THE MERCH TABLE Composer Meara O’Reilly Brings Hockets Into the Future By Mariana Timony · January 15, 2020

Composer and artist Meara O’Reilly’s resume includes everything from building her own instruments and creating sound installations for museums around to the world, to opening for Beck and designing concert visuals for Bjork; but the recently released Hockets for Two Voices EP is the first record she’s ever made—and it’s just as heady as you’d expect from an artist who has made a career of exploring the often baffling ways the human brain perceives sound.

Though the EP runs only 10 minutes, it’s impressively complex. Its seven songs utilize a musical technique called “hocketing,” in which a single melody line is split between two voices that alternately sound and rest, but never at the same time. The technique, not commonly heard in Western music since the Middle Ages, plays with the listener’s perception in a way that appealed to O’Reilly.

“The form of hockets is very rooted in a concept called pseudo-polyphony: the idea that, in certain conditions, it’s possible for one or two voices to sound like many more,” explains the Los Angeles-based O’Reilly. She first came across hocketing at the age of 20, when a friend played her “Akazehe par deux filles” from Ocora Records’ 1967 compilation Musique du Burundi.

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“I was completely blown away by the song, and the fact that the sound they were creating was entirely acoustic and live, field recording style,” she says. “It sounded to me like a piece of electronic music, a single person that had been spliced together in a tape music piece. It took me over a decade to gather the courage to even approach making such a thing—but finally my curiosity got the better of me!”

If you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around the idea of hocketing, the LP version of Hockets for Two Voices is accompanied by a printed score that breaks down the two vocal parts in the songs using circles and squares rather than traditional notation. It provides an easily-understood visual representation of the technique that might be at odds with how your brain perceives the music. That was the idea.

“In my career, I’ve often found the need to make the invisible aspects of sound visible,” O’Reilly says. “In such a visual culture, it’s very easy for people to take what they hear as immutable reality, when actually it’s a lot more subjective and malleable. For example, I’ve already had lots of listeners assume that the spatial effects that they hear in the music are as a result of panning, when actually it’s a result of cognitive processes.”

But O’Reilly also wanted to create a score so she could understand what was going on in her hockets. “I found it helpful for performing the pieces,” she says. “Because there is a kind of slipperiness in our perception, I personally found it helpful to have a visual aid for what was going on versus what it sounds like—a map that said “the singers are actually doing this, (A), even if it sounds like this, (B).”

O’Reilly answered some questions via email about her inspirations, the influence of experimental psychologist Albert Bregman on her work, and why it took her an entire year to record a 10 minute EP.

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Is Hocket for Two Voices the first record you’ve ever put out under your own name?

Yes! I started out years ago in a band called Feathers and then had various solo music projects, primarily under the names ANS (after the Russian photoelectric synthesizer), and Avocet. I’ve been releasing sound-based art projects under my name for the last decade though, so this just felt like a natural progression.

What inspired you to present this work in LP form rather than as an art installation or live performance?

If there’s a throughline in all of my work, I think it’s that designing a musical interface or installation or instrument is not that different from choosing the constraints on a musical composition. How you design the environment profoundly affects what you choose to make in it. That’s true for everything from where the knobs and buttons are, to what key or time signature a piece of music is in.

I spent a long time as an artist hopping mediums. I made things like interactive sound exhibits, cymatic concert visuals, and multi channel audio installations. More recently, I made an iOS app with Sam Tarakajian, a geometric musical sequencer called Rhythm Necklace. While I really loved the challenge of constantly acquiring new skill sets for each project, I realized that I was increasingly interested in iterating within a single more timeless medium, such as recorded music. I became focused on the idea that perception itself is an area of endless iteration and innovation. And it doesn’t require the latest iOS update!

Were there any records or artists who had experimented with the form that you found inspiring?

I grew up listening to Meredith Monk and rediscovered her piece “Hocket” (from Facing North) in my 20’s. It was the first time I really remembered hearing the form in a modern western classical setting, and it inspired me to want to keep expanding the ideas in it.

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The liner notes say it took you a full year to create this record. What was the most challenging aspect for you? 

I think the most challenging aspect for me was the task of capturing a very true-to-life document of something that doesn’t exist—two versions of myself! Although the pieces are written to be performed live by two singers, when I went to record it, I didn’t have someone else who knew the pieces well enough. It definitely seemed easier at the time to just do it all myself, but I quickly saw the challenge of capturing something so ephemeral.

Hockets are kind of like a living, breathing animal—you’re constantly having to react and adjust to the small imperfections in timing and pitch of your singing partner in order to stay afloat and consonant with each other. Especially in the case of these hockets, to sing one part against a recording of the other is next to impossible; it’s completely unforgiving and static, both in pitch and timing.

If you listen to just one part at a time, it sounds like someone singing a strange melody in a room. I was very committed to never digitally tuning, or even editing anything beyond how you might comp takes together in a normal pop song. However, this meant that I had to scrupulously record and comb through tons of takes for duet pairs that were compatible in pitch over time, and make subtle adjustments in the timing between staccato notes to make it all line up as necessary. There was a lot of trial and error. Needless to say, it was ironic that to get the most realistic sounding performance of two people in a room I had to go to such meticulous lengths!

Was it important to you to only use your voice as the instrument for this project?

I was very interested in the simplicity of just using the human voice—that no matter what I created, the basic materials of the music were very ordinary and grounded in the physical world. I liked the conceptual spareness of being able to say: no filters, no panning tricks or digital effects, just two people in a room.

I strongly feel that our most advanced technology is centered around and harnessing our perception. By using such simple materials I really hoped to draw attention to the power of our perceptual processes.

Why did you choose to create a visual accompaniment for the score? It seems as though it might demystify the illusion that Hocketing creates, the idea of more than a single note being perceived by the listener at once.

I always think reality is always the most exciting thing. Just because I’ve presented some of the components of the score doesn’t mean that I’m giving away all of the answers. I think it only deepens the mystery. As [founder of general semantics] Alfred Korzybski said, “the map is not the territory.” Why does one person hear something one way, while another person hears it completely differently? The score is only one version of events.

I often find with auditory phenomena that people will take whatever they hear as reality if you don’t actually show them otherwise. By publishing clues to the scores, I wanted to help people question their perception of the music.

At bottom, it’s actually perceptually confusing to even perform these pieces, so I’m slightly less worried about listeners ‘figuring them out’ to the point of disinterest.

Why did you choose to represent the notes with triangles and circles rather than using the traditional musical notation? Did you design the new system of notation yourself?

A score that doesn’t require specialized knowledge to decipher definitely gives more people access to the reality of how something is made.

I also use traditional music notation to notate these pieces for performance, but when I was writing them, I personally found it helpful to visualize the parts in a new way. Classical music notation is very effective at communicating a single part to a single player. However, a key thing about hockets is that you are highly dependent on both hearing your partner’s part, and understanding how it interlocks with yours in real time—otherwise, it falls apart! It’s challenging to sing, because you have to be simultaneously aware of your own part, as well as how it creates a larger inherent pattern with the other singer.

I really designed the notation out of necessity. Looking at them in this new way allowed me to track the melodic trajectory of each part, as well as the bigger picture of how they came together to create a combined melody. I also found it helpful during rehearsal, to be able to efficiently see where each part was in relation to the other and how the puzzle pieces fit together.

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Could anyone, regardless of prior musical training and with some time, reproduce the songs on “Hockets for Two Voices” using this score?

I’d be thrilled if people wanted to try to learn how to sing them, which is why I plan on releasing the full scores down the line. The scores included with the LP are actually only excerpts of full scores, so it’s not possible to completely reproduce each piece from them. I’d love to put out a book at some point, of both alternative and traditional scores.

As for performing them, the parts on this album are actually very technically challenging to sing—it requires a lot of jumps in pitch range (going from one octave to another), precise pitches, and brief staccato notes that make it even harder to sing in tune. I worked with a singing teacher to develop the necessary coordination before setting out to record them. On top of that, it’s essentially written into the pieces that it can be perceptually confusing to perform them—for example, it requires a fair amount of focus to sing a descending line when the combined parts make it sound like it’s rising. There are a bunch of things like that in each hocket that make them like brain twisters to sing live.

How difficult would it be to stage a live performance of the record? If you did attempt it/are going to attempt it, would you duet with yourself using a pre-recorded track or use another vocalist (or a Vocaloid singing voice synthesizer)?

I’ve done a few performances of some of these pieces with another singer. One at the Kitchen in 2016, and last year at the wedding of a friend. I’d love to do more, but it would require some dedicated rehearsal that I haven’t had the time or funding for yet. I’ve also been working on a version where I sing the first part live and trigger samples of the second part in real time.

Can you briefly discuss the work of Albert Bregman, and his influence on this project?

Albert Bregman pioneered the study of what he calls Auditory Scene Analysis (or ASA); it’s essentially the study of how we break down the sounds that we hear and group them according to similar characteristics. Meaning, the process by which we group sounds into identifiable ‘objects’ or sources. It’s very tied to basic survival in human development, but it’s also present in how we listen to music. A similar process that allows us to track the movement of a predator in the bushes helps us pick out a melody from any surrounding harmony or environmental noises.

The more I studied Bregman’s work with ASA, the more I was struck by how many of these principles have been independently developed in music for centuries. For example, a lot of the same principles of Auditory Scene Analysis are also present in counterpoint or voice leading to make melodies and harmonies independently trackable distinct voices. However, hockets are a direct opposition to that, and there is a lot of depth in music cognition to draw from. I was very interested in beginning to flout some of these rules—to use our knowledge of what makes melodies coherent in order to disrupt them in new and exciting ways.

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Are there any other artists/philosophers/musicians that you would recommend for people interested in learning more about/listening to other examples of hocketing?

Jō Kondō is a wonderful composer from Japan who has used hockets extensively in his work. My friend Zach Cowie just turned me onto him recently. I particularly love his piece called “Standing”.

And then Meredith Monk, of course! While “Hocket” from Facing North is the most distilled example, she also has hocketing throughout her work. There are a lot of wonderful hocketed passages between multiple singers in her opera Atlas, which I saw in the new re-staging at the L.A. Phil earlier this year.

Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors has written some incredible examples of hockets into his songs, especially on Bitte Orca and Mount Wittenberg Orca, but also on his latest album, Lamp Lit Prose. I’ve always loved this explanation and demonstration that he did with Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian in 2009, at the Walker Art Center.

Maryanne Amacher was a sound artist and composer who wrote what she called “Third Ear” music—psychoacoustic sound pieces that created the unearthly effect of a rotating tone inside the listener’s ears. Amacher didn’t write hockets per say, but her work was profoundly spatial and based in perceptual phenomena. A lot of her work was based around site-specific installations and therefore hard to recreate today, but the tracks “Head Rhythm 1/Plaything 2,” “Dense Boogie 1,” and “Chorale 1” off of her Sound Characters album are an incredible document of the kinds of perceptual experiments she did. Play them super loud in a room and move around to completely change what you hear! Amacher has been incredibly influential to me ever since my college thesis advisor Christoph Cox introduced me to her when I was 19. I think she is highly responsible for my interest in writing music that expands our experiences of perception.

Any plans to explore this musical form further in your next project?

I think hockets are just one corner of a very exciting terrain of perceptually informed music. I’m definitely interested in continuing to explore the larger idea of perception in my work going forward.

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