Library Residency // (Un)Traceable Sources: The Music of Sabrina Schroeder

December 5, 2018

by Lisa Conway

Banner Photo: Sabrina Schroeder performing at Tidal ~ Signal. Credit, Alistair Henning.

My first introduction to Sabrina Schroeder’s work was via a Vimeo video from the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE, New York chapter). The video featured a live performance at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, NY. The stage lighting is mysterious and blue, without any additional lighting on the performers. There are cables everywhere, leading every which way, and a lot of electronic purrs and enigmatic rumbles coming from untraceable sources. I thought, what is this piece? What are these sounds? What is happening? I was so intrigued. I needed to find out more.

Sabrina Schroeder: Bone Games - DARKHORSE from ICE on Vimeo.

Schroeder works a lot with transducers, which are essentially devices used to convert one type of energy into another. In a sonic context, a speaker is an ideal example - converting electrical energy (audio signal) into mechanical energy (vibrations of the speaker cone), which are then converted into sound waves in the air. A microphone also contains a transducer, in order to convert sound into an electrical signal.

The transducers used in Schroeder’s pieces are attached to drum skins, sending different types of waveforms and frequencies (via a laptop, soundcard and amplifier). The vibrations on the drum heads transform the drum into an entirely new sounding beast, creating all sorts of magical resonant tones.

Transducers are an essential part of the skeleton of Bone Games - a trio of Schroeder’s pieces that includes Bone Games, Bone Games | Shy Garden and Bone Games | Darkhorse. The titular piece requires four transducers in total, three 50W bass shakers* and one spider-style transducer, which are placed on a bass drum, a floor tom, and two wooden cubes. *Bass shakers allow for more sub-bass frequencies, and are often found in entertainment systems.

An excerpt from the score for Bone Games demonstrating the specific preparations for the String Drums. Copyright: Sabrina Schroeder.

Another distinct component of the Bone Games series are “String Drums” - a bespoke instrument created by attaching string and cello bridges to kick and snare drums. Performers are asked to bow the strings using specific bowing techniques - one must face the strings vertically, and bow directly on the bridge in a diagonal (a note in the score explains that this “enables bow to travel with stable pressure on the bridge, producing a steady low tone with enough pressure”). Generally the string drums are performed by the percussionist and one of the string players, and exact practical requirements (like what type of strings, and how to set-up) are outlined in the score. There’s even a dropbox link in both the Bone Games and Darkhorse scores for reference recordings and set-up images.

It’s difficult to articulate the experience of listening to Bone Games - at moments during the opening, it’s almost as if the ensemble is shifting together like an old wooden ship caught in unforgiving ice. At other times it feels like plummeting eternally into a supernatural void, on the back of rustling drum heads, while dodging string scrapes. It’s often disorienting, yet often collected, with moments when one can sense inherent organization at work.

There’s a note underneath this Soundcloud track instructing listeners to use headphones and listen at a loud (but comfortable!) volume, which I hate to admit I almost didn’t do just out of sheer fatigue - my tired brain was overwhelmed by the thought of getting headphones and I was just being silly and lazy. Another reminder to please follow the instructions and don’t listen on laptop speakers! This piece is truly incredible and transformative through headphones - most highly recommended.

An early page in the score for Bone Games which displays the striking presentation of the score, and bowing technique notation/instructions. Copyright: Sabrina Schroder.

Darkhorse (2017) also has a transducer involved, but just one (to be provided by the composer, the score notes). A commission for ICE, the instrumentation is cello, viola, harp, bass drum (which is where the transducer comes into the picture), percussion (cymbal, snare, as well as some “string drums”), electric guitar, flute, clarinet, saxophone, and live electronics. The transducer is placed onto the snare several minutes into the piece, rather than being engaged for the entirety. The score also contains a designated “Special Equipment” page, which lists FX pedals for the guitar, harp, and saxophone, as well as the need for bass bows (guitar, harp), and other less common tools (like a milk frother, rubber bands, and Bic pens to prepare the harp). Interesting note - the milk frother also is an important ingredient in Bone Games (the piece).

Detailed instructions pertaining to guitar and pedal technique for the performance of Darkhorse. Copyright: Sabrina Schroder.

Schroeder is as specific as ever about everything - from the duration and way to end each note, techniques for certain instruments (there’s a specific finger flutter technique in the guitar that is very precisely described, as well as pictured, and several lateral bowing techniques), to the use of certain pedals (tremolo, looper), even including the pedal chain order. A diagram illustrating a visual of where the loop pedal volume knob should be, as well as the tremolo speed, is included above the relevant instrument staves, and a download link leading you to a free version of Max Runtime is included (as well as the specific Max patch to be used for the piece). There’s also a helpful guide of the functions of the Korg nanoKontrol2 controller, used to control the patch.

There’s also preparation notes, instructions such as “Get ready w Noise Layers” embedded within the score to ensure that there are no surprises when moving to the next page. The percussionist is told at some point to channel “Glacial Motion” which Sabrina explains is directing performers to “adopt an extremely slow time-feel and rate of change.” Later on in the piece, the score instructs to “Stay Glacial, Build Intensity” - maintain the time-feel, yet escalate the intensity.

Score excerpt from Darkhorse. Copyright: Sabrina Schroder.

Darkhorse has a more subdued and sparse start. Breaths, clicks, and flutters expand into an eerie heaviness and thick air. The piece lives and breaths, and with every breath splinters emerge and cracks begin to form.

Stircrazer II (for solo cello + live mechanics) (2013) also involves transducers - two shakers on two drums, in addition to the cello. It is the earliest score of all Schroeder’s pieces I’ve examined, composed three years prior to Bone Games, and it’s interesting to observe how her scoring style, notation, and instructions have evolved and been refined over the years. It’s definitely not any less thorough though - there are still several pages dedicated to the set-up and equipment and computer tech / Max MSP component. I especially appreciated the “if no sound is audible” troubleshooting section of the score, being someone who has been muttering all sorts of foul language under their breath and crossing their fingers at a Max Patch in the eleventh hour of a piece premiere.

The piece itself embraces space and silence more than the previous two, playing with the tension in anticipation between entries of phrases. Purring drums support and lay a foundation for bowed sonic explorations on the cello, often expressed in stunning and vulnerable harmonics.

There’s so much room to fail when combining electric and acoustic elements - I can’t even list the amount of times I’ve seen expensive and elaborate commissions sound truly terrible due to weird blending and mix issues. Schroeder, much like Nicole Lizée, is a true master of merging these worlds, and one can tell how much consideration and practical experience has gone into her scores.

As this is my last post for this CMC digital library residency, I’ve been doing much reflection on what I’ve learned throughout my examination of these four composers, and a big lesson has been in the importance of specificity. Even when things appear to be more open or indeterminate (like many of Rebecca Bruton’s works), or when one is writing something for themselves to perform (Pursuit Grooves), things can still be extremely clear and detailed and intentional, and it undeniably makes the work strong.

A big thank you to these artists for being extremely helpful and kind - sending me PDFs of scores, photos, recordings, and / or taking the time to chat with me.

Lisa Conway is one of the 2018 CMC Library Artists in Residence and will be contributing a series of blogs profiling works by Canadian composers. Visit the community page on the CMC website regularly for new content.