Other Investigations: Sam Hertz

Samuel Hertz, composer and performer, is a graduate of Beloit College and is currently pursuing his MFA at Mills College, where he studies composition and electronic music with Fred Frith, Maggi Payne, James Fei and Pauline Oliveros. Though classically trained, his studies in experimental literature and musical techniques steer his compositions and performances to include a wide variety of acoustic and electronic media such as: sensor technology, electro-acoustic percussion instruments, electronically modified traditional instruments and large-scale speaker arrays.

As a performer, he has appeared in Mark Jeffery/Judd Morrissey’s performance piece The Labors at the Museum of Contemporary Art and The Precession at the Hyde Park Arts Center, Defibrillator Performance Gallery, and Arizona State University. Currently, he performs with them as a part of ATOM-r, a provisional collective exploring forensics, anatomy, and 21st-century digital embodiment.

While visiting ACRE residency this past summer, Etta and I met Sam Hertz and spoke to him about his work and practice. You can read about our visit here – Part 1 & Part 2.

8 Channel Interface/ 8 Channel Interior screen grabs of Ambisonic/ Surround Sound Performance Interface (built at ACRE)
8 Channel Interface/ 8 Channel Interior screen grabs of Ambisonic/ Surround Sound Performance Interface (built at ACRE)

Sample recording of 8 Channel performance at ACRE

What projects are you currently working on and what processes and concepts are you exploring in your current body of work?

“I rarely have multiple projects going on simultaneously, however, I find myself currently engaged with a couple of projects that are all related in some way or another. Among them, a multi-media performance piece with a surround sound environment and multiple projection surfaces, a work for saxophone quartet, and another piece for flute, harpsichord, and electronics. In all of these works I’m investigating similar topics, that have involved sustained research among a variety of different sources including: texts on psychoacoustics, published research on physical modeling of digital sound, and problem-solving algorithms using bird/insect swarming patterns. As I go about my research, I usually document my progress by creating smaller studies; for every piece or program I’ve written, I’ll typically create a suite of smaller pieces working around similar ideas and concepts. For me, this is a way of digesting this information – examining how it sounds by piecing together models give me a much fuller understanding not only of how these ideas work, but also how they may (or may not) be useful. Often these studies do not develop much further than simply ideas that I can pick through and recombine (like paints on a palette), however I am finding recently that by expanding on these studies, they can often stand by themselves and – as I develop them further – I am also discovering that I can approach the same topics from vastly different angles.”

Score for Saxophone Study
Score for Saxophone Study

Untitled Sax Study (Excerpt), Sample recording of saxophone study

What are you experimenting with in the studio?

“I’m interested in the hidden sounds, the in-between sounds and the accidental/incidental sounds produced by acoustic sources and their propagation in various sonic environments. Specifically, for the past few months I’ve been working with the idea of inharmonicity, the property of an acoustic instrument’s production of ‘inharmonic’ tones (frequencies that are not a part of the tone’s overtone series) when they are struck – something like a short burst of noise. Though especially prominent in plucked string instruments, these small instances of inharmonic tones are quickly suppressed by the more prominent and consonant frequencies, and canceled out as the waves fall into a more organized pattern of propagation. In my work for harpsichord, flute and electronics, I contrast the inharmonic texture of the harpsichord – an instrument in which inharmonicity is quite easy to observe – with that of the flute – an instrument with a very low occurrence of inharmonicity. The electronics observe and pick out the inharmonic material to create a sound environment based both in harmonic and inharmonic relationships – a sonic doppelganger.”

Blue Heron (Excerpt), Excerpt of generative code piece

What is your research process?

“It is these transitions back and forth between order and disorder that preoccupy me in my current research and work, and I find myself approaching the idea from three non-exclusive points of view: naturalistic (entropy), mechanistic (algorithmic), and observant (sensation). The first two find their way into the multi-media performance piece I am currently developing with the choreographer Maryanna Lachman and videographer Chani Bockwinkel – entitled Other Options – blending durational movement sequences cataloguing states of entropy with an immersive sound/video environment dictated almost entirely by algorithmic compositional processes. I feel its important to note that in this piece, the natural and the technological are not viewed as oppositional, instead we seek to find relationships between them as they shift back and forth between composed and chaotic states.

In my piece for saxophone quartet – which is quickly becoming three interrelated studies – I’m dealing with similar principles demonstrated by real-time performer decisions. In this piece, performers are given set of notes to be played in a specific order, but the durations of the notes are left up to them (within a specific time-frame). The range of my harmonic spectrum is kept quite small, forcing the parts to collide with one another and create – at times – very drastic dissonances that produce prominent beating-tones. As the performers choose the rate at which the harmonic material progresses, they can choose to linger in the dissonant and complex tonal relationships, or they can choose to move to an area in which simpler, more consonant harmonic material may make itself available. The choice to move pitches affects the tonality of the whole piece, so any singular movement can suddenly shift the piece into a different harmonic realm. In this way, the piece constantly oscillates between different shades of order/disorder and simplicity/complexity.”

8 Channel Interior screen grabs of Ambisonic / Surround Sound Performance Interface (built at ACRE)
8 Channel Interior screen grabs of Ambisonic / Surround Sound Performance Interface (built at ACRE)

How was your experience at ACRE and what were the most valuable aspects of this residency in particular?

“At ACRE, I felt I was really able to sit down and dig into concepts I had been interested in for quite some time – I’m not sure I can articulate exactly how this came about, but I don’t think its surprising that I left ACRE with three or four well-formed ideas that I was able to start work on immediately. As an artist who rarely works in the visual realm, I think it was also very important to be around visual artists, who talk about their work in a very different way than composers usually do. At ACRE I felt a lot of emphasis on one’s studio practice – the ways in which one deals with raw material, not necessarily how one explains that same idea as seen through the context of a finished work. For me, this is the step that I find missing in dialogue within the world of composition: an engagement with the process of research and discussions of studio practice. At ACRE, I was able to engage more with the idea of studio visits and open-studio time, both of which are concepts that exist in only limited capacities within the world of composition, and even then, I’m not sure the idea extends much further than Works in Progress showings. I think the open-studio idea of the visual arts world (Make Space being a very good example) has a lot to offer the world of composition.”