“Music can transform consciousness”: 6 Question to composer Joshua Penman

Joshua Penman is a long-term collaborator with CreArtBox. On January 26th his piece Mootindes will be premiered as part of the CreArtMusic Series at the New York Ethical Society. As a concert composer, Penman has received commissions from the New York Youth Symphony, Ann Arbor Symphony, Foundation for Universal Sacred Music, Prism Quartet, Now Ensemble, Arraymusic, Bang on a Can, Lionheart, East Coast Chamber Orchestra, and Nouvel Ensemble Moderne. He has also released two albums and toured internationally with his electronic music project Akara. Additionally, his music has been performed by ensembles across the country, including the American Composers Orchestra, Sangita, String Orchestra of New York City, Musica Sacra,Tuscaloosa Symphony, Berkeley Symphony, Fairfax Symphony, Reading Symphony, Holland Orchestra, and Cedar Rapids Symphony.

What inspired you to write Moontides?

The original inspiration for moontides was a magical post-sunset light that happened on Ocean Beach in San Francisco. The sun went down, and the crescent moon hovered over the ocean, and the entire world was transfigured in a glowing pastel light. For those twenty or thirty minutes, everything was transfigured. And I wanted to make music about the waves and the moon and that pastel light.

Your music has a very personal taste (world music, Indian music…) Where does this come from?

I grew up with classical music and studied it in school, but I don’t find myself only or even primarily drawn to music of the tradition. Of course, I know and love it deeply – and more than anything, love the magic that can come through notation of complex music for multiple instruments to play together – but meanwhile I have found myself going on gigantic tangents of music I’m interested in.

I spent six months deeply immersed in the study of Indian classical vocal music in Varanasi. I never really intended to become a Indian classical singer, but I wanted to somehow internalize some things about how the music is put together. Similarly, I had a touring ele‹ctronic music project for years. I don’t want to make my concert music into festival dance music but I’m interested in bringing some of the sonic essence back with me into these works.

The throughline for all of my musical interests that inform my most personal concert music (of which Moontides is a piece) – Indian classical, psychedelic ambient, gamelan, minimalist music – is an interest in the way that music can transform consciousness, how repetition and cycles and the expectation of the gong or the sam can coexist with a storytelling melodic vision.

Premier of the piece Dawnlight

The way you use electronics is unique. How do you create them?

In my recent concert works, I have been creating the electronic parts from recordings I make of the instruments in the ensemble. Often the sounds are unrecognizable from the source, but they end up blending in a very interesting way with the live instrumental sounds. In Moontides, i have been expanding the electronic palette to bring in some analog synthesizer sounds, at which point the aesthetic curation of sound is less conceptual (only sounds of the instruments) and more felt (only sounds that go together to produce this particular kind of feeling).

You are a Software engineer. Do you apply any of your knowledge to your creative process? Do you see any similarities?

I think the greatest benefit that software engineer has on my creative process is allowing me the freedom to write the music I am most interested in, without worrying about how it fits into the academic environment or thinking about how my musical thoughts fit into a pedagogical context.

That said, I think the similarity between the two activities is the quality of attention. In both cases, I am spending a lot of time designing something that will happen very quickly. More information flows through the fingers of the ensemble, or the web browser, than I could possibly play or type myself. And I think the time spent in both, crafting something to the highest level of detail and quality that I can…

Performing the piece “Mariri”

This is the third piece you write for CreArtBox. How did this relationship start, and what are your future plans for the group?

CreArtBox first contacted me in 2015 about playing my cell-and-electronics piece I dreamed I was floating. They then asked me if I had any works for the whole ensemble. I did not, but I wrote them Mariri, and we’ve been collaborating since. Our plan is to make an album together, and turn these five or so works into an evening-length show.

Your piece Mariri was performed with actor, dancer and visual projection. What do you think about multidisciplinary art?

I love the way music and visuals can interact. The way that rich visual spectacle can illuminate music and vice-versa. I’ve collaborated in multimedia projects before and I’m excited to keep doing so – I think my music lends itself particularly to this kind of project, which is one of the reasons I’m so excited to continue to collaborate with CreArtBox.