At many classical music performances, concertgoers place themselves at the whims of the composer, whose music might often communicate: Here’s how I did it, here’s what you’re supposed to feel, and so on. These are demands Wisconsin via Los Angeles composer JP Merz doesn’t want to make. Although he is quite capable of following these norms, Merz would rather expand upon the traditional elements of classical music by removing his ego from the equation. “Just because I’m a concert composer doesn’t mean that’s the best format for things,” he explains. To attain these goals, Merz eschews the boundaries between audience and performer, literally and figuratively.
A longstanding student of electro-acoustic music, Merz has been familiarizing himself with advanced recording techniques for most of his life. “My dad would buy all this random crap from eBay, and I would have to figure out what to do with it. I grew up with GarageBand.” One of the things he bought was a viola. Merz learned to push the instrument’s boundaries by plugging it into a guitar pedal board and appreciating a wider dynamic range. In his freshman year at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, he got a job as the electronic music assistant and joined SEAMUS.
After school, Merz continued to question the existing narratives of his genres. “There’s a culture of complexity in electronic music that’s sort of masculine, and I’m trying to push against that.” And what better way to take yourself out of the equation than to collaborate? Drawing inspiration from The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series, Merz wants to include his audiences and collaborators in the intention and execution of his work.
The finest example of this is Mediated Intimacy. Merz and new media researcher Maya Livio place two chairs back-to-back. Each chair is outfitted with 6 low-frequency speakers, and has a microphone in front of it. As participants speak into the mikes, the speakers in the opposite chair vibrate, and a physical “conversation” is created between the two. This is not Merz and Livio trying to impress anyone with their ideas. Instead, they allow two consenting individuals to take part in their own experience. The result is ingenious and unselfish. “It was weird to have the idea of putting my music on other people’s bodies. That’s a pretty intimate thing. Who am I to be that person?” Sure, Merz and Livio set the concept and parameters, but it was ultimately the audience that walked away with compositions they created on their own. Merz doesn’t just invite his participants into his compositions, he lends them his resources.
Similar to Mediated Intimacy, Merz is subverting the control-freak elements of high concept performance in a new, untitled collaboration with Sonya Belaya. A four-movement piece for grand piano, the piece will deconstruct the perfection usually seen onstage. “When you pluck the string in the piano and slowly release the sustain it makes this bizarre filtering effect,” Merz says, explaining the first movement. Although reaching into the piano to pluck a string isn’t a totally new idea, achieving a consistent tone from Merz’s technique doesn’t come easily. Only two chords are played in this movement, but its performance varies and creates a new experience each time.
It gets trickier: “Another movement involves playing with really bad hand technique. It’s kind of like you’re hitting a percussion instrument by bouncing off the keys.” Half-inspired by Thelonious Monk’s plunky, almost sloppy technique, the notes will ring in different ways since the performer’s hand strikes from far off the keyboard. Even though Merz is still composing the piece in the general sense, he doesn’t want his performers to be tied down to one particular vision. “With my concert music accessibility is very important to me, though it’s sort of a complicated word in classical music.”
Even Merz’s home bases, viola and electronics, are being questioned in his process. “Music is really good at drama. But people always associate their own things with it.” He tells a story of watching a performance of David Lang’s “Darker,” which is built by a seemingly endless loop. “People were walking out, but I was moved by it because I would phase out, but then re-engage. When it was over, it was strange because it’s like this thing I’ve been with for an hour is now gone.” This isn’t about the complexity in the composition or arrangement. It’s about allowing the dialogue between audience and performance to take place. Merz has been toying with this idea on a handful of recent pieces, and the emotional effects are wonderful on “11/9/16.” Although the piece was composed in the wake of last year’s election results, it’s still able to elicit reactions outside of the original impetus. “My intention is to compose with something specific and clear in my head, but not to do it single-minded.”
Merz continues to further his interdisciplinary work with Music for Eggs, another collaboration with Livio. The work takes the Babypod as its subject, which works with the long-standing assumption that playing music for unborn children is healthy for early development. Conceptualized by Livio and featuring music composed by Merz, the final product will be a four minute-long video that has the piece playing underneath it. However, Livio and Merz will be using an intravaginal speaker to play the music to eggs, not fetuses. A complex feat, Music for Eggs critiques the expectations and pressures that mothers experience before their children are even born or, in this case, fertilized.
“Our ideas are shaped together,” explains Merz about the project. The goal is to nuance the complicated relationship between women’s bodies and technical development. In turn, the pair are exploring new ways of mixing art, media, and technology. Instead of an approach that begins with texture, Merz is focusing on melody and harmony. However, the musical element won’t be your stereotypical lullabye. It will seek to honor Livio’s eggs as living things. “But it’s also like over-preparing them for an eventual baby. So it’s a dual critique but it’s totally sincere, too.”
Merz has set himself apart as a composer through his willingness to deemphasize his own talents in favor of accessibility. “Virtuosity is tied up with the classical tradition, and I’m looking for ways to subvert that. I’d rather get the emotion out of the technique rather than show off the technique.” Instead of championing his own specific narrative, he’s creating pieces that further the classical and electronic music traditions without having to lean on their complexity. As with the inclusivity of Mediated Intimacy, Merz is extending his arms outward toward lovers of art instead of drawing boundaries between them.