going to write what I want to write; I’m not going to think, I’m just going to do.” That was an important piece for me.

The next one was Vastly Shrinking Space, which I wrote for Madeleine Shapiro. I agonized over that piece for months. And in October ‘06, already two months after she had wanted the piece, I lost forty gigabytes of audio files. It wasn’t a hard drive crash; I clicked and dragged the wrong folder. I threw away forty gigabytes of audio files. That’s what I call, affectionately, not negatively, a bitchslap by the universe, because the whole time I was still thinking “I’m just doing the same thing that I always do, and I don’t want to do this.” I was thinking about what I don’t want to do. My thought was funneling me in the direction I didn’t want to go, because I was thinking about what I don’t want.

Asymmetry: Still, you must have felt horrible.

Rudy: You know, I had that sick feeling in my stomach, that close to vomit feeling, for a day or so. But then I thought, well, this happened for a reason. I can’t blame it on some electrical surge or something. I actually, physically overwrote those files myself. This is a clear message that I’m supposed to try something different. I bought some recovery software, and what’s interesting is, when I did a recovery of that hard drive, I got 80 gigabytes of sound files back. But they had all lost their names and were now simply numbered sequentially. So I had 80 gigabytes of anonymous sound files. 60,000 files! If you’re trying to get out of your head, scramble the names of your audio files! And so it was then, “I don’t know what this is, let me listen to it.” The opening (and closing) flute sound in In lake’ch was one of those anonymous files, which I listened to thinking, “This has a really rich set of overtones. I’ll just drop this in my samples folder,” which was much better organized at that point!

But I had to get back to work on Vastly Shrinking Space, so I asked Madeleine to just give me a drop-dead deadline. And she said, “December 1st. I have to have it by December 1st.” So Thanksgiving weekend, in about ten days, I just sat down and said “OK, you’re still thinking; it’s time to stop thinking and just do it.” And that’s what I did. There’s still some of my same old problems with over-orchestration in that piece, but it gets a lot closer to the process that I am composing with now where I’m just not thinking. My left brain is there, and it’s got lots of great stuff to offer, but it does not do so unless it’s asked, any more. And it’s happy with that, actually.

Asymmetry: Well, that’s good. At least it’s not sitting there going “Wait a minute, what about me?”

Rudy: And “Why are you doing that?” Right. It’s not being judgmental any more. The thinking side tends to be judgmental and really get in the way of the creative side. So now it’s just waiting for when it’s asked for something. and more often than not, it will say “What if you try this?” or “What if you try that?” instead of “This is the answer.” There’s a much more fluid circuit between both hemispheres. What happened in Vastly shrinking space is that I started connecting my physical, emotional, psychological, and intellectual components into one person. I’d been a fragmented person up to that point, and that’s why my pieces are hit or miss. The cactus piece was a hit, but I’ve got lots of skeletons in the closet that were misses, that never even got performed, because they came from that fragmented place.

In my music now, I’ve just stopped thinking, because that gets in the way, completely gets in the way of the creative act, the creative process. It gets in the way of new ideas. It is the bottleneck.

Asymmetry: There was a student in graduate school when I was working on my PhD who said once when we were talking about writing and teaching writing that he never thought when he wrote. We all burst into laughter; but a couple of years later, I wasn’t laughing any more. I was teaching people how to write without their editor going all the time.

Rudy: In one of her books, Maya Angelou talks how when she writes, she actually rents a hotel room—goes down the street and rents a hotel room, takes all the art off the walls, and she just writes. She cuts herself off, she says, at twelve thirty, no matter how it’s going, because she knows that after twelve thirty she’ll start editing everything as she writes it. In the evening, then, she hunkers down and edits what she’s written, separating the intuitive process from the intellectual process. Not that the intellectual process can’t involve intuition, but it’s really a different sort of way of being.

I see thinking as being about the past and the future. We think about where we’ve been, we compare where we are to where we were or where we want to be. We’re not actually living in the moment as much when we’re thinking as when we’re feeling. That’s why I have no goals for the rest of my life. I spent the first forty years living for the future, for these goals, for this nebulous bullshit that was out there somewhere that was going to be so much better than where I was now. What I do now is what needs to be done for tomorrow, maybe a week ahead but not much beyond that. It’s really liberating.


[At the SEAMUS conference this past March, it was announced that Paul Rudy was a Guggenheim recipient for 2008. Congratulations Paul!]

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