This week's Chicagoan: Joshua Dumas, composer | Chicagoans | Chicago Reader

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This week's Chicagoan: Joshua Dumas, composer

"There are a lot of composers who can hear stuff in their mind's ear, but I'm not one of them."


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A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.

"About seven or eight years ago, I got tapped to work with a theater company, and they wanted to put on an opera. I got it in my mind that I wanted to create a drone opera. Instead of, like, Wagner or something, it was this ambient kind of opera, with extremely quiet, extremely subtle, rarely changing music. The piece was unbelievably sad. It was based on a Raymond Carver story about two alcoholics. It was just miserable. I had a blast. So that was my first fit of major composition.

"I came to composition as a rocker. I discovered that all the stuff I loved about rock music had antecedents in 20th-century classical music—like, Sonic Youth loved Stockhausen, and Stockhausen is responding to [American composer] Lou Harrison, and Lou Harrison is responding to Erik Satie. I think most of the folks who are working in a classical idiom are coming from the academy or have a lifetime of training. I wish I had a lifetime of training.

"There are a lot of composers who can hear stuff in their mind's ear, but I'm not one of them. I mash stuff out on the piano until I think it sounds great or until I get so frustrated that I have to keep it.

"I feel fundamentally interested in our experience of place. Everyone has had that satisfying moment of listening to a song you love, and the chorus hits right when you turn the corner and see the city skyline. I got interested in what it would mean to create something that constantly gave you those moments. We do these fantastically boring things every day like commute, and I feel interested in what we can do to reenchant them.

"So I created Chicago Avenue Moon, a piece of passively responsive, generative music that I've released as an iPhone app. I composed all these teeny-tiny bits of music for ten different instruments, and then the app pulls a bunch of variables—your GPS location, the current phase of the moon, time of day, your current altitude—and it uses those variables to recombine all these bits of music. So any time you hit "play," you're getting a unique experience that responds to where you are in the world and how you're moving through it.

When I was composing, I organized it directionally. Most of that was responding to where I live. So the east-west stuff is definitely a lot more chaotic because that's Chicago Avenue, and the north-south stuff is less so because it gets into the quieter, more residential neighborhoods. "

What does it sound like? I think it's a little somber, because everything I make is a little somber. Somber and beautiful and a little sad. I don't know how to get around that.

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