Music In Conversation
BRENDON RANDALL-MYERS with Vanessa Ague
Brendon Randall-Myers is a composer and electric guitarist with a multifaceted musical history—from conducting the Glenn Branca Ensemble to performing Bach. His new album, dynamics of vanishing bodies (New Focus Recordings), written for the electric guitar quartet Dither, focuses on the use of psychoacoustic effects to explore the sensations of place and memory. We sat down for a video chat to discuss his new record and his long relationship with the guitar.
Vanessa Ague (Rail): When did you start playing guitar?
Brendon Randall-Myers: I started when I was 11 or 12. I had my dad’s acoustic guitar, and I tried to start learning on it, but it was painful and too big for me. Shortly thereafter, my parents bought me an electric guitar plus an amp that together cost about $80.
Rail: Did you do classical training when you started playing?
Randall-Myers: I was self-taught for a year or two, and then my cousins gave me a few pointers. The year before high school, I started taking rock and jazz lessons. I grew up in rural West Virginia, so there weren’t a ton of teachers around. There are a lot of really amazing folk musicians in West Virginia and a lot of good rock players, too, but they're all far apart. Even this teacher was a 25-minute drive each way to get there.
I was homeschooled until high school, when I went to Phillips Exeter. I did everything I could there. I did rock, classical, and jazz guitar. I played in five rock bands. I was taking jazz piano. I finished the entire music theory curriculum by the end of my second year.
I kept doing classical guitar all through undergrad. I finished undergrad and I did another year of playing classical guitar somewhat consistently, and then I just stopped. I went back to electric and realized that I like practicing electric in a way that I don't like practicing classical guitar. Classical always felt like a lot of work, and electric guitar feels like a thing I can just do.
Rail: How did you get into the downtown-New York scene?
Randall-Myers: Early in high school, I got into math metal, like The Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge, and from there it was a short path to Mr. Bungle, which was a short path to John Zorn. Zorn was the first experimental composer that I really knew when I was 15 or 16, and it was totally through those Bungle records.
In undergrad, I got to know minimalist composers, but I feel like I only internalized Glass when I played Two Pages in my immediately post-undergrad math rock band. Glenn Branca was someone else that I knew relatively early through Sonic Youth. Once I was down the Bungle/Zorn, Sonic Youth/Branca rabbit holes, I was hopelessly a nerd.
Rail: When you were discovering all this music, were you also playing it, or were you just getting it in your ear?
Randall-Myers: I wasn’t playing the really experimental stuff. I played in a hardcore band my first year of undergrad, but then all those other people graduated and I didn't play loud music again the rest of the time. I was just playing in classical guitar ensembles. I lived in San Francisco for three years after undergrad and studied composition privately. I played in a math rock band and didn't really start performing contemporary music.
As a performer, I love playing really stressful, physically exhausting music for reasons that I can't fully explain. The same things that I get out of distance running I get out of playing Two Pages. If you screw up, you're just done.
Rail: I would assume that your experiences with the Glenn Branca Ensemble, conducting and playing, would surround that physicality of performance as well.
Randall-Myers: It's hard to find music that asks more of you. When I was one of the guitarists, I found it less insane. It drew on skills I've spent a long time cultivating. As a conductor, it is the most physically demanding and emotionally demanding performance experience I think I've ever had, especially the first one at MIT, which was the first ensemble performance that we did after [Glenn] died. You can play the notes, but you have to bring the energy, or it’s not Glenn. So that first performance was about finding that energy.
Rail: You wrote dynamics of vanishing bodies for Dither, a group that you also play with. Did you have a lot of collaboration and communication with them?
Randall-Myers: I don't do a whole lot of work where I'm just writing a one-off piece for someone—it's usually the culmination of a much longer relationship, and that's super true here. In the first performance, it was a little more prescriptive than I like to be with performers. Since then, I revised it a little bit—the whole last section of the piece used to be completely written out, and now they improvise the last four or five minutes.
I wrote dynamics of vanishing bodies after a period where Fay, my partner, was waiting to get her green card. It was five months, and I was not sure when we would be in the same place. I was thinking about the weirdness of spaces that people inhabit and then no longer inhabit, and also about technology and how technology can preserve these parts of people. Those are the two things I was trying to get at in the piece with its psychoacoustic effects.
Rail: The title is a double entendre, right? Because dynamics of vanishing bodies is a physics textbook, but it's also about a vanishing presence.
Randall-Myers: Yes, and I will admit that it's a riff on a John Luther Adams piece, The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies (2006).
Rail: Do you have an interest in physics?
Randall-Myers: Not especially an interest. I got back into the math aspects of acoustics because I was listening to this Maryanne Amacher record, which led me down a rabbit hole. Right when Trump got elected, I started trying to write a metal record with Doug Moore, who is the singer of Pyrrhon and a band called Weeping Sores. This summer, I finally finished that piece and what that turned into is kind of like the dynamics of vanishing bodies sequel. I've been forced to systematize some of the math things again to make it repeatable and a little more harmonically robust.
Rail: Did that dynamics of vanishing bodies sequel have any correlation to the election, or was that coincidental?
Randall-Myers: It's definitely not coincidental. There's all of this white male anger that's everywhere, and I was very aware of the aggression in my own music. Harshness is still there in this piece, but it's much more about tools to exist with pain and exist with uncertainty and discomfort and anxiety, and to hopefully find some beauty in that process.
There's also something for me about changing my relationship with catharsis and what I want out of heavy music. Heavy music has always been kind of a safety valve for me. I'm trying to learn other tools to manage my own feelings other than just raging in a pit. That's what a lot of the music that I've written in the past four years is: it's trying to sit with something long enough to see what's really in there.
Rail: Is that why you took up long distance running?
Randall-Myers: Long distance running preceded this; that was something I got into in high school, actually. The last couple of months, I took a class on nonviolent communication with my mom, and so much of that is about paying attention to what your body is doing. It connects so directly to the running practice because that's all you have to sit with on a 20-mile run. Bringing that awareness first to the body allows me to make better decisions with the rest of me.
I've started connecting the running practice to the music practice more overtly in the last couple of years. This is also part of why I like metal. In the process of trying to do these ridiculous runs, you end up having to develop a pretty deep connection with your body. I've tried to abstract some of those ideas around endurance and physical presence and do it in music that isn't always as abrasive.