Why Atlas Sets?

I have been reflecting on the outlines and parameters of Atlas Sets as a project, a body of work, and an exercise in autobiography. The original impetus of the project–collecting a series of recorded sessions by a list of collaborators in a box set with a catalog in time for my 50th birthday in 2015, along with a celebratory publication party in Joshua Tree–has been supplanted by a more modest agenda. I see now that the real heart of Atlas Sets has never really been the recordings, the catalog, or even the impending mid-century celebration, but rather the conversations themselves, both in the moment and later in the office, transcribing the recordings into a coherent and faithful documentation of our exchange of ideas. By focusing on the conversation, I have been able to identify, articulate, and reflect on the questions important to me as a composer. What does it mean to organize sounds into structured compositions? What is my own relationship to improvisation and recording? Who, what, and where is my community?

I don’t necessarily have the answers; in fact, I’m more interested in refining the questions. The more I investigate my life in sound, broadly and deeply, the less certainty I have about finalizing my responses.

This process of questioning has been complicated and enriched by the addition of a new project and body of work, Atlas Place, in which I turn my attention to conversations with creative people about the places in which they live and work. This trajectory has been critical to my own process and self-identity as an artist for as long as I’ve been making work. The infrastructure of Atlas Place promises to allow for a wide-ranging, and long-lasting, series of conversations about how we relate to our geographical location, and how the places important to us have shaped our work and who we are.

What about Atlas Sets, then? If I’m no longer invested in finalizing a catalog and box set, can the project adjust to allow for a more open-ended structure? I’m still interested in meeting musician and composer friends for a meal and discussing the outlines of a possible collaboration, so could I not allow Atlas Sets to open up and breathe a little, let each collaboration run its own course rather than set a deadline? Perhaps a newsletter format, or an occasional release on MPRNTBL?

These questions received a new charge after reading Frances Morgan’s review of David Grubbs’ Records Ruin The Landscape: Cage, The Sixties And Sound Recording in the June 2014 issue of The Wire. Morgan traces Grubbs’ handling of the inherent contradiction in recordings of experimental and improvised music: how does a recording of an experimental composition or an improvised session coincide with the common artistic stance of open form and indeterminate results? I have been considering these issues in my own work and in conversations with collaborators such as Phil Mantione. Again, I can’t say I have the answers, but I believe I’m understanding the questions a little better. As Morgan writes in his review, there are now “more perspectives with which one can view the landscape.”

So, here’s to a fresh look at Atlas Sets, its connections to future conversations under the Atlas Place umbrella, and its role in the overall Atlas infrastructure.

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