"Full-on all the time": An interview with composer Sam Pluta

On June 12th, we're giving the world premiere of Sam Pluta's binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state at our season closer, YACHT ROCK – so Doyle chopped it up with Sam about his new piece, his process, and why he has nightmares about waterskiing.

The majestic Sam Pluta on a seafaring craft

The majestic Sam Pluta on a seafaring craft

Doyle: Congrats on the new professor gig at UChicago! We look forward to stealing your lunch money in the hallways.

SamThank you. Normally I just put my lunch money in the corner of a practice room so that the string quartet bullies can have it without any human-to-human interaction. This is best for everyone. Honestly, though, I am thrilled be joining such an incredible department. Everyone there has been welcoming and supportive, and the brilliance that radiates from the myriad thinkers in the Music Department and across the University is inspiring.

DA: Many fans will know you for your electronics-focused pieces, but you've been exploring some new territory in recent years. What is this new territory, and what shifted you in this direction?

SP: Well, I hope to be always exploring new territory. Once that stops you can just drop me overboard and let me "swim to freedom.” But I have been dealing more directly with straight up acoustic music in the last couple of years, at least in the sense that the music is written on paper. With some of these pieces, including this new string quartet, I am trying to bring the energy and timbrel inventiveness of my electro-acoustic improvisations into the scored work. Like many of my instrumental improvising colleagues, I am trying to bring the timbral aspect of sound, which is the general focus of electronic music, into my acoustic writing. I wouldn’t say this is unique. It is the focus of much acoustic composition from the last fifty years. However, what makes this personal is that I am trying to bring to life the musical language of my own improvisational style on my own electronic instrument without the electronics being part of the final result. 

DA: When you sat down to write "binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state," what elements or characteristics did you know you wanted to explore?

SP: When I am improvising, I enter a mental state that I am unable to describe in words. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it a "flow state." It is a place where the non conscious brain takes over and the mind enters a state of complete focus. This is my favorite part of my brain, and I would be there all the time if that were an option. Sadly it is not.

My goal with this piece was to find that place when sitting down with a pencil and paper. I realized that I compose best when I reduce my decision-making process down to simple yes and no questions, and then am able to improvise within this binary logic field by answering those questions. The beauty of this process is that all I need to do to make a new musical vocabulary is come up with new questions. Inventing questions, answering them, and then repeating the process results in this bubbling music that is constantly moving, changing, and rhapsodically unfolding. 

This is not to say that larger form is not a major consideration. Each movement of this piece is fulfilling its role in the larger musical structure, and the music was not by any means through-composed. In fact, I wrote the ending to this piece first. 

DA: We love working on it, and you describe the score as "pretty much full on all the time." What had you thinking in that vein?

SPIn this piece, I am trying to convey a kind of ecstatic joy, so eight minutes of full-on energy seems about right to me. This is also my general MO, musically. Much of the music I love is this way, and many of my musical heroes never leave this place. 

DA: Are you still surprised when you hear one of your pieces live for the first time?

SPAlways! I just can’t believe that a human can think up a sound world of incredible depth and density of information, compress it to little dots on a page, and then another human or humans can look at those little dots and turn them back into sound. Not everything translates 100%, but it is amazing that we have figured out how to do this with our hive mind.

DA: What music is getting you fired up these days?

SP: Ornette Coleman’s 1980s band Prime Time. Full on all the time! I also just went to a David Tudor symposium at Wesleyan University. This was incredibly inspiring. What a hero Mr. Tudor was! His music is incredible. Lastly, I just saw Eric Wubbels and Josh Modney play Mathias Spahlinger’s ‘Extension’. This was one of the best shows I have seen in a long time. I don’t even know what this piece was to tell you the truth. I left the concert with only questions and no answers. Perfect!

DA: And finally, given our concert title, what is your most embarrassing boating/jet-ski/surfing/boogie-boarding-related story?

SPI have only water-skied once. I stood on the skies for about four seconds, then my back almost split in half as the skies were sucked under the water below me. To this incident I attribute a lifetime of back pain. That and bad genes.