The toy piano will be the first thing you notice. (Toy piano? I asked. Yes, I was told. Not miniature. Toy. ) Composer David Smooke (1969) plays the toy piano, inside and out, and in doing so transforms the way you’ll think about sound.
The toy piano, even when it’s played like a piano, doesn’t sound like a piano. It sounds like childhood itself: tender, vulnerable, plastic hammers tapping metal rods, absent the rich overtones that accompany a larger piano’s notes. A typical adult hand looms, enormous over its keyboard. The performer must crouch, knees to chest, on a miniature piano bench, in order to play it.
And then there’s the way Smooke exploits the possibilities of the instrument: removing the piano’s lid, he tears into the metal bars that the piano’s hammers are meant to strike, pulling at them (bowing them) with strings or wire, strumming them gently with the back of his fingernails; or rubbing the soundboard with pieces of metal. In conversation, Smooke is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and quick to laugh. He currently teaches at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory, and has taught on the faculties of Ohio University, the Chicago College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University, the Merit School of Music, the University of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, the Birch Creek Music Performance Center, and the Sun Valley Summer Symphony Workshops. It’s clear he has a deep fondness for his work with students, and a gentle gift for supporting them without leading them off their own way.
We’d initially scheduled our conversation for the first week in November, planning to talk by Skype from his office in Baltimore to my own in Western North Carolina. Smooke’s latest CD, “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” had just been released in October, and features the Peabody Wind Ensemble, Karl Larson, loadbang, the Lunar Ensemble, and Mike Parker Harley as well as Smooke himself on toy piano. The title piece is a concerto written for toy piano and a wind ensemble (played here by Smooke with the Peabody Wind Ensemble and its conductor Harlan Parker.)
Smooke had sketched out a preliminary list of discussion topics—interesting, provocative topics posed by the nature of his compositional structure and techniques—but by the time our conversation occurred, the U.S. elections were over and our political landscape dramatically, irretrievably, altered in ways that we’re still struggling to address. As we arranged a time to talk, Smooke wrote “I feel like any conversation needs to revolve around why we’re doing art in today’s world….”
David Smooke: There is really nothing else to talk about these days, is there?
Carolyn Ogburn: I don’t think so. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice when I was preparing that you actually wrote about this back in 2010.
David Smooke: I did?
Carolyn Ogburn: You did! You had a student who came to you asking why, of all things that were going on in Schumann’s time, composers were writing about their individual love difficulties rather than addressing the political upheaval of that time. You wrote: “During a time of intense crisis I find myself questioning the utility of experimental music within society. We spend countless hours honing our craft, and yet we can’t heal an open wound or build shelter. Of course we have Churchill’s famous (yet apocryphal) quote in response to a proposal to cut arts funding during World War II, ‘then what are we fighting for?’ Still, our art appears to pale in the face of a disaster of these proportions.”
David Smooke: That’s really funny! I don’t remember writing about that at all, but it sounds like the sort of thing I would say.
Carolyn Ogburn: And now?
David Smooke: So, I teach class on Wednesday, first-year undergrads, and all of last Tuesday night I was thinking, what do I say to these undergrads in the morning? I really had to think through, what am I doing? What are they doing, what are we doing, and what can I convey to the students, some sense of music being important or not important at this time. If it’s not important we should just get out, and if it is important, how do we talk about it?
And I guess what we ended up with was just the idea I think so much of what’s going on these days is that people just don’t hear each other from either side, and we’re kind of denying the humanity of people they see as the other, that’s clearly what’s happening with the All Lives Matter response to Black Lives Matter….but it also is part of what makes it so easy for people on the left to dismiss the people on the right who do feel abandoned in our society. The arts can allow us to bridge that divide and to communicate with each other in a way that’s meaningful.
I think people often mistake accessibility for simplicity.
Carolyn Ogburn: So, one of my own fascinations is communication as a social phenomenon. One person explaining their truth is not communication, at any level. So then, I guess maybe the question comes back to the accessibility of art. Something that’s often said about arts in general is that they’re not relevant, they’re not meaningful. How do we bridge that divide while maintaining that aesthetic that actually says what the artist wants to say.
David Smooke: Yeah, well, when you talk about accessibility…I think people often mistake accessibility for simplicity. Accessibility should be more about making things available. Making the art, literally, accessible. I’ve seen time and again just where people are absolutely moved by difficult art that they have access to, that approaches them, that meets them, in their home.
And especially with music! I mean, look at death metal, punk music, music that plenty of people love, in all sorts of different communities…so how is my music harsher than Metallica? In a way I wish it was! But there’s something about, there are aspects to the rituals around the Metallica concerts that make it more accessible to people without necessarily making it easier.
Carolyn Ogburn: That’s a good distinction. Maybe the frame, the packaging?
David Smooke: In classical music, that’s something we’re always talking about. We have all these rituals that are necessary for silence. I mean, silence is necessary for acoustic music but they (the rituals) really serve to make music inaccessible to most people.
Carolyn Ogburn: Don’t you think there is something about elitism that is not all bad? It allows certain conversations to be had…
David Smooke: Well, there is such a thing as expertise! I think there’s a healthy way of looking at elitism, and there’s an unhealthy way. Where the whole idea of…you know, I would rather be operated on by someone who has a certain amount of training before they open me up. But then where I think the whole idea of expertise can be misused is, a lot of people use it to say, Itzhak Perlman is a better musician than Dr. Dre. And I’m not sure that you can really say this.
Carolyn Ogburn: And in terms of expertise, when confronted with political situations, it seems to me that a political response would be one that’s firmly placed within your area of expertise.
David Smooke: Yes.
Carolyn Ogburn: Did that make sense?
David Smooke: Yes. What you’re saying is that for me to make a salient political response, I can’t sit and argue with people over which climate studies are the best ones, but I can present art in a way that can make a difference.
Carolyn Ogburn: Do you think there’s also something political about the form of music itself? And by that I mean, many times music is presented with various amounts of hierarchy. I think about music in the church in this way…One tone, from which emerged polyphony, then melody with supporting base, reflecting changing power structures. And there’s also a way that music has of allowing, or even demanding, a variety of voices occurring all at once, on a stage.
David Smooke: Well, you just raised two interesting issues.
Carolyn Ogburn: Oh, good!
David Smooke: So hierarchy is everywhere in music, especially in western music, so much of the basis of music is hierarchal. From about 1750 through the 20th century, composers were using a system they called tonality. The first time someone tried to define tonality, the way that he defined it was to say “tonality is hierarchy.” And, of course, meter is also hierarchy.
In the 20th century, going away from those systems was phrased politically. Composers talked about it politically. Composers talked about emancipating dissonance from its function. Its (dissonance’s) function was its need to resolve, so to free it, literally, literally freeing it, was emancipating it from its hierarchy.
So you have hierarchy in the music itself, but you also have hierarchy in the way the music is presented. In an orchestra, you have a conductor, and everyone has to look to the conductor and the conductor’s interpretation. Which also goes to the each member of the orchestra has to bring their own expertise, but they’re subsuming their own expertise under the expertise of the composer and conductor. They think of themselves as servants within the hierarchy.
That’s the sort of thing that my music’s trying to get away from. following that more 20th-century notion of tearing down those walls. I do a lot of improvisation, totally free. I will sit down with a bunch of people, and none of us will have any idea what anyone, including himself, will do. This prompts a whole series of responses which can turn into…anything…which really is the most egalitarian way of making music.
But I’m also a composer, who writes notes and gives those notes to other people to interpret. Which goes back to all of those issues. A lot of music on the CD is music I wrote, give to other people. So other people take the music, they go and learn the music, they come back to me and say, I’ve made this choice, what do you think? And I give them my opinion, I like that or I didn’t like that.
There’s a famous—phenomenal—composer, his name is Haas, who came out in the New York Times as a dominant, and he and his wife talking about their relationship where he’s a dominant, and she’s a submissive. (She’s also a writer and a BDSM educator.) She’s very aware of all the political ramifications of that, and she also happens to be African American, and it happens to be the (white) male that dominates the (black) submissive woman. I guess it kind of goes back to the dominant composer thing of the composer being the one who rules the submissive performers.
So I guess I bring that up only to point out just how fraught all these relationships can be.
Carolyn Ogburn: And in a way, the fact that you’re thinking about this, composing and performing with a certain amount of self-consciousness about the fraughtness of this relationship, does that transform that relationship in some way…
David Smooke: Yes, exactly.
21 Miles to Coolville
Carolyn Ogburn: I was really struck by “21 Miles to Coolville,” both the music and the video piece you made for it.
David Smooke: The video was taken from an older, live performance. But the piece itself is on the new CD too.
Carolyn Ogburn: I was thinking about what the political statement was in that piece. I think the visual, and how the visual was described, that this was a part of the country that has come under scrutiny in the last few weeks, meaning rural, or Appalachia (which is where I’m from) and the way in the piece, as the wonderful joy of the road trip kind of settles, you get to Coolville and Coolville is not what you expect.
David Smooke: So, I was living right near the sign (21 Miles to Coolville) and of course it’s a joke. I mean, Coolville! But also I was teaching there, and most of my students were from there, from the general area. And they were lovely, just lovely, the sweetest kids, who were so ready to learn and work hard and have their minds blown, and just meet ideas. And we had SO much fun in the classes. And yet in the community—in Athens, Ohio itself—I always felt very much like an outsider. Not among my students, who could not possibly have been more welcoming. But in the community…I mean, I’m skinny. I don’t think there was a single person my height who weighed less than 50 pounds more than me, just like I so stood out in my skinny-ness. And I stood out in my Jewishness. I felt both an outsider, and someone who was very welcome.
I was very aware that this is where these people who I really adore came from, and yet going there it was also clearly a place that had seen better days. So trying to feel, as an outsider, being careful not to be condescending, which is so easy to do and so often felt. Every interview I’ve ever seen with Trump voters has described this phenomenon, this feeling of being condescended to. But also trying to recognize that this town at one point was probably really thriving and that time had passed. And there were still things there that were well taken care of, but other things…so really just trying to see it as it was, rather than idealizing it in some way, poor Appalachia or…
Carolyn Ogburn: Would you call that political?
David Smooke: A year ago I would not have, and now…absolutely. Absolutely. It’s funny because so much of American art is based on this notion of Appalachia. It’s at the center of our idea of America. But when art takes place in Appalachia it seems to take one of two forms. Either an idealized form of America, or “Oh, look at the poor people.” And either way…these are people. I mean, now, just looking at people, Appalachian people, just as regular people seems like a political statement.
Carolyn Ogburn: Is your choice of instrument in any way a political statement? Because it’s kind of punk.
David Smooke: I mean, I grew up a punk and goth, right? So…yeah…Just so you know, I’m kind of looking that way because have a toy piano sitting right there, and I keep looking at it…
So again, it’s one of those things that’s yes and no, I think of it as this kind of idealized childhood that no one I know actually had. It seems representative of childhood possibilities, to take that use it in a way that both recognizes and subverts that. So often with these childhood instruments you see, like, toy piano played slowly and everything becomes eerie, or childhood singing with a lot of reverb becomes a horror trope. But literally, it’s deconstructing the instrument to see what else it has in it. So it’s taking this toy and making it sound like a crying beast, so in that sense, yeah, mining the depths, and I guess that’s mining the depths of childhood, but I think it’s a more roundabout sort of politicism.
Carolyn Ogburn: I don’t know that that’s less political for being roundabout…
David Smooke: Well, I try to be careful. It’s hard in art because there’s a fine line between art and agitprop, or propaganda. When the political statements become too clear or too specific, it can often become less effective because it becomes then very specific to that moment.
Carolyn Ogburn: How did that conversation with your students go, on that Wednesday morning?
David Smooke: It was one of those things where it was absolutely necessary…when I have these conversations, I never try to answer. It’s more raising the questions, put out there, to them, if they have things they want to do, come to me and I’ll help them. I had a similar conversation with my grad students. But I think right now everyone’s trying to think just how they’ll respond. I think it will take a while.
Carolyn Ogburn: It sounds to me to that you’re creating a safe container for people’s feelings, and hinting that music may have a place in this process.
David Smooke: And also recognizing that it’s a question whether or not music has a place in this process. And all these years, I don’t know that. There aren’t any good answers for how to create art that’s political and good art.
Carolyn Ogburn: And yet these conversations are so important to have. Especially, I think, the conversations that don’t have answers. How do you explore that?
David Smooke: So, for me, a lot of it begins at home. My wife is a fiction writer, Elise Levine. She’s absolutely brilliant, and thinks through things incredibly deeply. Her ideas are so important to me and to help me formulate my own ideas, going back and forth with each other on these things. And I have a lot of friends who are not musicians. One of the things I love about Baltimore is the arts community here, so we talk to artists and writers and musicians and everyone brings their own things to the table. And then also I think the key thing is to not to expect to get answers but just to follow through with questions and see where things lead. To help the people who are trying things but also to recognize that there’s never one thing that’s ever going to be an answer.
Carolyn Ogburn: Do you think an individual comes up with an answer for him or herself? Like, maybe these talks are less about a shared response than a manner of working through what an individual response might be?
David Smooke: Absolutely. And that’s also tied to teaching, because in any classroom, everyone will perceive material differently from everyone else. There’s never any single way of looking at things. I have a student that I’m working closely with who is giving concerts where the proceeds all go to food banks. I have another student that I’m working with who did an opera about the youngest person ever executed in the US. And these are all important projects, right? I mean, I would never write that opera, I would never think to do concerts supporting food banks, but food is important, and talking about these issues of American history are important, and we need every one to be doing their own thing and to be finding their own way through it. That’s the thing! There’s just so much work to be done in our own society.
Carolyn Ogburn: There’s so much work to be done and the work needs us all…
David Smooke: Exactly. And it needs people who are going to put their heart and soul into that aspect.
“Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”
Carolyn Ogburn: You’ve just put out a new CD called “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” whose title piece is based on the collection of miniature crime scene models created in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee. How did you come across the Nutshell Studies?
David Smooke: So, they’re in Baltimore, and when we moved here, a friend said, “You’ve got to check these out.” I was already working with toy piano by then, and I thought, this is just too good of a title to pass up. But we were here for about 5 years before we actually went.
Carolyn Ogburn: I’m fascinated by the scale. The tiny piano you play, and the tiny models of death…
David Smooke: To me, it goes to everything that’s about what I do with the toy piano. The dollhouses, or dioramas, are children’s things that aren’t for children at all. They serve a very clear, scientific and meaningful purpose. So that very much mirrors the way I try to use the toy piano,
Then the fact that the scenes that are both bucolic and lovely, but simultaneously horrific, depending on what aspect of it you’re looking at. Going back to the way certain sounds on the toy piano are so nice, or then mining these other sounds. And this expansion of…well, you’ve got this very small instrument that has to be amplified, because in this context (the piece is a concerto for toy piano and wind ensemble) it never would have been heard. You’ve got all of these people playing these instruments that have hundreds or even thousands of years of instrumental technology behind them that have been absolutely perfected, and they’re all then put underneath this toy. So it’s expanding the toy, and contracting everything else.
Carolyn Ogburn: Do you think about that as political?
David Smooke: You know, Carolyn, I think these days everything comes back to politics. Everything is vulnerable. I guess it never wasn’t, but I think it’s more important to think through these implications, and to make these implications clear. And so, yes, talking in a visual way, right? It’s very much about perspective and scale, that idea of the small becoming large, the large becoming small, but everyone being unified, working together towards this thing, and dissolving, and all these kind of different interpersonal relationships. It’s exploring interpersonal relationships, which these days feels very political.
Carolyn Ogburn: Yes…
David Smooke: I mean, I keep coming back to this idea of agitprop. There are certainly great examples of political art.…this composer David Little, who has been writing Soldier Songs, Dog Days, absolute political statements that certainly has meaning that goes beyond it. And then there is art that we wish were outdated! Like, Guerrilla Girls and Feminist Uprising should feel outdated, but art institutions are slow to change and it doesn’t feel outdated. So I don’t want to go against the idea of making clear political statements. I mean, Bertolt Brecht still works.
But for me, I guess it goes to what I like in art. I tend to like things that are a bit more obtuse, they give up their secrets a bit more slowly. Where you might get one thing at first, and it might lead to another thing and another thing. One person will look at it and say, it’s clearly making this statement, and another may say, No, I think it’s making this statement. Ideally, it’s making both.
Carolyn Ogburn: I wanted to ask you about structure.
David Smooke: Ooooh! I love talking about structure.
Carolyn Ogburn: So music is a temporal form, and you talked about using the trail. and then you’ve got the alphabet series…you’ve got these restraints, that are not the sonata form or the 12-tone series or the fugue. So, tell me about structure.
David Smooke: (laughs) Tell you about structure.
Carolyn Ogburn: Sorry, yeah, I guess that’s a bit broad…
David Smooke: No, no. I just, it’s just that we could be here until morning and I could still be going another five days…So going back that question you raised earlier about hierarchy. Tonal music is all about exploring the hierarchy in a very specific way. You mentioned sonata form: sonata form is based on the drama of having this pitch that you begin with, dramatizing the motion away from the pitch, and dramatizing the return. It’s very much a journey away from and back to that note as being the drama. So when we get into more recent music, we don’t have that idea of dramatized motion toward or from that note anymore. When I was younger I really very much liked that idea of linear structure, having a structure that begins somewhere and would take a listener through from point A to point B…C….D…., and I could pull you along, walk you along that line. And that’s just not as interesting to me anymore. The same way I like ideas that can be interpreted many different ways, I like structure that has something that can be held onto but that doesn’t feel inevitable, but instead it feels surprising. A lot of movies I like have that sort of structure. Gus Van Sant, these experimental works, My Own Private Idaho, or Gerry, which are formally all over the place, and that idea in a movie or fiction, that it’s not necessarily linear. And so my music plays with that. Even without tonality, there can still be a sense of climactic moments, or music that goes to a specific spot.
But sometimes that gets boring. Not everything needs to build to something, or go to somewhere. So with structure these days I’m trying to explore various ways of moving through time and space with the idea that yes, things are related and interconnected, and the interconnections don’t necessarily don’t need to go from A-Z and if they do, it might be for a reason that’s placed on top of it.
‘A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was’
.Carolyn Ogburn: One of the pieces you’ve included on this new recording (‘A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was,’ based on an alphabetized story by the Baltimore-based writer Michael Kimball written under the pseudonym Andy Devine) is a story written entirely in alphabetized words, many of which are repeated multiple times.
David Smooke: That alphabetized story is a great example. I think that there is some sort of extra story structure beneath it. The part on the CD is just a small excerpt; the whole piece is an hour long. When you look at the whole story…for example, the word Dad is only said once, but the word Mom is said 100 times. And so you start to get the sense of these relationships, and it does go somewhere even though the story isn’t linear, but the form of it is absolutely linear, in a way that’s absolutely meaningless.
I have a piece that I’m writing down right now that’s my experience of a trail that’s right near my house. I literally recorded myself running this trail and that will provide the background structure for the piece. The idea of the run is something that I’ve been wanting to do for years, because when you’re running on a trail, on the one hand it’s absolutely linear, you’re literally going from Point A to Point Z. But on the other hand, what happens on the trail, along that path, is unpredictable and random. I guess that’s where the structure comes from; it comes from the experience of the natural world. You’re out on a trail, and you don’t know what kind of bird you’re going to hear when you round the bend, or you don’t know what tree you’ll see. Your experience from moment to moment is entirely predictable, because on the one hand you’re putting one foot in front of the other and you know where you’re going; and on the other, moment to moment, it’s entirely unpredictable. And even when you hear a bird calling, and you know, oh, that’s a mocking bird, and it’s going to make that sound four times, it doesn’t always do it the way you expect.
Carolyn Ogburn: And you don’t know what that means, because we can’t interpret bird song in that way.
David Smooke: And the sounds as you’re moving through it, some birds might be moving towards you, or away from you. And there might be crickets, and you might be moving towards the stream, or away from the stream. And all these things, linear and nonlinear things, we’re okay with that experience. So the constraints, when there are constraints, tend to be very much about here is the path, but in a way that in a moment on the path, anything can happen.
The other thing I’m working on right now, the main focus, is doing more solo performance, creating longer structures so that I can go tour. (Laughs) You know, “Have toy piano. Will travel.” I’ll be playing various places over the next few months, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and I’m working on a few others. It goes back to that whole hierarchal thing. I’ve been feeling more comfortable lately being in the music rather than handing things off to people and saying, Go and do it.
Carolyn Ogburn: Are those two different hats to be the composer rather than the composer/performer?
David Smooke: Well, yes and no. There are ways in which they’re very similar. The structure is very similar, but the way I create the piece is very different, because when I’m writing a piece for other people to play, I’ll write it out with pencil, then put it into a computer, and go back and forth, and each time it feels like the end of the world because it takes so long to craft everything, but when I’m writing something for myself to play a lot of the crafting of it is just exploring the sound and seeing how it feels. There’s a lot more flexibility in the moment.
But, you know, I got to work with great people on the project (Nutshell Studies). It’s amazing to me to live in a world where people spend their lives learning their instruments to such a level where they can do anything, and they want to be part of projects where they have to do things that they don’t normally do. And also Scott Metcalf who recorded all of it was just absolutely amazing. This music that just rolls around in your head for awhile, to then to have it sound as good as it does amazes me. And I hate to say “as good as it does” but I guess the best way to put it is, I don’t like the sound of listening to my own music. Once it’s done it’s done. I just like to get it out of my desk and move on to the next thing. But now every time I listen to it, I’m just amazed by the artistry on it. I feel very lucky to be part of a community where people put their effort into something like this.
—David Smooke 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, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.