In celebration of 91Classical’s Local Composers Month, we posed six questions to some of Nashville’s classical music creators. This week, get to know Aaron Hoke Doenges, who doesn’t always compose using traditional methods. For instance, with his piece The Migratory Patterns of People, Doenges translated live GPS data from Nashville’s bus system into sonic and visual patterns.
How would you describe your compositional style and approach?
I see my work as an evolution of musical tradition. Both the expressionist and experimentalist movements rejected widely accepted compositional methods, but they did it in very different ways. The expressionists relied heavily on set structures and math to create unprecedented melodies and harmonies. The experimentalists ran in the opposite direction toward chance, and they looked for ways to release the compositional process from their control. We now have some great tools that reflect both of these customs: digital processes allow me to build mathematical algorithms that shape my pieces, and the vast amount of data and interactive devices available gives me the opportunity to share the creative process with others.
With those resources in my creative pocket the process of my work becomes really investigative, and my most successful pieces come with more questions than answers. An encounter or experience will plant a seed of curiosity and I’ll make time to explore whatever that prompt is. The exploration is both conceptual and sonic. I’ll read about related topics and look for data and information that might help shape my composition. I’ll also start to look for sound materials that reflect or reference my prompt. For example, my love for the outdoors guided the creation of Wade [Music for River and People]. I wondered how I could re-present data about our natural environment so that people might experience nature in a new way. Using a series of algorithms, I transformed real-time river flow data into music that changed as the chosen rivers ebbed and flowed. I also incorporated motion sensors that would manipulate the audio when people walked through the installation site – again using algorithms. The piece became an immersive sonic encounter where the rivers’ flow and the presence of people jointly created the music.
A lot is happening this year. In addition to the pandemic and months of quarantine, we’ve had widespread protests against racial injustice… and it’s an election year. How have the events of 2020 so far influenced your work as a composer?
Whew, there is a lot happening right now, isn’t there? My neighborhood is still working on recovery efforts from the March tornado, as well. 2020 is not suffering from a lack of artistic cues. In my compositional work I am particularly interested in the relationship between environments and people. There is a lot of talk about built environments, natural environments and social environments, but it’s important to remember that they are all interdependent. Environmental justice work (in which I tend to include both COVID-19 and the tornado) is frequently also racial justice work, and the politics of it all has real impacts on daily life. The more I dwell on that circle the broader the influences become on my work.
I’m currently working on a piece that started out as a meditation on the natural environment of the middle Tennessee region, but its meaning is expanding as I reflect on the current racial justice work and the politics of environmentalism and development. Through that particular piece I am thinking about what my role is as a white male during this time, my relationship to my ancestors, and the responsibilities I may have because of decisions they made. It is also prompting thoughts about our collective impact on the earth – locally and globally – and about which communities are bearing the most of that burden. All of those thoughts are having a big affect on both the content of the piece and how I’m thinking about its eventual presentation.
In 2018, you became an artist-in-residence with the Metro Nashville Public Health Department. What does this partnership entail, and especially now, during a pandemic?
My residency at the Metro Nashville Public Health Department was a civic arts project undertaken in partnership with local author M. Sione Boyd. Together, with the support of Metro Arts: Nashville Office of Arts and Culture, we embedded ourselves within the health department to see how we could inject a bit of creative practice into their important work. We were focused specifically on helping with the Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP) – a multi-year planning document that guides the work of the department. The process of creating the plan relies heavily on community input, so we worked together to find common language between the department and community members. We also introduced a collective arts project to help people envision what changes could happen to make Nashville a healthier city.
The CHIP that was created during our residency highlighted five key systemic issues that the health department and its partners will focus on over the next three years. Equity will be a major focus of their efforts, largely because of the significant health disparities between communities of color and those that are predominantly white. Systemic inequities have resulted in a 21 year difference in life expectancies in Davidson County alone. These issues are amplified during pandemics and other major events as we have seen in the disproportionate number of COVID-19 infections and deaths of Black, Latinx and native folks across the country.
My time at the health department has come to a close. The goal was to produce a public art piece about the work with the support of Metro Arts, but there have been some roadblocks to the project. I’m trying to determine what my next steps are on that one.
Can you tell us about something you’re working on right now?
I have a couple of notable projects in my pocket right now. The environmental piece I mentioned above is tentatively titled Ghost Forest. The idea was first sparked by Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory. In one passage he writes about a mythical squirrel who was able to travel from Manhattan to the Gulf of Mexico in the forest canopy without ever touching paw to ground. The book made me fall in love with the trees in the area, and the piece is helping me imagine how that great expanse might have felt and sounded. I’ve been researching regional bird songs, cicadas, crickets, weather patterns, the cycles of the sun and moon, the development happening in my neighborhood that reduces the canopy over our city, the trees that storms have recently taken down, area efforts to rebuild the canopy as a response to both of these things, and all sorts of data sources. It has really helped me feel in touch and present. It feels like a bit of a love song.
Much of my most recent work has focused on digitally translating data into sound, which results in fairly non-traditional pieces. I have, however, started sketching out a piece using Covid-19 data that is probably the most traditional work I’ve thought about in a while – it’s becoming a piece with an actual notated score. A Requiem emerging in real time. I’m not entirely settled on the form of the piece (probably because our experience of the virus is ongoing) but the presence of human musicians will be important.
You’ve created music and sound art using some pretty unconventional sources, including rivers, public transportation, and participant surveys. What drew you to creating work beyond the traditionally notated scores?
Several influences have moved me to do the type work that I do. There is a rich tradition of sonic exploration and experimentation, as I mentioned above, but it’s also very much a reflection of my lived experiences. My mother was a university math professor and my father worked in computing from the early 1980’s (they are also both amateur musicians), so I inherited many of my interests from them.
I also feel that it’s important to reflect on my context in my work. On the production side that means that I rely on data and algorithms, interactivity, and environmental monitoring largely because this is how I see our society operating right now. I’ve even dipped a toe into artificial intelligence. On the more narrative side of things, I want to use my tools to invite those around me into creative collaboration. My work is shaped so much by my own experience, but I am not the only one here. As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community I haven’t always been sure that my story was welcomed. I want to counter that particular narrative with my work by opening the creative process – be it with rivers and people, transit systems, or through surveys. It is a way to invite others into a shared moment.
What advice would you give to someone wanting venture into generative and interactive creating?
Explore, ask, listen, hear, and respond. And then listen more. Always listen. Deeply and without preconceiving a reply. My best work comes when I really hear what the music is not saying. That forces me to ask what is missing from the conversation. What voice needs to be heard that is not present? How can I help that voice be heard? What pieces need to shift around to make room? Ask more questions than you give answers. And do that in your life as much as your music. I think the lack of pre-conception is especially important in generative and interactive work because you are constantly waiting to hear what will happen next. Frequently it’s not what you think!
And one bonus question: Which composer do you wish was better known?
I’m not sure either of these folks would strictly call themselves composers, but I appreciate the questions they are asking with their work. Janet Cardiff’s The 40 Part Motet is a project I go back to. The audio is very traditional music, but I think her questions about embodiment and (re)presentation in that particular work are potent. I’m always wrestling with the notion of digital (re)presentation of the physical world, and I appreciate the contrast between the electronics and the more traditional music she uses. I’m also really enjoying the installation and sound work of the artist Zimoun. He makes these environments that sonically remind me of the flow of water, but they’re created with huge stacks of boxes, metal rods and other somewhat industrial objects. The visual elements hint at ideas of mass consumption and high density living, but the audio is so organic. It’s a mesmerizing juxtaposition.