Susanna Payne-Passmore ’12
This piece began as a jam I’d play at the piano whenever I was feeling stressed about social or political issues. With the intensifying election cycle and hyperpartisan legislation this year, those feelings of anxiety and frustration were impossible to ignore.
The first half of the piece composed itself, more or less, in a very tonal idiom, using only major and minor modes, as popular music and older classical styles use. But over time, I’ve become more critical of these modes, particularly the binary opposition between the two and the tonal hierarchy on which they are both based. Hierarchies and binaries are things I prefer to dismantle rather than perpetuate. After reflecting on what I had composed, I realized this piece could represent the feelings of those I most vehemently disagreed with just as well as they could reflect my own! Because of the nature of musical meaning, it could be used to rally any group or protest any issue equally well. Therefore, the music did not reflect my ideas so much as my state of mind, one shared by people of diverse viewpoints feeling frustration, alienation, and anxiety about the future of the nation.
So I decided to dismantle the tonal hierarchy and bypass the binary opposition. The sound I discovered gave me the solution I had been seeking all along. In the middle of the piece, you might notice a moment of emotional catharsis as the music finally reaches a major cadence. But it’s a catharsis that doesn’t move us forward, only back to where we started. The different sound that comes out of this lets go of the obsessive kind of engagement that characterizes politics today by embracing complexity and ambiguity. On a technical level, the new sound has more pitches per octave (complexity) and no tonal center (ambiguity). On an experiential level, the piece requires the listener to move outside of what is easy to understand and to instead accept dissonance and embrace the unknown. That is the solution I bring to you.
Susanna PaynePassmore is a composer living and working in Eugene, OR where she is working on a Masters in Music Composition at the University of Oregon. In composition, Susanna seeks to inspire her audience with unusual sonorities, to challenge them with experimental tonalities, and to awaken each listener to the unexamined subjective depths that wait within. Recent explorations include: nonatonic scales, bitonality, extended techniques, a “piano clef” system of notation for work involving the inside of the piano, and multioctave scales. After graduating the New College of Florida in 2012, Susanna embarked on a Fulbright to the Republic of Georgia to teach English and study one of the oldest known traditions of vocal polyphony. In her natural habitat, Susanna can be found sipping tea, devouring books, playing with cats, and developing stories for graphic novels. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook at facebook.com/susanna.paynepassmore.