Author: Molly Sheridan

Erik Friedlander: Stories Without Words

“It’s not your skill level, it’s how much you communicate,” cellist Erik Friedlander advises early in our conversation. “It’s how much you express that the audience really wants to hear. They come to hear you be real.”

Friedlander, however, is clearly not a musician lacking for chops. The years of training and gigging he did to establish himself in New York City’s music scene—largely on the downtown/avant-garde jazz side, though his active performance career has taken him all over the genre map—left him with a reputation as a go-to freelancer. And while he’s since honed his focus down more tightly to his own composer/performer work, it’s this underlying sonic curiosity and his ability to aurally convey deep emotional experience that colors the ongoing evolution of his work, both in solo and group contexts.

This week, Friedlander released a recording of Illuminations, his ten-part suite for solo cello, originally a commission by the Jewish Museum in New York City tied to an exhibit of ancient books they were hosting. Friedlander notes the echo of Bach in the piece’s construction and the obvious impact of the historic texts that inspired him. Yet while the filter of that history overlays its message, its musical language is modern.

Friedlander explains that he took away a particular image from this display of illuminated manuscripts which inspired his later thinking. “You just felt like you were in the presence of some incredible work, some incredible time being spent to carefully detail every letter,” he recalls. “I was interested in the content, but I was more interested in the labor—the exquisite time and effort that was taken into creating these beautiful books. I just imagined the life that was given to doing this job.”

Erik Friedlander: Office

Erik Friedlander’s home studio.

Erik Friedlander: Office

Friedlander’s Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello

His working process varies from project to project, though inspiration for much of his recent catalog can be tied to such personal life experiences or visual elements. A prime example, perhaps, is his album Block Ice & Propane (2007), which he performs live as “Taking Trips To America” with the accompaniment of projected images taken by his parents (his father is the admired American photographer Lee Friedlander) during their annual summer camping trips.

No matter the impetus or the eventual scoring method, at some point Friedlander says he always ends up at the cello while working out ideas “because that’s where I’m most comfortable.” And while adventurous when it comes to finding new sounds and ways to play his instrument, there’s also a complimentary caution to adding techniques. Friedlander says he was always self-conscious about using pedals in performance, for example, because they didn’t fit as fluidly into his work as he needed them to until recently. The development of his remarkable pizzicato technique went through a similar period of appraisal, which he speaks about in the video at the top of this post.

But his experiences in New York’s downtown music community helped him build a platform for the experimental ways of working he was seeking. “I finally fell into a scene where a string player could be doing world music, could be doing rock-inspired music, any kind of music, and this is what I was searching for. I was a cello player who was not entirely happy just playing the music that was given to me in orchestra or chamber groups. I mean, I liked all that stuff, but I had something different about me that needed to be explored, and this was the scene for that perfectly.”

It was a necessary addition to his more traditional training. “When you learn classically, you learn to develop a very strong inner censor who’s constantly berating you for what you’re doing wrong. I think all players, classical or otherwise, need to get a good gag on that person,” Friedlander recommends. “You’ve got to shoot higher than that; you have to shoot for expression rather than technical perfection.”

Robert Dick’s The Other Flute Mocked on Network TV

Robert Dick Photo by Carla Rees Dawson

Robert Dick
Photo by Carla Rees Dawson

Composer and flutist Robert Dick, or rather his much-praised manual on extended techniques The Other Flute, made an unexpected appearance on network TV this week thanks to a Jimmy Fallon sketch. The segment was devoted to a short stack of books that Fallon suggested “you probably should avoid reading this year.”

It’s perhaps naive to expect sharp, music-based humor during late night television, but the 50 seconds Fallon devoted to talking about the book consisted exclusively of sexual innuendo and character assault related the book’s title and the author’s name. During Fallon’s final remarks on the book, he turns the author shot towards the camera and asks, “Does he look like a dick to you?” The audience cheers.


(Fallon’s comments on The Other Flute begin at 2:18.)
The responses under the YouTube posting of the segment are peppered with an uncharacteristic level of smart criticism, and now Dick himself is asking friends and colleagues to reach out to the Tonight Show and support his appearance on a future episode to play The Other Flute and “blow the minds of the national TV audience.” Those who wish to add their comments can contact the show online via the network’s website or Fallon’s Facebook page.

Meanwhile, it’s a book about modern flute technique. Can someone write Fallon some better material at least?

Unfamiliar with Robert Dick’s pioneering work? Catch up with this NewMusicBox piece or buy his book.

***
UPDATE: Robert Dick offers this further personal insight into the matter.

When I first saw the sketch “Do Not Read — THE OTHER FLUTE” on the Tonight Show, I was incredulous, hurt and angry. This was the same, lame, “dick humor” that I first encountered at age 5. And the jokes were way far from the best I’ve heard (or sometimes made). Then I realized that, in its own bizarre way, a unique opportunity had fallen out of the sky. Because my public persona is really funny and entertaining, I might have the chance to speak up for everyone who has been mocked for being different in some way. Can you hear me, Willy the Whale, with your three voices, shot dead on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House? (I might have gotten the whole multiphonic idea from you, pal!)

And, I might have the chance to play my music for a huge audience and to show the world just how cool creativity really is. That’s why I’m asking everyone to contact the Tonight Show through their FaceBook page or to Tweet them (#InviteRobertDick @FallonTonight) to let them know that you’d love to see me on the show and that I will rock them to the core of their being.

The outpouring of support has touched me deeply. Oft times, we creators in the non-commerial realm feel that very few are listening to our music — in the last couple of days I’ve felt, as never before, that my life and work have made a difference to very many people. I’m truly humbled and grateful.

So please keep the flood of FaceBook posts and Tweets going to Tonight. If its going to happen, it will happen fast, so please act right when you read this.

With gratitude,
Robert Dick

Miranda Cuckson: String Alchemist

Despite the remarkable breadth and diversity of violinist Miranda Cuckson’s repertoire list, there is a reliable theme that emerges when it comes to reactions to her playing: music critics and fans tend to note how comfortably she embraces even the sharpest, most unapproachable-seeming pieces, conveying the music with such palpable control and insight that it’s as if she’s holding the door into these worlds open for the audience.

Frankly, it’s the impression I carry as well, particularly after I heard her perform an all-Ralph Shapey program in Chicago in 2013. When work is at its most forbidding, she grabs the flashlight that is her skill and artistry and leads the way through.

Cuckson's 1742 “ex-Bazzini” Guadagnini violin

Cuckson’s 1742 “ex-Bazzini” Guadagnini violin

Cuckson’s extensive Juilliard training—from age 9 through her Ph.D—steeped her in a broad array of repertoire, but she discovered a particular affinity for new and often challenging pieces. “One reason that I’ve done well at this kind of thing is that I absorb quickly unfamiliar music, so being handed scores and [being told], ‘Play this,’ I’m able to do,” she acknowledges, laughing. “So I’ve found myself getting work.”

And while she’s more interested in music that has something “really vivid” to say rather than difficulty for difficulty’s sake, she admits that there is something attractive about the puzzle.

“I do enjoy music that presents something for me to really figure out, both in terms of understanding the music itself and how I’m going to play it on my instrument and what I want to convey with it,” she explains. “You feel like there are layers that you go through and certain things that, once you’ve absorbed them, become more ingrained in how you’re doing it. Then you can go further into another aspect of it or another level of it. It’s rewarding to work that way.”

Work, you quickly get the impression, is not something Cuckson has ever been one to shy away from. In addition to keeping up with her busy performance schedule of solo and chamber repertoire, she is an active recording artist and is also the artistic director of the ensemble Nunc. Plus, she writes about music as well, often penning her own program notes.

Cuckson's library of scores, books, and media.

Cuckson’s library of scores, books, and media.

So far, however, for as much as she values her role as an engaged and intellectually curious collaborator, she hasn’t felt the urge to compose new work herself.

But I feel strongly about what I do as an interpreter. It’s both putting all my imagination and hopefully perceptiveness and insight into the music, and skill and all that, but also being a great collaborator with the composers—whether they’re not around anymore so I have to figure that out, or with the people who can actually talk and work with me. There’s a kind of alchemy that goes on, and it’s one of the more mysterious things, music and the melding that goes on between artists’ personalities in performance: the composer’s vision and what they were feeling and the performers and their own personalities and how these things come together.

It’s also a reminder of the profoundly fluid and ephemeral nature of performance, no matter how many hours go into perfecting the delivery of even the most complex score or how much time a listener is able to spend in its company. That’s the interesting thing about new music, Cuckson emphasized. “One performance of something is part of a process, hopefully of either getting to know that piece or that composer’s work or in general just listening to more and more things.”

Gelsey Bell: Get a Little Closer

There is a captivating mix of singer-songwriter intimacy, fourth wall-crushing theatricality, and curious experimental exploration in the work of composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Gelsey Bell.

Performances of her 2011 song cycle SCALING, for example, have her crawling over and around the piano to play from positions that would likely make Tori Amos’s head spin. For “Cradle,” an intimate meditation for voice and metallophone from her 2013 cycle Our Defensive Measurements, she spends some time coaxing the audience to within arm’s reach before she begins to sing.

Bell's Casio keyboard

Bell’s Casio keyboard (down a few keys) has seen her through the creation of a lot of music.

With a background that spans music theater, woman-at-the-piano club shows, and the presentation of experimental work—both of her own design and of composers such as Robert Ashley—the cross-pollination of influences is perhaps to be expected. But the breakdown of walls—both between genres and between performer and audience—remains a tightrope to walk.

It’s also a place of risk and vulnerability that Bell welcomes. “I love an aesthetic of mistakes. I want things to get a little messy. I’m not interested in the sounds of perfection.”

“And I guess getting the audience involved is a great way to do that!” she concedes, laughing.

Music and risk

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Even when she isn’t inviting the audience into, say, the bathroom with her for a little acoustic exploration, her preferred ways of working leave her open to the artistic ideas of collaborators both in creation and interpretation, especially through her regular work with collectives such as thingNY and Varispeed. Experimental music has allowed her to take “very seriously the idea of making work with your friends”—collaborations she finds to be fun and efficient because everyone brings a deeper level of appreciation and understanding to the table.

Further explaining her interest in such work and the opportunities it brings, Bell says, “I have full control over my performance and my body, and I’m not interested in having full control over any other performer’s body. I work with a lot of people who are composers in their own right and they have their own musical intelligences, and so I’m much more interested in creating a musical situation where we can all embody that.”

Bell's score for rolodex

Bell’s score designed for delivery via Rolodex currently in development.

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This openness to exploring ideas is one of the things Bell finds attractive about both the experimental music scene and academic environments—two places where she finds she can be playful and curious in different yet complimentary ways.

She earned her Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University in January 2015 and is currently at work on a host of new pieces for upcoming performances this spring. On reflection, Bell says she feels somewhat like she’s at the cusp of more fully blending her various pots of experience—pockets that she previously kept somewhat isolated from one another.

I feel like I’m at this place of total exploration and I’m just having faith that I’m going to come out with something. I feel like I’m really in that mode where you’re just like, okay, I’m an artist. I have to let myself fail. I have to try a million things. I have to hate stuff, I have to love stuff, and I have to trust that if I put something on that’s really horrible it won’t be that no one wants to see anything that I do ever again. And just have faith that this kind of dream of some sort of sound that I have in my head that doesn’t have these intense boundaries can happen.

Ken Thomson: Energized Complexities


Mention composer and sax/clarinet player Ken Thomson in conversation or seek out his work online, and you’ll pretty quickly get to some description of the intense physicality of his playing (he has been known to jump around some on stage) or his impressive work ethic (he’s involved in more than a few projects, including Slow/Fast, Gutbucket, Asphalt Orchestra, and Bang on a Can All-Stars).

Yet while he’s too easygoing and good natured to actually roll his eyes at me when I open our conversation with a question about this slightly manic characterization, it’s understandable that the pigeonholing is starting to wear thin. “It’s sort of the first thing that people say—’Oh, usually he’s the guy jumping up and down, blah, blah, blah’—even when I’m not!”
Still, he doesn’t deny that he likes to use his body in performance, both for musically expressive purposes and to deal with the more practical aspects of leading a group in often high-decibel environments without the use of his arms. A first violinist’s standard sniff cue will just not cut it.

“I like being physical when I’m playing, and I think that’s really important actually to show that you’re in it,” Thomson explains. But while his onstage persona might—at least sometimes—communicate a high-energy, in-your-face kind of guy, he actually feels much more reserved when away from the stage lights. A consideration of his scores deepens this view—his often-complex work is carefully designed and communicates powerfully in live performance without exhausting the audience. During a recent tour stop promoting his ensemble Slow/Fast’s release Settle, crowd attention never seemed to waver.


It’s a live consumption situation Thomson is careful to facilitate. “I obviously like music that’s exciting, that kind of keeps you on the edge of your seat in a lot of ways,” he points out, and during performance, he’s continuously monitoring the room to make sure the audience is still with him. “I’m really good at seeing yawns,” he admits, “or if I start feeling like we’re losing some kind of touch, it’s a very palpable feeling for me.”

He carries those concerns about attention back to his desk when first crafting music, a process that he has learned to be patient with. Sometimes pieces simmer along slowly for a while, and at other times they must rest entirely some months before completion. “I used to write too quickly, I think, and then I would come back the next day and think, ‘God, this is terrible!’ I’m a better editor maybe than a writer, and sort of give myself time to have fresh ideas along the way.”

Photo by Naomi White Connect with Ken:On TwitterOn FacebookOn YouTubeOn SoundCloud

Photo by Naomi White
Connect with Ken:
On Twitter
On Facebook
On YouTube
On SoundCloud

Thomson’s compositional output, showcased by the scores and media presented on his website, now spans a broad range of contexts. One thing that his online reputation is light on, however, is the typical list of schools attended and commissions fulfilled, something he suggests he doesn’t find “super relevant.” When asked, the Columbia grad doesn’t diminish his educational experience, but credits the opportunities it allowed him to learn and perform outside the classroom—both on stage and at his campus radio station, WKCR, where he was jazz director for two and a half years.

Columbia was also where he met and began playing with guitarist Ty Citerman, with whom he works in the collaborative, genre-mashing quartet Gutbucket to this day. When the group was first getting off the ground and exploring their sound, they had a weekly gig at the Knitting Factory where they would try out material. “We started getting better when we started getting beyond adding this plus this plus this,” Thompson recalls, noting that this more complete fusion is still something he’s always looking to do. “I never want to have something sound like, ‘Oh, this is the moment that’s the rock moment, or this is the jazz moment, or this is the contemporary classical moment’—ugh. To me, everything has to make sense.”
But for all the vital diversity his various project lineups and genre influences provide him, Thomson says that in many ways he feels a bit out of touch with the current zeitgeist. “I’m writing music for human beings without electronics. I haven’t done multimedia; I’m not using Max. I feel like I’m totally losing every grant!” he jokes, bursting into laughter.
“It’s really so much about the sound of the instruments and what they do together, and that’s what I love about music. So in that way I think I’m really hopelessly old school, and I don’t know how to fix that. Maybe I shouldn’t.”

Susan Alcorn: Fearless Slides


Composer, improviser, and pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn came up playing country and western music, first in Chicago where she fell in love with the instrument’s unique timbres and then in and around Houston. But her ear eventually led her down a decidedly more singular experimental path, a journey which required the adaptation of both her instrument (changing tuning and adding strings) and her physical approach to it.

For audiences and even fellow musicians used to more straight-ahead performances, the reaction to her exploratory work with the instrument could get unsettling.

“It was like, what the hell’s she doing…and why?” Alcorn recalls, somewhat bemused. When a video of one of her performances in Paris was released on YouTube, an online pedal steel forum questioned her skill and her respect for her instrument. “They thought not only did I not know how to play, but that I was destroying the instrument. I actually got threatening emails, believe it or not! They said I was the empress with no clothes.”
A few of Alcorn's instruments
Still, in a reflection characteristic of Alcorn’s thoughtfulness in front of her instrument, she goes on to suggest “and maybe they were right, because that’s how you have to be. You’ve got to be naked in your mind to be able to play and express yourself—you have to be naked and fearless and that’s not easy, especially the older you get.”

Though she can still skillfully slide her way through country tunes, these days Alcorn is based in Baltimore and primarily devoted to her own innovative work, chasing new sounds through extended techniques, instrument preparation, and free improvisation both solo and with fellow artists old and new. But her music remains engaged with melody and beautiful chords. “Maybe that’s the country and western in me,” she says. “I like a song!”
Alcorn's well-loved pedal steel
Under the pedal steel guitar
Over the pedal steel guitar
Though Alcorn’s titles often suggest a certain epic scope—And I Await the Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar and Olivier Messiaen’s Morning Conjugal Death Waltz, for example—her website doesn’t offer many details about her individual pieces and her CD booklet notes have been presented in the form of brief poems. Whether offering her music on intimate recordings or live from the stage, she doesn’t seem all that anxious to explain it in words to her listeners. “I kind of hope that [audiences] find their own meaning in it—inspiration, comfort, discomfort, whatever. And sometimes I feel like the more that I say about something, I almost feel like that takes the power away from it. The more you describe something, it weighs it down a bit.”

Though Alcorn herself prefers to play by ear and usually feels most effective as a performer that way, she does notate work for other players when needed. And when composers write for her, such as Jeff Snyder’s recent work Substratum performed by Alcorn and the Mivos String Quartet, she has even adapted their notation to a version that she can read with more facility.


“My approach has been to try and allow…the instrument itself to tell its story, not to be the boss or the master of the instrument, but to be a collaborator with it and hopefully the three of us—the instrument, myself, and these little harmonic universes—can do something, accomplish something, say something, express something that will affect people in a nice way.”

“And you either hear it or you don’t,” Alcorn says, acknowledging that her sonic explorations don’t resonate with everyone, though she doesn’t buy the idea that you need some special training to understand her work. “It’s not a math problem; it’s feeling something.”

We Are Sitting In (Another) Room: Improv with Architecture

Pea Soup To Go
Today marks the 40th anniversary of Nicolas Collins’s Pea Soup, a piece that uses electronics to “play” the signature acoustics of a space. In honor of that milestone, Collins today unveils Pea Soup To Go, a free virtual jukebox programed with recordings of 70 different versions of the work, iterations which span decades and continents.

Since the composition relies on linked microphones and loudspeakers in a “self-stabilizing feedback network” to map and respond to changes in the room and produce the sonic content featured in the piece, it might just be one of the purest forms of ambient music available. The jukebox shuffles the various collected recordings, masking transitions between each with long crossfades, allowing listeners to dip into this historic stock pot and feast until they are full.

*

Molly Sheridan: How do you tend to explain this piece to people who haven’t yet heard it, especially those without a great deal of technical background?

Nicolas Collins: Technically it’s pretty simple. Everybody seems to have heard the squeal of feedback at some point, and most are familiar with the fact that moving the microphone (or electric guitar) usually changes the pitch of the feedback. I explain that the phase shifter (the electronic gizmo at the heart of the piece) emulates a hand moving the mike every time the feedback starts to swell. The piece has a sufficiently dreamy, non-threatening quality that most people don’t worry too much about the how and why.

MS: And that idea led you to the title Pea Soup?

NC: The immersive quality of the sound field brought to mind the cliché of a fog “as thick as pea soup.” Rather silly, in retrospect, but I was pretty young and now I’m stuck with it.

MS: While reading up on the history of Pea Soup, I was surprised to discover that the work can involve (or always does?) live musicians. This was something I didn’t quite pick out in the first few iterations of the piece I heard via the jukebox. They are charged with interacting with the electronics (or later the software) in some specific ways. Can you explain why you prescribe their actions in the way that you do? And then this of course made me curious about the impact of the audience in the space and therefore on thework itself.

NC: Left to its own devices the Pea Soup feedback network creates simple, languid melodies whose pitches are derived from the resonant frequencies of the room (and the tempo reflects the reverberation time–larger rooms play slower tunes.) A small change in the room acoustics can cause a pitch to be added to or dropped from the melody, like some slow hocket music. I ask performers to “play” the acoustics by walking around the room, since interfering with the reflecting paths of the feedback often causes a change in the patterns. They play notes as well: playing a unison with a feedback pitch, then bending slightly out of tune, can stop the feedback; playing an octave or fifth above a feedback pitch can cause the feedback to break to the upper interval; and introducing a pitch that hasn’t been heard in the feedback from several minutes often brings it back into the melodic pattern.
Audience sounds and movement obviously influence the patterns as well–a performance in a noisy bar unfolds very differently than in a quiet, formal concert hall. I’ve also installed the work in gallery settings, where interaction with the audience becomes central.

In performance I usually let the feedback system stabilize for a few minutes, as a sort of alap introducing the scale of the room, before the players start. The web app (Pea Soup To Go) shuffles a library of around 70 performance recordings, with long fade-ins and fade-outs. The sequence is random (or as close as I can get), as is the selection of in- and out-points for each file, so the recordings always start at different times–sometimes one drops right in on a musician’s sounds, but sometimes you have to wait a few minutes to hear a player. Plus the players are instructed to play “inside” the feedback texture, rather than soloing on top, so it’s not always easy to distinguish the instrumental voices.
countryman phase shifter
MS: Okay, now for the gear snobs in the crowd, this piece offers some interesting insights into the punishment time can dish out on work that involves specific electronic components that can break down and become obsolete. This led you to some particular extremes—I especially loved the correspondence you exchanged with Carl Countryman, the maker of the phase shifter you originally employed in the piece. Can you tell us a bit about that evolution and how it affected the work?

NC: This will make me sound even older than I am, but back in 1974 there were no digital delays (or at least no affordable ones). The studio at Wesleyan had three Countryman Phase Shifters that Alvin Lucier had bought to do what’s called “Haas-effect Panning,” which is a way to pan sounds quite realistically using very short time delays. I had been working a lot with feedback, and discovered that changing the phase shifter’s delay setting could emulate moving a mike, opening up a whole new vista of quasi-automated feedback manipulation. Pea Soup emerged as one of the major products of my undergraduate education.
After college I moved on to other materials and technologies (early microcomputer music, live sampling and signal processing, collaboration with improvisers.) But I’d return to feedback from time to time, and when, through my day job in New York, I ran into Carl Countryman at trade shows I’d always ask if he had any of the Phase Shifters back at his warehouse. By the 1980s he was making very popular high-quality Direct Boxes and lavaliere microphones, and the phase shifters were long gone and, it seems, not missed–his answer was always “no.”

Then in the late 1990s I was in Berlin with a DAAD fellowship, and an ensemble with which I was working (Kammernesemble Neue Musik Berlin) asked if they could revive Pea Soup. At first I tried to reconstruct the original analog circuit. I emailed Mr. Countryman, who obviously still remembered my unwanted nagging, and he sent me the schematic with the explicit understanding that I was never to bother him about this device again. The circuit is not complicated, but it has one odd custom-made part that was difficult to duplicate. I did a few performances with my best attempt in the analog domain, but after a few years I wrote a software emulation of the original analog boxes that, with enough code tweaking, evolved into a pretty convincing substitute.

Software has allowed me to add a few features that would have been great to have back in 1974 but were out of reach then (such as a filter that automatically nulls pitches that would otherwise dominant in the texture.) Programs are not as cute as little metal boxes, but they’re lighter and can be distributed more freely, like old-fashioned paper scores: I’ve posted the program on my web site, where anyone who’s interested can download it and perform Pea Soup without the need fly in Nic and his gear.
Pea Soup software
MS: How does the experience of Pea Soup via this clever website relate the performance experience of hearing it live for you?

NC: In a big space with big speakers Pea Soup can be a very immersive and interactive experience—“church of sound,” as one friend once called it. The web app (Pea Soup To Go) is obviously more like listening to a recording of a concert than experiencing a live event, but this is a record that never ends, never repeats—a multi-disk CD changer in “shuffle mode” with a twist: the long crossfades knit the 70 files into one continuous performance. Since every room is in a different, architecturally determined “key,” you end up hearing a series of odd, vaguely modal chord changes that stretch out over an almost glacial time scale.

MS: Even before I started reading the background on Pea Soup, I kept thinking of Cage and Lucier associations related to “hearing” a space–using a space and its contents as so essential to the end sonic result. Do you hear this piece as in that evolutionary line? In what ways does it intersect and/or diverge?

NC: Yes, it certainly is in that line. I was a young, impressionable student of Lucier’s at the time I made Pea Soup. I was drawn to feedback under the twin influences of Lucier and Cage. I loved Lucier’s extraction of musical material from fundamental acoustical phenomena (think of Vespers and I Am Sitting In A Room). My parents were both architectural historians, and the link between music and architecture was critical to my finding a comfortable place to work. And feedback became the solution to my Cage-induced ambivalence about making personal musical decisions in a world where all sounds could be “musical sounds”: turn up the volume and let nature/god/architects do the rest—a sort of acoustical I Ching.

Divergence? I think my generation of musicians and composers is (and always was) much more comfortable with the idea of improvisation than our teachers were: Cage hated it; Lucier kept trying to come up with other words to describe it. In Pea Soup and most of my other work I embrace improvisation, I hand a lot of responsibility off to my players, and live with the consequences.

I also see each musical generation incorporating a new generation of technology. My peers and I embraced synthesizers, effect boxes, homemade circuitry, computers. And technological shifts often beget stylistic changes – some modest, some significant. There’s a certain kind of technological interactivity that I believe is, for better or for worse, the gift of my generation of experimental music composers.

MS: Even though this was originally a student piece, you note that the lessons of architectural acoustics have continued to engage you, making this piece of ongoing interest even 40 years later. What have some of those lessons been?

NC: I still have difficulty making certain musical decisions, and I often return to acoustics to clarify the edges or underpinnings of a piece. In the end no sound gets to the ear without engaging with acoustics, and the physical reality of sound keeps me grounded. There’s a certain primordial consonance or orderliness or reassuring “rightness” in it, that I find helpful when I’m feeling lost.
roomtone variations
Recently, while tweaking the software for Pea Soup, I discovered a simple way of mapping the resonant frequencies of a room to conventional music notation. I’ve written a piece (Roomtone Variations) that uses this technique to create a site-specific score for any concert space, in real time, in the presence of the audience. The score is projected on a screen for all to see as it unfolds, and after the analytical intro (which takes about two minutes) an ensemble performs purely acoustic variations on this “architectural tone row” – a kind of “Pea Soup Unplugged.”

Another new piece, Speak, Memory, uses room reverberation as short-term memory for image files and sound bites. In the course of the performance I display the transformation of the original pictures and sounds as they are “forgotten” by the room. (I hope to include both these pieces on my first concert in New York in many years, at Roulette on March 9.)

You could look at this obsession in one of two ways, I suppose: either I am somewhat pathetic for, at the age of 60, still being hung up on my first true love from age 20; or it’s a sign of deep commitment to one’s fundamental beliefs. Take your choice.

Do You Hear the People Sing? Music and Protest in the Street

People's Climate March

All images and video by Molly Sheridan

Last week offered remarkable opportunities to contemplate the intersection of music and protest. For the 300,000-plus people participating in the People’s Climate March in New York City, music was a way to transmit a message over the roar of the crowded streets, to express solidarity with one another, and frankly to keep spirits up during the hours-long process of waiting and walking the jam-packed two-mile parade route.

Musicians met and mingled and joined in impromptu group performances of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “This Little Light of Mine,” the lyrics often tweaked to suit the environmental occasion. When a moment of silent reflection was observed at 1 p.m., it was all the more powerful as a result.


The next evening in a small park across the street from Lincoln Center, the situation was somewhat reversed. Music was absent as a coalition of organizations gathered with the explicit goal of forcing the cancellation of the Met’s planned production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer this season. A crowd of roughly 400, including a bussed-in delegation of high school students, listened as speakers passionately objected to what they considered the opera’s glorification of terrorism and its anti-Semitic libretto.

In a crowd, nuance fades away of course. When the argument is literally framed by a fence in the street, the question of “which side are you on?” can take on a certain stark, if ultimately artificial, clarity.
People's Climate March
People's Climate March
I reflected on this first during the climate march. There weren’t really spectators for this action, I noticed. Even the weary participants who eventually camped out on stairs and railings along the sides of the route often still held their placards or snapped pictures which, one assumes, would soon appear on their social media channels with opinions, explicit or implied, attached. Actually addressing climate change is immensely challenging, but in this crowd opinions were paired down to whatever would fit on a banner or into a six-syllable lyric. Sentiments were neat in their simplicity.
People's Climate March
People's Climate March
The Klinghoffer protest offered something both more aggressive and more complex. One lone man who was clearly espousing anti-Semetic sentiments based on his large placard was placed in his own special fenced area at the rear of the action before being moved across the street. And those protesting the production mostly held one of a few versions of pre-made signs, so their alliance was clear. The speeches from the podium became increasingly heated as the event wore on.
Protesting the Met's production of The Death of Klinghoffer
Taking up the mantle of investigative journalist, I started questioning these holders of poster board. Have you seen the opera? Have you heard the opera? Almost everyone I asked—a sample size of 15 or so, so take it for what you will—said that they had not. Some delivered this with a notable amount of pride or disgust at the suggestion that they would have endured such a thing. One woman appeared confused, because, as she informed me, the production “had not opened yet.”

So I was admittedly feeling a little dismissive when two things happened. First, a woman I asked about hearing the opera explained that she had listened to excerpts of it online and she then spoke passionately about why she found it incredibly offensive and inappropriate. I thanked her for her thoughts, but I realized as I turned away that I wasn’t, if I was being honest, really hearing her at all because I had already formed my own tightly held opinions and wasn’t listening. This was underlined with the bluntness of a made-for-TV movie a few moments later when a group of high school kids unaffiliated with the protest stopped near me and asked what was happening. I tried to explain it as even-handedly as I could—they were students, after all—and I was surprised by how thoughtfully they considered the issues at stake, even asking follow-up questions about the real-life events that led to the opera. This was the most productive bit of conversation I had had about the situation all week. Afterward, by truly listening to the various speakers without the earplugs of my own judgment, I began to hear how the root of the protest was actually less about John Adams’s opera, and more—especially since many were not directly familiar with the piece—about broader fears over examples of hate and terrorism and violence, from 9/11 to beheadings in the desert.
Protesting the Met's production of The Death of Klinghoffer
This did not suddenly make demands for the cancellation of The Death of Klinghoffer acceptable to me, but it did produce a more constructive framework for a conversation about the opera. Unfortunately, we were not gathered to have a conversation. We were in the street where the only response requested seemed to be to a single question: “Which side are you on?”

The night before the protest and away from the asphalt, Justin Davidson laid out a powerful analysis of the opera itself for New York Magazine‘s Vulture website (“The Trouble With Klinghoffer Isn’t Quite What You Think“), and James Jorden, writing for the New York Observer (“In Defense of ‘Klinghoffer’“), offered eloquent comments related to some of the same anxieties I felt that night on the plaza:

The function of art, or a least of high art, is not to reinforce existing prejudices. A work of art is not supposed to agree with us any more than we are required to agree with it. On the contrary, art is supposed to inspire a dialogue, even an argument with the spectator and with society as a whole. If that dialogue is quashed by a few hundred, or even thousands of protesters, then art cannot exist.

Earlier this year when reporting on the cancellation of the HD simulcasts of The Death of Klinghoffer, I was called out on this site by a reader for failing to rally unequivocally to the opera’s defense. I don’t deny that there is a time and place for such action, but then as now, I’m actually more concerned that we take care to actually listen to the music and the responses of those around us to it. Shouting either into silence seems to me the most damning outcome of all.

Who’s Got a Question?

Matters of the Art
Too embarrassed to ask your colleagues for guidance on handling performance anxiety? Facing a problem so professionally complex your mom doesn’t know how to help you? You need a fierce friend and NewMusicBox is here to help.
Whether it’s issues with your fan base or your French horn, when the curtain comes down, real life dramas can trouble your practice time and cramp you new music style. Your city’s alt-weekly advice columnist might not know enough about stand-sharing etiquette to understand your pain, but NewMusicBox’s newest column, Matters of the Art, is ready to lend an ear, a shoulder, and a hand. Column author Ellen McSweeney explains:

Many of my most popular articles at NewMusicBox have covered broad hot-button issues for musicians, including health insurance for freelancers, orchestra labor conflicts, and how women are (and aren’t) making progress in the fields of composition, conducting, and aesthetic tastemaking. And while I’m delighted to do a little rabble-rousing in the name of a more just and equitable world, I’m equally fascinated by what’s happening in the hearts and minds of individual artists. I’m a big believer in the value of sharing our struggles with each other. My experience is that by shining a bright light into the dark, un-talked-about corners of our lives, we make things a little easier for everyone.

Worries large and small accepted. Anonymity guaranteed. Write to [email protected] today.

A Feedback Loop of Movement and Sound: Five Questions with Choreographer Cori Marquis

This week marks the Disquiet Junto’s 134th composition challenge. We’ve covered the activities of this SoundCloud group and their intriguing creative homework assignments before, but the current project to compose music to accompany a dance video by choreographer Cori Marquis seemed particularly intriguing. The visual movement is complete, but its sound has yet to be crafted in response.


Those who choose to participate in this week’s challenge will select a one-minute section to score and then will share it with the group as per usual. In addition, Marquis may use some of the created music in her final cut of the video. If you’re reading this post and would like to find out more and/or join in yourself, you can get all the necessary details here. Deadline is Monday, July 28, 2014, at 11:59 p.m. (wherever you are).

I was intrigued by the idea of a dance piece that was presented as an edited video rather than delivered as a live performance, and I wanted to learn more about how Marquis made use of sound in her creative process. She invited me to quiz her on her work and methods.

Molly Sheridan: The clip above is actually my first encounter with a dance piece that is specifically designed so that an edited video presentation is the performance, not just a documentation method. Can you educate me a little bit on the development of this in the dance field? How it evolved and how it’s being used by yourself and others?  

Cori Marquis: Film and camera technology has played a progressively greater and greater role in dance since the start of their relationship. (Maybe surprisingly, dance and film have actually had a really long history together.) Simple documentation of dance work actually began in the late 1800s, then Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly really popularized dance specifically for film in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. It was many of the modern greats like Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham who started to play around with film technology when it became available to them somewhere in the ‘70s or so. So dance has been documented by film, film has been a part of live dance performances, and dance films have inhabited a completely separate form altogether.

I think the film/dance relationship is attractive to choreographers for so many reasons. Even just documentation of dance work is significant; unlike music or theater, there is no universal way to score or script dance work to be used in future generations. My choreography notes are pretty useless and nonsensical to anyone but me, which I think is more often the case than not. While film as documentation never quite does a live performance justice–it loses the immediacy; the possibility of new mistakes; the community, energy, and ephemeral nature of live performance–it does preserve work that otherwise might be completely lost without it being a living kinesthetic history on current bodies. Even casually, I use it in rehearsal often.

Then looking at film as the mode and medium for dance work opens up an entirely new form altogether, and in its own right. You can get the intimacy of film with the physicality of motion; you can alter the viewer’s visual perspective as well as the timing and pacing of the work. The editing becomes part of–or maybe most of–the choreography. You can bring site-specific work beyond the location. You can create physically unfeasible images. And logistically, it can be presented an infinite number of times, with the possibility of a huge geographical reach and scope in audience without the financial obstacles of touring a cast around the world.
All of this is to say that dance and film, and dance films, are nothing new. I think what is new is the ability to make that kind of work without an enormous budget, in this YouTube generation sort of way. But I don’t think that makes dance films reductionist, as that might seem in their ability to become ubiquitous. It somehow seems related to the explosion of other media in our generation, how TV shows have gone from often being “reductionist” sitcoms to fully fleshed-out stories that cover far more ground (with incredible production values) than a two-hour play or movie could (think Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective, etc.). I think the relationship between dance and film has moved from a better-than-nothing way to document (reducing the work’s full impact) to a form that opens up entirely new vocabularies and possibilities, adding and deepening the way we can communicate and tell stories (even if in abstraction!).

MS: Can you give me a little of the program note for the piece you’re asking the Disquiet Junto Project participants to score?

CM: The idea for this dance film is rooted in the ephemeral nature of live performance, and specifically the transient way dancers trace and use space. I wanted to investigate what it is to record these floor patterns and points of contact so that they do not disappear the moment they occur. A clear vehicle for this became paint on bodies, with dance on film. The work uses multiple colors of paint to track two dancers: their points of contact with the floor, themselves, and each other; in athletic phrase work; partnering; and nuanced improvisation. The film primarily utilizes semi-aerial and intimate close-up shots.

Screen capture from Marquis's to-be-scored dance piece.

Screen capture from Marquis’s to-be-scored dance piece.

MS: Did you have a sound in mind for this piece as you choreographed it?


CM: I didn’t have any specific sound ideas for this piece–I still don’t. I obviously have different sounds and types of music that I like, and I can imagine some types of sound that would work well for the film, but I was excited to see what tones and pacing would emerge from the phrase work and the editing itself. I’m not a musician, so I’m excited to hear what far more musically creative people will develop using this film as source material. I had different music playing during the choreography process, during filming, and even while I was editing, but nothing that I became tied to or tried to marry to the material.

MS: How do you typicality work with music when you choreograph?

CM: My starting point for a piece is usually conceptual in nature, some idea that I’m interested in investigating. This quickly becomes movement, and only later becomes scored. I usually just have a current playlist that I’m interested in playing during rehearsal, so I do like dancing to music. But set music for specific sections of a larger work tends to come much later in my process. We often try sections with many types of songs to see how it changes the movement. Sometimes I stumble upon it while I’m working–where everyone in the room feels the “aha…that’s what this section sounds like!” when a section fits really well with a song. But while the music certainly informs the shape, time, and structure of a section, I usually end up altering or editing the music in some way to fit the choreography (which I just do in GarageBand). I like using melodic stuff, often electronic, sometimes experimental, sometimes pop, but almost never music that’s hard to listen to. I like music that makes the audience–and the dancers–want to dance.

MS: How did you come to decide to collaborate with the Junto project to score the film? What was interesting to you about that idea and how does it interact with your artistic motivation on the dance side?

CM: Marc [Weidenbaum, moderator of the Disquiet Junto] and I met during an interview for his book on Aphex Twin. (I used an Aphex Twin song for a quartet I choreographed a number of years ago, and Marc stumbled across the video online and contacted me.) He was really interested in the idea that music is often secondary for me, and it’s usually a stressful process trying to find music to fit a work. I’ve definitely been interested in collaborating with a musician for a long time, and this project seemed like an excellent way to explore that for both me and the Junto Project. Historically, social and performance dances were developed based on music. I like this idea that came with modernism that we can reverse that direction if we want–that dance can be the foundation, the source material, the thing that comes first, and music can stem from that. I think it only deepens and enriches the possibilities of performance if the relationship between music and dance can be reciprocal–more like a feedback loop than unidirectional with music always first.

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The conversation has begun! Here are the tracks submitted so far: