Field Reports (30’)
Composed in 2016; Released on New Focus Recordings in 2019
alto (3), percussion (3), double bass, electronics
Recording: Figure 8 Studios, Brooklyn, NY.
Performers: Russell Greenberg (Yarn/Wire), Lynn Kiang, Kurt Kotheimer, Valerie Madamba, Sam Ospovat, and Tina Šćepanović.
If you happened to be an American composer born in California at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, you might have followed the career path of Sidney Robertson Cowell. Cowell studied counterpoint at the San Francisco Conservatory before developing a fascination (which was encouraged by her teacher and future husband, Henry Cowell) with music outside the Western Canon. She briefly worked as a music teacher but soon found herself swept up in the surge of ethnographic studies sponsored by FDR’s New Deal, first assisting Charles Seeger and eventually making her own field recordings of American folk music. In 1938, she secured a Works Projects Administration grant for the Northern California Folk Song Project, an undertaking that eventually produced two hundred acetate discs filled with thirty-five hours of field recordings in twelve different languages. These recordings, which are in the public domain, present a remarkably rich depiction of a particular geographical location at a particular time in American history.
Field Reports is a twenty-five-minute musical work that merges aspects of American folk music, contemporary classical performance practice, and sound collage. Scored for three singers, three percussionists, double bass, and electronics, the piece weaves together re-imaginations of several folk songs from Cowell’s ambitious project. In Field Reports, the original songs are heard through a dream-like state of semi-consciousness: sometimes their melodic or harmonic structure is retained while other aspects of the music are distorted or mutated; in other cases, the lyrics serve as the primary connection between original and adaptation, while other musical elements are barely recognizable. The performers occasionally play along to the original field recordings, producing moments of convergence between the live performers and electronics in which the past and present merge into a single voice.