Note: Portions of the following interview were published in a May 11 edition of The Daily Californian.
Music, even in its simplest forms, has always represented deconstruction — of ideas, emotions and concepts into melodies, harmonies and rhythms, and then further into phrases, notes and dynamics. Music is also inherently performative; despite our culture of Spotify and iPhones, both classical and contemporary music are most authentically experienced in a live setting, be it a rock venue or a symphony hall.
For Oren Boneh, a doctoral student in the Department of Music, composition is a means of self-expression rooted in the ability to interact with — or even subvert — the standard cultural perception of music. His most recent piece, “To Form a More Perfect Human,” goes beyond unconventional instrumentation or atypical time signatures — he breaks from the performative expectations of his audience by deliberately hiding players from it.
“I’m very fascinated by the idea of stripping someone of the knowledge of what’s creating the sound,” Boneh said. “I think that’s really interesting — I think it really changes the way we hear the sound.” As an example, he mentioned the violin, an instrument whose sound we can easily identify. “We know that instrument — it’s historically ingrained in our minds,” he said. “But I’m really interested in sounds that we can’t necessarily easily attribute to a particular object.”
To get around those ingrained expectations, his recent composition “To Form a More Perfect Human” calls for two players — a trumpeter and a percussionist — to be placed behind a screen, out of sight from the audience. “The trumpet is able to do a lot of sounds that we cannot easily attribute to the trumpet, especially very quiet, fragile sounds,” explained Boneh, himself a trumpeter. The hidden trumpeter, together with the percussionist — whose toolkit included toys and other atypical instruments — were ported through electronic effects and amplified to the audience via speakers, the final product a confusing and unsettling mix of the seen and unseen.
The decision to hide players went beyond the psycho-acoustic novelty it imparted on the performance — it directly illuminates the way Boneh sees his place in the world. “I’ve felt throughout my life a bit inauthentic, a bit not myself,” Boneh revealed. “We have to hide our blemishes, behave a certain way, speak a certain way, and a lot of that is trying to put down our own individuality and force us to conform more to what is expected of us. I think the idea of having the performers behind screens, that was my way of dealing with this idea of hiding behind an image.”
“To Form a More Perfect Human” deals directly with this concept, and yet never explicitly reveals it to the audience. The decision to keep onlookers in the dark about the hidden players moves the dialogue of the piece out of the conscious and analytic and into the visceral. “When I want music to portray something, I want it to be something that’s in the subconscious,” Boneh said. “I don’t want it to jump out to the listener and say, ‘Hey, this piece is about this.’ I want the listener actually to have their own image, their own understanding, and if their own understanding is different than mine, I think that’s fantastic.”
Given the unconventionality of the piece, such an outcome seems likely. Beyond his instrumentation and hidden players, “To Form a More Perfect Human” further rejects the typical performance standards via intrusion. “At some point the piece builds to a certain chaos — to me that chaos represented the human coming out, because at the beginning of the piece, it’s quite machinelike. As the piece goes on, it becomes more and more chaotic. And I think that’s the human screaming to be let out of its cage.”
That human breaking loose is then actualized as someone walks out onto the concert stage and literally screams, Boneh said. “It’s sort of a dream of mine sometimes, that when I hear a piece, or when I hear a lecture, or I’m somewhere where I’m supposed to be quiet, I kind of want to scream sometimes. You know what I mean? You have this impulse, to think: What would happen if I just screamed right now?”
It’s those unique, personal thoughts that drive Boneh’s compositions. “Every piece, I’m trying to pick out more of myself,” he said. “When you’re young, you’re constantly in this process of imitation, but for me, I’m now really in the process of trying to find what I want to do, and what I’m going to contribute.”
For him, that starts with how he appears within his own works. “It’s been a question of how do I put myself in my pieces?” he said. “I ask myself this all the time — what do I care about, not what do other people want me to care about, but what do I actually care about in my life?”
While his focus shifts from composition to composition, his writing is guided by that question, how to take ideas he cares about and translate them into pieces and performances that viscerally engage with audiences on a conscious and subconscious level.
Boneh is currently a doctoral fellow at the UC Berkeley where he works with Franck Bedrossian, Edmund Campion, Ken Ueno and Cindy Cox.