A Practice of Practices
Hendrik Quast in conversation with Kenny Fries
Composer Rachel C. Walker’s music bears the thumbprints of her work with sources including traditional music, modern texts, and extended playing techniques. Like her music, her scores are the object of constant development and discussion, building sonic connections that grow and influence each other, creating chimerical spaces.
by Andreas Karl — Feb 14, 2023
Composer Rachel C. Walker in her studio at Akademie Schloss Solitude, 2023. Photo: Anton Avdieiev
»Walker’s music arises from extensive research on the instruments used, and long-term collaboration with other artists. These collaborations are nourished by a near-obsessive immersion in the material.«
In a style both inclusive and spacious, Rachel C. Walker’s music blends such varied sources as extended playing techniques of European provenance, American experimental music traditions, Chinese traditional music, and rhythmic patterns derived from Chinese and Arabic poetry – a combination rarely found in composers of her generation. All of these resources are bridged by a particular feel for timbre. In a unique way, Walker creates a space within her pieces that treats timbre (tone color) as a quality in its own right, a space where it can unfold its oscillating, shimmering riches. How she deals with timbre is therefore a constant in my observations on her music. But in order to understand what timbre is to Walker, we first need to have a look at her mode of work – a practice that exhibits a reciprocal relationship with timbre on multiple levels.
Walker’s music arises from extensive research on the instruments used, and long-term collaboration with other artists. These collaborations are nourished by a near-obsessive immersion in the material. With her growing interest in traditional Chinese music, she has invested extensive time and effort in learning not only the Chinese language and Chinese music history and theory, but also how to produce basic textures and gestures on the guqin (an ancient unfretted zither with seven strings), the erhu (a two-stringed fiddle), and the yangqin (a dulcimer). For the duet The space in between (2020), she memorized the complex pronunciation of a poem written in the Chinese Beiguan dialect, to subtly shape the relations between meaning, sound, and rhythm. She has since also begun taking a similar approach to Iraqi poetry and musical culture with the work Anamu alla al’hajiri al’natayi (2022). In an era in which one-week workshops and half-hearted intercultural exchange programs dominate the global music scene, Walker and her artistic practice stand out.
Her collaborative and immersive practice has its origins in her studies with the composer Gao Weijie (高为杰) at the China Conservatory in Beijing, a school specialized in »national music« – an official term that denotes both traditional Chinese music and contemporary music composed for traditional Chinese instruments. With Walker still new to this place, musical culture, and language, Gao introduced her to several musicians and suggested that she start working on a pipa piece (a fretted lute). This work would eventually become her pipa solo For Summer Rain (2015). To compose it she spent eight months not only observing and studying playing techniques, but also learning about various readings of pipa music’s traditional syntax and grammar. She became aware of which gestures or techniques are used at which points in the dramaturgy of a piece, as well as which change in timbre would indicate coming developments within a piece. Just like in the Chinese languages and dialects, timbre in traditional music is not merely an effect added to syntax and grammar but an elemental part of it. It is crucial to understand that despite a longstanding tradition and a historically complex theoretical framework, Chinese traditional music is an aural and locally diverse tradition to a much higher degree than is western classical music. The details of how syntax and grammar are executed and balanced within a phrase remain quite personal to the individual player. In the case of the pipa piece, her model was the approach of Xia Yuyan (夏雨言). Listening closely to Xia’s playing and how she used certain techniques was a major turning point in Walker’s artistic practice: in doing this, she established her timbre-sensitive way of composing.
Photo: Anton Avdieiev
Walker’s immersive and time-consuming work on established pipa idioms enabled her to eventually formulate a language of her own that is characterized neither by mimicking existing Chinese music nor by falling into cliché-traps, like some other western composers have ended up doing in in their takes on the instrument. It is a method that she has also used when engaging with the sheng (Another self dissolves, 2021), the shō (Sifting, surface, silence, 2021) or yangqin (Forms of falling dust, 2021). The attendant processes often take years from the first encounter with an instrument and musician to a finished piece – years during which long-term artistic friendships form that are inseparable from her working practice. She gained, for instance, a particularly significant and lasting impulse from her work with the percussionist Allen Otte. To this day, discussions concerning timbre continue to represent the core of these collaborations, embodying the nucleus of Walker’s musical language. Many of her sounds are derived from specific experiences with musicians – some are literal transcriptions of techniques developed in work sessions, while others found their way into her music more subconsciously.
Walker’s finely nuanced shaping of timbre renders her music spacious. She speaks of the »specific sonic space« that sounds and words have – a space of which one needs to be aware. Her sounds are often surrounded by silence, providing them with space to unfold. This strategy is in opposition to music in which timbre is merely the manifestation of a rhythmic or melodic idea, with the sounds bearing no timbral relationship to one another. She enables listeners to truly hear the sounds for what they are – and also, for a moment, for what they could be. Her well-placed silences lead us to this realization. At the same time, she develops timbre – in the sense of timbral melody – over extended periods within her pieces. The many identities of her individual sounds eventually communicate with and reference each other in subtle ways, creating a delicate and easily disrupted secondary layer due to the wide spacing of her sounds. To convey this layer to the listener, the performing musicians must listen carefully to each other, to lend each other the space for small movements and reactions – those of the body and those of sound. This gives rise to a tense presence onstage that can be felt by the audience as a most subtle, almost invisible choreography. It is what turns her concert pieces into musical theater.
Photo: Anton Avdieiev
Her notation is a wonderful visualization of those processes. To the naked eye, they are as spacious as her music sounds – and despite her nuanced work on timbre, her recent scores initially seem surprisingly clear and simple. Her scores’s simplicity is deceptive, however. Her music is often calm, but it is almost never simple – neither in terms of its rich layering nor for the musicians to play. Again, it is her collaborative practice that has shaped her scores into the form in which they appear today. Score and practice reflect each other. Most of her scores do exist within a traditional framework: one can find the familiar five-line system organized into islands distributed within the space of each page, note heads in various shapes, and tremolo zigzags. But the handwritten, graphic quality of her scores, which also include Chinese characters and instructions, is more akin to a cartographer’s or a poet’s output than to that of a researcher obsessed with timbral details. Many of the fluctuations of sound, transitions of timbre, moments of tension, and small crescendos audible in the recording and performances of her music do not appear written in the score as such. It is as if her handwritten lines and symbols marked coastlines, with Walker having drafted an environment that she invites the musicians to step into. Once there, they need to find their places. But like a map, the score only provides orientation. It does not show the many details of the terrain, nor does it speak of the fauna and flora inhabiting it. Her scores are not made for sightreading; they need to be actively engaged with. The musicians need to take the initiative and partner with the piece: if they don’t, her music simply does not happen. Her maps need to be brought to life with each player’s imagination and musicianship – and with lots of rehearsals, requiring the dedication of everyone involved. Especially in an era in which everyone aims to maximize output, with rehearsal times being continually reduced, her practice stands out all the more.
»The handwritten, graphic quality of her scores, which also include Chinese characters and instructions, is more akin to a cartographer’s or a poet’s output than to that of a researcher obsessed with timbral details.«
Over time, Walker has standardized certain symbols and types of notation. Even so, her scores are anything but static. Like her music, they are the object of constant development and discussion with her collaborating musicians. Her notation always accounts for the people with whom the piece is developed and by whom it will ultimately be played. To Walker, creating a suitable score means finding the right type of notation for each player and their musical background. A quite unique solution, even by Walker’s standards, was realized in The space in between (2020), written for two musicians of the Chinese Beiguan tradition (Ensemble Water-Stage) – with one playing the sanxian (a fretless lute with three strings), one on percussion, and both reciting text. Musicians of the Beiguan musical tradition are not used to working within the Western five-line system. Their tradition is mainly aural and uses traditional Chinese opera notation in a supporting function. As a consequence of her research and work together with these two musicians, Walker created a visual environment within their musical realm that makes use of notation strategies already familiar to them. Like traditional Chinese scores and ancient texts, the score of The space in between is read from top to bottom and right to left. Instead of the Western system of pitch notation, she used the Gongche notation system – in which Chinese characters are used to indicate relative pitch. The beginnings and ends of sounds as well as changes in timbre are indicated by a combination of symbols and lines, blending characteristics of Western and Chinese notation. Being aware of the artists for whom she was composing and having done extensive research, Walker managed to create a piece in which the artists perform as traditional Beiguan musicians while approaching new texts and musical material.
A scanned score example of »The space in between«. Courtesy of Rachel C. Walker
»She creates a chimerical space where her individual musical language and those of the poets and musicians are not dissolved, but coexist.«
The sound world of The space in between can theoretically also be realized with a more standardized and detailed type of notation, though that would entail not recognizing the players’ individuality and also limiting the possibilities of interpretation. Despite the freedom afforded in pitch, rhythm, and expression, this piece is meticulously organized on form and time. For each such piece and collaboration, the partnership between musician and composer is balanced anew around questions of freedom versus determination. Every piece has its own identity, parameters, and needs. While the timing in The space in between has to be exact due to an additional electronic part, pitch is organized to a greater degree in Another self dissolves (2021) for sheng, pipa, and tam-tam while the overall timing is much freer. Walker’s notation of timbre, though, is quite consistent and minimal throughout her recent pieces – with the balancing done in rehearsal and not on paper.
Poetry has always been Walker’s major source of inspiration – and even when dealing with text, she feels timbre to be essential. Language’s semantic aspect provides her pieces with form and syntax overall, as well as on the micro level. When it comes to her phrasing, semantics and timbre are one and the same. Walker delves deep into the nonverbal aspects of the words with which she works, where subtle fluctuations, micro-glissandi and/or stresses on certain vowels alter and enrich a word’s meaning. The ways in which this is done in Chinese and Arabic diverge substantially from how things work in European languages, including Walker’s native English. Again, Walker has immersed herself extensively in the former two languages. As in the work with her musicians, her work with poets is also characterized by close collaboration over long periods of time. She learns their texts by heart, also learning to pronounce them as they are intended. She then analyzes not only the written text but also spoken versions recorded by the poets in their dialects. Dialect, voice, and individuals’ styles of recitation constitute her access to and understanding of vocal timbre, with transcriptions of such recordings providing the material for several of her pieces. Walker usually produces rhythmic transcriptions, avoiding pitch and indicating only general melodic movement if at all, focusing on what she herself hears. She does not make use of software-based spectral analysis tools.
Photo: Anton Avdieiev
Transcribing language into musical notation is a process of stylization and generalization; it is a musical act. Certain details of the poets’ personal recitation styles are lost in this process, while others are highlighted. This enables Walker to take a step away from text as a representation of itself; it instead becomes abstract material that she can expand and work with freely while maintaining a distanced relationship with its original source. Her music goes beyond the text and beyond language itself. In Third existence (2021) for saxophone, prepared glockenspiel, and prepared piano, the original text and recording of a poem by Ruan Xuefang (阮雪芳) are dissolved in instrumental sounds. No words are sung or spoken by a human voice in this piece. Instead, Walker took the poem’s rhythmic prosody as a kind of fragmented cantus firmus that she then expanded vertically, as if she would harmonize it, thereby adding her own reading and sensitivity. This is far from being a mere comment on the original poem. It is, like its title suggests, a »third existence« that came to be.
Walker does not try to tell stories; she much rather connects places. These connections, once established, are alive – and they grow and influence each other. One can literally hear this growth in her music, which is in a constant state of transition. Delicate noises, usually considered mere byproducts of a sound’s creation, become new branches, connecting otherwise distant sonic qualities and traditions. This is how she bridges her diverse sources. She creates a chimerical space where her individual musical language and those of the poets and musicians are not dissolved, but coexist. She does not deconstruct or reframe the music of Chinese, Iraqi, or European traditions; her points of reference remain audible and recognizable in all of her pieces. This is hence an act not of appropriation but of awareness of the many musics beyond the European framework and the many musics that do not have a clearly defined »home«. Musics that are – like her own – in between spaces.
Rachel C. Walker writes poetic, timbre-sensitive works drawing from her ongoing immersion in and research on Chinese folk music, musical time, and language. She engages in long-term collaborations with living writers, exploring the philosophical connections between transcription and translation within abstract musical syntaxes.
Andreas Karl is a musicologist working on contemporary Chinese and European music. He is teaching at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz and is a fellow at the International Research Center for Cultural Studies Vienna where he is researching recent aesthetic shifts in contemporary music in China.
© 2023 Akademie Schloss Solitude and the author