Vol. 27 Issue 4 Reviews
Thomas DeLio: amounts. to.

John Donald Robb Composers’ Symposium/University Art Museum, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, 30 March–2 April, 2003

Reviewed by CK Barlow
Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA

Across all manner of interactions, people tend to notice a particular quality in others when they themselves possess that same quality. In a review of Roger Reynolds’ work as recorded by the Arditti String Quartet (Computer Music Journal 26/2, Summer 2002: 103-107), Thomas DeLio asserts that Mr. Reynolds seeks to refocus the listener’s attention on the process of perception and, in the end, “helps us to understand that we each impose a unique sense of coherence on the world as we perceive it” (p. 104). Whether seen as a scholar’s natural preoccupation with a favorite concept or as a meta-statement about that concept’s basis in human nature, Mr. DeLio’s comments go a long way toward helping us understand his own compositional philosophy.
Currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Music of the University of Maryland at College Park, Mr. DeLio is an active composer and an articulate theorist. His articles have appeared in numerous journals; he has contributed to, edited, and co-edited numerous books; and he is at work on a third book of his own dealing with topics in contemporary music. As a composer, Mr. DeLio has focused much of his recent effort on computer-aided composition and electronic sound installations. His compositions have been included on 10 CDs as of this writing; a stereo CD version of amounts. to. is forthcoming on the Centaur label. Mr. DeLio’s installations have appeared in such institutions as The Baltimore Museum of Art, and The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. His pieces m,nce and plinh,h were reviewed by Thomas Licata in Computer Music Journal 25/1 (Spring 2001).

For two decades, Mr. DeLio has explored the effects and possibilities of isolating sounds within a work, primarily by using long silences between events. In the first of these, Against the silence... (1984-85), for percussion and computer-generated tape, he used related, but evolving, sounds to contribute to a sense of coherence despite the long silences. Later works such as between (1991), for flute and percussion ensemble, also employed long silences but began a move away from clear relationships between sound events, adding a second dimension of isolation.

This move was completed by the next year with the pieces as again and so on, both for computer-generated tape, in which just a few potent sound events populate relatively short pieces—as again is slightly more than six minutes in duration, so on just shy of two minutes and mostly silent—in an effort to make the pieces themselves stand as isolated moments. Comparable pieces from slightly later include so again, on again, and of again, all composed in 1994 as recordings of computer-generated sounds.

As stated by the composer in numerous writings and in conversation, his intent in isolating sounds is for “everything to be segmented, halted, separated. I have no interest in memory, which seems to me an illusion. Only the direct perception of the moment seems important to me.” This intent could hardly be better served than by Mr. DeLio’s collaborations over the past six years with poet Peter Inman. Mr. Inman is part of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement, which recognizes the inherent problems of language as imprecise and inevitably different in meaning to each new reader. Rather than fight these problems, Mr. Inman and like-minded poets relish them, accepting imprecision and connotation as virtues.

“ The interesting thing about these poets and what really resonated with my music,” Mr. DeLio noted in conversation, “is that traditionally we use language to project a world view, but we don’t recognize that the way we say things colors everything we understand. These poets’ whole take on language is to write a piece that allows multiple views to come through each time.” Like Mr. DeLio’s compositions, Mr. Inman’s poems consist of variably sparse or dense events separated by silence: specifically, variably-sized clusters of words, non-words, and phrases delimited by periods and vertical space, some suggesting sense or meaning, and others not at all. In both men’s work, the perceiver is guided away from the artist’s own symbols and meanings and toward something more fundamental and personal.

Mr. DeLio has set several of Mr. Inman’s texts as tape pieces in which recordings of the poet reading are processed in a consistent way with the composer’s approach in past pieces and ably reflecting the spirit and structure of the texts. Mr. DeLio saw an installation piece as the logical next step, a way of creating “a room of language” with the listener at its center. As he envisions it, amounts. to. comprises a swirling of words and sounds that must be organized by the listener and that will be constantly reorganized as the listener moves through the space, ultimately making clear that “there is no one perceptual stance, no one linguistic stance.”

Toward this goal, Mr. DeLio assembled the piece as three CDs containing one stereo track each, each with different content and length, played simultaneously and looping continually. The tracks’ lengths are sufficient, and sufficiently different, to guarantee that they will not return to their original phase within a reasonably long visit to the installation. As a result, the visitor experience is unique per person, per visit. Even within a visit, the experience changes as the visitor moves through the space because of the distribution of content to loudspeakers and of the loudspeakers in the space, as will be described shortly. Far more than technical detail, this decision demonstrates careful consideration of the medium.

All of the audio is based on recordings of the poet reading amounts. to., each track being a different page of the poem. The first track is unprocessed, but is edited to produce a mixture of time-isolated single words and phrases; the single words tend to be louder and have a closer presence than the phrases. The second and third tracks are highly processed, yielding metallic scrapes, murky orchestral whirls, twisting snakelike shimmers and hisses, shoreline ebbs of white noise, percussive snaps, cymbals, filter-drawn cries, rattles, bells, and thuds.

The three CDs are routed to separate loudspeaker systems: the unprocessed voice to a pair of floor speakers, and each of the processed tracks to its own overhead stereo dome. The specific dome-enclosure product chosen by Mr. DeLio finds use primarily in sound-isolation applications, for example workstations requiring audio but situated within shared spaces. As used by Mr. DeLio, however, the volume sent to each dome is sufficient that a visitor need not stand directly beneath it to hear its content. This contributes to the effect of a swirl of words and sounds in the room and, fortunately, circumvents any hint of a “find the hidden sounds” game in the installation. Again, this detail is critical: were there a game or a trick involved, it would necessarily be played on the visitor by the composer, a dynamic contrary to Mr. DeLio’s goals. Movement instead is a source of control for the visitor.

The installation setting was a small, doorless room encompassed by a larger room of the University of New Mexico Art Museum. The installation might have benefited from a slightly bigger room with sound-absorbing materials, though not so large as to risk loss of interaction between sounds. The floor loudspeakers were in the corners to the left and right of the entrance, and the overhead domes were spaced evenly across the center of the ceiling, also from left to right. Movement around the room had the intended effect, adjusting the mix of the three tracks according to the visitor’s changing distance from each loudspeaker assembly.

More critical than room size was the balance of the three tracks, particularly as it affected the first, unprocessed track’s ability to commingle with the others. On this track, the single-word content was quite similar from word to word in delivery and presence, and the floor loudspeakers that carried the track had far stronger bass response than the overhead dome speakers. Combined with an overall loud volume given the room’s size, the result was that one could not help but hear the single words as separate from, rather than interacting with, the other sounds.

Fortunately, the levels were much better balanced during my second visit to the installation and achieved true equality between the sounds, creating a darkly beautiful mesh of ever-evolving sonic and spatial textures that would easily endure repeated, lengthy visits and contemplation.

Among Mr. DeLio’s compositions, the density of sound in amounts. to. sets this piece apart. Here, the breakdown of association between sounds comes not from silences but instead from the mixture of sound types and the constant reorganization of sounds in relation to the others in the room. In fact, the more dense the texture, the more effectively the piece obscures any relationship between sounds; even the first, relatively intelligible, track can become immersed in the whole.

Still, I would be curious to hear the results of swapping the loudspeaker assignments so that the processed sounds are routed to the floor set and the unprocessed voice to one or both of the domes. I also wonder if Mr. DeLio has considered using an assortment of voices, rather than just a single voice, to remove another layer of relationship between consecutive sounds.

I was confused by the decision not to provide information about the piece that might make it more accessible to the typical museum-goer. “All sounds based on the voice of the poet” would suffice, or “computer-processed human voice.” This would be in keeping not only with the museum convention of labeling artworks to indicate media, but also with Mr. DeLio’s intent to let the visitor control, rather than be controlled by, the experience. I tested my theory on one visitor whom I had already seen approach the room, peek in from the threshold, and then retreat. I told her that everything she heard was based on recordings of a human voice. Her countenance brightened with surprise and interest, and she went back to the room and this time entered.

In Mr. DeLio’s own words, again from his Roger Reynolds review, “the framework of our perceptions determines the extent and limits of our ability to fashion any sense of order out of all that we perceive” (p. 104). Is the installation, then, a test of each visitor’s ability to find form in a room spinning with deliberately dissociated sounds? Given a test on which the author intends no single right answer, providing basic information about the materials of construction in no way diminishes the challenge or the visitor’s capacity for unique interpretation—assuming one does not consider misidentification of sounds a worthwhile interpretation. Granted, the notion of the individual’s world view holds up here: in my own work and community, I find myself increasingly concerned with spurring audience interest in new music; that is, with getting people over the threshold and into the room. Small point though it might be, I cannot help but see Mr. DeLio’s decision through my own filter.

Ultimately, I am most intrigued by the relationship between two fundamental ideas put forth by the composer: that memory is an illusion, and that people perceive things according to their own world views. What is a person’s world view if not an assimilation of experience and memory into guidelines for explaining one’s surroundings? Comparison and analogy are two of the most powerful learning tools possessed by humans; we develop these tools early in life and rely heavily on them.

Mr. DeLio has taken on the tremendous challenge of wresting those tools away, compelling listeners to hear a sound event as just itself rather than in terms of surrounding events. The ability to perceive a moment out of context, however, runs counter to much of Western thinking, such that just to demonstrate the possibility is a noble effort. How different things might be were we all able to hear, and see, and feel, each moment anew.