By: Camille Kiku Belair
This is the first excerpt in a six-part series that explores Gayle Young’s musical practice, drawn from the interview that took place with Camille Kiku Belair on December 14th, 2017 at the Canadian Music Centre in Toronto.
Gayle Young’s music includes electronic and orchestral instruments, industrial materials, and found objects such as stone and wood. She develops notational systems for unusual tunings, and designs and builds instruments to facilitate explorations in tunings. One of Gayle’s installations from the early 90s used multiple lengths of tuned tubing in an outdoor setting, so that waterfalls nearby were heard as pitched tones. Viewers could create their own melodic sequences of the local soundscape. She continues to combine her interests in tuning and soundscape by recording environmental noise (highways, railways, rivers, and ocean shorelines) through tuned tubing. She has worked with Pauline Oliveros, R. Murray Schafer, Michael Snow, James Tenney, Don Wherry of the Newfoundland Sound Symposium, and many other prominent names in contemporary new music.
Young is also active as a writer, exploring the histories and intentions of innovative composers and instrument designers. She authored the biography of Hugh Le Caine (1914-1977) the foremost Canadian inventor of electronic instruments, portraying a fertile period of invention in science and the arts from the 1940s to the 1970s. She has written extensively about tunings, soundscape, improvisation and sound exploration, bringing attention to the listener’s experience of sound. She edited Musicworks Magazine for many years.
Camille Belair: It seems like sound perception and the experience of sound is what you focus on in your work. I remember in our past conversation that you have an interest in continuity, seeking to bridge the gap between what we know – or what we think we know – and everything else that actually exists. You mentioned that you are from the St. Catharines area originally, and you studied classical piano as well as history and theory with the Royal Conservatory of Music’s curriculum growing up. However, you decided to go into a science research field?
Gayle Young: It wasn’t really science, it was cultural change. Scientific research lead to a lot of cultural change, so that’s what I was looking at.
CB: It was during this time that you decided to move into a cabin for the winter to be more immersed in a natural environment – could you elaborate on that?
GY: Before I went into music I was in an academic program, and I was pursuing an understanding of how the culture [English European cultural context] had changed, especially since the beginning of the scientific revolution. It was an academic program, and as you mentioned, I was playing classical piano. I was also playing singer/songwriter material on the baritone ukulele, and I improvised on the harmonica, but that was all as a hobby. I didn’t take music seriously as anything more than a hobby until after I finished the academic program. I left it [the program] to go and experience the natural environment without technological support because it suddenly occurred to me that all the people I was reading about, and to some degree writing about, had lived in a world where the natural environment was a lot more threatening than it is to us. Cold, hunger, and lack of clean drinking water were serious issues for most of human history, and I grew up in a time when they weren’t. We had a thermostat in our house.
So, I needed to contextualize my thinking with trying to empathize with pre-technological experience, and that was why I went to live in a cabin. While I was there – I was there by myself for most of a winter – perhaps I was feeling isolated (well, I was isolated), and the idea of going into music occured to me one afternoon. I was out in my snowshoes, and it seemed like I had everything I needed – well what do I do now? Well, music! It wasn’t really a practical decision. So I wrote a lot more songs that winter after that, and I realized that I didn’t know enough about music to write what I thought was interesting music.
On one of my trips back to Toronto I saw the music calendar for York University, and it looked really interesting – a lot of different kinds of music that I didn’t even know existed. So I applied to return to York – I was at York originally for the academic program. I decided to change majors and go back in music, and they allowed me to get through the audition process. Once there, I was invited to discover a whole world of possibilities that were new to me, and very exciting.
CB: So do you feel that having that experience of living in a way that contextualized what you were researching quenched that curiosity? Music was the new thing to explore?
GY: Well, I learned a lot of practical skills there: I learned how to fix cars, how to build the cabin, how to do carpentry and cut firewood with a chainsaw, and I really liked being engaged at a practical level with “day to day reality”. I always intended to get back to the writing but I didn’t, and when I got back to music, for me, music is a good balance between practical and speculative.
CB: I suppose that’s what made it a natural progression to start building your own instruments in order to explore microtonality without computers being widely available.
GY: Yes, well one of the things I learned while going to live outside of an urban environment was not to be intimidated by practical things, so when I wanted to build something I figured out how to do it and did it. I think without that experience of being so immersed in practical pursuits, I might have been afraid to do it – and I might have been afraid of synthesizers. I really liked the early synthesizers at the music department and read the manuals, spending late nights trying to get them to do the same thing twice (which they never did, for me anyway). I think if I didn’t know how a distributor worked in a car I might not have been so open to exploring how the electricity works in a synthesizer – it’s not that different from how it works anywhere else.
CB: I remember you saying that you were listening to a lot of CBC programming at that time as well, when New Music was still being spread across the airways.
GY: Well, I was in a more remote area, so we weren’t getting broadcasts of the John Beckwith pieces, or the programmes he produced – the most advanced I heard was Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy… But even then I couldn’t figure out how the harmony worked because the Conservatory harmony stopped a bit before that. I found it really interesting, but I couldn’t figure it out, which was one of the reasons I went back to school.