The physical reality of sound is composer Keeril Makan’s starting point for examining the mystery of how emotion can be expressed through music. He places the body, hands, and breath at the forefront of the creative process in every one of his critically acclaimed musical pieces.
“My work explores the continuum between noise and purity of sound, between abstraction and references to known ideas or bodies of work, and between the awareness of pulsation, which marks time, and the dissolution of temporality,” Makan says.
Winner of a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2008 Luciano Berio Rome Prize for his cutting-edge compositions, Makan is a tenured associate professor of music who came to MIT six years ago. Widely respected and highly prolific, he maintains a pop-star’s pace: His compositions were performed 53 times in seven countries in one recent year, and he has been an artist-in-residence in the US, France, Germany, and Italy a half-dozen times over 10 years. Makan recorded two full-length CDs, In Sound (Tzadik, 2008) and Target (Starkland, 2012). The New Yorker describes him as an “arrestingly gifted young American composer.”
Makan is an advocate of silence as a musician’s tool in a world of rising noise. His composition students start with silence: In one introductory class, they spend 24 hours completely unplugged — no iPods, no netbooks, no apps, no cells, no texts. “It’s torture for them,” admits Makan, who owns neither a car nor a TV. (He does have a Kindle.) “But the students begin to appreciate the auditory world they live in, and hone their ears. It’s like an architecture student sketching a pre-existent building. Through drawing they learn about their way of seeing, and see more than they did at first. For my students, removing their control of their sonic environment teaches them about how they are hearing, or not hearing, what is all around them. And they also learn to hear more than they did at first. It is through creative listening that music comes into being.”
When he composes, Makan draws on silent meditation, 25 years of classic training, and his own form of artistic research. “If I’m writing for the oboe, I’ll play it in every way I can imagine. I record, listen, write down what I like. It’s a constant process of discovery,” he says.
Makan uses Finale, a notation program, for experimenting with time and modeling, and a digital audio workstation for analyzing the frequency components of pre-recorded sounds, en route to creating new ones. MIT students, he says, would master these tools quickly — too quickly. So, after exploring silence, each student designs a “soundwalk,” a set of instructions that tells someone where to go, what to listen for and possibly, what to do. One event may be a dripping gutter after a rainstorm; another may be air whistling through an unsealed crevice — any such sound may spark ideas for compositions. And while that “sparking ideas” method isn’t initially comfortable for some MIT students, Makan’s young composers meet the challenge together. “They openly encourage one another to take risks, to innovate, and to share their work,” he says.
Which leads to Makan’s second passionate belief — the necessity of physical presence to creative development. The best music education, he says, goes beyond solo experiments, no matter how intriguing, into a collaborative studio space — ideally, one that includes both the faculty professionals and fellow students.
“As music faculty, we are role models. We can show how we approach our own projects, how we work as professionals with commissions, recording, criticism. We can model the balance between solitude and collaboration,” Makan says.