The thing that’s always interested me in music as an art form, and what it delivers reliably that I don’t get from other art forms is: when you hear something and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or a shiver runs down your spine or you forget to breathe for a while, and you feel chills…that’s what I’m talking about. That experience, that’s what I mean by Sublime. — Eric Moe
Eric Moe (1954) is a contemporary American composer and pianist whose work rests quite comfortably upon the traditional classical concert stage. It’s also work which is filled with a lively post-modern intelligence that dazzles and surprises. His musical compositions teem with lyric moments, never far from laughter, or bright-eyed despair. Consider, for example, On the Tip of My Tongue, his sonata for bass clarinet and synthesizer, which invites the listener both to feel the pulsing rhythm of the performer’s tongue against the reed of the instrument, as well as the stammer implied by the title idiom; or listen to some of his percussion works, such as Danger: Giant Frogs, or Gong Tormented with their evocative titles (the first from a sign Moe spotted, and remembered; the second a fragment from Yeats’ Byzantium) and their thrillingly intimate clamor. He’s alert to the textures and timbres he skillfully skeins through the framework he’s created, as well as the implied context of the listeners’ own association with the instrument; see, for instance, I Have Only One Itching Desire, which draws from drummer Mitch Mitchell’s work with Jimi Hendrix. Like a practiced storyteller, Moe can launch a series of subtle echoing patterns before surprising the listener with abruptly garish amusements, or follow a line of jazz-inspired riffs to a sudden, wrenchingly vulnerable, conclusion.
Eric Moe’s OBEY YOUR THIRST, excerpt — Mari Kimura, violin
From Harmonic Constellations: Works for Violin and Electronics
Moe is a skilled pianist and performer as well as a composer. His music conveys a physical awareness that the piano is both a string and a percussion instrument. He’s also an avid hiker, at home in the outdoors; like many of his Romantic predecessors, much of his inspiration comes from the natural world. Edmund Burke famously distinguished between the Sublime and the Beautiful. Of these two, Beauty has garnered the most praise, but it’s the Sublime that sustains Moe’s interest. Of course, as has been famously observed, it’s but a short step from the Sublime to the Ridiculous, a hazard which, Moe might suggest, could enhance the experience. There’s often a playful sense of danger about his work, nothing of the sartorial remove that’s so often the case with postmodern work.
It’s not surprising that Moe should be linked with another postmodernist, the masterful David Foster Wallace, whose short story, “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” Moe used as a libretto in his sit-trag one-woman opera TRI-STAN. Like Wallace, Moe seeks for new ways in, to write music that will both express and convey the depth of emotional experience in a way that’s genuinely meaningful to audiences today. Like Wallace, Moe’s music is always reminding us, “Alas, we no longer get to say ‘Alas’ with a straight face…”
I met Eric and his wife, the artist Barbara Weissberger, in residence at the Ragdale Foundation, where this interview was conducted as we strode across a muddy prairie at dusk.
Carolyn Ogburn: When we talked about doing this interview together, you suggested the Sublime. That might seem like an oddly dated word to use for your music, which I find anything but dated: it’s intense, fresh, consistently surprising, smart and frequently funny as hell. Can you tell me more about what you mean by Sublime?
Eric Moe: The thing that’s always interested me in music as an art form, and what it delivers reliably that I don’t get from other art forms is: when you hear something and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or a shiver runs down your spine or you forget to breathe for a while, and you feel chills…that’s what I’m talking about. That experience, that’s what I mean by Sublime.
As a performer you want to induce that, to bring an audience to that, and as a composer trying to make that happen – well, it’s quite a nifty trick, when you can pull it off. And so, I was interested in that.
CO: Well, how do you do that? That nifty trick…?
EM: I think the reason why music is so much better at inducing the Sublime is that it’s so much better (than other art forms) at organizing time, in a very controlled flow. I mean, sure, when you’re reading a novel, things happen in a sequence, but the exact timing of the words: that’s determined by the reader, whether it’s being read aloud or silently…. In the visual arts you’re scanning a 2-D work or a sculpture, it’s very dispersed, you can’t really control how events unfold. And you really can do that with music.
And as a result I think you can tap into that experience of the Sublime more readily because it has a lot to do with surprise –
CO: Ah! See, I did not expect you to say that! (laughter) And that can provoke laughter out of – well, is it humor? is it surprise? I really found myself laughing out loud when I was listening to your music earlier today. But why was I laughing? Why do we laugh at musical devices: Is it because I know that there IS a joke? To signal that “I’m in on this” – or is a laughter that’s a burst of surprise? But it is funny!
EM: Well, I think humor is also dependent on surprise. When you said, “The ridiculous and the sublime” – I mean, those are pretty closely related actually. Because, you know, for a joke, you expect one thing to be the outcome and the punchline reveals that there’s a twist –
CO: –something outsized, something out of proportion. How do you do that?
EM: Oh, we have our ways…(laughs) I like to set up rhythmic landscapes, where you expect things to roll along a certain way. And then I like to pull the rug out from underneath. That moment of “Ooooh…!”
CO: But, when you talk about surprise – as a composer, that has got to be planned, but as an experiential…you can’t set out to encounter the sublime. You can prepare yourself, but – it’s not a contrivance. That’s part of it, right – it’s out of your control?
Well, yes, there are a couple of definitions – well, historically, there are various definitions, but two of them imply the surprise element.
Longinus, or Pseudo-Longinus, was the first to write about it. His treatise, in the first century CE, something like that, his writing was lost and rediscovered by Boileau in the 17th century. He talks about the sublime as being like a thunderbolt. And his examples tend to be jarring metaphors that verge on the ridiculous. And in fact, if you just push them a little more, they DO become ridiculous.
CO: The Sublime as extreme? That was a big Romantic obsession, for sure. Ideas, being pushed kind of…over the edge…So, when you are talking about humor and surprise, is that a covert way of disclosing the mouse marimba behind the scenes?
EM: (laughing) No, no…I didn’t think expectation, or suspense…I mean I always knew that you toy with feelings of expectation, and you either satisfy or you frustrate, and you can produce a lot of tension or power that way. I didn’t know why that was so, why that could produce Sublime effects, until I started reading the works of this musicologist/cognitive psychologist named David Huron who dissected the whole apparatus of expectation and anticipation. He makes a very compelling argument that any organism, evolutionarily, has a huge advantage of survival if it can predict the future, and how well it predicts the future. So we’re evolved to anticipate outcomes. And then, when something’s coming up, we feel a rise in the tension. As we reach that moment, the moment when something happens, we have an instinctive response as we know whether our prediction was accurate or not. And after all that is done, much more slowly, we have a conscious appraisal of what just happened.
For example, a snake crossing the path, like it did when I was hiking in Yellowstone with Barbara one year, and I – well, I just jumped. I didn’t think about it; no thinking involved there. But then I looked at the snake: it didn’t have rattles, it wasn’t poisonous, and then I wanted to look at it. So – it’s unexpected. I had an immediate response: I’d failed to anticipate (the snake) so I had a negative feeling about that. I had a bolt of adrenaline, and so I jumped. Then, after I jumped and I could see that the snake wasn’t a poisonous variety, this initial response was followed by “Oooh, that’s pretty cool. What kind of snake was that?”
CO: And was that interest sort of proportional to your level of surprise, do you think?
EM: Yes, yes, I probably enjoyed the snake more having gone through that business ahead of time. it’s kind of a complex stew of …whatever kind of neurotransmitters are flooding your system. That’s how surprise parties are supposed to work, right? They’ve actually videotaped people – the victims! – at surprise parties, and at the moment of the surprise there’s this look of terror (unless, of course, they knew it all along and they have anticipated it) and then after that, it’s supposed to be very pleasurable. For people with a strong startle reflex like me, it would – I would never get over being pissed off – but most people, I think, get over that surprise and then enjoy the party much more. So I think you can exploit something like this in art music because it has complexity built into it…
For most people, utter predictability is also very pleasurable. Tension is built up but we really know exactly what’s going to happen, and we get it, and it’s fine, no surprises, that’s good, and we can feel good about that.
CO: You do a good job of establishing a language that’s accessible from the start; it sets up expectations for the listener from the start, which is good, right, because if you don’t then…there’s less context for surprise.
EM: There’s a couple of kinds of expectations. There’s what they call schematic expectations, which is based on all the pieces of music you know about or have heard and you have a set of expectations based on that. And then you have expectations built on the specific piece you’re listening to, which are called veridical expectations. I think both of those work in a piece of art music.
But it’s more powerful when you can engage the schematic expectation. So if you’re evoking a Latin beat or a rock and roll riff, then you’ve got a certain set of expectations tied in with that.
For instance, in TRI-STAN, my big one-woman opera, a setting of a story by David Foster Wallace, there’s a cool moment where a skewed but very recognizable quotation of Isolde’s Liebestod is nearing its grand climax. I pile on a quotation of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. theme (this is all implicit in DFW’s text, by the way). And then, just as you’ve absorbed that’s going on, I throw on top a progression from the intro to the last movement of Mahler’s 6th. Big, big tension. And what happens next? The drum set rips into a boogaloo beat, and the piece goes careening toward the gruesome/funny climax of the sit-trag. So I’m messing with schematic expectations, but at the same time, this spot of time is foreshadowed by smaller things earlier in the piece. So veridical expectation is involved as well, and is in happy conflict with the schematic.
CO: You use such intensity of rhythm in your music. But at the same time, there’s an emotional content that’s kind of overwhelming at times. That one piece, Gong Tormented. The loneliness. I mean, I could have easily been projecting – but you don’t know, without words –
EM: I think we access (emotions) most directly without words. In that case I wasn’t setting out to write about loneliness, but it’s a serious piece…there are the sounds of the instruments themselves; the rhythm doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is always lots of pitch information in the various instruments. I notated that (pitch information) with some degree of precision.
CO: When you feel that shiver down your spine – who are some of the people who make you feel that way?
EM: Oh, well, Beethoven. He didn’t invent it, but he was certainly pursuing it. All of the great composers have their moments. Mahler, or Wagner, for instance, do it with pure volume of sound; with huge volume one minute and a solo instrument the next. Bud Powell does it through sheer velocity and rhythmic exuberance. Judith Weir, with grim pitiless humor and flawless timing. David Del Tredici, by casting longing glances back at 19th century evocations of the Sublime. Igor Stravinsky, not afraid to have the goofy, surreal, and exalted in the same piece (see Oedipus Rex). And so on.
CO: Like a shift in the landscape?
EM: Yes. And I would say, you know, nature plays a large role in my thoughts of the Sublime. I’ve got a lot of titles that are inspired by the natural world. I spend a lot of time outside…it’s a source of Sublime moments. I like to think about the difference – what’s the correspondence between looking down a 3000-foot vertical drop and one of those great moments in music that I like. The physical response is actually quite similar. “Holy shit!” (laughs)
There’s an anticipation as you’re getting to the top of a mountain. You have a sense of what it’s going to be. But it’s always really surprising. It’s never exactly as you imagined. And it’s always more than your brain can cope with. A panoramic vista, or when you can’t process the depth of field that you’re looking down through.
CO: Because of scale?
EM: Yeah. In mountains, yes. In music, sometimes it’s scale – like in Mahler, or Wagner. You’ve got a 5-hour piece, and suddenly you find the moment that the whole piece has been leading up to, and it’s literally a huge moment. It’s all been orchestrated. Literally and figuratively…
CO: Mahler was a big hiker wasn’t he?
EM: Yes, he spent the summer in the mountains. But what we’re really talking about, getting into the Burkean Sublime, where he (Edmund Burke) was talking about associating it with this feeling of terror at the immensity…
Wait, let me get this. I always travel with this.
“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended with some degree of horror.”
I just love that quote. And people these days are very critical of that, that idea of the sublime, they prefer Kant’s which is just the inability of the imagination to wrap itself around anything, and that’s certainly part of it. But the experience in music and a mountain landscape that I get is certainly more akin to that (quote).
CO: All the predictabilities are suspended – inertia. having been in motion suddenly not. Astonishment, and with some degree of horror…I think both the word horror, and the word astonishment – they meant something at that time, don’t you think? Different than they do now…
EM: Looking it up, I find that the Latin meaning of horror is “a bristling, a shaking, trembling as with cold or fear, terror,” which corresponds nicely with the kind of frisson that the Sublime evokes in many people. The psychologist/musicologist Huron that I was talking about goes further and actually connects surprise and astonishment with the flight or fight response, saying that with the interesting claim that laughter as a reaction to the unexpected is based on the flight response, that laughter is based on panting. Supercharging your oxygen capacity so that you can outrun your competitor, and that laughter is the aestheticized version of that. And that the sense of the sublime and chills is like a cat fluffing itself up, making itself larger, as a means of defending itself against an unexpected source of danger.
CO: What do you think?
And to me, neither of those definitions goes anywhere near explaining why we have the degree of auditory acuity that we have, the fine pitch differentiation. We have ridiculously more than we would need for language, much more than we would ever need for survival skills.
CO: Really? I’m surprised at that.
EM: Like for survival skills, it would be useful to hear much higher pitches, and lower pitches, than we actually can. but within the narrow range that we can hear. we can make out very fine difference in pitch. You can split a half-step into at least 12 parts and still make out the difference in pitch.
Rousseau thought we were singing before language was developed. And you hear children talking that way. They’ll sing the language.
CO: Your undergraduate degree was in music composition, as well as your graduate work. You must have known for a long time that you wanted to be a composer. What drew you to composition?
EM: I didn’t start writing music until I was in college. Before then, I sort of sight-read my way through Western music literature – not just piano music; I was also reading scores, hacking through best I could; songs, opera to some extent – and I started with Bach. Bach was my first love. Then I moved up, pretty much in chronological order: Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Schoenberg…and then at some point I was running out, and I was hungry for more. And I wasn’t entirely satisfied with what there was, so, at that point, I figured it was time to write it myself.
CO: It sounds like you’re talking about playing your way through – like a voracious reader – but as a pianist, that’s not what one did. One would get the next piece one wanted to play and you would perfect it….
EM: That’s why I didn’t go to a conservatory… (laughs)
CO: But reading your way through, that must be how you got a sense of the composer’s language, of the composer himself as a person, rather than just the magnificence of any given piece…
EM: I like context. I do that when I’m reading writers too. If I find something that I’m reading that I like, I’ll read everything that person has published everything I can get my hands on…
It’s important to have context. I hate anthologies for that reason. The best whatever of 1997…it’s like, who cares? It’s hard for me to get excited about reading (things like that…) Unless you know the writers that are being excerpted, it’s far less interesting for me than getting the whole picture of the creator’s work, so as to have more to relate it to.
CO: Like establishing expectations in order to cultivate room for surprise?
EM: Yeah, that’s true. There’s sort of the grand schematic thing of the culture at large, then the ones specific to that story, and this sort of fills the gap between those.
CO: You’re clearly an avid reader. But it was music that you were called to tinker around with.
EM: That’s because writing is really hard. I don’t know how anybody does that. It’s just …tortuous…Words. Words! You write them and then everyone knows what they mean. They’re so hard. And also, then they mean something. Then you’re just…(laughs) You can’t just create a grand emotional effect and leave it to the listener to puzzle over the “why”. It’s interesting to read late Romantic writers on music and see how much range of semantic meaning they’ll ascribe to the same piece. I’ve had wildly divergent responses to pieces of mine – I remember one piece that was “so violent and tragic” to one listener and equally “energetic and joyful” to another.
CO: I want to get back to land. I just talked to two composers, both of them immersed in thoughts about climate collapse. Do you find yourself responding to that in your work?
EM: Well, yeah. I’m actually working on a piece with the tentative title of Buffalo Jump. Based on what the Blackfoot and other Plains tribes would do before the Spanish introduced horses to the New World: they would drive a herd of buffalo off a cliff, counting on the terrified herd to blindly follow the spooked lead animals; and it seems that as a species we’re – out of fear and being herded out of our interests and short-sightedness…
CO: When we talk about surprise in your pieces, so far there’s been a sense of thrill about it. But when we’re talking about buffalo riding off a cliff…
EM: Well, there’s one thing I should mention about the Sublime. The terror? It involves surviving. (laughs) It’s that appraisal stage, which is: I’m okay, this is a piece of music.
CO: Then what do you do when you’re facing this – giant thing coming? For example, we were talking earlier about your hikes in Glacier National Park, and the glaciers there, and everywhere, well, they’re disappearing. They’re melting, because of climate collapse.
EM: I go there every summer. Every summer, the glaciers are a little smaller. And it’s very sad. I mean, it’s really sad. And a lot of my music is very sad. or has a deep sadness. Even the funny pieces, a melancholy, an elegiac moment…
CO: The history of sublime – well, there’s the horror. And there are plenty of things we can look at today that involve that sense of horror…
EM: Yeah, yeah…(laughing) well, so far, it’s been…well, the opera I just finished, The Artwork of the Future, is a comic opera about extinction. The human race has become extinct and our two heroes find that they’ve traveled 300 years into the future, and they want to see if their art has survived and yes, it has, but there are no people left. There are just robots. So then, is this a good thing or a bad thing? They eventually decide that it’s a bad thing. They want to know how this has happened, so they ask the robots, how it happened. and the robots were like…(shrugs) “They were busy looking at their phones…”
CO: “Adult coloring books came out, so…” (laughing) Here’s another question that’s been on my mind recently. Do you find yourself in conversation with other composers who are also thinking about the condition of culture…
EM: You know, I Have Only One Itching Desire – that’s based on Hendrix’s drummer, from the Experience. There are a bunch of licks from his – I mean, not all of it, but there are some moments where I’m evoking him, in particular. Mitch Mitchell. He’s a great drummer.
So all of that’s fair game. And then for those people who know what you’re referencing, it’s great to have that to bounce off of in terms of creating expectations, then you have a lot more material to play around with in terms of comic effect.
CO: I was struck by the piece you wrote for violinist Mari Kimura who developed a method of playing subharmonics. How did you incorporate that particular trick into the writing? Was it different than other commissioned works?
EM: She commissioned a piece that would make use of that. I was happy to do it. I finally figured out what was going on acoustically with the subharmonics, but before I did I had the idea of carefully setting up the listener’s first encounter with the sound – the first time you’ve heard anything that low-pitched or growly in the piece – or from a violin, ever. It’s an octave below the lowest note of the instrument and it comes a good ways into the piece. It’s like the jaws of Hell opening up when it’s combined with a pitch-shifted springdrum roar.
CO: It’s a really intense piece, one which pairs the violist with a recorded sound, and the two constantly interact…
EM: The idea of the piece was the Sprite (soft drink) slogan, Obey your thirst, which this ecopoeticist (Timothy Morton) whose work I was looking at pointed out that this was making a bottle of pop into a bottle of thirst. So the idea was that the violinist would be running after the tape part –
CO: Oh, like the ad! So if you’re literally ‘obeying your thirst’ and your thirst is a bottle of pop, and a pop is a bottle of thirst…it’s very koan-esque.
EM: Yes, well and then there is another Sublime moment been a very furious piece, it keeps getting more and more intense, and then everything turns into this very very sad closing section…Which took me by surprise, when I was writing it. I like that too. Because it’s a lot more fun, to not know what’s going to happen in a piece even as its creator.
CO: That’s why we do it, right? At some point in the process, you start to think about the way another person might experience it, their possible response. You put little messages, right? Little jokes to the reader, the listener, the performer – and that level of communication adds another level of tension, or intellectual engagement. Or would you call it an emotional engagement?
EM: Well, yeah – I mean, Stravinsky famously said, “I write for myself not for the hypothetical other.” When I read that, that seemed to resonate.
I have to imagine that others will have a response similar to my own – if it thrills me, there’s at least a fighting chance that another person will be thrilled as well. Commercial hackwork, on the other hand…
CO: Right. Relies on predictability, easy to hear, easy to understand. Keeping within a pretty defined set of parameters, based on whatever’s popular at the moment. But to be really unpredictable, as well as popular…
EM: Your unpredictable moments would have to be totally predictable. I mean, if you look at a horror movies, for example, which have a lot of what you might think of as Sublime effects, they mitigate the actual feeling of terror because you know exactly what’s going to happen. I mean, like in Psycho, Janet Leigh takes a shower, someone’s going to stab her.
CO: I don’t watch a lot of horror films but when I do, I’m always struck by the amount of jokes in them. Like there is a need, somehow, to affirm the viewer that they are “in” on the joke, somehow.
EM: I don’t watch them. The terror gets to me. But you’re right.
CO: There’s something uniquely human about that sense of the Sublime, is what it feels like you’re saying. Something that places you very squarely within the place of human. In your place in the world, and that place is small. And it gives you an interpretation of the rest of the world from your size, which is astonishing and mixed with fear.
EM: You’re small but you have eyes and you have ears and they are open. So you know that there’s more out there, and you’re trying to cram it all in to your small brain…
CO: Being both more and less confined to the space you think of yourself as taking up…that’s the laughter, isn’t it?
EM: Yes. The Sublime is more life-affirming. Ultimately, Citizen’s United gets overturned, that balance of power can be restored, then things will improve. But that’s going to take a lot of collective effort.
But creating instances of the Sublime: that is something we can do as individuals.
—Eric Moe and 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. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory. UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, and recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.