Ivan Seng is an astonishingly gifted classical pianist and composer based in Asheville, North Carolina. His concert recitals reflect his wide-ranging interests: Bach, Shostakovich, Chopin, Haydn, Mendelsohn, Prokofiev; as well as contemporaries such as composer Kenneth Frazelle, with whom Seng has partnered in concert many times.
He’s a North Carolina native, traveling from his home in Boone to study with Clifton Matthews at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem as a boy, then attending the school’s prestigious residential high school program. He left NC to attend Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he worked with Joseph Schwartz and Sanford Margolis, and returned to Winston-Salem for graduate study, where he studied composition with Michael Rothkopf in addition to his continued study with Matthews. Seng has won numerous regional awards in both solo and chamber performance, including the College Chamber Music Competition, and was selected to perform in the Asheville Rising Stars concert series. He frequently collaborates with the ensemble Pan Harmonia and other chamber ensembles. When he talks, he bears an air of slight preoccupation, paired with a laser-sharp attention. He’s got a youthful appearance, but speaks as a old-fashioned professor: not in powerpoint bullets but in penciled phrases that are frequently, beautifully, revised mid-clause.
Seng’s compositional interests are deeply immersed in mathematics, in which he finds description of the natural patterns of the universe. Like one of his major influences, the post-World War II composer Iannis Xenakis, who was among the first to use computer programs to compose music, Seng draws his compositional forms not from classical constraints, but through mathematical formulas. As Seng says, “I think it is important to have an emotional relation to these concepts, because it is the universe that we live in. We do live in a universe that’s not ordered. It’s not planetary spheres that orbit each other, in these very harmonious patterns. The heavens are not ordered.”
Xenakis was composing during a time ruptured by two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism in his own country, as well as the hugely influential compositional development that was serialism. Today’s rupture is both social and environmental, and Seng is one of the composers addressing climate collapse in his compositions.
Seng doesn’t talk about himself easily or often, but he graciously agreed to spend several afternoons discussing his compositional process with me following a concert performance of his work, part of a series of house concerts together with other electronic music composers in Asheville. The room had been dimly lit when Ivan took the stage. He explained that he would be premiering five works done using the SuperCollider programming language, gestured to the laptop whose screen was turned to the wall. He inclined his head, as if taking the pulse of the room, and pressed a button on the computer.
Sounds fell from the screen, single tones, stretched, extended. Clusters, then, a barrage, then – silence. Despite no apparent sense of structure – there was no sign of a theme, no underlying motif to hold these sounds together – there was, nevertheless, a sense of unity to his music. Someone commented, after it was finished, “It was if it were raining, on a tin roof, and the roof receives the rain in a different way, every drop.”
Changes in the musical texture occur in sudden bursts and at a fairly rapid pace. Each burst affects only one musical feature at a time, such as speed, density, tone color, shape, or movement of sound. These happen in fairly rapid succession, and at unpredictable intervals of time.
Carolyn Ogburn: It seems to me that being a composer must be in some way like being an architect – well, I was thinking Xenakis, and of course that was his background. He didn’t even study traditional counterpoint and harmony, right? Because he was about 30 when he came to Paris, started working with Le Courbousier as an engineer and draftsman. Then he tried to find a composition teacher – He tried to study with Nadia Boulanger, and she was like, Nah, I got no time for you – here you are, a 30-year-old beginner, and I’m Nadia Boulanger… so then he finally found Messiaen.
Ivan Seng: I think it was incredibly insightful of Messiaen [not to make Xenakis learn counterpoint.] Xenakis had a lot of mathematical training and a lot of drafting skills. His graphic abilities were incredible. So I think that Messiaen realized that he [Xenakis] could use all the skills he already knew – they were unique, not many musicians had these skills, why force everyone into the traditional mode?
CO: Would you call that modernism?
IS: Yeah! Well, maybe. A late stage of it. We had Schoenberg and Webern and Stravinsky; that was the high point of modernism. Then you’ve got the post-World War II serialism, and (those composers) all studied counterpoint. Boulez was brilliant at counterpoint, traditional tonal counterpoint. You can definitely see influences of contrapuntal thinking in his music. How these out-of-control multiple voices can be moving at the same time. It’s very similar to how they would do it in the Renaissance. I mean the intervals – were maybe not the same [laughing]… He doesn’t choose the consonant intervals as often as he does the dissonant intervals.
Xenakis doesn’t approach it that way. He actually was very critical of the serialist composers and the kind of complete – the total serialist, and serialism in general. He bases his music on very different principles. Sometimes it sounds similar, but what he realized, basically, is that when you take music to that level of complexity we just can’t hear those tone rows anyway. Basically, his criticism was if you have, if it’s that dissonant, that complex, our ability to follow voices – we hear scattered voices, chaotic and kind of random – we don’t connect it.
CO: Because it’s too complex for us to process?
IS: I think they took complexity to such an extreme… I mean, in Bach, everything is controlled in such a way that you can hear the top voice responding to a bass voice; there’s many things you can pick up with your ear, and with your mind. With Boulez, maybe the low voice will be doing this [waving hand above his head] and the top voice will be doing this [waving the other hand about his waist], and so how can you actually process the differences?
So what ends up happening is that you don’t hear two voices; you hear the combined texture, or mass, of notes. I think Xenakis liked the sound of that but he realized that there’s really no point in having all [those] complex structures behind the scenes that you can’t – they’re not audible at all – so why bother creating those structures? Why not just deal immediately with surfaces. So he uses mathematics to do that. So now rather than using 12-tone rows in patterns, becoming so complex you can’t hear them anymore, he just uses mathematical formulas, and creates the same kinds of structures. But there’s nothing to listen FOR in them.
See, you always feel like, in Schoenberg, you’re supposed to be hearing something, but you just can’t quite… get it. Unless you study the score, you can’t really hear it. I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down and listened to Schoenberg, and been like, “Oh I heard The Row!” Except if it’s completely isolated…
CO: Otherwise you’ve got to find it through visual interpretation of the score?
IS: Yes. I mean, sometimes Schoenberg will make a row into an obvious theme and maybe, after one or two listenings, you can recognize the theme. It’s not easy, and maybe you can hear one or two variations… but most of the time you don’t really. You hear shapes and patterns emerging, but you don’t hear that background structure of the row.
But with Xenakis, it’s not even there. You don’t even bother trying to hear those patterns. You listen to the overall texture, and globally where it’s going. Like, is this texture gradually becoming more dense? Like maybe it starts sparsely, and then you can hear this building of density, it gradually starts to collect notes and becomes more dense. You can hear [everything you need to].
Random Walk X Winter Solstice: The changes have become smoother. Instead of sudden bursts, each musical parameter undergoes nearly continuous transition from one state to another.
CO: What you’re describing feels very visual, very textural, like a sweater pattern or something. Like, not all that auditory? Or, am I missing something?
IS: It’s actually completely auditory. It’s based on all kinds of mathematical principles and formulas. But I think what [Xenakis] really wanted to do was emulate the laws of nature. Like say you go out on a hike and you see a geological formation that’s been sculpted by many forces over time, and it creates this overall impression of complexity –
CO: And unity?
IS: Perhaps… but I don’t know if these kinds of formulas create unity. That has to come from a sort of intuitive sense of the entire shape of the piece. It’s not formulaic. He uses formulas to create local texture – he wants to keep human patterns out of the immediate surface. Humans tend to create a certain kind of order. You can look at this room, and see there’s certain kinds of shapes that humans prefer. He wants to keep that out. He wants it to be like – in the natural world there’s a certain complexity – we don’t naturally produce that.
CO: I want to ask you more about the pieces at the concert the other night. The Random Walk pieces. Like, I really want to know about that name, for instance. But also, you said they were composed using a SuperCollider software program?
IS: Yes, but it’s not a software program. It’s actually a programming language, designed for sound synthesis. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the other [the large particle accelerator] or not.
CO: So, basically, the composer sets parameters for what sounds the computer will produce, and then presses ‘play’. And, if he ever wants to hear that same piece a second time, he simultaneously presses ‘record’; for if he does not, neither he nor anyone else will ever hear that piece again. It’s completely ephemeral, not unlike a live performance of any other improvised piece of music.
IS: Pressing the ‘record’ button also will slightly alter the parameters as well in ways that are unpredictable.
CO: And then there’s the title of these pieces – Random Walk. I was really surprised by that. It’s unpredictable, but can you really say it’s random? Because, it seems to me that these compositions are anything but random. You – as the composer – put in the parameters, you decide each element, and if you don’t like the result, you can immediately delete it. It’s almost like you have total control at the very beginning and at the end, while in the middle, the computer runs through the patterns in ways that only math can interpret.
IS: Well, random walk is a mathematical term. It comes from Brownian motion. Do you remember the story of the guy [botanist Robert Brown] who was looking though his microscope at tiny particles in water. He saw these particles and he saw them bouncing around – he saw that these particles were following this completely random motion, Brownian motion – and I think it’s how they realized that there were atoms, because it ended up being that these atoms were bouncing off of these small little particles and it was pushing the particles around… So if we took a very basic motion… say you have a 3-sided die, marked 0-1-2, and each number correlates to a particular movement. And [your particle, or sound, in its own placement is affected by the dictates of the die] and you start at a certain number, 0, and you can go up a step or down a step. But it’s unpredictable.
CO: But you cannot predict which direction the die will dictate. And that’s only one example, right? One aspect of the piece, like pitch or duration?
CO: So, the title is supposed to evoke…?
IS: It’s a random walk through a parameter space. By parameter space, I mean it’s multidimensional – each parameter you add, adds a dimension. So pitch, duration are 2 dimensions. And you could move through that space in this random walk – but it’s really like 28–29 dimensional space at this point. So imagine this random walk not just going through 2-dimensional space, but 28–29 dimensions. That’s where the title comes from. I mean, really what these pieces are, they’re sketches. Then my intention is to go on to develop pieces where I have chosen [more definitively]…
CO: But these sketches, they’re wonderful. What do you like better?
IS: That’s a complicated question. I sometimes think that the complete – the computer doesn’t have any kind of preconceptions, about what should happen next. So sometimes things will happen that I would never have thought of, or I would not have thought would be interesting. and I really like it. It sounds fresh, and new.
I think that’s why I do it. It lets me know what can happen in this sound world that I’ve created without any of my own preconceptions – although they always seep in. For instance, before I press that play button, if I choose a scale – well, that’s already decided something. The scale has already altered the sound of the piece. And so that’s one thing. I can give it certain… I can choose specific [how would you put it?] states. Let’s take volume, for instance. I can say choose between this volume and this volume, and so now it has two choices. Then I can say, well, there’s a 75 percent probability that it will choose this volume and a 25 percent it will choose this one and so now I’ve made another decision.
But another example is, for instance, let’s take density – I could say, let’s start the whole piece very low density and gradually, toward the end, climax at maximum density, but it creates a shape that you can see already.
In some sense I’m letting the computer pick them but of course I’m telling the computer what to do – basically, I give it boundaries to work in and then I kind of let it go. I also tell it the rate of change – so it might change, on average, once every 40 seconds. So one parameter is volume. So I give it a center volume, for a certain amount of time, and then it changes. It could change in exactly one second [but that’s not likely] or it could change in – well, there’s a very small probability that it would sustain for one year, but the probability is so small that it never happens.
CO: I was struck by the way you just pressed “play” on your computer the other night, and sat down. If you listen to the pieces online, you know that there are five pieces, because they’re visually separated on the website. But you didn’t want to separate them?
IS: Well, I did put in pauses. It might not have been obvious enough. I think it was kind of obvious when a piece ended, but maybe not. I guess it’s a little like chapters in a book.
I could have talked in between but I would have had to get up in time to stop it and I didn’t want to do that… I didn’t want anyone looking at the computer. I turned that away.
CO: Because when you see the “playlist” you can definitely tell when it’s changing from one piece to the next, and absent that, you – or, I, at any rate, found myself inserting my own structure. Like, oh, there’s this sustained note, or this consonance. That must be a punctuation of some sort. But, you know, maybe not?
IS: Yes, but really, I was thinking more about the – the visual. For instance, in terms of visual, you know [the pianist] Sviatoslav Richter? Later in life, he became more eccentric – and he performed in the dark, with a lamp, and there was no other light in the auditorium. There was more focus on the listening. We’re so visually oriented that we tend to watch performers rather than listen to music. So, I think one of the things I didn’t want was for the computer screen to be a distraction. Maybe to become more aware of sounds and less dependent on visual cues. I’ve been less and less interested in the visual aspects of musical performance, in general.
I think we can if we hone in on auditory information, I want people to start having the kinds of sensitivity that a blind person might have to sound. I want that kind of attention to the sound rather than gesticulations. When a person is up there – you’re always trying to find some kind of correspondence between the visual and the auditory information. It’s interesting to see what happens when you let go of that a little bit.
CO: Density is a word that comes up a lot in our conversations here, and it’s not – well, that’s not a word often used in talking about music, in general. But it’s, you know, it’s exactly the right word for this, I think.
From dense masses of notes emerge structures that soon unravel again into chaos.
IS: And with electronic music, it can get pretty dense! Hundreds of sounds per second.
CO: There’s no way to actually hear each sound, not in any way that you can actually interpret. So, there’s density, and there’s sound. I couldn’t help but feel like I was hearing articulation of instruments at times. There were some sounds that were less articulated, almost flute-like, and then others that sounded almost plucked. Did you do that on purpose?
IS: When it sounds like an instrument, that’s a byproduct of the process I’m using. It’s not intentional. What was intentional was I wanted to take whatever sounds I had and through manipulating the envelope create lots of variety, and also distinct groups of sound – I mean, with huge masses of sound – I wanted some to – like if you see a flock of birds in the air, and they’re all the same kind of bird, there’s a kind of similarity. I wanted to create similarities that would create flocks of notes.
And also transitions, mutations, where you hear these dense masses of notes that gradually they change sound into something else.
CO: The envelope? Did you just say, manipulating the envelope? That’s a great phrase.
IS: [laughs] Yes, well, it refers to setting certain parameters of sound, attack, sustain, decay… I wanted to manipulate the envelope – or, rather, the program was manipulating the envelope – to create as much variety as I could.
CO: So like when you program your algorithm, it’s possible that a note could sustain for over a year, but it’s just not likely.
CO: Because of the laws of probability?
IS: Let me give you an example. The other night, there was a geologist talking about history of the earth, about huge climatic extinctions and meteors hitting the earth – that’s a perfect example, meteors. There’s hundreds or thousands of tiny objects that hit the earth every year. It’s something very frequent. Something not so significant happens a lot at a high frequency. And then larger, maybe 100-foot, objects hit much less frequently, only every decade or so. And then there’s objects the size of Mount Everest. And those hit like every 65 million years or so. But you never know – it’s possible that two could happen very close together. It’s just not likely.
Giant meteorites could hit us and we have these formulas that could tell us when these giant meteors could hit us but they can’t tell us with any certainty. They can tell us one every 60 million years but we don’t really know…. We live in a very dangerous universe. We can make all these predictions, but we can’t have certainty. So that I think that informs the music. Especially with the issues we have in climate change.
We’re living in a giant exponential curve at the moment. Carbon parts per million in the atmosphere are growing exponentially. We feel it. Population is exploding exponentially. We do have an emotional connection with these things. We are living in these forms as we speak. We can pretend that we’re living in a static form all we want, but we’re not.
—Ivan Seng & Carolyn Ogburn
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.
Ivan Seng photographs by stephen houseworth photography