The electric Rhodes piano essentially consists of a series of hammered tuning forks instead of piano strings. The traditional electric Rhodes piano has one output. Eric Glick Rieman’s modified version has eight: three traditional electric outputs as well as five contact microphones, which enable magnification of mechanical percussions. “Everything has a resonance inside of it, and it’s a question of finding those resonances,” he says. Rieman has built a sound board into his piano speared with zinc rods for bowing like a violin and a copper light-switch plate on which he grates granite and grinds coral into dust.
But as much as tuned zinc rods suggest a scientific method, Rieman tries to escape specific, composer-directed evocation. “I’m more of a trial-and-error kind of guy. I’m into imprecision,” he says. And so he will alter his instrument and alter his score, or let them be altered, “in a way that [readers and listeners] really have to think about it.” A lot of this imprecision comes from not specifying certain elements of the piece, such as the dynamics, or even how to read the score. Recently Rieman has been writing “graphic scores,” or pictures which may or may not specify how the musician is to interact with what’s on the page.
Rieman occasionally hosts snails from his garden to assist in composing graphic scores. He benefits from them in at least two different ways. One benefit is that it helps ensure the human musicians he plays with are good improvisers–since they are ready to improvise from a snail score, trailed and chewed through into intricate patterns of holes and slime. Another benefit is that “[the snails] are more in contact with the score than I am. Because they’re sitting on it for one thing.” The snails respond differently to different weights of paper, and chance–at least from our limited human perspective–plays a big role in the music.
Rieman’s work has been influenced significantly by John Cage. “Cage is not chaos. It is music that is made by chance procedures. But it’s [also] made by a person.” Rieman notes that how you react depends on how you feel, what you ate earlier that day, whether you’ve had a fight with your significant other. “You start to hear all the sound in the room. Cage was trying to say that everything is music, and that everything can be listened to in that way,” he explains. Rieman embraces street noise during his performances; in his view, “it’s not bad when a siren goes by.”
Asked if he is considering working with any other animals besides snails, Rieman seems firmly committed to his current hermaphroditic collaborators, two of which recently reproduced, leaving Rieman to care for over fifty of the gastropods. “Honestly, I want to spend some time with the snails,”â€ˆhe states. “I want to be influential as a composer…and also ruled by the snails in a way…It’s very egocentric as a composer. In this way I’m escaping my ego,” he explains.
“I think that [Cage’s] goal was to get his ego out of [his music],” Rieman says. “We think that we’re these special people and we think the world revolves around us–we’re just little drops of water and when the right wind comes along we’ll just evaporate.” He quotes his teacher Fred Frith: “‘Losing control is a discipline like any other.’ I think that’s really true… people go to see performers [who] are right on the edge between control and noncontrol.”
Like his snails, Rieman’s work testifies that any two “random” associations can bear fruit, whether it be the interaction between street noise with his Chicago improvisations, or the gastropod itself–literally, “stomach foot” –ingesting a score in unpredictable ways. “I try to approach all this on a visceral level, and it’s exciting…trying to touch the edge a little bit,” says Rieman. When you listen to his collaborations exploring control and noncontrol, don’t be afraid to listen for the sirens.
Rieman will be performing as part of the Chicago Calling Festival, now through October 11th. October 9: Thursday, 8pm. Velvet Lounge, 67 E. Cermak. October 10: Friday, 8pm. Little Black Pearl, 1060 E. 47th St.