Author: Molly Sheridan

NewMusicBox @ 15: Reflections on Change, Challenge, and Music in the 21st Century

NewMusicBox's 15th Anniversary
With life hurtling us forward at what often feels like an ever-increasing speed, it can take all available energy just to keep pace. The fear of missing out runs in cruel parallel to a world of information and experience that is expanding exponentially before our eyes, one that we cannot hope to consume even a decent fraction of.

And in the midst of so much that is new and shiny, there is rarely the opportunity to stop, let alone turn around and examine the path that has brought us to where we are currently standing.

But when we fail to engage in this reflection, we’re actually missing out on something else—the chance to measure our progress and to better comprehend the lessons the journey has taught us along the way. Such study can bring new meaning to what we have encountered and re-align where we want to head next.

For NewMusicBox, May 1 marks our publication’s 15th anniversary. Since 1999, we have been sharing the stories and sounds of new music in America with the world through the internet—initially a wild new frontier and still a slippery (if more sophisticated) one. To mark the occasion, we decided to stop looking forward toward new music for a moment and instead consider the lessons of what we’ve heard so far. Year by year, we sifted through our digital (hard yet corruptible) archives and our organic (malleable yet fallible) memories and contemplated what we might best take away from the past before we take any further steps toward the future.

Admittedly, we uncovered broken links and some dated graphics, but much larger messages transcended those cosmetic wrinkles—lessons from the artists we’ve spoken with about success and frustration, cash and creativity, living to make music and making music to make a living. Now, for the next few weeks, we’ll advance the clock a year at a time and call out the mile markers that still shine for us. (And we’ll index each of those posts below on this page.)

But this is an exercise made richer and more complete through collective action. How has American music influenced your life over the last decade and a half—in whatever roles you have played? What were the high points? What were the pitfalls? We hope you’ll reach back into your memory and share your takeaways with us as we travel back to…



As you join in the conversation to mark the 15th anniversary of NewMusicBox, please consider celebrating this milestone by making a gift to New Music USA, the non-profit organization that publishes NewMusicBox. Whether you are a loyal reader or are new to these pages, chances are you care about the dissemination of new American music and the vibrancy of the communities that create it. Our editors work hard to help you share your music, stories, and ideas with the world. Whether you donate $1 per month or $100, your gift is an endorsement of our work, one that enables us to more powerfully advocate for the needs of this community. Our cause is advanced far more when we are united.

Dave Malloy: Singing for His Soul (Not His Supper)

At the composer’s Brooklyn apartment
March 26, 2014—11 a.m.
Interview and video presentation edited and condensed by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Under the gaze of Broadway’s bright lights and imposing marquees, musical theater seems an especially tough game to play in New York City. Yet it also made the elaborate canvas tent erected in an empty lot on 45th Street to house the Off-Broadway production of Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 all the more magical. Here was a show that had beaten the odds without following the rules.

This was actually the show’s third location after a premiere run at Ars Nova and a transfer to the Meatpacking district. Inside, the audience got cozy around communal tables while gawking at the staged Russian cabaret setting, ordered drinks and food, and then sat center stage as the action of the show unfurled all around them. Its composer (who also played Pierre through much of the run) carried us through this story, a sliver of the weighty War and Peace, on rowdy ensemble numbers and heart-breaking sung soliloquies. The borscht was complimentary, but the critics were in love.

I actually first met Malloy not in this fantasy slice of 18th-century Russia, but in a small Ohio town sometime in the late ’90s, both of us financing our summers by playing in the pit orchestra for a production of West Side Story. It made the success he was now enjoying—including a 2013 OBIE Award, a 2013 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater, and numerous “Best of” listings—personally exciting to see. But I was also curious to find out how the Dave Malloy I had known then, who was composing complicated chamber music for small university audiences, had grown into the performer before me. Dave, still as warm and open as I remembered, told me to come on over.


Molly Sheridan: Even though you took NYC musical theater by storm with Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, you didn’t actually start out as a composer with Broadway dreams, right? I get the impression that your back story is a little more convoluted.
Dave Malloy: I definitely grew up loving musical theater and watching the old films. I remember PBS would show The Music Man twice a year during their pledge drive, so my family would all huddle in front of the TV and watch that. I even did a couple in high school, but I was in the pit orchestra being a jazz pianist. Then, when I went to college, I was a composer, so I was writing serious, academic, classical, avant-garde music. I didn’t touch theater writing in college at all—I did summer stock, but that was just a gig. But looking back on it, I now realize that some of the pieces I was doing had theatrical elements. I was writing chamber pieces that had, like, a live chess game on stage. George Crumb was a big influence for me. A lot of his pieces have these theatrical elements. I did his Voice of the Whale—the performers are all masked and there’s the blue lighting. So I was definitely writing music with theatrical things in mind, but still not thinking about musicals at all.
I didn’t really get involved in theater until I moved to San Francisco and I was working at Amoeba Music, the giant, independent music store there. A colleague had heard that I played keyboard and he needed a keyboard player for some show he was doing at a small black box theater called the Exit Theater. So he asked me to do it, I said sure. I had just moved to San Francisco, so it seemed like a good way to meet some people. And basically through that one show, I made every connection that has brought me to where I am now. From there, I met the artistic directors of Banana Bag & Bodice, who I went on to write Beowulf with. And then Beowulf was seen by the people at Ars Nova and so then Ars Nova commissioned Great Comet. So the lineage all goes back to there.
MS: I was going to ask you about that move to the West Coast and its impact on your career, because the theater you did out there felt very relationship based, almost like a family. If you had come to New York versus going to San Francisco, things might have turned out quite differently.
DM: For sure. The theater scene in New York is so much more compartmentalized in one aspect and institutionalized in another way. I hear about young musical theater composers going through these lab programs and workshop programs and going to school for it. That just wasn’t my career path at all. In San Francisco, it was basically all centered around the San Francisco Fringe Festival, which we really don’t have an equivalent of in New York. The New York Fringe is very scattered, and there’s not really a community that builds around it. The San Francisco Fringe is a very tight-knit community. Or at least it was when I was there. You would do a show, and then people would come see your show, and then they would say, “Oh, I like you. Will you do our next show?” And I would say, “Sure.” When I was starting out in theater, I basically said yes to everything—every show that was offered to me, I said, “Sure, I’ll do that.” And even though some of the shows weren’t quite in line with my aesthetic vision, I was meeting people through that and just making those kind of networking connections. But in a very informal, casual, San Francisco way.
MS: Was there a defining moment when you realized, okay, this is where I’m going to focus as a composer?
DM: There were two of those. When I started out doing theater, I started out doing mostly sound design, and I was writing music for pretty experimental theater pieces. So it was mostly soundscape, electronic stuff, or stuff on piano. Then, little by little, I would write a song. In college when I was composing music, I didn’t really write songs at all. I wrote very much, you know, serious concert music. So I just started writing more and more songs.
The first watershed moment: I was with this theater company called Ten Red Hen, and our first show together was {The 99-Cent} Miss Saigon. We had done this literally zero budget version of Miss Saigon, but very non-ironically—embracing the material and telling the story, but we had a GI Joe [toy] helicopter [for the set]. Then for our next show, the artistic director wanted to do Bible stories through clowns. We started talking more and more that I should write more songs for this, and that was kind of the first time that I said out loud, “Oh, maybe I’ll write a musical.”

Malloy as Job in Clown Bible.

Malloy as Job in Clown Bible.

So Clown Bible was my first proper musical. There had been a couple other shows which could be called musicals, but in a very downtown, experimental theater way. But this was a really proper musical. There was a big first song, and everyone had a showstopper—all that kind of stuff. Then from that, I think that led to getting commissioned to do Beowulf with Shotgun Players. And that was the first big, big show for me. So that was the watershed moment, I would say, from Clown Bible to Beowulf.
MS: You are kind of a jack of all trades: composer, performer, sound designer. I would not be at all surprised to learn you ran the copies of the program at Kinkos right before curtain.
DM: I’ve definitely done that.
MS: That might be the nature of the type of theater that you are doing—when the budget is tight, all skills are on deck. But at this point, are you ready to give some of that multi-tasking away or is it hard to let go of having a hand in so many areas?
DM: It’s been harder and harder to hold onto that. As you start working with larger institutions, the work does get more doled out. One thing I’ve been trying really hard to hold onto is just doing all my own orchestrations, because that is something that is not at all commonplace in musical theater. Pretty much everyone farms out the orchestrations, which to me as a classically trained composer is mind-boggling. I completely object to that because I grew up studying Stravinsky and Bartók, where orchestration is half the battle—that’s where all the juice is. But I think in general, I am very hands on. I run my own website, and I’m constantly talking to the PR people about copy editing things in the blurbs. It’s just my nature. A lot of it is from starting out doing really low budget theater, where yeah, everyone does pitch in. I mean, the very first shows I did, we didn’t even have designers. There were five of us who did the show, and we ran all the lighting design, and all the sound design, and the costume design—we just created it all ourselves. So even that was a shift. There’s a lighting designer. I’m like, “So you just do the lights? Oh, that’s interesting.” When I was first doing theater, I didn’t realize that that was a separate person.
MS: Have you been in a situation where you have had to fight to hold onto the orchestration yet, either because of time or who you were working with, or does the nature of the shows you’re doing mean you can still call the shots?
DM: I haven’t really had to fight, but I have had to justify it. With new commissions when people ask about orchestrations, I’ve had to explain, no, this is something I feel very strongly about. I should be doing this. I think again, because I started out doing really low budget black box theater, I’ve always thought very economically. What is the smallest number of people that I can make this amazing with? So I tend not to think about big, 40-person orchestras, just because I feel like if you can do it with 20 people, that’s more economical, and therefore, better.
MS: Speaking of economy, as you were going through that list of shows, there was Beowulf, Clown Bible, and then we have plotlines about Rasputin and taken from War and Peace. It seems like you’re really attracted to these incredibly complex plotlines.
DM: I can trace that directly to Les Miz, which I totally grew up on and to this day absolutely love and adore. That’s a pretty complicated story—multiple threads, multiple characters. Also, when I was in school, I was a composition major and an English lit major, so I was studying literature and fell in love with Russian novels early on. I do love that complexity in weaving different stories together. I also love classics, things written 200-plus years ago. There’s always that really surprising moment in reading stuff and thinking, “Oh, my god. That’s exactly a thought that I had yesterday!” Just recognizing that the classics are modern in a way.
MS: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is actually based on just a small section of War and Peace, so you could develop other chapters and make it kind of your Ring cycle, but actually you’re now on to Moby Dick. You just can’t seem to let these epics go.
DM: I think Great Comet will be a part of two separate trilogies. So one is the Russian trilogy, which will be Beardo, which was a show about Rasputin, and then Comet, and then I’m doing a show about Rachmaninoff coming up in the spring. Rachmaninoff and hypnosis and how he wrote his second piano concerto under hypnosis. So that’s the first, the Russian trilogy. But then there’s also the great, impossible uber-long novels trilogy, which will be War and Peace, Moby Dick, and Ulysses. Ulysses is way, way down the road. But I’m working on Moby Dick now. I just really love the challenge of taking some mammoth piece of literature that has a bit of a reputation for being something that’s very difficult and that a lot of people are afraid to read, or people lie about reading.
MS: How do you approach a project of such scope? Do you have a “process” or is each project somewhat unique?
DM: In adapting War and Peace, or now I’m adapting Moby Dick, I start with the original text. So starting with Tolstoy, Melville. In both cases I found the complete text online and transferred that all into a Word document and then the writing of the text becomes this gigantic editing process down to an hour or two-hour long musical.

Malloy as Pierre in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Photo by Chad Batka

Malloy as Pierre in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
Photo by Chad Batka

Then I tend to just think a lot while walking. I take walks in the park and listen to music and just think a lot about theatrical things—what would be a cool theatrical thing to do with this section? I’m definitely thinking of the musicality and the theatricality at the same time. With Comet, it was very clear to me from the beginning that Pierre should be playing accordion, that’s the way that we’re going to know that Pierre is kind of in charge of the evening, and that ultimately it’s going to become his story because he’s the band leader and is kind of welcoming people in as the host. That’s a good example of something being both musical and theatrical. Then I’ll go to either the piano or the laptop. I tend to trade off; if I get stuck, then I move. I’m on the laptop programming beats and improvising on top of those beats, and at the piano, it’s a more traditional, looking for interesting chord changes and melodies and things like that.
MS: How do you deliver the scores to performers? Since you’re probably accommodating a variety of backgrounds and levels of training, are you giving them scores? Handing out recordings?
DM: I typically do both, and the demo always comes first, so if there’s time pressure or if I’m working with people who don’t read music then I know the demo is going be the more important thing to them. So I give a demo to them, and then eventually I’ll start writing out the music.
I definitely find writing out the music to be a bit of a tedious task because I write so improvisationally. A lot of times I’ll sing melodic lines, and then I have the hour of trying to figure out the rhythm of this one two-bar phrase. I’m finding out that I tend to actually write in a lot of polyrhythms, so I tend to write like three against two, and five against two, and seven against four, and that just like naturally comes out when I sing. But then, when I have to actually notate it, it’s quite irritating.
MS: As I was going through the tracks on your website, I definitely noticed that you’re often dancing the audience through much of these shows, to a certain extent.
DM: That kind of came about right after I moved from college to San Francisco. In college I was really absorbed in classical music and jazz and, like, ‘60s pop. And that was it. I actually didn’t know anything that was coming out at that time, so I had no idea what was going on in modern music. Then when I moved to San Francisco, I started working at this record store and just started hearing things that people were playing. That was when I finally started listening to drum and bass music, and that was the first time I heard Radiohead and things like that.
It reawakened in me that I love pop music. I love rock and roll. I love dance music. I love soul. That’s something that’s kind of missing from a lot of classical, avant-garde music—there’s no sense of beat. It’s often very sound scape-y. Here’s some orchestral colors and interesting harmonies, but there’s not that driving sense of something that you can groove to underneath it all. And so that’s when I started to get interested in ideas like, “What if you did take the harmonic language of Schoenberg, but made it dance a little?” So yeah, that’s definitely been a driving force in my music, to keep that dance beat going on.
MS: Your shows have been categorized with labels such as “rock opera” or reviewers make comments about the mayhem and the manic action. Point being, there is a lot of in-your-face energy to these productions.
DM: I think a lot of that comes from just loving the vibe of being at a rock show. And I think San Francisco has a lot to do with it because when I was in my early 20s, I was going to a lot of performances that were kind of coming out of Burning Man—these very communal performances in shitty loft spaces in the Mission, and so people were crammed together and there was very little division between performer and audience. That was something that was always very exciting to me. And I do love that sense of spectacle and the feeling of having some drinks with friends and breaking out into song. All that stuff is very important to me. I hate the experience of going to the theater and being very proper and being quiet and being in the dark. That wall that goes up is not so interesting to me. Sometimes it’s fine, but in terms of what I make, it’s not as interesting.

The audience for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is seated in the middle of the action. Photo by Chad Batka

The audience for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is seated in the middle of the action surrounding Lucas Steele.
Photo by Chad Batka

MS: You seem to devote a lot of time to sitting in the position of the hypothetical audience member. Ars Nova’s artistic director, Jason Eagan, told the Times that’s why he let you run a little wild while developing Comet, because he knew you were carefully considering that at each step.
DM: Right. That’s another theory, that you don’t worry about the audience and that the audience will come to you if it’s honest. Yeah, I totally don’t believe in that. I definitely believe I am there to entertain people. I am creating these shows so that people have a good time when they go out at night. I mean, hopefully they’re also thinking and feeling—so you’re talking about big issues and having cathartic moments. But I feel if something is just purely an intellectual exercise, to me, that’s something I listen to at home on headphones by myself. If I’m going out, I want to have a more communal experience. I’m going out into public for a reason, so I want to be engaging with those people, and that means both the performers and the rest of the audience. So I want to have experiences where I can be smiling at my neighbor and maybe clapping my hands and singing along with them in non-cheesy ways.
MS: There’s a lot of alcohol in your works, both consumed in the shows and present in the lyrics. But also sometimes the audience is served as well.
DM: The alcohol I think just goes back to that communal experience and wanting to have an experience with both the performers and the audience. Alcohol is a social lubricant; it’s why people meet in bars and go to parties and have drinks. I just love breaking that stuffy convention of what the theater is and instead making it more like a bar room, more like a beer hall. I’ve joked, too, that I need to do a show for every alcohol, so Beowulf was a mead and beer show, and then Three Pianos was red wine and Comet was vodka. So actually in the fall, I’m doing a show about bourbon, called Ghost Quartet at the Bushwick Starr, which will be kind of a ghost story involving moonshine and whisky. But yeah, then I’ll have to write a tequila show and a gin show, etcetera, etcetera.

Sharing a drink during Three Pianos. Photo by Ryan Jensen

Sharing a drink during Three Pianos, Malloy with Alec Duffy.
Photo by Ryan Jensen

MS: It’s an awesome show sponsorship opportunity, as well!
DM: Right. We hope so.
MS: Do you have a core group that you always go to when you set to work on a new show at this point—a think tank of sorts? Theater is so complicated, like opera, in that there are so many creative people at the table and those relationships can be complex and challenging, but also really inspirational.
DM: Over the years, I’ve definitely amassed a kind of collective of people that I love working with, the strongest being my director Rachel Chavkin. We are now developing four new shows together. So, she was the director on Comet and also on Three Pianos, and she and I just see so eye to eye on all of these things. And then performers, so many people came through Comet and so many of them were so amazing. So this Ghost show is all with people who are from Comet; they’re like old friends. There’s definitely a community that’s been developing, but it’s a pretty broad range of people that come in and out.
MS: Does it develop a sort of family dynamic then, and you have to go to group therapy with your disagreements?
DM: (laughs) No. I mean, honestly one of the great things about Comet, and I think this is one of the great things about Rachel, as a director, is that Comet was such a loving family. There was such an amazing vibe backstage, and there was not a lot of, or really any drama amongst the cast or amongst the crew. Rachel definitely fosters that—she thinks of her role as director as: I’m in charge of the vibe of this room. I’m in charge of how these people feel towards each other. And so making it a comfortable place for people to work and to be able to be open to each other is her mentality, which I love because I’ve worked with directors who don’t think that way. I’ve worked with directors who really just think about what’s going on on stage, and that’s all they really care about. Then you do get weirdness backstage, and you don’t get that communal sense.
MS: What are the pros and cons of you being the author of the show, but then also one of the principal performers? That seems like it might set up some challenges, a little like the boss being at the party. You’re one of the team, but you’re also running the show.
DM: I definitely try to keep a sense of humor about it. I really do value everyone’s input and feedback at all times. Because I’m not acting like a dictator, I think it tends to work. It’s difficult. If I’m in performer mode, then it’s harder for me to hear what the strings are doing. One thing that was really useful in Comet was we actually had understudies, so during rehearsal I could sit out and listen to things and put my composer hat back on and think, “Oh yeah, I really need to fix that oboe line,” which I wouldn’t necessarily have heard if I was singing at the same time. So that can be a tricky thing to balance for sure.

I think it actually drives my directors crazy, too, because it takes me a while to actually become a performer. In rehearsal, I’m typically acting more as the composer and orchestrator and co-music director in ways, so its takes me a while before I actually start acting. Acting does not really come to me naturally, so Rachel’s really good about pushing me to put all that to rest and to just become the character and do all those acting things that people talk about.
MS: I love the honesty of the resume on your website where you lay out what each show has taught you. And then the blog you kept through the early days while forming your music theater ideas—it was really insightful.
DM: So you read all of that? Or some of it? Shit. I do have this very old blog, as a part of my website. There are more contemporary posts as well, but there are definitely posts from 2004, 2005, when I was very much a young artist being very scrappy and starting out in San Francisco. I’ve looked back on some of those blog entries and some of them are quite embarrassing, and some of them are very much about being so poor and just having wild, romantic artistic visions, but not actually being able to execute them. There’s part of me that’s thought, “Oh, I should take that down. Now I’m more professional.” But then another part of me thinks, “Oh, this is actually like very honest. This was who I was and where I came from,” and I feel like that might be helpful to someone else.
There’s one particular post in there, which I remember I got a phone call from my parents about because it was about running out of money. I literally was so poor I had negative money in my bank account, and I was trying to submit a grant application and I was at the post office and I didn’t have enough money for stamps, and—yeah, it was just a fiasco. But I decided to keep it all up.
MS: Oh, I think you should! That particular post says so much.
In another post you mention getting theater critics out to your shows, but wishing music critics would come hear these pieces. Is there music that you’re not writing because of the path that you’re on now?
DM: I’m curiously not all that interested in music that exists without theater for myself. Obviously I listen to tons of music that is not theatrical at all, but when I’m writing things, I don’t have a lot of interest in just writing a stand-alone song or a symphony or something. It just isn’t where my mind goes. I feel like anything that I want to do musically, I can do it in the context of a theater piece and it will be even that much more exciting, because there’s all this other stuff going on with it.
Every now and then, I like to sit down at the piano and try to write just a love song or something, and those exercises are pretty futile. It doesn’t really work because I feel like I need to have the bigger picture in my head to make something compelling. The larger theatrical vision is what makes this exciting to watch, not just to listen to.
MS: Do those scraps of things end up in your other pieces, or do you really need the big, over-arching vision before you can begin?
DM: Sometimes interesting chord progressions or something that started out as just me fiddling around on the piano will work their way into bigger things. But I’ve never thought of a string quartet and then turned it into a piece. It’s always been the other way around. It’s very much always coming at it from the theater first.

MS: So I want to ask this question with a caveat that I read the post you wrote about making theater and making money, so don’t throw any rocks or anything. But as you well know, these questions about making experimental work while keeping the lights on in the hall are of course ongoing and worrying people in the field. Since you’ve had success in this area, how do you find that room and that confidence to be experimental inside the challenges of current economics?
DM: I guess a lot of what helps is that I’m not coming at it from an economic point at all. I’ve never written anything thinking this is how I’m going to make money; I’ve always just written things that I’ve wanted to write. Fortunately, some of those things have ended up having some kind of monetizable qualities and some of those things have turned out to be commercial in some ways. But some of them definitely have not. There are shows that I’ve written that will never transfer to an Off Broadway or Broadway run. I feel like if you’re going into it thinking, “I’m going to write a Broadway musical,” then, yeah, you might feel a lot of weight, that “it has to be this, this, and this. And it can’t be this, this, and this. If I’m going to write a Broadway musical, I’m going to make a lot of money off of it, so I need to do something that’s going to make a lot of money.” I just never think about it like that. That just happens, and has happened on a couple of pieces, fortunately, but it wasn’t the intent for writing them.
MS: Is that harder now, though, since you’ve had the success with Comet? Do you find yourself answering creative questions certain ways because of what you know now and what you’ve experienced?
DM: Whether subconsciously or not, I think all the pieces I’m working on right now, none of them could possibly be Broadway musicals. I’ve very deliberately chosen a bunch of new shows that are way more experimental and way stranger than what Comet was—probably in some senses to protect myself from attempting to write another Comet and failing. Instead, I’m attempting to write things that are the polar opposites of Comet. If I fail at those, it won’t be as bad.
MS: So you set yourself up intentionally?
DM: Well, I think I’ve not set myself up, intentionally.
MS: Well put. But you’ve removed that pressure then a little bit?
DM: Exactly. If I started adapting Anna Karenina next, that would be just such a colossal mistake, you know, because it would be too similar. So instead, I’m doing this chamber ghost story piece with just four people—that’s going to be super weird, and probably mostly in the dark.
I feel that the success of Comet has allowed me the room to be more experimental, and the room to try out things that I’ve always wanted to do because people have more trust in me now—I guess because I have a reputation from this one show. So that’s been nice. But I’ve definitely gotten calls from shows that were looking at Broadway runs and shows with big producers behind them, but none of them have been things that I’ve been very interested in. So I’ve said no to a bunch of things which could have gone on to be Broadway things, but it just felt artistically dishonest to say yes to them.
MS: That’s interesting because we began this conversation chatting about how you used to say yes to everything in order to build your career. So there’s a certain point where that switches over to actually learning to say no?
DM: Absolutely. That was a hard lesson to hear. It was only in the last few years that I have started saying no to things, just because now there are enough opportunities that I can only say yes to the things that I really, really want to do, or I can make up the things myself, instead of doing what other people are asking me to do. So that’s been a really nice shift.
MS: Are you still doing the GMAT teaching on the side?
DM: Sure am. I’m teaching this Saturday.
MS: Do they know about your double life?
DM: I try not to tell the students. Some of the other teachers have seen my shows. But yeah, I think it’s important to keep one foot in that door, you know. In case all this does fall apart, then at least I’ve got this teaching thing. I can still pay the rent.
MS: We touched on your published resume before and how you list some of the individual lessons of the productions you’ve been in, which I found really insightful, so what have some of the more formative lessons been for you as you went from saying “yes” to saying “no”?
DM: The first big thing I learned from Beowulf is always have a bass. At first I wrote Beowulf, and there was no bass. I thought the trombones would cover it, and that didn’t work at all. So we had to add a bass at the last minute.

But I have thought more about the forms of the traditional musical. That has been interesting to actually analyze that stuff and realize really good musicals typically do start with a certain kind of song that sets up where and when we are. The prologue song of Comet originally wasn’t in the show. The first song was just Pierre’s first song. Then we did two workshops with that version, and the constant piece of feedback was, “It took me awhile to figure out who everyone was.” I got so sick of that comment that I wrote the prologue out of spite. Like, fuck you, here’s everything laid out as basically as I can.

It ended up being a big hit. So that was a lesson—that these conventional Broadway musicals actually do have lessons to teach. There really is a lot of wisdom in those pieces. You can look at those structures and you can play with those forms, of course, but at the end of the day, probably Act I does want to end with everyone in a moment of jeopardy, so people are excited to come back after intermission.
MS: You once said that {The 99-cent} Miss Saigon was your favorite thing you’ve ever done. That may no longer be true, but what was it about that piece that meant so much to you at the time?
DM: What was fun about doing {The 99-cent} Miss Saigon—and I think this is a theme that’s come up through a lot of my work—is we were simultaneously completely embodying the story, and at the same time, ironically commenting on it. We are walking that really delicate balance of actually telling the story, and in some ways, slightly making fun of it, but really actually loving the story and really wanting to tell the story. That was a really important discovery. I feel like that happens in Beowulf, and that happens in Three Pianos, that happens in Great Comet—we’re loving this thing that we’re talking about, but at the same time, we’re viewing it from a contemporary point of view. It’s a little ridiculous that Sonya bursts into tears every five pages in War and Peace. That’s funny, and so we can comment on that, but at the same time, still love and treasure her as a character and treat her as a human being and not a caricature.

{The 99-Cent} Miss Saigon

{The 99-Cent} Miss Saigon

MS: I think what was fun about reading through a lot of those blog posts was that look back to when you were first getting started. You followed your own path, and you’ve produced great stories as a result of that. We’ve already established that cash and a Broadway dream are not the driving motivator for you, so what is?
DM: I think for me, creating musical theater is the closest thing I have to a spiritual practice. I think that when I’m performing something live, or even when I’m rehearsing something, or developing something, or even just sitting in the audience watching something that I’ve had a hand in, that’s the moment in my life when I experience the sublime. I experience transcending beyond worrying about rent checks and health insurance and dry cleaners and all that. I love those sublime, transcendent moments, and I find that they come to me through music and theater. They definitely come through the community, through performing with other people. Sitting at the piano by myself is nice, but it doesn’t give me the same kind of spiritual satisfaction of really communing with other people and bonding with them. That’s the thing I guess that drives me.
And it’s nice if money comes out of that, because then it allows me to live and do more of it. But at the same time, working a day job is a completely viable thing as well. It’s fine to have the two separate things: I’m going to make my money this way, and I’m going to have spiritual enlightenment this way. If they happen to end up coinciding, that’s amazing, but I don’t think that it has to.

Let’s Get Critical

Unless you’ve been hiding from the internet lately while you completed that commission or struggled to get that project grant application in on time, you’ve probably crossed paths with the great debate going down between the defenders of current pop music criticism and the champions of more rigorous analysis. In all truth, this is not a new discussion but, like many perennial debates, it is still hard to look away when a fresh volley is lobbed.
For as much as it stirs the pot when a “serious music” review mentions the soloist’s hem line, it turns out things get even more heated when pop goes under the cold lens of the theoretical magnifying glass. In this Twilight Zone, considering suspensions in the construction of a Miley Cyrus hit is perhaps more controversial than viewing and commenting upon Miley Cyrus’s naked breast.

For as entertaining as I’ve found Owen Pallett’s Slate contributions playing the “what do we talk about when we talk about pop music using Western music theory,” what I believe it was meant to ultimately drive home is that, as with much in life, there is a serious benefit to moderation. Swing too far one way and get mired in the vacuous TMZ gossip mill, yet swing too far the other and end up lost in a realm of IKEA instructions feeling like you’re short two screws and a hex wrench. But while there is plenty of room on all sides of published musical discourse for improvement and that’s important to explore, this is largely a false drama. In my experience, music writers across genres rarely live firmly affixed to either pole. They publish anthologies of the Best in Music Writing (well, they did) that demonstrate such things if you’re short on research time. There is plenty of bad music writing out there, just as there is plenty of bad music. Yet your definitions will probably vary from mine to whatever degree, so I value the diversity of that continuum. As music fans, we’re all hunting the good stuff, no?

The piece of this argument that I’m hung up on is the idea that pop writing is too “lifestyle” oriented, implying to me this unstated idea that the heavy theory crowd is above all that silly nonsense. You can fetishize anything, whether that’s an artist’s row or an artist’s body. Mixing up lifestyle with artistry is not just a pop phenomenon, though it’s easier to dismiss, I suppose, when the words are smaller and the pages glossier.

So we’ve each made music lifestyle choices for better and for worse, and we might all be improved if those choices felt less like fences. Perhaps I would be a better critic if I took the time to consider the output of Justin Bieber on the critical scoring points that matter to me, independent of the mainstream media through which I disregard him, but you won’t convince me of that. Talking about music by talking about that slick industry 1% is just a neat distraction in these critical conversations. To my mind, what’s important is that I try and understand work—any and all work—that says something remarkable to my ear and to share that with others on whatever terms I might best rest it.

So let’s talk about love and let’s talk about chord structure. But don’t make me talk about network reality shows involving music performance. Because dear god, that’s just not okay.

Sounds Heard: Zwerm—Underwater Princess Waltz

Zwerm—Underwater Princess Waltz

Underwater Princess Waltz: A Collection of One-Page Pieces (New World 80748)
Featuring work by: Karl Berger, Earle Brown, Alvin Curran, Nick Didkovsky, Joel Ford, Daniel Goode, Clinton McCallum, Larry Polansky, and Christian Wolff

I have a “less is often more” world view, and in keeping with that ethos I’ve long found something particularly engaging about “small” art—eight-inch canvases, brief poetry—as if the space constraints actually cleared more room for a spectator to form a deeper, interactive connection with the work at hand.

So it was easy for me to fall into the concept of Belgian/Dutch electric guitar quartet Zwerm’s release Underwater Princess Waltz: A Collection of One-Page Pieces, since in a way they were developing that sort of relationship with the included music. In each case, the quartet began with the parameters of the piece presented through these brief scores, and the recoding then served as a document of their own exploration and dialog, both with the work at hand and with each other.

Their release of pieces by American composers on New World Records provides that label’s typical brand of thorough booklet notes. For the curious, Amy C. Beal explores the pieces one by one, with each of the scores reproduced for the listener to examine—works that rely on everything from more-or-less traditional notation to what one might characterize as “Marvel comic super heroes battle a graphic score” (h/t to Nick and Leo Didkovsky for that one).
The increasing circular chaos of Joel Ford’s Gauss Cannon (2006) opens the disc before the wistful sweet romance of Alvin Curran’s Underwater Princess Waltz and Her Waltzing with Her (both 1972) take over—a bowed saw adding the liquid character to Curran’s tracks.

Zwerm doesn’t allow the listener to sink too far into this daydream, however, before diving into the above-mentioned Didkovsky score Mayhem (2012). Presented in three interpretations spaced out over the course of the album, each one-minute version assumes as its subtitle one of the weapons depicted in the score—hammer, bow, and blade. Where “The Hammer” takes Didkovsky’s word at the encouragement to “be brutal,” what actually impressed me here is the nuance Zwerm brings to subsequent perspectives—”Blade” is given a sexy, high-speed car chase danger and “Arrow” a Wild West horror. (The banjo certainly helps things along there.) This quirky spirit also tints Daniel Goode’s The Red and White Cows (1979), a narrated mathematic story problem leading into a bluesy meditation on “the girl I love” for rhythm guitar, solo guitar, samples, and voice.
Larry Polansky’s tween (k-tood#2) (2002) may give some musicians exercise flashbacks as short phrases roll over and over in delicate complexity, whereas Clinton McCallum’s round round down (2012) starts in sonic bedlam and then just keeps climbing.
The most texturally diverse performance on this disc might be found in Zwerm’s interpretation of Christian Wolff’s Burdocks, Part VII (1970-71), as the musicians react to one another while old radio samples climb the dial and other recorded sounds color the field, often ratcheting up the tension. A solo version of Earle Brown’s December 1952 (1952) resides at the other end of that spectrum, a steady flicker of pitches nearly always blaring their way across a more than eight-minute span, solid yet malleable, with the artfully sculpted sound only thinning out for brief moments of recovery until it reaches a clear summit and quickly drops off into a lengthy decay.

After this imaginative tour, Zwerm brings the show to close with Karl H. Berger’s Time Goes By (1975). When it first began, the simple organ and hand percussion tricked my ears into thinking that iTunes had somehow skipped over to a Yo La Tengo album elsewhere in my library. But actually the track is an appropriately extended meditation on the piece’s title, the simple words sung over and over, up and down and up and down the scale again. The meditative trance it induces is broken apart by the guitars a third of the way in, and the instruments continue to claw at the choir until they fully shrouded it completely in their curtain.

Sounds Heard: Things You Already Know

It’s always exciting to find a “new” favorite piece of music or music maker, and when a genre’s emphasis is on the innovative, that perhaps lays the foundations for a particularly blinkered focus. I almost passed up the three discs below for that reason, because while they were new, I had covered these artists in some measure before and felt obliged to keep my ears moving. But then I heard Kamala Sakaram in her interview this month suggesting that there is so much to be gained by digging past the premiere, and I decided to apply that to my listening.

Once this idea slapped me in the face, Chris Campbell‘s Things You Already Know (poetically appropriate, no?) metaphorically hit the other cheek. In this case this was not music I already knew but rather Campbell playing around (as he explains in his CD or vinyl-accompanying note to the listener) with dialog across his own internal and external realities. While much music might be traced in one way or another to a similar root motivation, here the work wears its intention on its CD sleeve and it led me to consume the tracks as a sort of tour though the composer’s aural memory palace, several doors left temptingly unlocked and the drawers open for ready snooping. With the assistance of musicians drawn from various genre specialties in the Twin Cities and a colorful collection of unusual and/or processed instrumental timbres, it’s a rewarding journey—particularly Water Variations, with its exotic string instrument collection. Campbell himself sits at the piano at key points offering reflective commentary until the listener is beckoned to peek behind the next swaying curtain.

David T. Little’s Haunt of Last Nightfall was stuck in my head for nearly a month after our Spotlight interview, and it has taken up residence there yet again in anticipation of the commercial release of a recording on New Amsterdam (out today!). It’s not always comfortable sonic material to host in one’s ear. The history which Little explores through the music—the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador in December 1981—draws on a full palette of extreme content stretching from horror to prayer. What particularly impresses me about this piece, however, is how rich and gripping an emotional experience Little, Third Coast Percussion, and guest musicians Eileen Mack, Mellissa Hughes, Andrew McKenna Lee, and Toby Driver are able to conjure—particularly in the percussion-only sections the work offers. A visceral reaction to a driving electric guitar is perhaps not an experience to brush aside, but it’s the timbral interplay of the various percussion sounds that bring a remarkable exploration of the events to light and one that won’t easily be shaken even after the last sounds fade.

Saxophonist Aaron Irwin is a bandleader whose projects sometimes catch my ear even before I realize his name is attached, but they tend to stick around in the rotation long enough for me to do my liner note research and get my credits straight. His latest release, Ordinary Lives, is sure to take up similar residence. In addition to Irwin on alto, this outing features Danny Fox (piano, Fender Rhodes), Sebastian Noelle (guitar), Thomson Kneeland (bass), and Greg Ritchie (drums), and the men are clearly well at home in one another’s company. The tracks are filled with too-easy-to-eat hooks, seductive gestures, and, well, regular injections of joyful lick playing that neatly keep things from getting tedious and ruining the party. It’s a warm and welcoming recording that quickly rewards attention.


Send Chutes and Ladders

fire escape
As part of the Chamber Music America conference in New York last month, I sat on a panel that discussed the ways in which classical and jazz are isolated from other genres of music and what we might do to help de-silo our work (a much more complex and serious problem than being cordoned off in our own glass room in Tower Records was in olden times). There’s a pretty large gap between how the jazz and the classical community see these fields and how the rest of the music community sees them (as a quick scan of the Billboard charts often makes painfully evident), and that has both cultural and economic repercussions.
Current delivery platforms and participation rates in the creation of new work mean music of any and all types is coming at us at a phenomenal rate. This then requires music makers to place a high priority on and devote precious resources to being effectively present in this general music marketplace—to being where music fans are, so that those who are interested in what’s available can find and enjoy it. This has challenges, for sure. Market share (or strange ideas about composition vs. recording date) can result in classical and jazz being left out of splashy mainstream productions such as Twitter #Music and the Google Music Timeline.  Services such as Spotify and iTunes don’t handle the more complicated metadata very well, often rendering music in these genres harder to discover and sort. But building a tailor-made private playground cut off from huge pools of listeners is an even worse attempt at a solution, effectively serving only to drain resources and build walls. Seen in this light, standing in a crowded YouTube field or Live365 index makes a lot more sense. On its own it’s just an open door, but at least that door is open and there’s active street life beyond its threshold.

From there, standing shoulder to shoulder with other artists across genres takes us a certain distance further away from being an untouchable “other.” NPR does this in their “Best of the Year” album round up, on which Caleb Burhans’s Evensong is followed by Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap. Here on Counterstream Radio, we did it through meaningful conversations between artists such as Meredith Monk and Björk.

Keeping out of that silo also requires keeping pace with what the major mainstream players are developing and how their work might help us entice more people to walk down our lane and visit our home. This made me reflect back on a talk I heard Tim Quirk, head of Global Content Programming at Google Play, give at the Future of Music Coalition’s Policy Day last October. He spoke about how new technology has allowed the development of services “that let thousands of potential masterpieces find their ideal audiences” independent of traditional gatekeepers. “Telling the world what it should or shouldn’t listen to has become far less important than simply making this overgrown jungle navigable…Context is more important than opinions.” On balance, that sounded like a powerful potential opportunity for classical and jazz music to me.

Later in his talk, however, the argument got a little more challenging. “Getting people to pay attention to something new has always been hard work and it’s only getting harder as the amount and, I think, the quality of the competition explodes while the ability to listen to something else instead becomes even easier. Capturing people’s attention and then hanging onto it is the fundamental challenge for artists and labels and their managers in the 21st century.”

It will be all the harder for those who find themselves stuck up a tower, never even making it to the party in the first place.

Sounds Heard: Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston—Alcatraz and Eberbach

Perhaps it’s a symptom of our sensory-overloaded lives, but I have a special appreciation for musical works that also offer a visual focus point. Like a mandala, such pairings, when done well, can be more of an attention enhancer than a distraction.
In both Alcatraz and Eberbach, the two audio/visual compositions by Ingram Marshall (composer) and Jim Bengston (photographer) included on a recent surround-sound DVD release from Starkland, the artists offer an especially effective marriage of these two realms. The visual poetry of the architectural images provides a rich compliment to the aural landscape. Taken together, they arrive like a series of postcards relaying vivid, complex impressions of places—perhaps sent by residents now long gone.

Alcatraz opens with a long display of the infamous California prison island positioned off in the inky darkness, the light from its tower beckoning while brooding piano lines rock us rapidly forward with a liquid rush and flow. From here, images of the grounds of the penitentiary dissolve in and out of the frame, in compliment with the audio scoring but without either party reduced to a slavish game of follow the leader. Delineated by brief audio pauses between the eight movements, the work takes the listener deeper and deeper into the prison, the piano lines leaving to make way for a music built of foot falls and cell doors slamming. Processed vocals intoning about regulations and the clanking of harbor bells further put us in this place, haunted moans and decaying cells cinching the experiential noose even tighter. Towards the end of the piece, the piano returns again, and when we are let outside, the vibrant green of the grass is a shocking relief. Electronic sounds seem to suggest a certain joy and optimism as we are invited to gaze across the Bay towards urban civilization and take a deep breath.

Moving on to the second piece on the disc, Eberbach, do not adjust your volume. This time we are visiting a German monastery, and Marshall allows the sounds of the countryside and ringing church bells to patiently creep in, later accompanied by delicate, wind-like (though seemingly human) vocalizations. These voices that are not quite voices color the start and end of the work, mixed with other drones and chirping birds. The music at the center of the piece is more obviously instrumental, with Bengston apparently stepping in to play some of the material that Marshall recorded on-site and later processed. The images move from detail to detail, the dissolve transitions often making a geometric commentary of their own.

Alcatraz was by no means in your face with its narrative, but Eberbach seems to be an even more subtle and nuanced presentation. No people appear in the landscapes of either piece, but perhaps it’s possible to read both as haunted spaces in a sense, echoing still with the experiences and activities of different ghosts.

Evolving the Old, Inviting the New

Is this thing on? Welcoming new voices to NewMusicBox in 2014

Is this thing on? Welcoming new voices to NewMusicBox in 2014.

You may have noticed some new bylines behind our blog posts this week. In an effort to keep pace with the myriad ideas and issues vibrating through our field, we’ll be inviting two new columnists to join us each month in 2014. These 24 fresh voices will bring a new slate of diverse perspectives to the site and, with your help, generate some inspired conversation around all manner of topics related to the production and promotion of new music in the USA. Percussionist Adam Sliwinski and composer Alex Temple have already kicked things off with posts on the benefits of collaborative projects and the politics of borrowed material. We hope you’ll check out what they’ve written and share your own thoughts.

But hey, you might be asking, where did my favorite bloggers go?
These changes are in no way meant to imply that we’ve lost any love for our previous team of regular bloggers. Quite the contrary—we cannot offer appreciation enough for their dedication to inspiring conversation on the site, week after week. Now they will be given more time and more room to dig deeper into the topics they have most loved while they were short-form blogging. So you’ll still be able to find deep, prize-winning analysis from Isaac Schankler, video game reviews and field insights from Dan Visconti, jazz reflections from Ratzo B. Harris, and more pot stirring from Rob Deemer in the months ahead.
NewMusicBox is your community. Is there a topic or concern you would like to read about in 2014? Drop us a comment below!

Lisa Bielawa: Fire Starter

At the composer’s home in New York City
November 18, 2013—2 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation and text condensed and edited by Molly Sheridan

It’s difficult to stand anywhere near composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa and not feel energized by proximity. Her dynamic personality fires up a room, making it easy to see how, just a few weeks prior to our meet up for the interview posted below, she rallied hundreds of musicians for the performance of her massive outdoor work Crissy Broadcast on a repurposed airfield in San Francisco.

Raised in the Bay Area, Bielawa has recently returned to her hometown to serve as the artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, an ensemble she herself was once a member of as a young artist. Yet as a touring performer (in addition to her compositional activities, she has sung with the Philip Glass Ensemble since 1992), she began a kind of nomadic existence that continues to carry her from city to city. New York has been her primary address as an adult, but her music has also led to long stints in places such as Boston, where she was in residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for three years; Berlin, where she mounted the first of the Airfield Broadcasts; and Rome where she was a fellow at the American Academy and produced a performance of a previous outdoor work, Chance Encounter, along the banks of the Tiber River.

An extrovert to the core, Bielawa acknowledges that her highly social nature has taken her in some specific directions both as a composer and as a musical citizen. Community building and close collaboration with performing artists is often central to her compositional process. In 1996 she co-founded MATA, a festival which allows young composers to celebrate other young composers outside of a competitive context. Yet the flip side of this outward focus is a deep love for language and careful reading that led her towards a bachelor’s degree in literature from Yale University and now continues to fuel her artistic output.
While there may be some unusual twists to her career trajectory and the scope and scale of her music, Bielawa is quick to point out that her path should not been interpreted as a rejection of traditional concert presentation or compositional education. She is focused on broadening the reach of new music, not completely rerouting it. And in the course of so doing, she is able to allow the sparks and energy of her ideas to fly.


Molly Sheridan: You began your career in a sense as a young singer with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and now you’ve come full circle by returning to serve as the organization’s artistic director. As you listen to the students and reflect back on your own time there as a young performer, how much have things changed—both musically and culturally?
Lisa Bielawa: Before I actually, officially took over my position as the artistic director, the girls came to Berlin to participate in [my work] Tempelhof Broadcast. One of the reasons I got back in touch with them in the first place was that I was working on the project and wanted them to be a part of it. So that discussion started before any discussions about the new position began. I had been in West Berlin on tour with the chorus when I was a girl. It was the first time that I had ever left the country—I was 14 or something—and I remember thinking, “Wow, I really like being on the road!” Of course, apparently I really do like being on the road, because I’ve been on the road ever since.
It was really amazing to see the girls in Berlin and remember what it was like for me to travel with this group—making music with people and understanding that making music at a high level was one of the things that makes travel meaningful. That cultural exchange through music is something that especially young people are hungry for. I think the ambassadorial role that musicians have in the world is incredibly important—just listening and making sound for each other, creating work for each other and with each other across cultures. The world is much more interconnected than it was when I was in the Girls Chorus. Now you’ve got girls from San Francisco meeting host families in Berlin, and they’re still texting each other. But there’s no replacement for actually making music together physically and in community. There are many wonderful uses of social media and interconnectivity online, but music reminds us that engaging with each other face-to-face in space and in real time is irreplaceable. That’s what music making is.
MS: Your own compositional roots are also partially connected to the Girls Chorus in a special way.
LB: For a lot of girls who come through the San Francisco Girls Chorus, that’s where they start their music education. That wasn’t the case for me. I started my music education at home and, at the age of three, in the Suzuki violin program. I had musician parents, so the chorus is not where I got the beginning of my musical education. I got something really important that’s different from that, which is I individuated at the Girls Chorus.
At home, everyone was a composer. When my brother and I were little, we would write music at the piano, just sort of playing at what dad does. You know what that’s like—you play at what your parents do. So I had written music already when I got to the Girls Chorus, but I had experiences there which were my own. I’d come home to the dinner table, and I had had an experience with Brahms or something. It was the first time that I ended up having individual musical experiences that were emotional for me, and that started to build my own sense of what I wanted to hear and why that was. I started writing music that my friends and I could sing. Elizabeth Appling, who was the founder and the artistic director at that time, really fostered that. She saw that I was doing this with my friends and she started to program my music on our actual concerts. She had me conducting my own work at Davies Symphony Hall during the holiday concerts, and it was really the first time that I saw myself as a musician, the way that someone might see someone from the outside. I got a chance to have a witness outside of my family. That showed me that I was an individual artist, and that I had something to offer that was mine. So that was a really important training point for me.

Early compositional efforts

Early work composed at 4 or 5 years of age.

Then I went to Yale, and my very first commission was from the Girls Chorus. My second commission was from the Girls Chorus. That kind of training-wheel support went on. So it’s very meaningful to have it come back around now.
MS: I know that your actual degree from Yale was in literature. That might have been just a formality or perhaps not, but student composers often have a vision of how their education has to go. So when it goes somewhere different, I think it’s worth exploring the impact—both in terms of the big ideas and the practical skills.
LB: One of the things that I’ve actually started to say when I talk to people about this is that I really don’t want to be the poster child for DIY. I’m trained. I came from a family where there was formal training available at home. I trained on the violin. I trained on the piano. I trained vocally. I learned to read music in my mother’s church choir before I even read English. I did composition workshops at the summer music festivals in San Francisco. So to some degree, that means that I had already created a little body of work before I went to college.
My intention at Yale was to major in music and something else. The only thing you needed to do to take advanced classes in music at Yale was to be advanced enough in music to take them. I studied composition there and had private teachers as an undergraduate. I did all that stuff. However, I had gotten very interested in literature in high school, and here I was in the school of Harold Bloom! There was this incredible energy in the air, and all of the boys I had crushes on were literature majors. I was so turned on by the exchange of ideas that I felt you could have as a literature major. But what I discovered was that it was a very competitive major, and you couldn’t get into any of those classes if you were not a major. Plus, if you said you were a double major, then you were deemed not serious enough. In order to take advanced classes in literature and music, I had to major in literature.
So that’s the answer. I think there was a lot of pressure the entire time I was at Yale to major in music. I’m sure I probably fulfilled the major, but I just didn’t declare it. I think it was the right choice for me because I really got so much out of my studies in literature that wouldn’t have been open to me if I hadn’t declared that.
MS: Was that the end of your formal training then?
LB: Yes, it was. I moved to New York two weeks after [graduating from] Yale, and my intention was pretty vague. I had a friend who had graduated a couple of years before me who seemed to be getting some commissions in London. I was sleeping on sofas and basically trying to scrape together enough money to go to London or apply to graduate schools in something. I didn’t know what yet.
I knew I had musical skills, but when I was at Yale, I auditioned for voice lessons and didn’t get accepted. It’s a big opera school, and I didn’t have a big old opera voice. I had a different kind of voice. So I came to New York not really believing that I was a composer necessarily, and not really believing that I was a singer necessarily, but doing both well enough and in ways that were useful enough that I was making a living somehow, here and there, with also some administrative jobs and things like that. Then, through a series of flukes, I got the job with the Philip Glass Ensemble. I was 22 years old, and that totally changed my whole life.
MS: But it doesn’t sound like you were necessarily ready for that life.
LB: I had no idea. I didn’t have any indication from anyone else around me that I was a soloist. In fact, when I first got the job, they were just desperate to have somebody, and they probably would have hired someone more experienced with a more trained voice than mine if they had been able to. But who’s going to be available for a five-and-a-half-week tour in three weeks, except for someone who’s starving and 22?
So, I was really lucky in that I auditioned into that job on sight reading and rhythmic musicianship and the skill set that I had as a basic musician. As a singer, they weren’t so sure about me. And they shouldn’t have been. I was no great shakes as a singer yet. Once I got over the headiness of the first tour, I came to understand—and it was not very easy for me—that I had to get my act together. I had to get formal vocal training, which I basically had never had, or I was not going to keep my job. So I wasn’t an official member of the Philip Glass Ensemble until almost two years after I had started touring. They were actually looking at several people, and I was basically a sub until I could improve my abilities as a singer. It was a very difficult time, and expensive, too. It meant that my standard of living didn’t go up that much. I was getting platinum-style voice lessons and eating canned beans for dinner for the first year or so because I was just trying to catch up.
MS: But in the midst of all that high-pressure catching up and then the ongoing touring with Philip Glass, you still kept the composing going, too.
LB: That’s true, but again, taking myself seriously as a composer and/or as a singer? I knew that I was a musician, but it wasn’t clear to me, or basically anybody around me really, what I was. My brother, who’s 20 months older than I am, was at that time getting his doctorate in composition, and so my family was focused on my brother as a composer. Suddenly then we were kind of focused on me as a singer, but we were all a little surprised, I think. I had sung some of my father’s music as a soloist and when I was in the San Francisco Girls Chorus I got a few solos, but I was not one of the prized soloists in the group. I wasn’t really sure what I was.

Lisa Bielawa at Crissy Broadcast

A singer, a composer, and definitely a leader.
Photo by James Block

I was writing music, but I didn’t think of myself as a composer necessarily until somewhere in my 20s. I wrote a piece for the San Francisco Girls Chorus that won the highest ASCAP young composer award and that completely took me by surprise. I had some people take me aside and say, “Look, maybe you’re a composer.” I just didn’t really understand yet—possibly because it was an over-populated environment. My family was over-populated with musicians, then I went into a school that was over-populated, and then I came to New York and was just trying to figure out how to be useful to make a living. I was always writing music, but it seemed like it was always the wrong kind of music. When I was at Yale, I was writing choral music, and I was writing cabaret songs, and I was writing arrangements of jazz standards for a cappella groups; I wasn’t writing serious music. So I just assumed that that meant I wasn’t a composer.
MS: Do you think not having a structured undergraduate music education, for all the reasons you outlined above, might have contributed to this in a certain way—as in, rather than your path in music being set out for you in clear formal terms, it was all on you to self-direct?
LB: It was all on me. But when I did study composition privately as an undergrad, I wasn’t really a very easy student. The irony is that now I feel very passionate about mentoring younger people. I love teaching, especially teenage composers. I’ve sort of specialized in that, but not because I had such a satisfying experience as a student. I was proud, and I was really independent-minded. I didn’t respond so well to somebody trying to guide me. I just didn’t.
MS: You said you like mentoring teenagers. It’s funny: You weren’t an easy student, and now you specialize in teaching perhaps the most challenging demographic.
LB: Well, teenagers are cool. Grad students are great, too, but they’re really colleagues already. They already have an ideological direction that they’re going in. You’re either going to feed into that ideological direction because you share that, or you’re going to butt up against it, and then you’re going to have to be arguing with your students.
I find that with teenagers, they’re all over the place. They’re discovering that they’re composers. They’re coming up with all these ideas, and they’ve got this fountain of musical energy. They’re complicated because their egos are also developing alongside their abilities in ways that they get ahead of themselves, or they’re super insecure, but there’s something about that sloppiness and about the fact that there’s personal development happening at the same time as musical development that I feel really prepared to deal with. I was writing music that young, too, and I remember what it was like to be trying to figure out who I was as a person at the same time that I was trying to figure out who I was as a musician. It was really an important part of my struggle. And I envied kids who were already cellists by the time they were 16 or who knew they were composers when they entered grad school. I didn’t have that luxury.
MS: You spoke some about how your voice wasn’t the right fit for Yale. A lot of your pieces have a soprano vocalist, but I was surprised to find out that those weren’t necessarily supposed to be sung by you. You were actually writing for a voice much different from your own.
LB: That’s true, although I will say that this spring I had two commissions, both of them European. One of them was for the Academic Male Choir of Helsinki. They wanted me as soprano soloist with this group—fifty men and me—and bass drum of course, because why not. Then there’s the piece for Radio France, which is for myself and chamber ensemble. I now feel ready and totally happy for that to happen. I know how to sing well enough so that I can actually find it interesting enough to write for myself.
First of all, the reason I got into vocal music was really more because of my relationship to language. It had very little to do with the fact that I was a singer. I was a singer because I had played all these instruments, but I didn’t have enough money to buy them. Your voice is free, and I had to make a living. How I became a professional singer was almost accidental and the kind of singing that I was doing—not just for Philip but for Toby Twining, who actually hired me even before Philip Glass did—my music is not like that, and I don’t use the voice that way so much in my own music. So I wasn’t really the right soloist for my music anyway. I wouldn’t have hired myself.
I’m also a collaborator. I just love to have the creative process be about getting to know others. That process is less interesting for me if it’s just me getting to know me some more. Though this last year, it’s been fun because I am finally finding things in my own voice. Something about being in my 40s, it’s like my voice is mature now. There are things it can do that are cool, that I’ve worked my whole life to figure out. I feel like I won’t have that forever, so it’s interesting to celebrate that. But my interest in writing vocal music had very little to do with being a singer. It had mostly to do with being close to language.
MS: We actually spoke at some length about your relationship to language almost a decade ago, just before the American Composers Orchestra premiered The Right Weather. Clearly you still take this aspect of your work very seriously. So why use music and not words exclusively in your creative expression?
LB: I love writing, but I also think one of the things that I love about writing is that it’s not my profession. So it’s a creative thing that I can deepen and that I can get better at, but I can also get away from it for a while and it doesn’t cause any anxiety. It’s nice to have an area that I’m deeply informed about, that I care deeply about, that’s not professionalized—because I have a lot of different areas of my life that are professionalized.
Then there’s also the fact that when I’m deeply moved by something that I read, usually my response is a musical one. So there’s something that happens that’s organic. I read on the sofa in the morning; if something is so beautiful to me that it makes me feel a certain way, that has to be resolved by sitting at the piano. That’s a way of working that when I have to start cranking out music and I’m on the road in practice rooms in universities, or writing music in hotels or on planes, I don’t always have that luxury—that deep cycle that involves contemplation, reading, responding to reading, and then composing. But if I don’t have that cycle every once in a while, then I lose my artistic ground.

Bielawa's Steinway

Bielawa’s Steinway

MS: That seems like a constant through the years with you. You drill down into text. This is not a surface feature—you began learning Russian to compare Pushkin translations! So what does that end up doing to the music in concrete terms?
LB: Making it possible? I remember when I was writing The Right Weather, and I was thinking, “God, I’m such a loser. I’m supposed to be writing for orchestra and there’s no language in this. I don’t know if I can write music if I don’t have language that I’m setting.” And then I thought, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe I am a loser; maybe I’m not a loser. But just because there are no voices singing here doesn’t mean that this is not connected to language.” I could either look at that as a crutch, or I could see myself in it and realize that that’s what it is. Some composers respond to nature. Some of them respond to paintings. Some of them respond to a number of things. It’s just the thing that hits me the most deeply and the most consistently. The place where I can find the most depth in myself is as a reader. So it helps me get to the place where I want to be when I’m writing music.
MS: You touched on collaboration and the importance of that in your work. I was thinking about this particularly as I was listening to your two-CD set In medias res, and I thought it might be good to talk specifically about your relationship with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in this regard.
LB: The truth is I was actually quite scared of what my job was going to be in Boston, because the expectation was that I was going to be there for three years and was going to write these massive orchestral works. There was still a part of me that was like, am I a composer? Not for lack of ideas, but just something about the way I saw myself—or didn’t, or others did or didn’t. Who knows? Maybe it’s left over from the early years when I first came to New York. But I had people around me who had faith in me and who really wanted to see this happen, namely Gil Rose, who really believed in my music and felt that this would be an opportunity for me.
I wanted to make sure that I could keep myself on a schedule so that the piece that I wrote at the end of my residency, In medias res, would fulfill the potential of that. In order to do that, I decided that I would write these short, three- to five-minute Synopses—short pieces for solo members of the orchestra—and that I would write each of them during a week that I was in residence. Composers in residence seldom actually compose in residence, but I was going to write pieces when I was in Boston.
Of course, it was a pleasure, but it did force me to have a regular diet of engagement with the individual musicians for whom I was writing this much larger piece over a long period of time. And it meant that I was actually tilling the soil—not that I know anything about farming, but I was keeping that whole area of my mind and these relationships really fertile for the whole time. So when I was writing the big piece finally, which took me around seven months, I was informed by these 15 shorter pieces that I had written for the individual members of the orchestra.
That personalized it, and that was really helpful for me. Collaboration for me means that you’re beholding the amazingness of some other person and what they can do. Then I’m using my own abilities as a composer to make that shine or to engage with it. That’s a really great way to know people in the world, right? It deepened my connections with the musicians that I was working with, which heightened community in the orchestra itself. And it brought a sense of process to the audience there that was seeing these pieces unfold. So those are the kinds of ideas that I’ve designed for myself along the way—to keep myself on a schedule, but also to enhance community and therefore make composing less lonely and bring the vitality of interaction into the process in as many ways as possible. It’s helpful to me because I’m social and composing is not that social. I’m not really temperamentally cut out for this work, unless I can make it a little more social for myself.

Lisa Bielawa at Crissy Broadcast

Bielawa greeting musicians at Crissy Broadcast
Photo by James Block

MS: Those Synopses then later ended up influencing a piece you did for a dance work, correct? And there are other examples of you developing ideas through multiple works. I thought that was really interesting: it wasn’t that all of your work was a piece of some single uber-arc, but each piece wasn’t always completely self-contained either. Would you speak some about what you hunt for and gain through that kind of occasional revisiting?
LB: I often think that it takes more than one piece to work through an idea. Individual compositions can get burdened down if you try to make them completely saturate or satiate one idea world in one piece. So I like to take the pressure off individual pieces. What if I had been working on one of the Synopses, let’s say, and the purpose at that point was for me to learn as much as possible about the harp and write something amazing for the solo harpist, right? But then later on, some of the material that I developed could, if the piece had gone a different way, maybe have been something really interesting to explore in relation to the human body through dance. I mean, I could just start over every time, and sometimes I do. It’s interesting looking back at pieces—did this come out of the germ of some other piece, or is this a whole new thing just by itself.
But generally what I find with shorter pieces is that I don’t actually feel very comfortable in small forms. I’m a large-scale person. So the only way that I can fulfill those kinds of commissions is to, at least in my own mind, embed them in some larger journey. Then it also ends up creating relationships that mean that those other pieces come along later. Some of these solo instrumentalists that I wrote the Synopses for were actually then the soloists in the dance piece. So it also brings the possibility of deepening those relationships and bringing them further. Many of the musicians that I’ve worked with I’ve written multiple pieces for in some guise or other. Look at Colin Jacobson, who’s been in, what, like nine or something? But they’re all different—just him, or sometimes there’s a whole orchestra, his string quartet. Sometimes I pair him with somebody like Carla Kihlstedt. And those relationships, as they deepen, I think that they really open me up, too, and help me find things through that trust that I would not otherwise find.
MS: What attracts you to the large-scale format with such intensity?
LB: I think it’s just a suitability thing—it’s my temperament. I admire Chopin enormously for the way that he was able to find a whole world in the solo piano works. He’s not here to answer, but we could ask ourselves, why didn’t he have a whole lifetime of writing symphonies or operas? He didn’t. This is what he wrote. It’s inconvenient for me sometimes that I end up wanting to write pieces for hundreds of musicians on an abandoned airfield. But it’s even more inconvenient to try to fit into certain assigned ways of making work that don’t fit. So I’ve accepted that I have to make it work for myself and the best way for me to do that is to go ahead and see things in terms of the larger picture and in terms of broader strokes—whether or not an individual performance or composition is seen that way. I need to see it that way in order to make it work for me and in order to make the best work I can.
MS: Before we get into those big airfield pieces and the musical communities you encourage through those, I want to take a step back. Because in a sense I see things such as the founding of MATA, which takes us all the way back to 1996, as another aspect of this big and social piece of your artistic life.
LB: Yeah, MATA. I really felt a need for it when we started it. I felt that there were all of these contexts in which I was coming into contact with my peers, but every time we came into contact with each other we were actually competing. I’d see so and so because we were two of the four finalists of the such and such thing. We would each have a piece read, and then one of us would win. Yeah, we would have fun and there would be a party, but underneath it all was the knowledge that somebody from on high was going to choose one of us.
There is this sort of protracted adolescence for composers: you get all your graduate degrees, and then you go to summer programs and you study with so and so. That’s another place where you can meet your peers, right? You’re all 31-year-old students of so and so, in like, Europe somewhere. And there may be value to that, too. I participated in both of those kinds of things and had some positive experiences. But why not support each other by having a festival where we all encounter each other’s music, and nobody was going to come and decide or teach. We don’t have to agree. You don’t have to like everything. Nobody’s the winner. I think that was a really driving motivation for me.
And that’s one of the reasons that, as I was nearing 40, I was feeling like I was not immersed enough and my ear was not to the ground as much as it needed to be to be MATA’s artistic director any more. All of a sudden, I was going to become the person on high who was choosing the commissionees for the festival. It was starting to turn into the thing that we were trying to be other than. So I’m still on the board and I’m very committed, but I cycled out and wanted to get younger people in charge. And we’ve really managed to do that, and I’m really super proud of that.
MS: So you shook things up some with MATA, but pieces such as Chance Encounter also gently stretch conventional ideas about how things are done. I love the degree that the venue is woven into the work itself, from finding the text to presenting the piece. But when you take your work out of the concert hall, how does it change the goals and impact of what you make? The loss of control seems like it becomes part of the point of the piece.
LB: Yeah, it’s funny. It’s like talking about the fact that I never got degrees in music. It doesn’t make me an anti-degrees-in-music person. I have nothing against the concert hall. I find myself so often in environments where people really want the fact that I do these public space works—which I’m very passionate about—to mean that I’m against the concert hall. That’s not true—I love the concert hall! These pieces are an affirmation; they are not a rejection. And that’s really, really important to me. I still have more to affirm outside the concert hall. They come out of the fact that I’m a very urban person. I think in my life I’ve been healed by city life. If I’ve gone through difficult times in my life, one of the things that I always know I can do to fall in love with humanity again is to just walk around the city. I’ve had this experience in San Francisco where I grew up, in New Haven where I was in school, in New York, where I’ve lived my whole adult life. Boston, Berlin, all the cities where I immersed myself.
That’s another thing besides reading and besides collaboration: urban life. That’s super important and inspiring to me. There are certain ideas that I have that make the most sense right there in the cradle of active urban life because that’s where my head is. Chance Encounter actually has Susan Narucki singing things that we overheard, so in order to write the piece, she and I had to immerse ourselves by eavesdropping on people for 14 months to collect all these things. There’s no better way to fall in love with humanity than to just go around the world and eavesdrop. So tender, the moments you hear.
Susan Narucki and I did a performance together of Birtwistle’s The Woman and the Hare. I feel like The Woman and the Hare is one of these pieces that if you were to stumble on it, just in the hall of your local community center, it would be a really arresting experience. She and I were talking afterwards, and she said, “I wish there were some way we could make work like this in an environment where people could just encounter it.” So it really came about as a collaborative light bulb. We thought we should make a piece that’s intended to be performed that way. It was only later as I was working on it that I decided to use overheard things. The idea was to have the kind of experience you have with concert works that I love, but to provide that outside in public space. And I’m not done with that.

Souvenir chair from Chance Encounters

Souvenir chair from Chance Encounter

MS: You can’t really speak for the audience, but was the experience that you anticipated having ultimately the experience that you had when listening to the performance in this setting?
LB: I actually have to take the fifth because I have no idea. I have performed Chance Encounter, but my preferred role in the performance of these large-scale public space pieces is to just be like anybody and walk around. I like to put myself at a distance from everybody and feel myself in space. I like to change the arc of my own experience by moving towards or away from certain groups. And I notice that other people do that, too.
I certainly noticed that with Crissy Broadcast in San Francisco. There’s an overhead time-lapse video. There are the groups of musicians that stay together, but in the middle, there was just this constant latticework of people moving around. I heard responses from people that they were having this kind of awareness of being in a space where they were also integrating the sound of traffic and the dogs, and that’s part of it. The music has to sit comfortably in an environment where other sounds are also there. It has to feel mostly successful like that.
So I seem to be getting somewhere with it. I like working in that way. I feel like my experience of it has been sometimes different from what I imagined, but in a positive way. Or other times, it’s not what I thought and I was disappointed. But maybe I would go to the next performance, and the wind changes and then it’s what I hoped, or maybe it’s just that I was not standing in the right place; someone else had the experience that I had designed and imagined for myself.
MS: I guess that’s my question: how much can you even anticipate when you’re working on a scale like this and in an outdoor venue? There are so many wild cards. In some ways, maybe it’s not even possible.
LB: It’s absolutely not possible, but it’s not possible in any music. This is not the exception; this is just the obviation. I’ve heard from some people that they felt that by listening to these pieces, the Airfield pieces for example, that it brought them in touch with that existential thing: I’m always only me, and I’m always hearing what I’m hearing. Even though you’re out in public space, the experience of these pieces is one that’s very private and sometimes quite lonely. You realize that you’re an audience of one inside your own head, and that’s the human condition.
You were asking about the control that I think I have, or can have. There’s a lot of control going on in these pieces. It has to do with the fact that I’m dealing with amateurs and students. It has to be a safe performance environment for hundreds of people. I’m asking them to do some crazy things out there and it’s outside the box for everybody. It’s outside the box for the professionals! So contrary to what it may feel like when you’re out there in it, the listeners hopefully feel an amazing openness. But the actual compositional process has an enormous amount of control of material. If I set up a situation where this group is playing this or that, and there are some choices being made—aleatoric sections where maybe cues are being given from one group to another—I do actually try to imagine every possible way those things could work out using a kind of lay person’s game theory. I do try to imagine every possible outcome of every decision that I’ve allowed people to make in each section, and I have to be O.K. with the sonic result of every possible combination of decisions. If seven out of the nine decisions are going to be really cool, and two of them are going to sound really stupid, then I change the whole game. So there’s a lot of control.
MS: Even The Right Weather at Zankel Hall back in 2004 had you walking through the space and timing out planned musician movement, but I saw the charts you made for the Airfield pieces and this is a whole other level. How did you even begin structurally to make this work?
LB: Chance Encounter is a piece for one soprano and chamber orchestra in two different groups. So in that piece, I was able to experiment with what it means to have groups that are far enough away from each other that they can’t possibly be expected to play together, but they can respond to each other. I got the chance in five cities to experiment with different air densities and different winds, and to experiment with what kinds of sounds and what kinds of cues carried across space. So that was really important, because once I started bringing in more than just two groups, then at least I had that experience with communication between musicians across distances out in the real world—how to make rules, how much to tell them, how little to tell them.
When I started putting together Tempelhof Broadcast, the very first thing I did was work with The Knights again. They wanted me to write a piece for this concert that they did at Central Park in 2011. It coincided with my communications with the Berlin Parks Department, such that I realized that if The Knights were into it, I could use this commission to start working on some ideas, not about distance and space, like I did in Chance Encounter, but to work on some free, aleatoric decision making—large groups of musicians playing things that cue each other in such a way that there is no conductor. It’s 40 musicians or so, and it was a chance for me to experiment with some of these game structures where groups of musicians are communicating with other groups of musicians across the stage. So there were these intermediate steps.
With the Tempelhof Broadcast, frankly everything you do, you can’t really hide. You rehearse [on the field] and you’ve kind of done the piece, right? So in September of 2012, which was eight months before the premiere, we tried some of the sections with 50 musicians out on the field, and it was a way for me again to start experimenting with these large distances and these materials. So I gave myself a lot of experimental stages with this. By the time I got to between 230 and 250 musicians there, I was working with around six to eight different groupings; whereas in San Francisco for the Crissy Broadcast, I had 14 groups and 800 people. It’s like a balloon [being inflated] before the Thanksgiving Day parade gradually becoming Snoopy. It took, like, three and a half years for this balloon to fill. All along the way, I had to design the balloon with no air in it. So it was back and forth between an experiential and a conceptual process involving acoustic research that I did and collected from both parks departments. I took an alto saxophone and a pair of crash cymbals out on the runways and walked around with a pedometer learning about what carried. It was just a long and deep process, and that’s my favorite kind of process. So that graph [you asked about] was maybe the third or fourth solution that I found to write down the material that I had already been developing for months or years. I was just finding a way to represent it to myself, because a score was not going to work, and I finally found this way to use a multi-colored graph. It was in my hand the whole time; I had it in my hand for two months.

Charting out Crissy Broadcast

Charting out Crissy Broadcast

MS: Artistically, what is the point of 800 people on an airfield?
LB: It’s an acoustic decision. The artistic decision is the airfield. Eight hundred people is a pragmatic solution that has to do with no amplification. No amplification is an artistic idea that has to do with the fact that sound comes from a certain place. If you want to experience a space, one of the ways that you feel yourself in the space is if you hear the sounds coming from where they’re coming from. You hear a dog bark; it’s far away. It’s over there. If you heard that dog bark through quadraphonic speakers all over, then you’re no longer in a field. If I want to write music that celebrates a certain space, which I’m interested in, then the way to do that is to articulate the space honestly without manipulating it through amplification. Amplification is a way to erase a space and place another sonic space on top of it in such a way that you no longer feel the space.
So, in order to have an acoustic rendering of a space with human beings, you need hundreds of them. But the great thing about hundreds of them, which is an acoustic necessity, is that it happily brings in a whole other thing that I’ve become passionate about, which is celebrating the whole musical life of an urban area and shining light on all these other corners. Look what this middle school band director has been doing with so little funding for all these years with these amazing kids in the public school system! Check out this chorus that is organized through the Community Music Center in San Francisco of people from the various elder care centers! They have a chorus. That’s so cool. Turns out it was too cold out there for them to be there for my piece, but it’s really awesome.
That was something that was really effective in San Francisco. These hundreds of people—most of them middle school and high school kids—they encountered each other in this project and they were calling out to each other on a field, playing these signals to each other across space. There’s something very beautiful about it, and they really embraced it.
MS: So the piece had to be composed to suit amateur and student musicians?
LB: If you’re outside on a field, you have mezzo-forte and above available to you. The material has got to be declamatory. I wanted it to be joyful. There were some yearning moments, but I wanted declamatory, joyful, bold-colored shapes because that’s what works out there. And you know what? Middle school bands can play that. So can professionals. Everyone can play those things. I don’t need 800 super advanced contemporary music technicians to play this piece. Sometimes I do need them. I love virtuosity. This piece is not about virtuosity. This piece is about something else.
The fact that the model itself can be inclusive of performers at any level then touches something else that’s important to me, which is community. I need 800 people because it’s an airfield, and they can be at any level because the kind of material I need to write, many levels of musicians can in fact achieve together. And so it ends up being a natural fit.
MS: Are you satiated yet on these big pieces, or is this becoming something of a calling card?
LB: Steve Schick was my right-hand man out there in San Francisco. We were joking and he said, “After this, are you going to write a string quartet?” I don’t know! I’m of two minds. I absolutely love working on this project, but I don’t want it to be the only kind of thing I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I also really loved writing the Synopses, and I think those are good pieces. There’s an intimacy that I also need in my work that I may need to cycle back around to soon. But that doesn’t mean I’d be abandoning this forever either. I think the fact that my work sometimes goes in this direction where I’m interested in engaging community in these larger, bolder shapes out in these spaces, that’s a certain direction in my work, but it’s not the only direction. So I don’t think I’ll ever abandon it. I also think, God, are you kidding? If there are other airfields that are now public parks that have city agencies and music communities around them that want to do this, I am so game!

Lisa Bielawa at Crissy Broadcast

Bielawa in the thick of it at Crissy Broadcast
Photo by James Block

MS: Hopefully those airfields exist in a country where you already speak the local language.
LB: So I don’t have to keep learning languages. That’s so right.
MS: I am interested in how deeply passionate you are about community building. You yourself have lived in so many communities in sort of semi-longterm situations in the sense that you go in, deeply connect and make some precision drills, but then when the work is done, you move on.
LB: There’s a really specific thing that happens at the end of the Airfield Broadcasts. The groups go away from the center. By the end in San Francisco, there were 14 groups all around the perimeter of the park, and so the ones over here couldn’t even hear the ones over here. It was just too far away. And then in Berlin it was two, and in San Francisco there were three meeting points where these groups come together. There’s a small group of people that starts playing this little dancing phrase. They start playing that, and then most of the other groups around them join in with them—I wrote them all different parts that all go together, no matter when you enter—so there’s this big party that happens. In San Francisco, it’s like 200 people all doing that. Then some other group, like the Berkeley High School Band or something, shows up and plays something else completely unrelated and interrupts them. And they all stop.
But what you didn’t realize was that while this whole big party was going on, the original people who started playing that little dance-y thing, they snuck away. When the interrupters come and they all stop, [this small group] starts doing it again somewhere else and then they all go over there. This is happening in three separate places on the field inaudibly far from each other. This is exactly, I think, the poetry. There’s something so beautiful about that.
But that’s also kind of what I do, too. I want to go somewhere and I start a party. I get the party going. Then, when the party is at its fullest, I like to sneak away and start another party somewhere else. I wrote it into the piece, and I didn’t even realize I did that. I don’t know why that is. Leaving a party at its height—that’s heartbreakingly beautiful—and then you go somewhere else. That’s my role. I start fires, you know, and then I leave.

Dan Trueman: Man Out of Time

Trueman’s office on the campus of Princeton University
November 4, 2013—2 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation and text condensed and edited by Molly Sheridan

I readily confess that I lifted the title for this piece directly from a poetic description of Dan Trueman that appeared in Electronic Musician just a few weeks before I interviewed the composer myself. “Trueman is a man out of time,” noted Ken Micallef, “one foot in tomorrow’s software, the other in yesterday’s folk music.”

I scribbled this seeming contradiction across the top of my notes, but quickly began to wonder if these musical worlds were so very far apart after all. Trueman’s beloved Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, after all, is its own kind of remarkable technology. And the work he does with programming, particularly when building his own invented instruments or working with the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk), often takes metal, plastic, and code into areas of incredibly organic and tactile creation. That they implied to me a type of contradiction felt narrow minded on reflection. If there is any line to cross, Trueman certainly doesn’t trip on it.

What he does notice are some other tensions, which then influence his work from project to project. Coming from a family of musicians who regularly played chamber music together, Trueman is extremely conscious of how much we privilege professional performance over communal music making. As a result, he works to make sure those playing his music—whether on stage or in the classroom together—feel a meaningful engagement with the notes and instruments in their hands. He’s much less concerned with the preservation of his catalog for posterity and instead focused on making sure that the new technologies he develops for it function correctly from year to year so that he can keep building and developing creatively. When time concerns him at all, it’s not in how the past meets the present, but in how a human sense of rhythm meets a metronome’s tick.

His innate intellectual curiosity keeps him exploring topics within music and beyond, but whether the eventual expression of his ideas requires old instruments or the invention of new ones, at its root is something basic and strong.

“I guess what I’m saying is that I always feel like I have to make sure I’m coming back to playing music with my body and with other people, and trying to keep myself honest about how I think I understand things,” Trueman acknowledges at one point in our conversation. Later, he hits this same lesson from a slightly different angle. “It’s funny how we get these inherited bits of wisdom about what it means to write music. In the end, we all have to find our own way.”


Molly Sheridan: On your website there’s a neat juxtaposition that crops up among resume bullet points where your work with the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America butts right up against other work produced for the Computer Music Journal. Anyone familiar with your career knows you are certainly not just dabbling on either side of this aisle, and ultimately it’s all just technology in a way, but I think there are still clear dividing lines for most people. Have you always just been pulling things that interested you into your toolbox or were these separate strands that eventually braided themselves together?
Dan Trueman: What you say about them both being technologies is totally true and has been something that I argue all the time. It’s really not that different. That said, I actually think that the reason I have done both over the years is that I just like them both. I’ve played the fiddle forever; my fiddles hang on the wall, always waiting to be played. So if what I’m doing is not as interesting as playing the fiddle, then I usually go play. But with the newer technologies, I like something about the process of programming, in particular. I actually like programming—writing lines of code and having it work. It’s very satisfying. It’s funny: composing is hard and it’s hard to get a sense of closure writing a piece of music. When I finish a piece of music, there’s still a sense of things to work on and trying to come to terms with what it all means. Writing code, you just write it, and it works or it doesn’t. I like that. You take the fiddle and try to imagine things you could do with it that you can’t really do right now. For example, I play in a lot of different tunings, but once you’re in one you’re sort of stuck. I remember years ago wishing that the strings could be retuned on the fly, so that while I was playing, I could go to a different scordatura. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could hit a pedal or something and then it would just change? I suppose you could do that mechanically, but building instruments in the digital realm allows you to try things like that. So in a way I’m inspired by the limitations of these real physical things, but trying to come up with new ways of just being musical.
MS: In a way, is it fair to say that straddling this roof point, this man and machine, acoustic and electronic, often encapsulates what your music is “about” or at least hints at some of its creative impulse?
DT: A lot of times I think that’s true. Certainly in this So Percussion piece [neither Anvil nor Pulley], I was specifically interested in exploring this space between moving and training as musicians do, and seeing what machines can do, and putting them against one another. I also embrace certain elements of computer stuff that I think are native to it and are sometimes avoided. For instance, the glitchy stuff which now is sort of common in a lot of music—for a long time, we always avoided things like that. But I like things that are native to the electronic or the digital realm, and I like to foreground those and pit them against more carbon-based things. Paul Lansky always used categories—I think it comes from Star Trek, actually—like “this is carbon-based music” and “this is silicon-based music.” There are identifiable features of both, which I like to have present all together at once. I don’t feel like it needs to be one or the other. But even more to the point of your question, I really like to see how new instruments that we might build engage with how we like to make music. So you take, for instance, So Percussion—these people who have years and years of experience playing in a certain way, with very virtuoso approaches to engaging with rhythm and time. Then you find that it really doesn’t even line up with how we represent time on paper or with a metronome or on a piece of software. To see what happens when we push those against each other is definitely something that’s really been at the center of my work for the last seven or eight years.

In Trueman's Princeton office, where old ideas meet new technology

In Trueman’s Princeton office, where old ideas meet new technology

MS: I was wondering about that issue of notation, because both from your folk side and also the technology side, it seems like there must be a certain tension between what’s in your ear and what’s on the page.
DT: Yeah, and the fiddle music is particularly interesting in that regard. Actually, some of it relates to the very specific fiddle music that I play. For years, I’ve been playing this Norwegian fiddle—the Hardanger fiddle—and a particular kind of dance music from a part of Norway called Telemark. Any type of musician or music lover who isn’t familiar with that music is always scratching their head because you can’t count it the way we know how to count. You have to feel it in your body in a certain way. Swing may be the closest thing that we all know about in terms of it not really being quantifiable in a clear way. But in the case of this Norwegian dance music, it’s that times ten. So to represent it on a page is really difficult. And if you forget that it’s just a really rough approximation, and you start doing what the page tells you, you actually lose all the magic—this kind of warped sense of time that you get from this dance music.

So even apart from dealing with new technologies, just the issue of representing what’s happening when we’re making music with our bodies in a certain way, trying to represent that on a page with notation, is one challenge. Then when you think about building a new instrument, say with software, you always have to work with some kind of representation because computers are dumb. We need to tell them exactly what to do. So we write these lines of code, and they have to be totally explicit. In some ways, when you write a program, more than any other way it reflects the limitations of our understanding of how that music actually works. You write it down, and the computer does something exactly the way you told it—so it reflects how you understand that music—and you listen it and go, “Huh, that’s not really quite right.” I love that, and I find that really super interesting. I think we can sometimes get too comfortable with how we think we understand things. For instance, when we talk about meter and rhythm, we assume that we build everything up from small subdivisions. This is basically accepted wisdom, and that’s how we teach people. But if you do that, and you apply it to this Norwegian dance music, it’s just wrong. You actually do violence to that music. So there’s something that we think we understand, but it’s not lining up with this kind of music that we actually make.
I guess what I’m saying is that I always feel like I have to make sure I’m coming back to playing music with my body and with other people, and trying to keep myself honest about how I think I understand things—so that I don’t let my representation of things sort of swallow or overly constrain the thing that actually drew me to it in the first place.

Sample code from neither Anvil nor Pulley

Sample code from neither Anvil nor Pulley

MS: This discussion of time and perception leads nicely to my next question, which is how you ended up with such a fixation on messing with your metronome. Twisted references to this little timekeeper crop up in a number of your pieces. Did you have a traumatizing experience as a student or something? What happened with the metronome?!
DT: I had an amazing experience with a metronome! This was with a digital metronome back when I was in college studying violin. I love practicing with metronomes—there’s something almost spiritual about it—and there’s a practice that I can get into where I’ll set the metronome for a certain tempo, I’ll work on something, then I’ll increment it up a little bit, and then I’ll come back down. This experience that I had, I was playing these sixteenth notes with spiccato with the metronome and gradually increasing the tempo. And I was really trying to make my sixteenth notes as even as possible, so I was attending really closely to the details. As the tempo went up, I noticed at a certain point that every time I stopped playing, the metronome would speed up. I’m like, something’s wrong with this metronome. It would happen every time I would stop. Then I asked someone to come in and said, “What’s going on? Is there something weird going on? Have we entered the Twilight Zone with this metronome?” At the time, I hadn’t really thought about it very much, but of course it makes sense. As we attend to things, our sense of how time passes changes. So I literally slowed down my experience of time.

I’ve met a few other people who have had this same experience, you know. So I’m confident I’m not just weird here. But ever since then, I’ve just been really curious about the power of mechanical time: how we measure it, and how we represent it. Nowadays we think, well, the metronome is right. I need to practice and get very good. A lot of our contemporary music these days I think reflects that. We play with very regimented types of pulses and beats. I think it’s in part a reflection of our acceptance of the metronome and, more generally, the idea of calculated pulse that we get from sequencers and so on. So we write pulse-based music, and it doesn’t have the same kind of flow and rubato that, say, 19th-century music has, where they were very skeptical about the metronome. So yes, I had a semi-traumatic experience with a metronome.
MS: So you’re taking very precise machines, and then you’re interested, well, not in imprecision, but in non-perfection I guess.
DT: That’s right. I’m very much interested in the dirty, crunchy areas around this mechanical sense of time. If I may say, one of my favorite places in this piece that I wrote for So Percussion comes right at the interface between the first and second movements. The first movement is this sort of jaunty fiddle tune, and the So guys, they’re grooving it, feeling it the way fiddlers feel it, at 120 beats per minutes. Then the very last note, Eric hits this wood block that starts the metronome for the second movement, which is also 120 bpm. There’s this moment where it’s like, wow, they’re really playing at 120 bpm, but there’s a quality in the way this changes from this sort of, you know, it’s grooving, it’s tight, but it’s not this crrrk, crrrk, crrrk type of calculated pulse that we get from metronomes. There’s this twist that I feel every time we get to that moment where two ways of articulating that pulse come right up against each other.

MS: There does seem to be a remarkable naturalness between how you integrate acoustic and electronic instruments. Do you have a personal stash of rules or guidelines for how you go about doing that at this point?
DT: That’s a really great question. I make a lot of things, and then I play with them. I think my instincts have gotten better over the years, but I still feel like maybe instead of nine out of ten things that I make, that eight out of ten things that I make are really boring. I’ve gotten a little better at anticipating, but basically I’ll have an idea: Wouldn’t it be cool to do this? Wouldn’t it be cool to play with an instrument that can do this? And then most of the time, I’ll code it up in some way, or maybe it will involve some hardware, and I’ll make it and literally, within seconds often, say, “Aw, geez. That’s boring.” Or, “I really need it to be able to do this.” And then I’ll go back and code some more.

That was actually the thing about this So Percussion piece. The second movement, this 120 bpm movement, is the first one that I wrote. I spent about three months banging my head against the wall, trying to find the thing that I thought would work for this because I wanted something that really engaged their incredible musical training and something indigenous to the computer which was pushing against them. And that’s not an easy task, but still—three months in! This is terrible. Then finally, I built this one thing I wanted to try and it was maybe three days later that I came up for air because I started playing with it and—wow—this is so fun. I wish that I were better at predicting. Maybe if I were more analytical I could come up with some principles that I could write about, but I still pretty much follow my nose on these things. Basically, I’m aiming to make something that is physically engaging in some way and that’s going to be interesting for the player to do.

Actually this does get to a fairly big thing for me. Ninety percent of my musical life is spent by myself playing fiddle or maybe trying to hack through some Bach at the piano. You know, not performing. And my enjoyment of music really is primarily there [off stage]. I think we forget that sometimes. There’s such an emphasis on performance and making things that are always going to be presented that the role of the players and their experience can really get lost. They’re executing something, as opposed to engaging with something. So one of my first principles in designing these types of instruments is really, well, what’s this going to be like for the player—is this going to be super engaging in some way to play? Again, that comes back to my fiddles hanging on the wall. I can just pick one up and play some tunes, and that’s really great. So anything else that I do, I want it to be at least similarly engaging—making me feel like I’m actually, and with some urgency, involved in the music-making process. That’s hard, but I try to develop an instinct for making things that will accomplish that. Most of the time I miss, but occasionally, I get something that, wow, three days later I’m still doing this. So there must be something right here.

Trueman's 5-string Hardanger-inspired "5x5 fiddle," built by Salve Håkedal

Trueman’s 5-string Hardanger-inspired “5×5 fiddle” built by Salve Håkedal

MS: Do you trace that pretty directly to the fact that you’re an active performer, so you’re especially sympathetic to those considerations?
DT: I suppose that may be true. I grew up playing music, but I came to composing fairly late. My older sister is a composer and so I thought, well, that’s what she does. I can’t possibly tread on her turf. So it really wasn’t until I was almost 22 that I started writing music. Being a fiddler, I always loved playing chamber music, and I actually mean in sort of the old-fashioned sense, sitting in somebody’s living room and making music together. I grew up sight-reading music with my parents. They built a harpsichord and a clavichord and so we had these instruments in the house. My older sister was a terrific musician and so she’d play piano or harpsichord, my parents would play recorders, and I’d play violin. So there was something about that—it was something that we’d do, not something that we were rehearsing to perform to impress people. That’s what makes me tick and that is so marginalized now. In the new music world and in the electronic music world, it’s like the presumption is that, well, we’re aiming for performance. And people don’t even talk about it! I hope I’m not saying something too obnoxious here, but I just feel like maybe we’ve sort of lost hope that music making is something that people do—a vital and continuing thing. But then, I hang out with these fiddlers. The fiddle world is this incredibly vibrant place, and they’re always putting on shows and performing, but I still think they live for being in somebody’s kitchen playing tunes together. That to me is the most incredible thing, and if I’m going to do this with new technologies, well, it better at least have a chance of succeeding there.

MS: I think this kind of musical engagement happens so often among musicians behind closed doors, maybe especially among players who don’t end up pursuing professional careers, but it’s not something we often talk about.
DT: And when we get to a certain level, the assumption is, well, we’re putting on performances. I feel like our performances would be better if this part of it were well tended to. I mean, I love putting on shows and rehearsing a piece and really trying to have it be as awesome as possible. But I also like when I hear fiddlers who get up and play tunes every day, and I’m just with them in their living room.
MS: It seems to me that this attitude was perhaps further ingrained through your somewhat unconventional string training, right? Your violin teacher early on seems to have had a rather long-term influence on your own sense of ambition and career and the deeper artistic goals you developed.
DT: Oh, boy. Yeah, so this is Irene Lawton back in Stony Brook, on Long Island where I grew up. I remember her telling me once, “You know, I don’t care if you become a professional musician. In fact, I’d rather you not become a professional musician. But if you play for five minutes a day, and you go for that sound, and you do that for the rest of your life, I’ll be very happy.” Which was kind of an incredible bottom line in a way because on the one hand, you say, I’m not trying to be a professional musician. But on the other hand, I’m trying to stay awake in a certain way. She was always talking about being awake to the moment. She also had this incredible way of undermining one’s ego. I had a very healthy ego when I started studying violin with her, and in really good ways I think she wanted to make sure that I was making music for music reasons, and not just because it fed my ego.

I think she actually did some damage to me as a performer in the sense that I became very insecure. I had to reinvent myself and start playing other kinds of music because the notion of standing up and demanding attention and impressing people—basically it was equivalent to feeding my ego. I’m actually very appreciative of that, but I still wrestle with it. It’s funny, these lessons that we get from an early age. They leave a mark. My wife is a guitarist and she teaches. She has students for eight, nine, ten years. I think for a lot of them, she makes an incredible mark on them. Whether they become professional musicians or not, just from my own memories and my own experiences, it’s amazing how long that lasts.

Trueman as a young violin student

Trueman as a young violin student

MS: Seriously. We like to hold up the fact that music lessons might improve a kid’s math scores, but there’s so much more beyond that in those intimate mentorship moments—deep life lesson that come out of that period and stick around.
DT: Totally. As my years went on with Irene Lawton, we had these long lessons and I’m not kidding you, we’d do yoga. This relates to everything we’ve just been talking about. She was very aware and interested in our bodies and the relationship of the body to the instrument. Doing some yoga to wake up your body before sitting down and doing this is really a natural thing with the violin. It’s really important. The next thing we would do would be sight-reading. We would sight-read duos. So again, it was this very in the moment, almost trying to survive type of thing. A little bit like improvisation, but from another angle. That was where the priority was.

The stuff with the body I’m still really interested in with new technologies—the music really lives in our bodies in certain ways. I think of particular fiddlers, for instance, and the way they do ornaments—two fiddlers in particular, Brittany Hass and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. Both of them have this beautiful way of making ornaments, and it’s in their hands in a way. You can write it down—you can analyze it however you want—but in some way, it’s about the whole thing and how it’s put together. I developed an appreciation for that from Irene Lawton early on, because she really was all about the bow arm, thinking about the sound you were conjuring from this instrument and how it related to your breath, your shoulders, the weight of your arm, the joints in your fingers, and so on. It was all tied together.
MS: So how did composing finally get on this palette of interests for you?
DT: I started composing little bits of things when I was 12 or 13. I remember having sheets of paper with big notes on it. Actually, maybe I was even younger than that. But like I said, my sister was a composer—super talented—and also writing lots of music very early on. I also had all of these inherited notions about what it means to be a composer. You have to play piano, of course. I took some piano, but I eventually quit because I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to play violin, and there are only so many hours in the day, so now I can’t be a composer. But I tried little things here and there. I was really active as a chamber musician in college, and in my last term at Carleton College in Minnesota I needed a couple of extra credits. So I took a composition class with the same composer that my sister had taken composition with, actually: Phillip Rhodes, a wonderful composer and incredible teacher.

I remember him, sort of a stern guy; I still call him Mr. Rhodes. After the first or second class he took me aside and said, “Well, I’m not sure you should be in here. You know, everybody else has got a lot more experience.” “Just give me a couple of weeks,” I said. “Let me try.” And so he let me stay in. It was a revelation. Just to give you an idea of where I was: I was 22, just learning how to compose. I brought him one of my many things that were 15-seconds long. I couldn’t get any further. So I brought this string quartet to him—absolute beginner stuff. Stuck at 15 seconds. He looks at it, and he’s got this furrowed brow, and he says after a few minutes, “Well, you know, Dan, you don’t have to have all the instruments play all the time.” Ohhh! So all of a sudden, I can write, you know, a minute of music. After that lesson, I went home and made a whole list of things like that—just a list of ideas to remember when you’re stuck. All of the sudden, the floodgates opened, and I started writing a lot of music.
I started getting over all these hang-ups. I remember one young composer saying, “Oh, well, every good piece of music should have all of its key elements in the opening moment.” I was very impressed by that for a while, to a debilitating extent. All my pieces had to have this. I realized eventually, of course, that’s not true. That is just baloney. It’s funny how we get these inherited bits of wisdom about what it means to write music. In the end, we all have to find our own way.

Sample score page: "Feedback" from neither Anvil nor Pulley

Sample score page: “Feedback (In which a Famous Bach Prelude)” from neither Anvil nor Pulley
(click image to enlarge)

MS: Do you feel that you had a musical home then? Considering all your different interests, and then coming to composition late, you could have easily felt somewhat isolated in a sense, or deeply divided at least.
DT: Well, my whole family is musical. My parents are both amateurs, but both very accomplished. Then my sister, she’s one of these annoying people who can do anything. You hand her an instrument, she’d be able to figure it out and play well on it in short order—something I’ve never been able to do. So I was surrounded by it. My dad’s a physicist and my mom’s a painter, but they were building harpsichords. I mean, I thought that was normal. They were building harpsichords, and then I eventually inherited the task of tuning these instruments. So having music around all the time, but also having the notion that these things are things we can mess with. It all kind of makes sense to me now that I say it, because I feel like that’s sort of what I’m doing now. I’m getting under the hood, but also just wanting to make music all the time. And that was there from the beginning.
MS: You’re often an active participant in your pieces or, when you’re taking a slightly more traditional composer role, you are at least very close to the performers bringing the works to life. Has there been or will there ever be much music by Dan Trueman that does not include this particular type of intimacy?

DT: Yes. Well, maybe. We’ll see. I do find it most compelling to write for people whom I know or whom I feel like I’ve got some connection with. With So Percussion, I was so engaged by how they make music. And when I met them, I liked them as people, and so I knew I wanted to make music with them. So there’s that element of it. I remember Bill Frisell telling a story like this about meeting this pedal steel player at a party once. He didn’t know anything about him—didn’t even know what he played—and within ten minutes he said, “I know I’m going to play with this guy.” I was really impressed by that. I think it’s true. There are people you just want to make music with. The notion of me just making a score and sending it off, I don’t do it very much.

The other question is me being in it, and I’ve been wrestling with that for a long time. For many years, I mostly only did that, in part because I was making pieces where I would be playing either electric violin and laptop, or I’d be playing Hardanger fiddle. I was very adamant at times—I don’t care that this isn’t practical. I’m going to make these pieces because these are really interesting, idiosyncratic places that I want to go—so I know that these pieces are going to be really hard for anybody else to do. Maybe impossible, because they require a Hardanger fiddle—how many people have one of those?—or some weird software that, at least at the time, would have been sort of impossible to share with anybody. But I did it anyway, because I didn’t want to be governed by some lowest common denominator. I still feel that way.

Trueman and his beloved Hardanger fiddle

Trueman and his beloved Hardanger fiddle

There’s an accepted wisdom that we want to maximize the number of performances we get. We make things that as many people can do with as few complications as possible. That’s fine, but I feel like, wow, there are really some interesting musical places that we rule out by insisting on that. So I go down my little rabbit holes and make these things that only I can play, or that require six-string violin and sensors in the bow and some weird custom software, and sure, nobody else does them. They’re not even really necessarily a model for somebody for writing further pieces. Some of that bothers me now, but it changes from month to month. I have this sort of idealistic belief sometimes that if I make something, it may be really hard to do and personal and idiosyncratic, but if it’s really great, then at some point, somebody else is going to want to do it, and they’ll figure it out. NewMusicBox had this thing recently about software, in particular. And that’s related to this in a sense. How do you make things that you can share, that can at least be useable for another year, or five years, or ten? If you are in it yourself, you can tend to it. If you want other people to do it, then almost by definition you have to make things less adventurous.

So there’s a tension there between wanting things that can go far and stay around, and wanting to just simply go for it and see what it is that you can find in this weird place. Then there’s the other fact that I really like playing music. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve started to have experiences as the composer where I sit in the hall and actually enjoy myself. For many years, I basically hated that more than almost any other musical experience. Now, like when So Percussion plays my piece, I love being there. They’re just so great and it always turns into something that I can’t actually believe exists.
MS: Has that shift required you to make any of those composerly concessions you’ve mentioned?
DT: I’m just finishing some pieces now that Adam Sliwinski from So is playing. They are these pieces for what I’m calling prepared digital piano, and these actually go at this whole thing from a lot of ways. I’m really excited about it because they’re for laptop and 88-key MIDI controller. That’s it. Sets up in about 30 seconds. Software—you open it up, it just works. It’s notated in traditional notation. Any pianist can sit down and play this. I actually can’t play these pieces. I actually feel like for the first time, I’ve got something here that is idiosyncratic and lets me explore these things in a way that I like to, but also it’s totally easy for other people to do. I’ll be able to distribute that software and I think that lots of people could play it.
MS: I want to focus in a little further on that idea of sharing and software expiration. I was listening back to some of your decade-old work, the Interface recordings in particular. Considering that the hardware and software used to create some of this music may have a much shorter shelf life than the violin, are you anxious about compositions in your catalog that even you can’t really play anymore?

Trueman's hemispherical speaker design on display

Trueman’s hemispherical speaker design on display

DT: I have one like that in part because I made it for six-string electric violin, and I don’t play six-string electric violin anymore—and I don’t really want to—but I don’t know how to do that piece without it. That’s funny because that’s actually not even a question of software. The Interface record you mentioned with Curt Bahn, there’s even all these old sensor bows that I made for that that are in various states of disrepair. I could never get back to that place where I made music with Curtis in that way. I have a couple of thoughts about that. One is that in that case, that was all improvisational. We were building these rich software instruments that we’d improvise with, and we really felt like the instrument building was part of the whole process. So the thought that we needed to be able to do this again really didn’t matter. We didn’t care about reproducing things.
In fact, we’d rather the next gig have the next version of our software and have our sensors take us to a new place. I really like that about working improvisationally with software and viewing instrument building as part of the compositional and performance process. It’s like Coltrane working on his licks in the bathroom during intermission. He was actively building things into his hands that he could then use in the second set. So we would try to do the same thing with software—the next set is not going to be the same as the last one.

Regarding old software, it’s not even just that there might be objects in the Max patch that need to be updated or something like that. Back in the day, I was building things where the composition was really in the specific presets of how things were wired and the parameter values, so that over the course of a piece I might change a hundred numbers 20 times to slightly different values because it would basically create a different type of texture or a different type of response. They’re actually really hard to reproduce. I don’t do it anymore. Now I make the instruments I make, and whether consciously or unconsciously, I sort of avoid things that I think are just so fragile that I’m going to lose them in a year or two.
MS: So considering what you’ve just said, ultimately how concerned are you about issues of preservation and protecting your catalog?
DT: Okay, now you’re provoking me here because I’ve been known to rant about this. I sometimes talk to student composers about notating their music. So much of the time it’s about longevity—how are people going to play this music when I’m gone? I really don’t care! I mean, to me, it’s actually kind of bizarre to worry about whether people are going to play our music when we’re dead. I understand this hope for immortality and so on, so in some way, yeah, of course I want my kids to understand what I’ve done and ideally to appreciate it in some way. But the notion of prioritizing that in the creative process really does seem problematic.
The history of the new technology is that sometimes it’s actually a question of, well, this doesn’t work next week, and I do care about that. I want to be able to make things that I can build on, and that I can revisit. So for instance, this even comes down to languages that we can use. A lot of people use Max/MSP, which I use a lot. Then there’s another language called Chuck that I use a lot. These days, I mostly work in Chuck because it’s a text-based language, and I find that I can revisit my work there more easily. I can read it. I can understand what I did. I can reuse it. It basically comes forward in time with me in way that I struggle with Max. In Max, I’ll look at a patch that I made yesterday—how does this work again? Let alone a patch that I made five years ago. So it’s not so much caring about the longevity of the catalog, because I really do think that’s sort of preposterous, but I do want to feel like I can build on my own ideas in productive ways.
MS: Somehow, we’ve gotten all this way and haven’t even referenced the Princeton Laptop Orchestra or the hemispherical speakers you designed. Though the ensemble has been around for a while and is even imitated elsewhere, I suspect for many people that the name still might conjure images of a bunch of students gazing blankly into the blue light.
DT: Totally.
MS: So would you mind taking us behind the curtain a bit there, as far as how the laptop orchestra really functions and what kinds of music it is able to create and perform?
DT: The whole thing with the Laptop Orchestra for me was to build a context for experimenting with making music together with more than one or two people—trying to find new ways of making music with new technologies. I’d been teaching computer music here [at Princeton] for a couple years, and teaching it the way it generally has been taught—and still is taught, to a certain extent: You work in isolation in a studio, you make your track, and you share it with somebody. That’s all fine and good, but to me as a fiddler, it felt very dead, in a way. I would make something and then put it on a concert, sit in the dark and listen to it. It’s hard for me to get excited about that. I wanted to get this stuff out of the studio, but how do you do that? I had done a lot of laptop improv over the years, where you get a bunch of people, you plug into a mixer, and you all come out of a couple speakers. Nobody knows what anybody’s doing.

I’m kind of conservative, I guess. I wanted it to feel old fashioned so I could be making music with somebody else, attending to what I’m doing and aware of it, while hearing what somebody else is doing. That’s hard to do with conventional speaker technology. That was a project Perry Cook—who’s this great computer music researcher and musician—and I worked on together and ultimately it resulted in building these spherical and hemi-spherical speakers that radiate sound in a room roughly the way acoustic instruments do. So you can put one right near you, even on you. I’ve got one that I sit in my lap—I have sensors on it and I bow the thing—and the sound comes right out, so it’s like a cello in some ways.

The idea of the Laptop Orchestra [takes that further]. What happens if we’ve got four people, or six, or 40? With the show we did with Matmos, we had 30 or more laptop people on stage with these speakers, Matmos, and So Percussion all going at it. It has been great to do it with students because I still feel like we’ve only explored some of the corners of what we can do with this. The students come in, and they don’t have a whole lot of preconceptions about what it is we need to do, so we can try all sorts of things.

So that’s it in sum: a group of people each with a laptop, a hemispherical speaker near them for their own sound source, and maybe some kind of interface device that they’ll be using to physically engage with the sound. It has evolved and spread, and we even have a pro level one that we started here called Sideband that is made up of former and some current graduate students and faculty and staff—between eight to twelve people at any particular performance, sometimes as few as six. We started that five or six years into the whole process of doing laptop orchestras, because you can only get so far when you’ve got new people every year. You can’t really accumulate expertise. With Sideband, we really want to see how far can we push this. That for me is where the laptop orchestra is now, really trying to develop small communities—bands, basically—where we’re trying to accumulate experience and repertoire that we can get better at and see where it takes us.

Sample score page: "120bpm (Or, What is your Metronome Thinking?)" from <em>neither Anvil nor Pulley</em>

Sample score page: “120bpm (Or, What is your Metronome Thinking?)” from neither Anvil nor Pulley
(click image to enlarge)

Tether notation explanation for the piece.

Tether notation explanation for the piece.

MS: It strikes me every time you relate one of these anecdotes that while a lot of composers talk about constraints being creatively fulfilling, you’re inventing your own instruments to make a piece. It seems like that would introduce some inherent challenges. I get how that would be incredibly inspiring, but it also means that on your palette, anything is possible.
DT: Right. That’s why composing for laptop orchestra, or laptops in general, is so hard. I think one of the reasons I like working with percussion so much is that some of the questions are similar. If you’re writing for string quartet, you know what you’re writing for. If you’re writing for percussion ensemble, well, you’ve got to make a bunch of decisions about things, right? Percussionists in general are really adventurous. You can give them anything, and they’ll do something with it. Laptop orchestra is one step beyond that. Not only do we have to write the piece, we’ve got to build instruments and learn how to play them. We’ve got to teach people how to play them. We have to invent notation that makes sense for those instruments. It’s totally daunting. I mean, I love it, but I’m only up for one every year or two because it’s just so hard to do.

Though there’s a sort of myth about computer music and computers, that they can make any sound you can imagine. I actually think computers have a really limited vocabulary. Of course, you can record something and then you can do stuff with your recordings. That’s great. But basically it’s a very small palette, and a lot of times the palette is just not very interesting or you might have an allergy to it. For instance, a lot of people won’t do anything with FM synthesis, because ‘80s popular music is just marked by FM synthesis and it sounds dated. That’s a problem with a lot of computer music stuff. The vocabulary is really small, so either you embrace it or you try to find something that works for you in some way. But it’s just stupid hard.

MS: Until I read the interview you did with Cycling 74 on your programming work, I don’t think I truly grasped the depth of your knowledge on the programming side; as a string player myself, I had perhaps just been more focused on your violin side. Though for a man with your background, this diversity of intellectual curiosities is perhaps not terribly surprising.
DT: Like I was saying earlier, I like programming partly because it scratches an itch. I loved studying physics—my dad is a theoretical physicist. I think it gave me a little bit of fearlessness—I never thought I couldn’t because, well, I’ve majored in physics!
MS: And maybe it even helps explain how you ended up becoming a fiddle player interested in seriously complex folk music and a computer programmer who wants to make sure the music preserves clear human interaction.
DT: That’s why I’ve been so pleased with this So Percussion piece [neither Anvil nor Pulley], because I feel that’s come across. It’s got all these things in it, and I’m really happy about that. But yeah, I guess I’m kind of a nerd. I’m drawn to the weird parts of it—probably more than most.

Trueman's Norwegian Hardanger fiddle

Trueman’s Norwegian Hardanger fiddle