Wednesday, October 10th, 2018
Written by Michael J. Cyrs
On Björk’s audiovisual LP Biophilia, the Icelandic singer wore numerous musical hats. Although the most notable takeaway from the record is her masterful voice, it’s often the expertise of her collaborators that drives the songs. Featuring everything from hang drum to full dubstep breakdowns, there seemed to be no musical tradition she wasn’t able to distill into her own vision.
New York-based composer Joel Mellin assigns abstract forms in a similar way. Even as a youth, he was interested in moving forward from piano lessons as soon as other avenues appeared on his radar. “I think I had a lot more ideas and concepts than attention span or skill. I realized the things I liked about piano were not the difficult things. They were more of the expressive, romantic ideas.” This mantra is reflected in Flora Sensoria, a project that invited people of any age or musical background to consider the simple interactions between senses. “In general, it’s easy to make things with technology super complicated,” he explains, but this and his other related work have a way of placing simplicity at the forefront.
With this understanding, Mellin is a prism for musical ideas. No matter how complicated or difficult to master an instrument is, he’ll find a way to make it work within a piece of music. Using his skills in computer music language is essential to this process.
At NYU, I learned from Nick Didkovsky who taught me Java Music Specification Language, or JMSL. To explain it without your eyes glazing over, it’s a really abstract framework for thinking about ideas. With it, I could score something like a thunderstorm. That makes perfect sense to me. There’s a thing that starts with nothing, there’s an approach, and there’s a peak. You can map things like that in JMSL.
Mellin’s vibrant mind defines his day job as well. As Head of Technology at Sudden Industries, he continues to be a nexus where musical ideas grow. “I couldn’t be happier doing it. I get to make educational kids games!” Between professional and freelance work, Mellin might rival Björk in his ability to turn over ideas. He’s written music for the stage. He’s played in a rock band. He’s printed sound with glass. He’s written Balinese music in a computer.
This last bit has permeated the latest few years of Mellin’s composition work. The gamelan, simultaneously a name for the instrument set and ensemble for traditional Balinese music, drew him in nearly 10 years ago. The only snag is that gamelan can’t be taught in a Western sense. No matter which person you are in the ensemble, you learn by rote. “When I joined initially, I started with basically no knowledge. I got really interested because of the tuning system, which is dorky and academic.” The things he calls dorky are actually the lifeblood of his constantly shifting work. That said, the gamelan might prove to be his longest lasting muse. In this Pitchfork-produced video, you can see Mellin’s first major gamelan piece come to life. “Synesthesia” is something of a miracle production. Mellin saw things he enjoyed and infused it with of his own knowledge and experience.
Still, how does one take an unwritten tradition and, well, write it down? Always the contrarian, Mellin used non-conventional means to achieve these goals.“I ended up using JMSL, and was able to program a score that followed Western instrumentation.” Balinese music uses a different scale, so Mellin wrote code to map certain notes to C or C# and so on. Using JMSL wasn’t taking the easy route either. He still put the notes into the program one by one.
Then there’s the title of the piece, which unlocks another corner of Mellin’s mind. “I don’t have synesthesia, but you can argue that something in one sense triggers something in another.” He wasn’t always interested in the subject. Before his fascination with and subsequent trip to Bali, Mellin got involved composing pieces for dance companies around New York City. There, he started to see the parallels between human sensory experiences. “It got me thinking of other weird things,” he said.
Mellin can talk endlessly about these concepts: about how one dancer can trigger the movement of another, how the sense of touch can teach you about the sense of hearing, or even that the calendar year can be envisioned as the 12-hour cycle on a clock. These Dali-esque ideas are second nature to him. Flora Sensoria is the culmination of many of these thoughts. It makes tags like “composer” or “musician” fall short of the mark when describing Mellin.
I don’t think of myself [as a composer]. I try and do a variety of things that aren’t just writing for music. I haven’t written a violin concerto and don’t necessarily need to. I’m much more interested in the Flora Sensoria project: Here’s an idea and a concept. What can we do with it? How do we develop the tools to make those structures come to life?
Although he’s still using JMSL and has a full draft for gamelan finished, it’s not in the realm of possibility that he would repeat the same process for his upcoming JFund commission. Like Björk, looking forward is the only way to go. The piece will focus less on the melodic nature of “Synesthesia” and focus on a more traditional Balinese approach. The name for the style he’s focusing on is called “kotekan,” which has no exact English translation. The term loosely means playing interlocking patterns across the ensemble. “I tend to explain it as dividing up a guitar solo and having two people playing it. It’s how Balinese music sounds so intricate and fast.”
For example, when listening, what’s happening on the musical surface seems like a constantly repeating triplet pattern. Go to each member of the gamelan, and you’ll see them resting on one of those three beats. Multiply that 20 times, and you get something that’s simple on the outside, and complex when observed up close. “The whole ensemble needs to work together in order for it to work,” he says. “They need to be one unit.”
Mellin doesn’t consider himself an expert on gamelan. He’s much more focused on learning and experimenting than he is on expertise. However, he still honors traditions that stand outside his background. “You wanna learn ‘enough’ of a thing before you put yourself out there,” he explains. “There’s also a danger in learning too much. I’ve always felt that.” What could be considered a scatterbrained approach to music ends up being one that keeps things fresh and relevant. JFund won’t be an exception to this rule.