From the notes to the performer:
“The Ship is a work that is simultaneously solo and ensemble, live and fixed, electronic and acoustic. Like a photocopy of a photocopy, The Ship requires that a successful performance be recorded so that subsequent performances have a tape accompaniment. At various times, the performer interacts with the recorded performance; at others, the performer acts independently of the accompaniment.”
Composing The Ship marked a return to live performance for me. I had been working exclusively in computer music at the time, but wanted to capture some of the energy that our performance collective, The Bay Players, had been generating. The difficulty was that we were separated by thousands of miles!
In grad school we would play around with serial games, where one person would leave a sentence or two on a long sheet of paper for someone else to discover and add to. Our favorite was “When Morty Met John…”, a line that we took from a NYC Festival and turned into a drama that even featured an appearance by Rossini!
I decided early on in the compositional process to make use of these experiences in some way in order to emphasize the collaborative nature of the music and art that the Bay Players make, and I also knew that I wanted to have each performer record their performance to create a sort of chain letter, with each performance stacking up on top of the previous performances. Acoustically, this would generate a kind of wash of sound where the earliest performances would eventually fade into long sustained tones like hearing a sound from around a corner.
But I wasn’t sure what to do in order to generate the sound. What would the performers actually do?
Thanks to my colleague Justin Quinn, an artist trained as a printmaker, I discovered a passage from Melville’s Moby Dick that described waves extending to the horizon. In his work at the time, Quinn would take the letters from passages in Moby Dick and count them, creating a print in which all of the letters have been converted into “E”, the most common letter in the English language. When I took a look at the passage from Moby Dick (Chapter 16 – The Ship), I noticed right away that Melville used a lot of punctuation. I stripped away the text and was left with only lines of punctuation, most of it commas.
(excerpt from score of The Ship)
I knew that I had found a method of generating a score for performers to follow. I provided a key that gave broad suggestions for each type of punctuation found – for example a period is a short sound – and left quite a lot of the details up to the performer. I provided 10 pages of punctuation with 8 lines per page of varying length. The performer must complete one line per minute while “accompanying” the earlier performances, which are played as a fixed media electronic part. Ideally this performance is recorded and used to generate the next iteration, and so on.
Below please find a video of myself performing all of the iterations, as well as a studio recording made by the Bay Players.