Conversation with composer Paul Giess

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This past summer, Philadelphia-based composer Paul Giess was in Minnesota as part of a McKnight Visiting Composers Residency, administered through the American Composers Forum, and heard about and attended my Summer Sound Garden event at Silverwood Park in July. He initially emailed me to find out details about the event, and from that initial exchange, we became more interested in each other’s work and decided to interview each other more in-depth about our particular projects. After attending each other’s events, we followed up with a series of questions and answers for each other, exploring our approaches to form, improvisation, and working with community members to create empowering, connective events within our communities through music.

A Conversation between composers JG Everest and  Paul Giess, Fall 2018.

Paul Giess:  I’m planning on coming to hear your [Summer Sound Garden] piece on Sunday.  Is it something I would walk through at my own pace? Or is it a fixed piece of music from 12-5pm?

JG Everest: it’s designed for people to spend as much or as little time as they wish. The idea is that I compose an hour piece of music that plays through 35-40 individual ipod-speaker sets that are set to loop / repeat after they are all manually synced.  Each speaker is playing it’s own unique part of the whole piece of music.

Ironically, these machines have an organic quality and don’t stay in perfect sync, so they slip in and out of perfect alignment over the course of several hours, and the piece shifts “organically” and results in a continuously evolving form.  My experience is that only after a couple of hours of being in / moving through the space and hearing the music spatially and repeating does our mind’s subconscious sonic “triangulation” begin to create a different level of awareness and connection to the site – it takes a while for your senses to truly measure the sonic / musical “landscape”, i.e, establishing a sense of location relative to fixed points, in this case, spatial sound sources… And with the roving Free Range Orchestra and Choir improvising their live accompaniment, the score further evolves in new ways.

It’s all about exploring the space and the sound, finding “sweet spots” and letting moments emerge – most definitely at your own pace.  The larger purpose is to connect to the place in a contemplative, open way, and be able to discover and relate to it on multiple, deeper levels, through the history, ecology, and various artistic disciplines employed (dance, poetry, photography, sculpture, sound, etc)

It’s also an experiment for me about how spatial scores affect our states of being over time…

You can walk through in 5 minutes or stay for hours. it can take some time to get everything dialed in at the beginning, so I would recommend arriving after 1pm if you may have a limited window.

(Then, after the event…)

Paul Giess: James, I really loved your piece!  I was immediately curious about your performance when I heard that you were making site-specific music.  I had been enjoying the wonderful park system around the Twin Cities throughout my stay in Minnesota and your piece really brought the magic out in Silverwood Park.  That was something I really appreciated about the Summer Sound Garden, it had a magical effect to it. Creating a heightened reality for the listener to experience the space in.  I walked away feeling calm and more connected with myself, as well as a strong connection to the park. I’m curious to what end you feel this was an installation or a performance, or both?  How does the installation play off the performance and visa versa?

JG Everest: Well, I call it a “performance installation” to emphasize both – it is an installation – it is very site-specific, composed specifically for the landscape, the trees, birds, water, structures,  pathways, open spaces, picnic tables, etc. But it is alive with performance, real-time human interactions and connections to the space – obviously the live, roving musical / sound accompaniments, but also the live poetry, dance, etc.

As an improvisor, sound gardens offer me a rich context for open explorations and experiments with space, scale, and natural, “found” sounds. The birds tune in and begin singing with us in key. It’s kind of mind-blowing. At the Summer Sound Garden at Silverwood Park, there was a point when I was playing out near the “left point” of the island, with Jacqueline Ultan (cello), Tom Carlson (trumpet), and Jeff Nichols (percussion)… and this bird we couldn’t see, high up in the trees was taking an amazing, elongated solo. Going OFF! We all just played along and listened in amazement. Big smiles all around. It must have gone on for at least 10 minutes.

So the sound installation sets a shifting, spatial, layered foundation, upon which all kinds of spontaneous, magical interactions can happen in live performance.

Paul Giess: How do you select the site?

JG Everest: I start by going with my gut, with my imagination – finding sites that excite me aesthetically, places that I am drawn to and want to sink into, investigate, connect with. For my Water Suite: Four Seasonal Sound Gardens, I was seeking sites that were all on or next to a significant body of water. I was inspired by the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, and wanted to explore my own relationship with water and find ways to investigate and celebrate the importance and cosmic power of water to support life.  But I was also selecting sites that had an interesting intersection of history, ecology, and cultural significance, offering lots to dig into and discover in my research. And it was also important to choose sites that had a capacity to support the arts and a project of this scope and scale.

Paul Giess: How do you feel perspective plays a role in this music?

JG Everest: Perspective and scale are a big part of what makes these experiences so unique and interesting for me. I love that the way a listener moves through space affects the arrangement and mixing of the various layers. I love composing for those possibilities.  The way a listener turns their head. I try to encourage listeners to really pause, to stop and listen, to allow the layers to naturally ebb and flow and reveal the larger compositional frameworks. The individual speakers are all playing separate, small pieces, but when they’re all playing and surrounding you, it can feel incredibly vast, like an ocean.

Paul Giess: You’ve explained that sounds coming from the installed speakers come in and out of phases.  How do you select the sounds knowing they will be constantly lining up in different ways?

JG Everest: Every one of these sound garden events has been a huge experiment and learning experience for me, learning how these machines work, how they play, and how spatial elements like scale and movement affect the experience of listening, and the experience of arrangements, etc. And I bring that same inquisitiveness and curiosity to my creative process and compositional approach – “hmmm, I wonder how these elements will play off each other? What will happen when they shift?” And when I finally mount the installation and they’re all playing, I’m moving through and taking inventory, collecting research and noticing all the surprises and confirmations of my expectations. There are so many elements at play, my own control is limited, and that is liberating in many ways – I’m setting things in motion, with my intentions and best guesses, etc, and then we all get to see what “comes out of the oven” in real time, as it unfolds. And with every passing revolution of the looping composition, as things shift, the landscape is the same and familiar and yet entirely unique on a subtler level and of course with all the other spatial elements at play.  

Paul Giess: Was the Free Range Orchestra a group before you started these outdoor sound/performance installations?  

JG Everest: Well, I started the Free Range Orchestra & Choir in 2015 when I brought the ongoing iNMiGRATiON performance installation series to Icehouse for a winter residency, with the intention of expanding the sonic & performance elements spatially.  I invited various horn / wind players, percussionists, and vocalists / choir members that I’d worked with or had met, and put out a call to the wider community. I then included it in the Monarch Magic! Project as part of my residency at Lake Nokomis Park in 2016, bringing it outdoors and opening it up to community members of all ages and backgrounds / experience levels.  I also used a version of it for the MY OCEAN project out at Ordway Prairie in the summer of 2016, but we called it the “MY OCEAN Orchestra & Choir”.

Paul Giess: What’s the concept behind the Free Range Orchestra?  How has the group developed as you have done more site specific work?  

JG Everest: With iNMiGRATiON, It’s really about decentralizing the performance space, eliminating fixed focal points, blurring lines between “performer” and “audience”, and activating the outer edges, the corners, and tracing the architecture, the scale of a place, whether indoors or out.  With the outdoor events like the sound gardens, it’s more about circulation and cultivating those sonic intersections and “sweet spots” and playing with them dimensionally in space – as rich opportunities for heightened presence and improvisation. I guess the concept I convey to the orchestra & choir members is the idea that they’re like wildlife or migrating birds, passing through this space, landing on a branch, taking in their surroundings, and listening, and ultimately adding their “song” their note/s to the larger fabric, in whatever way they are instinctually, intuitively drawn to do so.  And then they move on, migrate further. In reality, it’s what every creature in the sound garden is doing, whether as “performer” or “audience” or “wildlife” – that person walking their dog with the jingling collar through the park, that didn’t even know an event was going on, is contributing to the score, the soundtrack, as much as the orchestra or choir member and their “instrument”. The more of these types of site-specific events I’ve done, the clearer these intentions and ways of directing have become for me, and the ensemble members have become more familiar with each other and these approaches, and that’s resulted in more risk-taking and more interesting, exciting moments. But I feel like we’re just at the very beginning, the tip of the iceberg for where this could go, as everyone becomes more comfortable with themselves, the format and approach, and each other.

Paul Giess: What’s the inspiration for the theatrical elements of the Free Range Orchestra?  I remember a blue fairy lady and children dancing.

Her name is Blue Lady, and she’s a mermaid! She’s come ashore as an ambassador for water, to help us remember how important water is, how sacred, and what we must do to protect it. Actually, her name is Jeanie Ockuly, and she is a musician, singer, dancer, and costume designer who was based in NYC for many years, participating in the Pride and Mermaid parades, and after she’d moved back home to MN I met her through her work as a percussionist and vocalist and she had joined us as a Free Range Orchestra member at iNMiGRATiON events.  

And I’d seen her as Blue Lady, her performance character, but had never worked with her in that capacity. But for the Water Suite, in these open public spaces, I wanted a way to disarm people, give permission to access our “inner 5-year olds”, and connect with the mystical side of water that so many of us have forgotten and taken for granted. I thought Blue Lady would be a way to bring a playful, magical, mysterious energy that would capture imagination and alter the landscape energetically.  And so Jeanie and I collaborated on writing and arranging a seasonal song for each sound garden, that would be performed by Blue Lady in a “pop up” style at various times throughout the space, with the installation score as accompaniment. The lyrics were written from the perspective of water personified, sung by this mystical water being. And in the way that the Wicked Witch of the West had her flying monkeys, Blue Lady has her LOVE BUTTERFLIES – flying, dancing creatures who have a magical power of love in their hearts that they can share with audience members by dancing / flying around them three times and singing the word “love”, before flying off to find other recipients. As adults, I feel like we have lost touch with the pure curiosity, wonder, and belief in magic that most 5-year olds live by, and having their presence, in this way, reminds and maybe wakes up those parts of us that we’ve forgotten, in order to help us relate to these natural places and each other in new ways, with all of that awe and inspiration.



JG Everest: I really enjoyed the concert / recital of work you did in MN at the end of your residency here, on many levels.  It was a powerful experience to be in that small intimate room with all of those artists, and their families and caregivers, in an atmosphere of love and support – the whole room was really cheering everyone on.  It was clearly a very spontaneous, improvisational situation, by the nature of how you structured things, and what was possible. But because most of us in the room were so open to, so attentive to every moment, every aspect of the performance, it seemed like we were all along for the ride of discovery and surprises. (perhaps more so than most concert / performance situations).  From my understanding, you do this kind of work regularly, so perhaps it’s something that you’re already tracking, already used to – but did you sense that aspect of how things were playing in the room?  

Was there anything different about this situation from other projects / performances?

Paul Giess: This was the first time I was really able to fully commit myself to a large project.  Back in Philly I’ve got alot of jobs and projects to juggle. It’s busy, and fun, but I also don’t always get to put as much time into some things as I would like.  This residency allowed me to take time in creating relationships, and making musical decisions that would have otherwise taken me much longer to complete. I also got to spend a lot of time brainstorming on my own and with others on what directions I want to take this work moving forward.  In the end we had 25 recordings of music made in collaboration with people with developmental disabbilities, and we put on a public concert to display and celebrate their artistry and hard work.

JG Everest: How does working in such a fluid, improvisational, open format inform your own creative process in other projects?

Paul Giess: For me improvisation is rarely completely open.  The constraints (form, style, melodic content) that we put on improvisations helps define the piece and emotion in the piece.  This is particularly relevant to my practice as a jazz musician where I want my playing to be informed by the aural tradition of the musicians that came before me.  

However, in the context of this residency, the improvisation was really helpful to insure I could include everyone.  Still our improvisations were guided by the recordings we made. The first half of my residency We used the recording process as a creative process to discover our performance.  Recording the music helped give strength to their artistic voices and the music we were making. The process of listening back to something that we created helped build confidence in the artists I was working with and encouraged them to view themselves as serious musicians.  

Back to improvisation, I also use that as a tool to encourage a playful attitude to making music with the people I work with.  If I can get them to turn off the self-critic and just be in creating mode, then I’m successful and the music will speak for itself.  

JG Everest: Ah, yes, the self-critic! I also find that to be such a huge obstacle in working with and teaching folks art-making and finding their inner creative selves – so many of us have had our creative selves eradicated by socialization that favors conformity and fear of being “wrong”. George Land gave an amazing TEDx talk that I came across that addresses this very issue and quantifies it in quite stark terms.

What was the biggest surprise for you in that performance?

Paul Giess: There was a bass solo!  I had two people set up to play some atmospheric sounds on the keyboard.  One person decided she didn’t want to play after a minute or so of playing and the other decided she wanted to hold down one note, creating a drone.  It created space in the music so I looked at the bass player and asked him to improvise over top of the drone. I thought it was a really nice moment!  Ben Peterson was one of the professional musicians I hired to accompany the musicians from MSS, he did a great job working with them.

JG Everest: I noticed several great moments in the concert that felt open and spontaneous like that – it was wonderful to feel the whole room / audience come along for the ride of unfolding, unpredictable moments. What moment/s from your residency resonate the most for you in the weeks since the concert?

Paul Giess: Well since then I’m on to a new residency in a school in Swarthmore PA that teaches kids with developmental disabilities.  Everyone is so unique, so each time I get in front of a new group it feels like I’m starting from square one. I still have all the same tools in my tool belt but It’s still a creative challenge to come up with a really inclusive performance with them.

I’m saying this to highlight that making music to me is really about developing relationships.  When working with a new group of people I have to learn who they are, what they can do, what they want to do, and try and figure out how I can set them up for success in a performance situation.  Often times it’s about finding something they already can do and framing/supporting that or finding what they gravitate towards in a music-making scenario and finding out how I can support their sonic vision.  

To your question, the moments from my time in Minnesota that really resonate with me is the workshopping process where I had the privilege to learn about the people I’m working with, who they are, what they like, and how we can make music together.  

JG Everest: What significant adjustments did you make over the course of the project, in terms of your approach and process?

Paul Giess: The microphone is a big tool for me in working with these communities. It literally amplifies their voice, when their voice often goes unheard.  But now, especially in a performance, people have to listen to them, and when the performers hear their voices amplified, they often light up with joy and excitement.  It’s really beautiful!

With that said I had some folks I had to include who don’t use their voice to communicate, so I had to set it aside with some people.   For me, finding ways to be fully inclusive of different abilities is part of the creative process. I ended up deciding to use some atmospheric and rhythmic sounds that came from my MO-6 Keyboard.  We recorded an improvised duet like this, and practiced performing the piece each week, and it became one of my favorite pieces. Here’s that recording:

Artist’s Bios:

Composer / Director / Multidisciplinary Artist / Historian JG Everest creates site-specific performance installations that connect the histories, ecology, and cultures of places and communities, using spatial sound design as an integral compositional element.

Paul Giess is a versatile trumpet player, composer, and educator based in Philadelphia, PA.   Paul is currently employed by the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz serving as an Education Consultant to Artistic Director Lovett Hines.  Paul additionally teaches trumpet at the Clef Club.  Paul is also the Music Coordinator for the Center for Creative Works, a vocational arts center for adults with disabilities where he collaborates in producing recordings and concerts with the artists at CCW.  Paul is currently active in multiple ensembles in the Philadelphia area including Yolanda Wisher and the Afro Eaters, Outside Sound, Bitters and Rye Jazz Band, The Abstract Truth, Erik Kramer and Friends and Dr. B’s Groove.  He also leads his own ensemble, The Paul Giess Group.

In the summer of 2018 Paul completed a McKnight Visiting Composers Residency, awarded through the American Composers Forum.  For this residency Paul collaborated with MSS, a community of artists with developmental disabilities.  Over two months Paul work-shopped with MSS to record original music and produce a live concert featuring his collaborators from MSS.