A Fabric of Voices
In 2018, Gideon Crevoshay approached me about recording an album of microtonal music at The Honey Jar—my recording studio in Brooklyn, NY. Over the course of several days, we tinkered with various vocal scores, eventually composing Superstructures: Nine Sense Variations for Voice and A-100. It was immediately clear that we had stumbled onto something extraordinary. But what we failed to realize—at least initially—is that we’d taken the first steps towards an entirely new approach to music composition.
We would eventually come to call this approach antenati—a name which means “the ancestors” in Italian and refers to the emergence of “spontaneous” structures from a bed of tension-resolution patterns performed by the composer.
The word “spontaneous” is in quotes because antenati is, in part, an exploration of what words like “spontaneity” and “chance” and “randomness” really mean. But suffice it to say that the music emerges from the practice seemingly of its own accord, with the composer playing an almost subsidiary role, contributing their instinct and abilities to a “fabric of voices”—the antenati canon—out of which melody, harmony and cadence arise.
Personally, the experience resulted in several inflection points for me, one being that I ultimately left my studio career and pursued a path as a composer. But more immediately, I discovered that I had been under a false impression. The antenati practice revealed that the interior skills I had developed in my years as a recording artist, songwriter, bandleader, performer, record producer and sound engineer were sufficient to bring a credibly avant-garde work into existence. The real and perceived gaps in my musical education hardly mattered when there was no effective tonality, no tonal subdivisions, no operative tempo or temperament, no boundaries or rules. It was a compositional process governed entirely by the senses. And for the first time, despite the lack of a roadmap, I had an impression of complete and utter freedom, even as I explored a wholly unfamiliar sphere.
The Dogma Of The Body
For at least a decade, I had been developing an unwritten dogma of the body, trusting it to make aesthetic judgements my brain didn’t always get right. The mind is great at coordinating, keeping facts in order, noting chord progressions, checking rhythms and track counts. But when it comes to tricky questions—questions like “How loud?” “How soft?” “When is it too much?” “Is there enough overall?”—these can make the head spin and lead to uncertainty and paralysis.
But I found that my body always knew the answers to elusive questions. I started creating elaborate routines that harnessed and channeled bodily wisdom into part-writing, editing processes, performance and ultimately mixing—where tiny judgment calls culminate in huge gains in cohesion and trajectory.
This dogma of the body can be stated roughly as follows:
When the mind is quiet and lets go of control, the sense gates open
When the sense gates open, the observer can operate close to the speed of conscious perception
When the observer is operating close to real time, the body experiences every aspect of a musical event
The body will reflect and clearly map any blockages to energy flow (when listening)
And will naturally adopt an optimal behavioral response (when performing)
So long as the mind stays quiet
This philosophy helped me to become an expert in my field. No longer occasionally elusive and miraculous, mixing, mastering and arranging were now something I could reliably do at the highest level. And when Gideon came to me to record an album of contemporary vocal music, I was ready to learn that the dogma of the body can be as easily applied to the process by which music is composed as to those by which we shape it.
The antenati practice is the dogma of the body as music composition, a way of trading one’s ideas, one’s biases, even one’s conscious preferences for a kind of musical ground truth that emerges directly from the psyche. The practice engages the mind such that a flow-state is produced where flocking and play principles govern the dictation of basic meaning-making by the body in real time. I sometimes refer to it as radical counterpoint or radical polyphony. Because whereas the rules and traditions of counterpoint were carefully designed to imitate the cooperative independence of nature, antenati produces a result which feels like an embodiment of conscious interdependence itself.
What Is Possible
For me, this discovery—and the passing of the false notion that I was fundamentally unqualified to participate in the avant-garde—has produced a feeling of fulfillment and purpose in life. And so I’ve struggled this past year to both better understand the practice—its implications, attributes and overall meaning—and to better describe it in ways that are meaningful to others.
But most of all, I have sought to demonstrate what is possible. To fully explore the implications bodily, myself. To show that one’s DNA, one’s metabolism, one’s history—both in memory and as contained in the body—are enough to create an entirely original, compelling and essential oeuvre. And in doing so, perhaps inspire others to learn the technique and apply it for themselves.
A Preliminary Roadmap
My paper, Antenati: A New Phenomenology of Meaning in Music is a preliminary roadmap for an exhaustive study of the practice. It draws principally upon phenomenology and biosemiotics, but also upon works like Leonard Meyer’s Emotion and Meaning in Music, of which I consider these ideas to be a continuation.
The substack—Radical Polyphony—is where, over the course of 2024, I will flesh out each chapter of Antenati: A New Phenomenology of Meaning in Music, investigating the emergent meaning patterns that led me to call antenati a phenomenological art form and exploring its implications for meaning in music and elsewhere.