On Quakerism, Trans-media and Democracy:
Thoughts of Stuart Saunders Smith
Interviewed by Christine Humphries, November 11 and 25, 1991
CHRISTINE HUMPHRIES: I could not help but notice a correlation between Quakerism and your compositions, more specifically your Trans-media scores. I have been interested, for some time now, in the idea of individuality emerging from community. Therefore, I would be most happy to begin our interview with your thoughts on how Quakerism has influenced your work.
SMITH: I started playing music when I
was six. My first instrument was the
snare drum. I had an old military drum,
one which you could carry on a strap. I
had two ways of practicing: one was to practice, in my room, the rudiments and
reading skills. The other was to go out
into the woods and walk playing my drum.
I lived on the outskirts of
I have been composing now for a long time (30 years). My work follows three paths. One is the path of “follow the leader”—where you take the performer to a new consciousness, a new place, that they haven’t been before. You make a score. The musician(s) follow(s)/interpret(s) the score. How they follow/interpret the score changes them in some way. The next level is the floating hierarchy score. I give the musicians materials, usually melodies or processes to work with. They play them in any order or arrange the materials as they see fit. In the floating hierarchy score the musicians have an input into how the music is structured. There is a feedback system between me and the performer. The performers own personality and taste system is included in the composition. So my relationship to the performers is different than in the first kind of music I write—the “follow the leader” score. The third kind of music is most closely associated with my experience as a Quaker. It is not a “follow the leader” score. It is not a floating hierarchy score. It is music composition by consensus. I set up a social structure with various processes notated in ideographic notation. The performers become co-composers composing in my structures and forms to create their own piece by consensus. A group consciousness evolves over the months that it takes to make these pieces. Return and Recall, Initiatives and Reactions (1976-77) and Transitions and Leaps (1990)—these Trans-media scores are art by group mind-melt.
CH: What is the format of a Quaker meeting?
SS: When you go to a Quaker meeting you sit in silence. You wait for the divine spirit to use you as a vessel for a message. The divine spirit is in the collective consciousness of all those in the meeting house. It is not a floating hierarchy; you are communicating the collective consciousness. You are a voice for minds that have melted together. In the course of an hour or so you will have one message then another and then another. The result is a collective sermon coming out of the collective consciousness of the meeting. This is not a floating hierarchy or “follow the leader.”
CH: So there is not a minister?
SS: No, there is not a minister in the Quakerism that I belong to. Everyone is a minister, including the children. We hold that there is that of God in everyone. Many of us hold that there is that of God in everything. Everything.
If I look back on my previous music, before I became a Quaker, I feel I was a Quaker all along. I’m always conscious of my relationship to the performer. Each piece establishes a different kind of relationship to the performer. In music what is interesting is not the sound but the relationships. On a micro-level it is the difference between a C-sharp and an A-natural that is the point, not the C-sharp and the A-natural per se as sound. It is the differences and their relationships in their difference. On a macro-level when you’re hearing people playing together it is their differences that make the music. On an even higher level those differences compliment each other becoming one spirit. That is why I am made uneasy by orchestras. On the lower level the differences are taken out; you're not allowed to have differences. The string section has to sound like a section, the woodwind section has to sound like a section, they can’t sound like individuals coming together collectively. If they can’t sound like individuals then they can’t go to the next level where the differences compliment each other and become one. So to me the traditional use of the orchestra, by its very nature, creates a music which reflects a society of futilism, monarchies, or assembly lines but has very little to do with what we have to do next as human beings in our spiritual evolution. Now, all my compositions come from my experiences with Quakerism. Quakerism is a way of life. It is an evolving way of life. We don’t believe in dogmas. It is not a belief system; it is a spiritual system of assisting each other and moving as a group to a higher consciousness.
CH: Do Quakers follow or believe in a democratic process?
SS: Quakers don’t conduct their affairs democratically. We act by consensus. In democracy the majority rules. That means that there are winners and losers. Losers never feel good about losing and winners feel too good about winning. You see, sometimes the minority is right. For instance, it took us a year or two to get consensus on the contentious issue of the marriage of homosexuals in meeting. We had to listen to the minority and their points of view. Now if we had taken a straight vote early in that process, the process would have been quick but we would not have had the opportunity of getting into the minds of the minority. So after a couple of years of talking and listening and praying we realized that the minority was right. We were lead by the spirit over time. Now homosexuals can get married in meeting.
As a society we need to evolve into a situation where we are all leaders. The first step would be a floating hierarchy. The next step is no hierarchy at all. But it is interesting, I think we will always need all three kinds of composition; I mean composition in its largest metaphorical sense, not just musical composition, but the composition of relationships. Sometimes a person needs another person to take them to a different world—to “follow a leader” for a while. That’s like the score where everything is written out in a traditional manner. It takes the person to a new place, and the only way that you could take that person to that new place is to have it all filled in. It is a garden that is hidden, totally made, but hidden. You need a guide to take you to it, when you get there it is totally composed. It is new in its shape and it changes you. Then we need also the floating hierarchy, which is a mid-way point, a transitional place where the performer and the composer are more or less on equal terms. Certain things can happen in that realm that cannot happen anywhere else. Then we need of course, the last place, the melting of minds—Trans-media compositions. That is when the co-composers collaborate and there is no predominate ego, but rather a group working as a group deciding as a group. You can not have everyone equal in democracy because the majority rules. Therefore, the majority is more powerful than the minority.
CH: We have talked, on more than one occasion, about revolution in American music. Would you please share your political and musical views?
SS: I have a wonderful close friend whom I
respect greatly, his name is Christopher Shultis. He is a great percussionist, conductor,
composer and scholar. He is very
interested in the notion of
I am not interested in revolutions. Revolutions are about pushing people around and violence. I am interested in revelations. Revelation can be shared, it is not forced upon someone or thrust upon someone. Everyone can have revelations that they can share with each other and thereby help each other to grow. You cannot force growth; that is what revolutions are, they’re forced growth. If you force growth you end up with a garden of depleted soil. Depleted soil year after year leads to a desert. It is arid. It is dry. It is full of bureaucrats’ dirt.
Revelations to me mean something new; a message of instantaneous light that is so powerful that you can not hold it in. You have to share it with someone else. That light shines in a soul which in turn sparks another revelation in another soul. There is a chain reaction of revelations. Then a society moves and grows in rich soil; not forced to grow. It grows from the inside out rather than the outside in. That was the trouble with Lenin’s implementation of Marxism. He forced growth from the outside. That’s the trouble with a lot of dogmatic religions as well. They amount to a list of rules. You follow that list and you are a religious person. No! No. No. No. No. To follow Christ, Buddha, Allah—is to try to live a life with an open spirit so that the revelations can come through.
There is another issue that I think is important. If a person tries as hard as they can to strip away all the “clothes” they are given by their place in time and by their society, so as to strip down to the very essence of their being, then they will make a life of great originality. No one is normal. Everyone is extraordinary. So, given that everyone is extraordinary, revelations will happen—will grow like a fire storm of wild flowers. People must be allowed to bloom. People have to be brave.
Society has to leave each one room to be brave. A society that encourages essential individual bravery will never die, will never be poor, will never make wars, will never be short in vision. This is the society I work for in music.
CH: How has the performance of percussion instruments played a part in your compositions?
SS: You will notice when looking through a listing of my music that I have composed a good deal of scores for unspecified instruments. One of the life experiences that led me to the creation of such a repertoire, is my over thirty-year, intense relationship with the acoustical nature of what is colloquially referred to as “non-pitched” percussion instruments. Noise instruments by definition produce pitch-rich indeterminate sounds. Noise consists of bandwidths of aperiodic overtone structures. Each time one activates a noise producing instrument, it’s not that no pitch is produced, it’s that so many pitches are produced at once that often not one of the pitches predominates from attack to attack.
It is possible that one can specify a “pitch area,” high or low, but the material is noise (aperiodic sound-waves). Or more simply put, the fact of the matter is when I compose for cymbal, woodblock, cowbell or tom-tom, the percussionist that performs that piece must make instrumental substitutions, since he or she is not likely to use my instruments in performance. Composing in this musical “terrain” quite inevitably led me to the creation of music which invites timbral substitutions. Percussionists are constantly faced with choosing which instrument to play, which woodblock? How big is the snare drum—what tension is appropriate—do I want higher partials or lower partials to predominate? Performing and composing for noise instruments places me in a world of indeterminacy, because the acoustical nature of the instruments is in a statistically larger universe.
Also, for many years I made my living as a jazz musician. The “fake book” tradition is the main written tradition in the largely oral tradition of Jazz. And what is a “fake book”?—a collection of tunes and chordal forms composed for indeterminate instrumentation. “Satin Doll” is “Satin Doll” no matter what is the instrumentation of the band.
I gradually came to the realization that the Gestalt of most musical moments is not timbre (i.e. sound) but time. Music is shaped time. There are only two parameters in music, not four. These parameters are time and amplitude. What we refer to as “pitch” is really periodic fact rhythms—equidistant frequencies. A443 is a periodic, fairly fast, rhythm. Amplitude is the size of the rhythmic wave-shape. Timbre in micro-harmonic rhythm, which is also defined somewhat by internal amplitude ratios.
This leads to another interesting phenomenon. Certain simple, periodic, fast polyrhythms (commonly referred to as pitch intervals), like the octave (1:2) or fourths and fifths, are materials that seem to demand rather simple subdivisions of time to articulate them, like duplets. Chromatic music, which focuses on more complex intervals seems to demand much more complex subdivisions of time, like septuplets, quintuplets, etc. One year, many years ago I spent at least an hour a day just playing intervals on the piano, concentrating on, being aware of, the resultant rhythms of a minor second, a minor ninth, a major seventh, a perfect fifth. Over and over, sometimes octaves apart. Walking in the garden of intervals—learning the inner-pattern of each plant. I was not interested in identification, I wanted to know the intervals corporeally, like a lover—to be inside the interval.
CH: How does this relate to your Trans-media scores?
SS: Ah, Trans-media—my dream of a “music” of pure consciousness, transcending the body, as pure spirit.
My Trans-media compositions were created as a direct result of my research in composing music for unspecified instrumentation. Pieces like Gifts for any keyboard and two melody instruments, Notebook, any instruments, Legacy Variations No.1, Legacy Variations No.99, Tunnels for musician/actor, and so on.
What is essential in music? The shaping of time—micro-levels, macro-levels—or the polyrhythmic layering of co-existing times, separately coherent yet collectively considerate.
Composing Trans-media scores requires the composer to search for the essential too—to search for the isomorphic processes that are universally applicable to all the performing arts. Before composing Return and Recall and Initiatives and Reactions, I researched Fortran, cybernetics, temporal perception and attended months of rehearsals in dance, theater and mime studios. It became clear that certain isomorphic processes are universal to all the performing arts. (The construction of a General Systems theory for the performing arts then, is possible.) Some of these processes are development, intensity scale transformations, frequency modulations, imitation and so on. And within each isomorphic category one can make sophisticated systems of imitation, intensity transformations and development. So Return and Recall and Initiatives and Reactions are designed systems within systems.
Before I composed Transitions and Leaps I immersed myself in General Systems Theory, Chaos Theory and the anthropological/linguistic study of myths— particularly Claude Levi-Strauss’s work.
Transitions and Leaps is my most sophisticated Trans-media system—it culminates twenty years of creative research. This system/composition specifies how to move from one category of phenomenon to another category of phenomenon, but not the phenomenon itself.
There are three overall subsystems: the “Transitions”, “And” and “Leaps” subsystems. And within each subsystem smaller “routines” effect and transform the information in varying specific ways. You see, my Trans-media scores are software for people to compose performance art collectively.
Again all this goes back to being a percussionist. Percussionists live in a world of substitution. What can I substitute for sound “x” while keeping the essential format? Gradually I realized it’s not sound I am shaping, but relationships between differences. Each sound is always different—that’s a given. How to shape differences is our task as composers. The sound material is stored (remembered) as differences. Differences create all languages. No differences—no language. No language—no consciousness. No consciousness—no humans being human. The job of the composer is to facilitate the continuation of the uniqueness of the human entity. We facilitate this continuation as an evolutionary aspiration, and as a shield against the base fascistic, xenophobic instincts which is our unholy side—the devil’s dew on the nightshades.
 A Trans-media composition is created by more than one person, involves two primary stages and is transferable to any medium. In the first stage of the composition, the initial composer devises a process and/or structure which is notated and explained in a legend and set of directions, which subsequent interpreters will compose or improvise. In other words, upon learning these directions, the stage two interpreter or co-composer completes the process by composing or improvising a piece. Since this process is transferable to any medium the end result could be film, theater, dance or any medium the interpreter or interpreters desire.
 It is interesting to note that a Quaker meeting is one of the few instances in our society that governs itself in a manner most reminiscent of classical Democracy. For a thoughtful and perhaps controversial perspective on democracy in modern states see Richard Wollheim's "A Paradox in the Theory of Democracy," in Laslett, Runciman, eds., Philosophy, Politics and Society, second series (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1964), pp. 71-87.
 Stuart Smith and I began discussing the idea of revolution,
politically and musically, after hearing Christopher
Shultis’s keynote address at the Percussion
Arts Society’s International Convention in
 When Stuart first edited this interview he punctuated No No No No No in the following manner—No! No! No! No! No!. I disagreed, for in conversation this statement was not exclamatory at all. In fact it went more like this:
Here Smith is referring to intensity relationships and not melodic scale transformations. For instance in Transitions and Leaps the middle block within the vertical plane signifies relative intensity, with the scale being: - - - to +++. Since this is a Trans-media composition these intensity scale transformations may be portrayed in any medium. For instance, in music intensity may manifest itself in many ways: dynamically, rhythmically, in interval relationships, etc.; whereas in theater body mechanics or vocalization may be the interpreter’s choice.