Author: Molly Sheridan

Sounds Heard: Burr Van Nostrand—Voyage in a White Building 1

I may know better than to judge a CD by its cover, but it was hard to resist the poetic allure of the graphic score which unfolds across the front of Voyage in a White Building 1, a New World Records-issued recording of three pieces by Burr Van Nostrand.
Though the notation samples reeled me in (there’s another within the detailed booklet notes by Mathew Rosenblum), it was actually Matthew Guerrieri’s review from last year of performances of Van Nostrand’s music at the New England Conservatory of Music that first attracted my attention to this American iconoclast’s work.  Guerrieri’s vivid descriptions of the texture and flavor of the pieces left me intrigued, yet its infrequent live performance had me doubting I’d ever have the chance to hear it for myself. So consider this as much of an alert as a record review: if you ever desired the opportunity, it has arrived.

The three works included on the album were all written between 1966 and 1972. It opens with Fantasy Manual for Urban Survival, a six-movement fully notated composition. The recording included here—featuring performances by Robert Stallman (flute), Jay Humeston (cello), and Herman Weiss (prepared piano)—was made at the piece’s premiere at the New England Conservatory in 1972. I was somewhat surprised to read that Van Nostrand “began the project by compiling lists of extreme ensemble sonorities,” since to my ear, each gesture feels so deliberate and well-placed—nothing thrown at the wall just to see if it will stick. It comes off not as a catalog but as an organic exploration of a dim world, no turn taken too quickly. What begins as a murky, slow-moving study sharpens its attack and reveals additional facets as things progress. Midway through, the performers begin taking turns speaking text from the Friedrich Hölderlin poem “Hälfte des Lebens,” an inspiration for the piece, as the music continues to slip and stutter. The final two movements turn spare and crystalline, breath and light key clicks dissolving into the ether.
Phaedra Antinomaes was written for friend and collaborator violinist Paul Severtson, who infuses an attractive confidence into his presentation of the material (as documented in the 1969 recording featured on the disc). The work’s three continuous movements can be played in any order, as can the fifteen fragments that make up one of the sections. Severtson chose to lead with his ingredients—the gestural “Fragments”—before slipping seamlessly into the “Very slow, suspended” section, aggressive bow work, twacks against the instrument, and plucked accents contrasting with delicate spiccato sputters and glissando introspection.  The final section, “Violent, fast—very slow,” kicks up the tension level, but not as much as these descriptive words might imply. Throughout the work, Van Nostrand pads his statements with enough air around them to allow full aural absorption. As a result, Phaedra Antinomaes remains, start to finish, a haiku of a piece. No single line in its twelve-and-a-half-minute run time seems to unspool more than a few syllables before taking a breath, but absorbed as a whole the music contains surprising weight.


Tara Mueller, violin; New England Conservatory, April 2012

A new recording of the title work, Voyage in a White Building 1, closes the disc with a bang, and it is here that the enticing graphic score pages come to life. Premiered originally in 1969, the booklet notes explain that Van Nostrand created the work for a collection of close colleagues and relied on the unconventional notation system to include their diverse range of styles and reading abilities. On this disc, the work is presented by the NEC Chamber Ensemble led by Anthony Coleman, and a hat must be tipped to them—particularly the “speaker,” who emphatically emotes his way through the performance—for picking up this challenge and making it such a rich sonic experience.

For as seductive as I found the graphic score illustrations, the sonic image they convey (at least to these musicians) resolved into an ominous picture. Based on Hart Crane’s poem “Voyages 1,” it is structurally and thematically reflective of its three stanzas—a warning to children playing on a beach. Any sort of playfulness that may be present at the outset seems to melt into a kind of nightmarish fairy tale horror along the twists and turns Van Nostrand’s interpretation takes. The seeming madness of the speaker—his nearly nonsensical verbal explosions, maniacal laugher, moans, gasps, and cries—hold center stage throughout much of the performance, ramping up with deliberate speed as the piece moves towards its finale.  But it’s a beautiful terror to witness, a vibrant piece of theater for the ears.


Burr Van Nostrand – Voyage in a White Building 1

Sounds Heard: Shelter—Gordon/Lang/Wolfe

The human desire for a safe space—a roof over your head, a room of one’s own, a place to hang your hat and call home—is both an evolutionary constant and yet a fickle target. An emotional harbor as much as a physical shield, it’s a comfort all too easily destroyed at the hands of both men and Mother Nature. Sometimes the longing is rooted in the need for a secure place to sleep, sometimes in the desire for landscaping that will impress the neighbors.

To create Shelter, Bang on a Can founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe joined forces to explore the parameters of such architecture.  The resulting seven-movement evening-length oratorio is sung for this recording with crystalline precision by vocalists Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes, and Caroline Shaw (yes, that Caroline Shaw) with Ensemble Signal (Brad Lubman, conductor) at their side.

Though teasing apart who wrote what might be an amusing game for serious fans of these composers (see video for insight into their process), in truth their distinct vocabularies braid together with a remarkable ease that only serves to heighten the overall auditory interest of the piece. The arrestingly spare, meditative consideration of doorway activities—looking for keys, taking off shoes—offered in the opening “Before I Enter” gives way to the in-your-face aggression of “Is the Wind.” In this movement, the electric guitar and bass end of the instrumental ensemble drive the pulse, the woodwinds screaming an arc of complaint across the top as the higher strings stair-step their way through aerobic feats of endurance. The emotional tenor of the music continues to shift through passages of grandiose pronouncement (“American Home”) and almost prayerful ascension (“I Want To Live”). The vocal play and instrumental intricacy of “Porch” stood out as a personal highlight, but in truth it’s hard to play favorites here. Even when the tension ebbs, it never fully lets go of the line, clinging to a violence only fully allowed to crash into the structure of things in the piece’s final movement.


Shelter (2005) is the third in a trilogy of collaborative works by this trio of composers, a remarkable series that also includes The Carbon Copy Building (1999) and Lost Objects (2001). Fans of those previous pieces, particularly Lost Objects with which Shelter shares some distinct aesthetic sensibilities, as well as its librettist Deborah Artman, are likely to fall into this final chapter with relish. Even if Shelter is a first brush with the power trio’s output, however, it’s sure to leave a strong impression—whether the underlying panic reads to your ear and experience as the stress of making the next mortgage payment or confronting the specter of rising flood waters.

Marcos Balter: Hyperactive Unity

There is an arresting, high-voltage energy that often infuses presentations of Marcos Balter’s music, and an obvious fascination on the part of the composer with exploring new sonic possibilities while keeping the human element—the living, breathing performer—center stage. While the roots of these influences are clearly reflected in Balter’s own personality, putting too much emphasis on his Brazilian upbringing and the Portuguese accent that lightly colors his rapid English would be a mistake.

“I’m a Brazilian composer, I’m a gay composer, and people always go for those things as if they are the really crucial, defining elements in my music, when they’re really not,” Balter explains with a mix of understanding and frustration. A composer born and raised in Rio de Janeiro who currently calls Chicago home, he appreciates the American interest in how where you come from shapes the music you write. In his case, however, growing up in a diverse metropolitan city offered him a broad slate of experiences, and the hallmarks of his own music are much more personal.

“As you can probably tell, I’m a very hyperactive person,” Balter concedes with a knowing smile. “I’ve always been very energetic and doing one million things at once, very fast paced in general in life. And when I look at my music, I see that. I see that sense of—unity. It’s that one thing sometimes, but if you look very carefully, it’s one billion things within that one thing.”

As a young conservatory student, his musical passions “were very well behaved,” he admits, with a special affinity for the keyboard composers he was studying as a pianist. Composition was also already a “very natural act to me,” coming almost hand in hand with learning to read and write. In 1996, a piano scholarship to Texas Christian University brought him to the States, though his educational focus was ultimately on composition. Study at Northwestern University followed, and he is currently the director of the music composition program at Columbia College Chicago.

During his first years in the U.S., he found that his music became a little more conservative before he rebelled—a reaction, perhaps, to the education he was receiving, which he found stiflingly dogmatic. “I think that sometimes the least interesting thing about my music is how it’s made,” he clarifies. “If you want to know about that, that’s great, and you can do all kinds of crazy analysis and find out some fun stuff. But to me the most important part of music is still the emotional connection between the composer and the performer, and the performer and the listener. The rest is secondary.”

Considering how closely Balter likes to work with the musicians who play his pieces, that primary consideration carries particular weight. “I really see the act of composing as a collaborative act. Even when you’re composing by yourself, not talking to anyone, you’re still working with that entity, you’re still working for those people.”

In Balter’s case, however, that person often is in the room at certain points in the process, offering feedback and demonstrating possible sounds and techniques. In the case of his extensive work with the musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble over many years, he’s writing not only for respected colleagues, but also very good and trusted friends.

“That’s why I love working with them. I know that when I walk into a rehearsal, that the rehearsal is still a workshop. We’re still debating ideas; we’re still negotiating things.” And that, he argues, is an essential step in the artistic process that he’d be foolish to overlook. “Things change considerably when they leave the paper and they reach the performer, and for me to not acknowledge that and make that part of the creation of the art work is insane.”

He also counts on that feedback to keep him pushing forward in his own art. In one extreme example, during the creation of his Descent from Parnassus—inspired by Cy Twombly’s painting The First Part of the Return from Parnassus and written for ICE founder and flutist Claire Chase—Balter sent his first sketch of the piece her way. “She called me back, and she said, ‘That’s not it.’ And I was deeply offended! I was mad at her. I’m the composer; you shall not tell me if it is or it isn’t—I’ll know!”

A step back and some reflection offered new perspective, however. “Within four or five hours, the coin dropped, and I looked at this sketch and thought, ‘She’s absolutely right. This is not in any shape or form what this painting is about.’ I called her back and I said, ‘You know what? Let me give it another shot; let me try to process things differently here.’
“Within 72 hours, I had Parnassus.


That openness to exploring new paths and changing direction on the fly is why Balter considers himself at heart an experimental composer. “I don’t know where I’m going. And I actually think that if I knew, I would have stopped composing a long time ago,” he admits. “So no, I don’t know what’s going to happen to my music next year, I don’t know what’s going to happen next week. And that’s the beauty of it; that’s the excitement of it—it’s the not knowing. If I knew everything, I could write a book about it and be done.”

Sounds Heard: Herbert Deutsch—From Moog to Mac

I have always found something particularly enriching about career-long retrospective presentations of an artist’s work. I have this concentrated immersive experience more often with visual art than I do with music, but albums such as Herbert Deutsch’s From Moog to Mac remind me that the ears benefit as much from taking such a journey as the eyes do.

Presented in chronological order and spanning a period from 1963 to 2007, the works included on From Moog to Mac demonstrate the process of experimentation and development that Herbert Deutsch went through as he created work for Bob Moog’s iconic synthesizers and then on into computer generated sound.

The disc opens with Deutsch’s A Christmas Carol, a 1963 tape piece made before the development of the Moog synthesizer that’s something of a state-of-his-art setter (as the disc notes report it was for Moog as well) for what is to follow. The piece positions audio news clips from the Birmingham church bombings of that era and monastic chanting alongside snippets of the children’s song “Frère Jacques” intended as a call to then-President JFK, all threaded together using a host of processed instrumental sounds.

What follows that track is a sort of audio letter and instrument demonstration from Robert Moog to “Mr. Deutsch, sir!”, which offers an intimate insider’s view of the early days (and sounds) of his prototype instrument. Having nicknamed it “abominatron,” Moog self-depreciatingly suggests that “it doesn’t sound like much when I play it. But maybe someone with more musicianship and imagination can get some good things out of it.” It’s an utterly charming six-plus minutes of his thinking, excitement, and nervousness at that time.

Jazz Images, A Worksong and Blues (1964) is the first piece ever composed using the sounds of a Moog synthesizer (!) and offers a striking view of Deutsch’s early reaction to and experimentation with the technology. He writes:

In 1964, the sounds and the potential of sound modification had a startling effect upon me. It was as if each new sound produced would almost instantly free my mind and my fingers to move in a new direction. This experience fit perfectly into the way I was hearing, and wished to explore, the new jazz that I loved to hear and play.

While it’s an exciting ten-minute historical audio document, it also remains a great listen on its own terms, mixing the sounds of the synthesizer with Deutsch’s own improvisation on piano and trumpet. The same holds true for A Little Night Music, The Ithaca Journal Aug. 6, 1965, composed to close the Summer 1965 Workshop and Seminar in Electronic Music Composition that Deutsch and Moog held in Trumansburg, New York. This piece also relies on the headlines of the day and provides an interesting developmental mile marker when held next to the disc’s opening track.

Once the disc moves past these groundbreaking early experiments, some of the work wears its age more boldly than the rest. Prologue to King Richard III (1971), showcasing the integration of the Mini-Moog into the score for a “modern” production of Shakespeare’s play, makes for a fun bridge between Renaissance sonic cues and synthesized timbres of the time. Using a Moog MemoryMoog and a Korg M-1 Music Workstation, Slight of Hand (Mr. Magic Man) (1989) holds up less well for me, a piece of cabaret-pop marred by the heavy-handed use of now cheesy-sounding (and era-signaling) synth sounds. Fantasy on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” (1995) is an often-jazzy conversation between saxophone and a palate of electronic sounds (those mimicking strings and organ particularly) that took me right back to the Casio keyboard I played as a teenager.

Abyss (1994), however, seems to have escaped its time. A luminescent setting of a poem by Sonia Usatch, it features a piccolo player and mezzo-soprano (at opposite sides of the stage in performance) both entangled in a bed of delicately glimmering computer generated sound. The piece explores the relationship between a mother and her schizophrenic son, as represented by the melodic lullaby-like delivery of the vocalist alongside the piccolo’s fluttering exploration of a 12-tone row. The juxtaposition is quietly powerful.

Deutsch closes the album with Two Songs Without Words for Theremin and Piano  (2007). Originally composed for voice, Deutsch rewrote the piece to include theremin after learning Moog was ill and knowing the distinctive instrument was perhaps the inventor’s favorite. The pieces make for a poignant end to an album that traces the interwoven electronic work of the two men.
In addition to the music, the disc also includes historic documents and photographs, two downloadable ringtones (snippets of tracks on the disc), and a 15-minute documentary (also available below). Taken together, it’s a chance to step back through a doorway and listen to an artist’s electronic voice unfold, an opportunity to listen and consider both how much new technology matters and perhaps also how much it does not.

Sounds Heard: Mary Ellen Childs—Wreck

Would I have been able to smell the sea salt in the air quite so powerfully while listening to a recording of Mary Ellen Childs’s Wreck if I hadn’t already seen the image of a man face down in the water that graces its cover? Possibly not, but knowing that at the outset, I swear I could feel the waves crashing against the boat and a brisk ocean breeze hitting my face as the small ensemble of clarinet, violin, cellos, and percussion cut a sonic path forward through the piece’s opening measures.

That’s not to say that the work, originally commissioned to accompany an evening-length piece by Carl Flink’s Black Label Movement dance company, paints a strictly narrative portrait. While a recording of waves and instrumental lines that mimic gull cries quite evocatively accents the nearly hour-long score, its overall character extends well beyond these nautical touches.

Set inside the last watertight compartment of a recently sunk ore boat resting at the bottom of Lake Superior, Wreck explores the depths of physical and psychological endurance and human fortitude in the face of impending and inevitable loss. Wreck expresses cooperation and violence, compassion and obsession, and the ultimate question of how we face death. —Wreck liner notes

Based on the photos and teaser video alone, I wish I had had the opportunity to see the full production. With the music now available as a stand-alone recording, I can at least appreciate Childs’s contribution: an original score for which she was recognized with a 2008 Minnesota SAGE Dance Award.

Childs is no stranger to the integration of movement and images within the frame of her music. The percussion ensemble she founded—CRASH—is a poster child for this approach (further examples here) and the work she wrote for the string quartet ETHEL incorporates the drama of a visual element—video projections in this case, rather than the more directly physical player interaction that CRASH involves. As a glance down her projects page confirms, what the eye consumes plays a significant roll in her artistic outlook.

When all that is taken away, however, I found it fascinating to hear how much of that sense of movement and visual character is carried strictly within the notes and rhythms of her musical language. Divorced from the dancers on the stage, the music captured on the recording still knits its own gripping connections though its movement-conjuring phrases—from moments of graceful swaying to heart-pounding drive and shrieking terror. According to information provided by Innova, Childs wrote the score after much of the choreography was complete, fitting her work to the movement like a film score. On the disc, it is presented as 18 aural “scenes” featuring excellent performances by Pat O’Keefe (clarinets), Laura Harada (violin), Michelle Kinney (cello), Jacqueline Ultan (cello), and Peter O’Gorman (percussion). I would be hard-pressed to point out any one portion that stands above the rest, as the real power of the work is in the overarching sum of the parts. Still, sections such as the brightly ringing clamor of the percussion-driven “Spirit Duet” definitely make a lasting impression.

Knowing the fictional setting of the dance piece, I felt a clear connection to the depth of emotion—the fear, the anger, the questioning, the resignation—that a group of people facing death together might experience. Of course this was my own listener’s fiction, but especially as the work proceeds through later moments of suffocating delirium only to conclude in a space of haunting emptiness, Childs’s presentation of these ideas in sound became an ever more powerful listening experience.

Matana Roberts: Creative Defiance


Conducted at the artist’s home in New York City
January 4, 2013—2 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Poster image by B. Abrams
Transcribed by Julia Lu

If there is any way to distill the wide-ranging artistry of Matana Roberts, it might be to focus on the ways in which she eludes definitions. Where the weight of other people’s expectations—of her instrument, her genre, even her race and her gender—might have fenced her in, she has instead pushed off these bounding walls into new areas of exploration, both sonic and narrative. The Chicago-raised composer, improviser, and alto saxophonist offers a friendly yet confidant smile as she explains, “Basically, I don’t like being told what to do, or who I am, or what I am by other people. I prefer to make those statements myself.”

For Roberts, that kind of self-definition seems to flow hand-in-hand with a certain creative restlessness. While the influence of jazz in her music is apparent, she has expanded her creative palette to encompass a broader world of improvisation, experimentalism, and theatrical storytelling. This drive is perhaps most clearly showcased under the heading of her work Coin Coin, which she began developing in 2006. Divided into 12 “chapters,” the project includes multiple ensemble configurations, graphic notation, and explorations both compositional and historical. It is a work that is intensely personal and yet strikingly universal, incorporating her general interests in ritual, spirits, and genealogy alongside a more exacting trace of her own bloodlines and the stories of her ancestors. Like much family history, the path is circuitous and the narrative open to interpretation. Whether she and her flexible band are whispering intimate secrets into the ears in the audience, cajoling them into joining in, or screaming at their side, however, the result is a piece of transfixing emotional power.

In her artist statement, Roberts includes a line which has inspired the title of this profile, “Through my life’s work, I stand creatively in defiance.” In the course of our talk, she celebrated what sets her apart and the vital role art can play when taken outside of its usual hallways. And while certainly there are outside forces that can try to hamper her artistry, she has also come to realize that sometimes the most forbidding barriers are the ones that can build up inside. “I have all these things that I want to try creatively,” she acknowledged, “and for a long time, I didn’t understand that there was nothing standing in my way.”

***

Molly Sheridan: It’s maybe too easy to label a saxophonist a jazz artist even if the genre relationship is not particularly strong. I know you often find yourself pushed in this direction, but is that where you feel most rooted or where you have been placed by others?
Matana Roberts: I try to push myself away from that word, though I will always have a love for that music and for a lot of those people. But for what I’m trying to do, I find it really confining on so many different levels—not just musical, but also in terms of the culture and certain types of generalizations that come with that word that I don’t like. I was a clarinet player first, playing classical music, but in terms of really dealing with the saxophone, it came from dealing with jazz music. There is an influence of jazz in my music, and there’s always going to be, but I feel like I’m more of a hybrid. Real jazz musicians to me are people who are deeply dealing with the traditional aspects of that music. I’m considering those aspects, but I’m not dealing with them in the way that they are. It partly has a little bit to do with gender, a little bit to do with race, and just at my core there’s a certain sense of punk aesthetic that I will always ascribe to. Basically, I don’t like being told what to do, or who I am, or what I am by other people. I prefer to make those statements myself.
MS: So there’s both a social and an aesthetic tension there?
MR: Yeah. African American jazz musicians have to deal with certain sorts of generalizations that I find really uncomfortable, and I get to feel a little bit of that when I travel, especially outside of the United States. I’ve learned a lot about how global my bloodline really is, and I want to live in a way where I’m not ignoring all those different segments. Then, I try to not really jump in on the gender thing, but I’m tired of having my work and my music or any sort of artistic output judged by men. The jazz world is still is a very male world. In order to be a part of that world—when I was really thickly a part of that world—I had to ignore certain aspects of my gender that made me, in the end, really uncomfortable. So I’m trying to chart something that takes in my love of old American traditions—not just jazz, but jazz is one of them.
MS: You made a move from Chicago to New York in 2002, and the way I’ve heard you speak about The Chicago Project, the album you released in 2008, and the artists you worked with while making that recording, it sounds like it represented a kind of graduation in a sense. Is that an accurate impression?
MR: When I was asked by Barry Adamson to make a record where I could pay the musicians well and bring on a producer that I trusted, I just felt that I needed to use that first recording as a way to honor the people who had really helped me. I was already living in New York at that time, and I could have used that opportunity to solidify one of my New York bands, but all those guys on that record—especially Josh Abrams, Jeff Parker, and Fred Anderson—they brothered and uncled and fathered me through this music when I first starting playing in Chicago. So I don’t know if it was a graduation, but that record is a document of things. I don’t think I’ve ever told them that, but I hope they understand. That record and the music on that record is my thank you to them.
MS: We’ve spoken some about what you do take from jazz, but even in an “end of genre” age, you have integrated various streams of influence in a particularly rich and personal way—and not just multigenre but multidisciplinary. What experiences or instincts pushed that side of your work? Who was influential to you in that regard?
MR: I’m highly influenced by visual art, more than sound. I’m influenced by those people and traditions that are not considered high art, that wouldn’t be let into some places because they come from more of an emotional place rather than an intellectual place. They come from more of a folk place, more a place of the heart, than some other traditions. I’m attracted to ghosts and spirits and spooks and these things. The graphic notation comes from my love of visual art. But also I have a learning disorder and the way I understand music or just understand logic is sometimes a lot different than other people. It took me a long time to understand that I wasn’t stupid, that it’s a different kind of intelligence that I have. I still don’t understand how it’s worked out the way that it has, but luckily, I’ve been able to use a lot of those things in the way that I deal with music.
I’ve always been interested in theater. When I was kid, I wanted to be a playwright, and I grew up going to the opera. We were one of the few black families with season tickets. My grandmother would save up for that and drag us. I hated it at the time, and now I feel really privileged that I got to experience that. Growing up in a classic Chicago African-American neighborhood, where you are constantly exposed to ideas of signification, to ideas of ritual—even going to black churches and seeing how black American people deal with that—used to really rub my punk side the wrong way. But now I’m able to look back at that and see how culture deals with the idea of spectacle. I really want to use my work as a way to explore those different themes that are not necessarily just related to the African American experience, but related to just the experience of peoples. There are common themes that run through all cultures in terms of ritual and presentation—ideas of pain, joy, sadness, gladness, and these traditions that get passed down, that don’t necessarily get documented, or commercialized, or valued. I’m interested in placing my own value on those things.
MS: Your piece Coin Coin, which is kind of a poster child for this type of exploration and multidisciplinary artistic integration, is obviously a huge project, so there’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start by speaking just about some of the big concepts and the structure of the work, and then we’ll dig into the details.
MR: Coin Coin is my interest in history and folklore. Some parts of it have to do with research that I’ve been doing on my own ancestry, and I use some of that information to dig deeper into ideas of narrative. Right now, Coin Coin is very much about the African American experience in America in some ways, but the whole overarching thing is about just exploring these human universals. My mother used to call it the musical monument to the human experience, and that’s how I pretty much like to explain it. It’s a multimedia sound project about my love of history. There was never enough time in the day to be a hobbyist in that and also deal with the music. When I realized I could put them together, that’s kind of the whole overarching theme.
I wanted to create a project that would allow me to challenge myself as a composer in terms of dealing with different ensemble configurations. I had so much narrative that I could break down into so many segments that I realized I could also apply that to different ensemble configurations. Each segment deals with the same kind of graphic framework and some similar ideas so that when I’m finally done with it, perhaps I can link them all together.
There are ten ensemble chapters and two solo chapters that bookend the project in my head. It’s all formulated, but the solo chapters are still under development. I just came off tour working on those. Five of the ensemble segments have been performed, and now what I’ve been doing is having these Coin Coin experiments where they’re not full chapters, but they’re ideas that I’m trying to consider in the work. I don’t have the kind of money where I can just have a lab ensemble. I have to plug them into a performance to fund them. But each chapter is structured and written out and there’s a narrative for each one. I just have to get to them.


MS: Considering the financial challenges that might hamper work of this scope, can you tell me more about how the development and composition process for these pieces has worked?
MR: Before I started the project, it was very rare that I could sit down and write a song. The one thing that I’ve always loved about jazz is melody and that will always be a hallmark of all of my work. But I also grew up during some of the best eras of hip hop and also was really heavily influenced by riot grrrl and punk, and so I would try and write and I could never finish a song. Every now and then a song would come out from beginning to end, but usually they would come in snippets, and I’d have just these pieces. For a while I felt like a real failure. Then I started weaving the snippets together and understanding that maybe they are all part of the same thing or, if they aren’t, I can make them part of the same thing. I also became more and more interested in graphic notation and the ways in which musicians see sound.
So I just started weaving things together in that way. I remember the first score I put together. I thought I was going to get laughed out of New York City. But we did it and it was like magic. I was like, wow, this kind of composition is possible if you make sure you do it from your heart. Every piece of graphic notation that you have on a piece of paper, you should be able to really break down and really minutely explain, so that it’s honest. When I went in that direction, it all started to make sense.
MS: What made you question that initially? You mentioned that you thought you were going to be laughed out of New York City.
MR: I went to jazz schools and had some really negative experiences. Those places sometimes will make you feel like anything that you have to offer is not good enough—not just jazz schools, any institution can do that to you. So I really let that undermine me. I had a professor in college that told me the only way that I was ever going to get a gig was to marry a musician. And at the time, I believed him because he was the professional and I was the student. So, I still had all these little scars from that. It almost seemed too playful and too imaginary for anyone else to understand. I found out later that that was not true, but I needed to go through that process.
MS: Can you describe the graphic score/notation system that you are using in the work?
MR: To be honest with you, I’m not sure I can really break it down because it’s work that I’m still trying to develop. Things have changed. That has been the interesting thing about it, and what has slowed it down somewhat, too. I thought I would be done with all 12 chapters by 2011. Ha! No.
To start, I had a really deep interest in sacred geometry and symbolism. I was using some Native American and African symbolism. Then, looking at these different locales that I’m dealing with—Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi by way of Africa, Ireland, England, France, Scotland—and looking at how these different places throughout their history have dealt with symbolism, and what symbols have remained. Oftentimes, I would pull symbols from that, that I could draw. I think partly this is also because I wish I could draw. So I would look at a shape or scribble and imagine how I could interpret that in sound: what someone could ask of me in terms of how to interpret that and, most importantly, how I could use it to not really create melody but how it could create texture. So that is the direction that I’ve always taken the graphic scoring. Also, people always accuse me of having a really personal sound, or a really personal approach, which is a nice accusation, but I also wanted to figure out a way that I could create but still have the performers’ own personalities come through. The first chapter of Coin Coin I actually put together partly because I wanted to play music with my friends who couldn’t read music—a lot of Canadian folk that I really loved who are amazing improvisers, but weren’t readers. Then sometimes I would do some of this work with people who were amazing readers, but not good improvisers, and there’s a definite difference in that. So, I just wanted to figure out a way to create the scores where I could find these little textures that I was interested in. Now, even with re-renderings of chapters that have already been recorded or that I’m still performing, there are still new textures that I’m looking for that I haven’t heard yet. So I’m trying to push that into the next segment of scores.

Matana Roberts: Coin Coin

Courtesy Constellation Records

MS: It seems like you would need to be both particular about who you involved in performing the project, and then also decide how much control you wanted to have over the sounds they eventually produce. How have you picked those people, and then how much do you try to control them?
MR: Well, one day I sat down and made a list of all the musicians I knew in New York by instrument—so overwhelming!—and all the musicians that I really like to play with that I just could never pull into my regular quartet or trio. It was a way that I could experiment with the graphic notation that I still needed to formulate and understand, but could do it repeated times with different groups of people. That’s one of the reasons I’ve taken the score to different cities—to play with different musicians in different places. Now there are some core people that I always call on any chance that I get. One of them I would say is the drummer Tomas Fujiwara, who has played on pretty much every incarnation of the project since I started it. But I look for a certain kind of person. Their heart matters to me more than some sort of technical execution. I’ve not always been successful in that—sometimes you just don’t know what you’re about to step into and some musicians are just not comfortable in the directives.
There is an incredible amount of control that goes on though, still, because I do utilize different systems of conduction and conducting improvisers. It’s something that I learned from watching Butch Morris and from the days that I used to be in this band called Burnt Sugar that also uses Butch’s conduction system. Then, going back and hearing old Sun Ra recordings—Sun Ra also used conduction. So even in recorded material that people hear, I’m trying to sculpt the sound within the framework of the score. There is some open improvisation in there, but I never liked open improvisation for the sake of open improvisation. It’s always bothered me. So within the Coin Coin scores, I try to dissect things and put them back together and cut them down and push them back up. Just trying all sorts of things.
MS: I love how the first chapter you recorded, Gens de Couler Libres, is such a completely enveloping piece and I was interested to read how many other commenters felt motivated to point out that your work here was “not alienating.” And yet you’re not afraid to seriously scream in the course of things. In a sense, it feels like you’re both embracing and emotionally punching the listener within the same work. It’s just a pretty aggressive thing. So I’m curious about your decision to do that. Did you hesitate at all? How has this felt to you in performance?
MR: First off, I highly recommend it! It’s incredibly therapeutic, though it’s not something I can really do on the regular and I don’t—that chapter does not get regular performances for that reason. It really wears the body down. When I first started doing that chapter in New York, after it was over, I felt like I needed to be carried off on a stretcher.
My whole thing about dealing with this history and dealing with these ideas and themes is I want some sort of experiential feeling of it. I wanted to know what it felt like to do that. Most of the things that I’m into are things that are experiential in nature. I want to know what pain feels like, I want to know what the depths of misery feel like, and that’s a hard way to live. But within those scream-sings, there’s a lot of joy there, too. There’s a level of life and living and experience. Those screams on that record were incredibly difficult for me because my mother had just passed away maybe ten days before that was recorded, so those screams were therapeutic in a different kind of way. But there’s a welcoming to them, too: We’re here. I’m alive. Let’s celebrate what we do have.
The other thing about the Coin Coin work is there are things that the work has told me I had to do that I did not want to do. That has been the speaking. That has been the singing. That has been the screaming. Those are the things that when I was putting that first chapter together, it was like, “Ahhh, I don’t really want to deal with that! Why do I have to do that? Why can’t I put an ensemble together and make them do that?” But I felt that I needed to have an understanding and experience of those ideas.
MS: Screaming in pieces usually only elicits a kind of nails on chalkboard reaction in me, but I didn’t get that sense from this piece so it intrigued me. There’s an intimacy to it.
MR: There’s an intimacy, but that’s the other thing where gender jumps in. As an African American female performer, there’s a certain sort of fetishization that goes on that has been around since the beginning. I’ve had to deal with that a little bit in ways that have been surprising to me. Sometimes people will still take it to a base level—oh, she’s just trying to get attention by putting that in there. Or they’ll define what that scream is. They’ll listen to the narrative and assume exactly what it is that’s being screamed about. There’s a power to those scream-sings. That’s why I think more people should do it.
MS: Do they mistakenly ascribe it to a certain “character” or something in the narrative?
MR: They ascribe it to a character. They ascribe it to violence. It’s automatically ascribed to a certain kind of violence. And yes, there was a certain amount of violence in slave history, but there’s also so much more than that. Why can’t those screams be screams of joy and perseverance? Why do the screams have to be whittled down? This one person I was dealing with last year was whittling it down to sexual violence. And okay, well sure. But have you been listening? It’s something that I just have to remember that I can’t care about. You do it. You put it out there. Whatever people want to do with it, they do with it. You move on to the next thing that you’re doing.
MS: As a woman journalist who often finds herself interviewing other women in a field that still has serious parity issues, I feel a constant tension as to whether or not to include the subject in interviews. But here it seems particularly relevant, considering the context of Coin Coin and the experience of hearing women’s voices and stories, to make sure that’s fostered and presented.
MR: I used to avoid these questions. There was a time when I used to try to talk about them, and then, maybe about ten years ago, I just stopped because I felt like it was pulling me down instead of pushing me up. As a black musician, I’m already focusing on a certain kind of difference. My parents were black radicals. So, growing up in this environment, it was constantly pounded into you: difference and what you have to do because of this difference. Then having to deal with the gender things was a whole other deal. Now, I feel a bit more open to talking about it because even though I try not to get on the soap box, I think it’s important to just talk about the importance of women’s voices. That’s one of the reasons, when putting that first chapter of Coin Coin together, that speaking was demanded, that singing and that screaming was demanded—it was a certain kind of statement of womanhood, too.
I’m at a point now ten years later or so where I’m a bit troubled by the way in which women musicians and women composers still are not heard of or still not supported. I’m tired of having to deal with “business and industry issues” that are highly male. I’ve loosened up a little bit, but on my website, there are no pictures of myself. That is purposeful, that was a feminist statement to me to say, you know, my body is not for sale. My person is not for sale. The sound is what I deal with. Now, I’m about to change it a little bit because I feel more comfortable in the statement of who I am, and I think it’s obvious. But there was a period there where I just felt like I was really being boxed around by men. I’ve made some changes also in the past couple of years to ground myself a little bit more in the difference that I have and that I represent, but not allowed it to close me off or create new ideas of hatred of men, who I love. I’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of really wonderful men.
The question of women in this music has a lot also to do with just the question of women in society and what is expected of us and what is not expected of us. A lot of the male composers and male musicians I know who are working, and working steadily, are oftentimes able to do that because they have a wife or a girlfriend who is a breadwinner. They’re able to have families and to do these things because they have a partner who’s willing to take on those things. Most female musicians and composers that I know don’t have that. It doesn’t really happen in quite the same way, though I’m not convinced that it has to be that way. The issues that exist within this music have a lot to do, as always, with the issues that still exist in our society, which is highly patriarchal no matter how many different ways we want to slice it. I’ve talked to women musicians from other generations, and what has been crazy to me is the repeated stories. We can sit there and just compare stories by theme and just be like, “What? I thought the man of this generation was more enlightened than the man of that generation.” No. It’s just like this commonality, which can kind of bring you down. At the same time, my difference has also helped me, I think, and I feel a lot of gratitude for that—that I stand out in a sea of men. One of the reasons I moved to New York was because there were so many women saxophonists here who were amazing musicians and had very specific goals for themselves. I wanted to be in a city where that was going on. Now I’m not really as attracted to that as I used to be, but that was one of the impetuses for coming here rather than going back to Chicago or going somewhere else.
MS: I was going to say, how do you keep yourself motivated to fight that tide? It sounds like you came to New York for that kind of community, but now?
MR: I feel strong enough because I’ve also realized how multi-rich my own creative path is, and how it’s not just portioned off to music. I’ve been able to bring in all these other things that inspire me. My community is a community of not just musicians, but of artists of all kinds. I also really see my work as a form of community work. There’s a social conscience to the work that I’m trying to do, but in terms of the contribution that I really want to make on a social level, it’s not quite there yet.
MS: In what ways? Can you talk a little more about that?
MR: I just feel this music has allowed me to have a bit of a platform that I can use for positive influence and positive things for other people. If you’re being given a lot—I’m paraphrasing—it means that you need to give even more. Living this life, there have been some real difficulties, but I’ve been fairly lucky. My most satisfying work of service has been working with people for whom the arts can act as a kind of refuge and form of personal expression to deal with pain and societal pressures. Having more of an activism strain moving through my work is what I hope to do. I’m the product of a public school education. All that free arts stuff that I got—if that wasn’t there, there’s no way I’d be sitting here right now. I grew up in neighborhoods where I got to see what happened to people who didn’t have access to those things. So I hope to use the work more as a platform for bringing focus back to some of those ideas. But I still haven’t touched it quite yet.
MS: You were also up in Montreal doing a project with kids.
MR: Yeah. It was with at-risk native Canadian youth. I helped set up a music program at a drop-in center there. I did a few zine workshops with them. I’ve done a lot of community outreach over the years. I am not the type of person that could ever be a traditional educator or someone that people see every day, but I like infusing myself into these environments. I’ve done work at homeless shelters, and it’s the people that are really going through things, those are the people who can really be helped by art, more so than anybody that’s walking into MoMA or the Whitney. It’s those Chicago neighborhoods where there’s not quite that sense of hope, those are the places that really need art. I think about that a lot. But I come from a family of people who did a lot of community service, so I think that’s what that’s about as well. I feel I have to step up and be a part of that. Because what I’m doing being an artist, or being a musician, that is not a high enough vibration for my family line. There’s more I’m supposed to do.
MS: Do you feel like you take that onstage with you, too—that desire for connection and active community support and development?
MR: Yeah, that’s an aspect of my personality that has always kind of disturbed me a little bit. I have this intense desire to connect. Always. And oftentimes, the only way that I know how to do that is to come from a really personal place in terms of how I put the music together. I want my musical output to be an experience for all involved, not just the musicians but for everyone. I want us to be able to create sort of a womb together of possibility, which doesn’t necessarily transfer to always being positive. I don’t mind it if people come and don’t like it; that’s cool, too. It’s just creating kind of this moving organism together. This spontaneous way of connecting to strangers who are not really strangers because we’re really all in this together. That has always been really important to me, and it’s sometimes made me think I’m in the wrong profession. I need to go do something else where that is more immediate. But somehow, so far, I’ve been able to feel that a little bit in performance and the feedback that I get from people. I get really detailed feedback from people, and that used to scare me a little bit, too. [laughs] I’m okay with that now, because that is at the level that I want people to really engage.
MS: That makes me think specifically about some of the reactions to the first chapter of Coin Coin, because for everything that piece covers, it very clearly and very powerfully digs into racial issues and the history of slavery. How has working on and performing the piece impacted your own thinking when it comes to the issues you’re addressing in the work?
MR: It’s jumped through many different forms and there are many different ways in which it’s come back to me. On this last solo tour that I did, at every show I made each crowd sing with me the slave auction from the first chapter, and I forget how intense that is for some people. Mid-verse, I always have to stop and say, “Listen. This is a happy song. And I want you to understand that without the bidding of these people, I wouldn’t be here right now enjoying my life.” So that’s how I like to look at those things. I know from what I’ve experienced so far with the work that for reasons I don’t completely understand—but it makes me incredibly happy—that people are able to go into a deeper part of themselves and connect the story I’m telling to some story of their own. Oftentimes after shows, people will come up and share the most harrowing stories with me to let me know that they were able to connect even though the history is different for them. But I will say, the first time I started doing that sing-along with people, especially because there are rarely people of color in the audience, it took a moment. I’m like, “All right, I just sang a slave auction with a group of white people. I hope they understand.” Am I damning these people? No, I’m not damning anyone. But I want to share this. I think it’s really important to pay attention to history because it is constantly repeating itself. And there are so many beautiful stories within it that can teach us so much, so I will just continue to go in that direction.
MS: Not that we don’t all have our dark histories, but does audience reaction differ between Europe and America?
MR: The European audiences I’d say are a bit more political than the American audiences in some respects. I mean, singing this with a crowd of French, it’s interesting the spirit that comes through. The French were just on fire, because they have a particular understanding of the pain of that history because of the African influence in their own country. Singing this with a crowd of anarchists in Leipzig? Awesome. It’s about a spirit of survival more than it’s about race, class, or gender. Traveling through Germany recently and going through cities that were completely destroyed during the war and talking to people, hearing them recount stories in a way that they could attach to my own. I was in Poland telling some of these ancestral stories and feeling the pain in the room of people who couldn’t go back before 1945 because there was nothing left. There’s no record—there’s no anything!—just these stories. It just brings it full circle for me about the importance of sharing history and, most importantly, sharing the most painful parts, because that’s what people can plug into. Then, it allows you to deal with more avant-garde sounds that they might not be able to plug into otherwise. That’s another reason why there is narrative in the work.
MS: We actually have been very philosophical in our discussion about this piece, but we haven’t gotten into very much detail when it comes to its musical underpinnings. So let’s take a focused look at that.
MR: I’m heavily influenced by a lot of musicians that have come out of Chicago. Not just the avant people, but the more traditional people, too, because there’s a common theme running through that city—I don’t understand why it happened there—where it was always about original sound, and original voice, and original approach. That combined with the certain brand of black radicalism that I grew up in there. It was expected that you understood that you could do anything you wanted to do, and that you should always hold in suspicion anybody that tells you that you can’t. You should always hold in suspicion anyone that claims that your idea is not valid, no matter what color they are or what their gender is. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is an important organization in fostering that for a lot of people—myself and for other young musicians. So by the time I got here, I just always felt that my possibilities in terms of dealing with sound were pretty endless. Sometimes that’s actually really overwhelming, but that’s fine.
MS: I’ve heard you equate your composition process with quilting.
MR: When I started saying that, the feminist in me was like, “Why are you talking about quilting?” I don’t quilt, but that’s a tradition that is on my Mississippi side, and my grandmother, her mother, and her father, they used to quilt together. It was like a family thing, and it made me realize that the way that I was putting the scores together, with these segments intertwined with graphic notation, was a form of quilting. I think I actually wanted to create music in a way that my family might understand as well. I grew up around a lot of avant-garde music. My dad was a vinyl collector and into Sun Ra and Art Ensemble and Albert Ayler and all these people, and there’d be music on all the time. I remember having a really hard time trying to understand that music. The only way that I know how to understand these things is by dealing with narrative and story and how I can hoist my imagination onto the sound. So oftentimes I’m looking for sounds that evoke certain kinds of emotion. That’s really kind of the underpinning of a lot of the graphic notation, and this approach to texture.
MS: I think you can hear that as a listener, but it’s a very non-linear experience. More like a fever dream—you’re one place and then something else starts creeping out and all of a sudden you’re turned towards a whole new area.
MR: That’s so wonderful. I like that idea of the fever dream.
MS: What’s your relationship to the saxophone at this point in your career, then, now that you’re doing more composition?
MR: The saxophone is always going to be at the core of everything that I do because the saxophone taught me a lot about feeling and emotion and connection. The saxophone, the alto in particular, connects to people in a way that the other saxophones don’t sometimes. I remember Henry Threadgill talking about how he switched from tenor to alto. He was playing in church revivals and realized that the alto brought the Holy Ghost to people. I need the saxophone as an anchor. When I’ve tried to unanchor it, my life has gone insane. It is my tool to work through things, and when things get too overwhelming, I’m also able to shave down, and go right back to the alto, and it’s like, okay, this is the heart of everything. It’s the heart of everything that I do.
MS: Do you think there’s a point that will come when you’ll say Coin Coin is finished, or is it one of those works that will always be part of your life, that will go on, growing and changing, like a living thing?
MR: You know, originally there was a start, and there was an end. I had it broken down by years, by months. But then I would get through one segment of it and be like, okay, that was interesting, but what is it like if I do it like this? Or I could do it like that. And so now, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a living thing. And I will complete the chapters, but the idea—the work as a construct—will continue even beyond that. It feels like legacy work. I had no plans for that when I started, but that’s what it feels like now.


MS: Is there room left in your head for anything else?
MR: It’s difficult, but I refuse to just focus on Coin Coin. The history that I am dealing with is so heavy sometimes that I actually feel drowned by it. It’s important for me to have some other ways of opening. I have a new New York quartet, and my focus with them is to keep all the graphic notation out of that and just to deal with my love of themes and songs. And I still explore solo saxophone work that is just in the tradition of solo saxophone. No extra anything. I have all these things that I want to try creatively, and for a long time, I didn’t understand that there was nothing standing in my way. You can do anything you want to do.

Elliot Cole: Hunger for the Opposite


While digging through Elliot Cole’s catalog of music, it’s easy to get caught up in the role text and stories frequently play in his compositions. Babinagar, for example, is a bewitching song-cycle based on an Afghan folktale, and De Rerum (a “hip hop lecture on the physics of history”) is wedded to wordplay.

But after chatting with him, that image shifts. The words can be vital to his work, definitely, but the core of his inspiration turns out to trace more of a pendulum swing. Cole is most comfortable and feels most productive when he can vary his approach: insider vs. outsider, text-rooted vs. pure sound, composer vs. performer, a musician dipping his toes into a wealth of styles and methods along the way. Rather than a troubadour, it might make more sense to think of Cole as a trapeze artist graced with contagious enthusiasm and seemingly inexhaustible curiosity.

“I use music to explore other things that I’m interested in, as a channel to be curious through,” Cole explains. “One way to divide up what I do is by genre—dramatic work and chamber music and hip hop. But another way to divide it is that I’m trying to deal with music on two different levels. I love composing because it lets me think about music from a really high level of generalization and abstraction, but I can only keep working on music from such a conceptual distance if I’m also as close to it as I can be in some other activity.”

That closeness is something Cole finds in performance, whether playing in bands or presenting his own music. He grew up in the rich musical environment of Austin, Texas, and it rubbed off. Now, he says, “I’m not a stellar performer, but I stay as involved as I can in actually making music. In music school, the role that we adopt a little bit too naturally is putting some performers on the stage to have kind of a bad time playing your music for an audience that is kind of stressed out by the whole experience. And you sit in the back thinking that you’re a genius. It’s just a very different experience when you’re up there doing it.”

After completing his undergraduate work in music and cognitive linguistics at Rice University where he produced “very serious and intellectually grounded” work, he stayed in Houston and wrote other pieces that “felt more real and natural and heartfelt and exciting to me,” works such as Ladies and Gentlemen which was built around a lecture by Borges, the hip hop opera The Rake’s Progress which he wrote with Brad Balliett, and Babinagar, a delicate chamber work scored for harp, contrabass, harmonium, and singers which he toured through living rooms across Texas.

Cole is now a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, a school he jokes was the only one that would have him. “When I went to look at schools, I got a real clear sense visiting Princeton that they were open to the whole package,” he recalls. “So, I’m there because the work that I was doing, that other places might not find as serious but that I take very seriously, that was a plus for them rather than a minus.”
A big piece of this catalog that Cole feels doesn’t fit so comfortably can once again be traced back to his desire to work at the edges of genre and institutions. “I feel like there’s a real focus and value in contemporary music on being an insider,” he explains. “Being in a territory where everyone is focused on being an insider, I really find it fun and liberating to have something that I’m doing where I’m a total outsider—where I don’t have credibility. For me, that’s hip hop.”

It’s work that he’s exploring together with performer/composers Brad and Doug Balliett under the project name Oracle Hysterical, an organization that Cole characterizes as kind of a band and kind of composer’s collective, but really more of a book club. The group uses text, such as Melville’s Billy Budd (a recent example), and reads and writes their way to a piece of music, motivating and inspiring one another. Writing the metric poetry used in the lyrics is work that Cole finds provides a neat parallel to composition. “It’s really simulating imaginatively because every pair of lines is a puzzle that you have to work out. I really like writing music that is the solving of puzzles because then you’re in a relationship with it where it’s as much a process of discovery as creation.”

Still, sometimes Cole sets the words aside to, again, escape into something else. To scratch that itch last year, he wrote more than an hour of chamber music, including Postludes, a set of eight pieces for four performers on one vibraphone that was written for So Percussion. Cole is also an active computer programmer and has been working to develop an algorithmic composition and deep-listening environment using SuperCollider. He found that being able to think about music from the point of view of computer programming provided some new clarity, which he explains in more detail in the video below.


Admittedly, more tightly integrating all these varied areas of interest might be more productive and efficient, and Cole wonders how his diversification may be preventing him from establishing a clearly identifiable voice. Still, his flexibility is an essential underpinning linking his work—when one project or area becomes frustrating, he has another to move to. This also extends to his compositional methods. He says that he “may begin at the piano and at a point of impasse or frustration, write on paper and see what grows out of that. Or type it into the computer or try to learn it on guitar or sing it. By these processes of translation, I can kind of keep a flow through the writing. It’s an intrinsic part of how I get notes on the page and how I get to the end of the idea.”
Ultimately, his curiosity keeps him from shelving any possibilities. “I’m stupid enough to think that I can still do everything,” he explains with a self-deprecating laugh. “If there’s a chance for two majors, I’ll take it; if I have a chance to write a piece for a group, I’ll write two pieces. I’m always having to fork and do both.”

Sounds Heard: Mariel Roberts—Nonextraneous Sounds

If anything is clear in the first few moments of Mariel Roberts’s debut CD Nonextraneous Sounds, it’s that this will not be just a polite collection of unremarkable wallpaper works for solo cello. Actually, unless you are already prepared for what’s coming, it’s not even completely clear that a cello is what’s at the forefront of the mix.

Opening with a transfixing performance of Andy Akiho’s Three Shades, Foreshadows, Roberts touches bow to strings at various points to percussive effect (the thwack of col legno, scratching and creaking tightly across the strings, the whisper of bow drawn across bridge, etc.), but the body of the piece is filled with dense streams of pizzicato along with knocks and taps against the instrument’s body and strings. The live solo line is ensconced in three electronic parts built out of samples of acoustic cello. The resulting quartet—an effect further underlined by the way the electronic part moves around the sonic field—is as much a percussive exercise as anything. The deep, muted bell tones which open the work and obscure the source of the sound are revealed in the liner notes to be the sonic result of plucked strings with clothes pins attached to them near the base of the fingerboard. Still, for as much creativity as has been employed in conjuring the timbral world of the piece, Akiho never seems to get distracted by it or employ techniques as a mere gimmick. Only in the work’s final fading moments, with the last remaining line clicking away like a spun-out film projector, did I even remember that the palette he was drawing from was not the way one generally went about playing the cello in the first place.


Sean Friar’s Teaser plays with listener expectations along a different line. He spins the music’s emotional character on a dime, mixing charming scraps of delicate tune work with fiery bombardments of sliding double stops and lines scratched across the instrument’s strings that might send a chill through you. Daniel Wohl also makes generous use of some fairly abrasive timbres in his Saint Arc, but these sharp objects play out in the context of a great deal of “air” which he lets into the piece through the quiet brush of the moving bow and extensive harmonic usage. A pre-recorded electronic track further amplifies this scenario. Alex Mincek then keeps the brushing but drains the aggression for his Flutter. Beginning in a place that is restless rather than hostile, the work skitters lightly across quick snatches of bowed phrases and nervous col legno, slowly gaining confidence, weight, and a striking, deep-snoring calm by the piece’s final measures.

That nap is not to last, however. Particularly if the demanding techniques employed in the album’s middle works have begun to emotionally exhaust the listener, Tristan Perich’s Formulations represents as a welcome shift of gears (not that Roberts gets to take a break). That it is a Perich piece will be immediately apparent to anyone familiar with his 1-bit work. In this case, his programmed microchips emit a rapid-fire sequence of flickering notes within which Roberts matches pace. After the first ten minutes, Roberts gets a breather and when her line returns to the mix after a two-minute recovery, she enters with firm, long strokes, as if steering the flickering swirl of pitch that surrounds her, slowing its frantic pace, and guiding everyone home.

 

Sounds Heard: Gabriel Kahane—February House

One of the particular gems on Gabriel Kahane’s self-titled 2008 release was a track called “7 Middagh,” the lyrics of which teased out the story of the residents of 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn. At this address, such cultural icons as George Davis, Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and Gypsy Rose Lee cohabitated as a kind of unconventional family in the 1940s. Additional research on my part revealed more of the tale underlying this artsy commune and, a little later, the news that Kahane would be creating a full-scale musical based on the story in order to fulfill the first commission of The Public Theater’s Music Theater Initiative.

While the above-mentioned track does not appear in Kahane’s eventual full-evening musical February House (a show he wrote with Seth Bockley), its echoes are easy to trace. Within the first few moments of the production, as captured on the cast recording released on the StorySound label* in October, a brief lyrical reference calls to mind that earlier track. Yet in a broader sense, Kahane has once again crafted a collection of songs that navigate complex, sometimes bittersweet emotion across a music bed that floats and, importantly, propels the characters through the text before they drown under the sentiment.

Not to imply that every song carries such weighty seriousness. February House is, at its core, the story of people who are trying to make a home for themselves, and all the silly complications that can entail—arranging the personalities and the furniture into the available rooms (“A Room Comes Together”). Nine voices and the six-musician ensemble take the stage for an intimate tour of lives and love, the quick and witty sung repartee showing off the colorful personalities lashing themselves together within this Brooklyn outpost. That it is a place for the homosexual residents in the group to live more openly is a strong surface statement, but an undercurrent of feeling strange and alone runs deeply and more generally throughout the show and its characters.

These relationships are well complimented by the chamber ensemble, which provides color and context but generally keeps out of the spotlight. A fiddle line adds to a story, an elegantly sober piano empathizes. The song that held me most transfixed was actually a delicate solo outing that features McCullers (sung by Kristen Sieh), accompanied by only a plucked banjo line, during which she meditates on feeling weird and lonely in the midst of a freak show: “There’s a secret part of me gets so silent,/My communion at Coney Island, oh…” Kahane immediately follows that up with an intricate full-cast hug of a song (“Shall We Live Here”); the struggles of writing a line or paying the rent (“Discontent/Talk of the Town”) play out against a world that is marred by the horror of World War Two (“You Sit In Your Chair”). The house fights against bed bugs; the house fights for love.

But the center cannot, or at least does not, hold. McCullers and her husband decide to return to “Georgia.” Britten and Pears make plans to head to “California.” And George Davis, the godfather of the house, sings adieu to this fantasy in heartbreakingly revised/reprised versions of “Light Upon the Hill” and “Goodnight to the Boardinghouse.”

I’ve long been a fan of Kahane’s songwriting. His Craigslistlieder was as clever and quirky as its subject matter, and his first full-length disc provided a photo album of stories that proved a compulsive listen. With February House, he has taken the strengths of those previous projects—smart lyrics, even smarter compositional choices—and played them out across a larger storyboard, creating distinct voices for his characters that still solidly carry the attractive marks of his own.

*An earlier version of this review misidentified the StorySound label as the house label of the Public Theater. It is its own unaffiliated entity.

Evan Chambers: You Must Change Your Life

Conducted at the composer’s home in Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 2, 2012—12 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Poster image by Myra Klarman
Transcribed by Julia Lu

In conversation, Evan Chambers conveys his ideas using words in a strikingly similar fashion to how he delivers them in music: honestly, intelligently, with neither fear of open emotion nor of making a sharper point than his laid-back demeanor might at first lead you to expect. As he speaks about his familial roots in folk music, his love of poetry, and the responsibility he feels as an artist to acknowledge broader social, political, and environmental challenges, a portrait of the composer emerges that reveals again how incompletely shorthand genre descriptors and professional biographies capture art and artist.

And so it was that we moved from the tag of “folk-inspired” composer to discussions of the brutal side of traditional music and the power it holds over audiences both native and foreign. A commission from the West Point Band became more complex once it was revealed that music that digs around in the messy pits of conflict and loss and death inspired both the request and the resulting piece. Chambers is a composer well versed in electronic music, yet a strong advocate for making a deeply human connection. He is a musician firmly rooted in his Midwestern community, but just as genuinely entrenched to society’s broader concerns. Through it all, he is listening and incorporating his experiences into his life and work. It leads him to quote Rilke:

There’s that poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” right, and the last line is, “You must change your life.”  So we have these aesthetic experiences, these moments of awareness, and even if we don’t know how, we have to change somehow and that imperative drives the process.  It’s an imperative—you have to do something with that, the rhetorical you has to do something with that.  I have to do something with that.  You have this tremendous enthusiasm to make something out of it, to express it somehow.

And so he has, that we might follow.

—MS

***

Molly Sheridan: I know that you tell a story about listening to The Thistle & Shamrock some years ago and undergoing something of a musical conversion experience. And I want you to tell that story again! It is a great entryway into some of the things you’ve done. But I’m also interested in what goes around that story.  Where were you in your music making before that point? Did this inspire a sudden sharp shift or were you already questioning some things and this was sort of a way towards an answer?

Evan Chambers:  I might start crying! [laughs] It was a really emotional experience. My parents were 1950s folk revivalists.  They weren’t professionals; they were just people who loved the music.  My dad played the banjo and the guitar, and he actually “collected” folk songs.  He had notebooks full of songs and all the old Sing Out! magazines.  So my earliest musical experiences were him banging on the guitar and singing with his head tilted back at the top of his lungs—really physically committed performances.  It was a hootenanny kind of atmosphere, people getting together and singing together, and those were the happiest times. When my dad was singing, the family was happy.  It was just this joyous thing in my childhood.  But he also was interested in classical music.  He loved opera, and he played the violin.  He would bang through the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with a cigarette between two fingers on the bow, and he’d stop and smoke.  So I had these two kinds of things going on.

I started music late—I really got into it when I was a junior in high school and went completely gaga for classical music, just buried my head in the trough for many years. By about 1988 or ’89, I was in between degrees, living here in Ann Arbor, working at the original Borders store back before they went bankrupt. I worked on Christmas Eve, and I was driving to Cleveland to see my true love—who is now my wife—for Christmas.  They’d given us a little glass of champagne at Borders before we left, so I had a little happy feeling. I remember I was driving past Toledo, which doesn’t sound romantic but, you know, it’s Christmas Eve and the snow is falling and I’m free from work! I turned on the radio, and it was The Thistle & Shamrock, and there was this group called the Tannahill Weavers, a Scottish group, singing “Auld Lang Syne” in the melody they said was the original one that Bobby Burns intended.  It was like getting punched in the chest.  I just had to pull over—tears streaming, and all of that—because in that moment, I reconnected with some of the energy of that childhood experience.  I always tell my students, if you can find a way to put what you’re doing now together, or to bring it into sympathy with, synchrony with, your earliest musical experiences, then that releases a lot of energy because it’s like being in touch with your roots, honestly. I guess that’s a simple way to say it.

I wouldn’t say I made some kind of conscious decision to change direction. It was like a heart opening, honestly. I started to learn to play the fiddle, and I started working to find a way to integrate that kind of folk music, community music making and energy, into music that I was writing.  Which was a little bit hard at the time—I encountered some resistance.

MS:  I was going to say, these days that kind of thing might be quite accepted—not arbitrarily smashing genres into concert music in a fake, impersonal way, but actively mining all musical experience.  But I imagine that there might have been some push back at the time you were exploring this, either from people you were studying with or your colleagues.

EC:  Yeah, it’s hard to say sometimes exactly what that is.  As a student, I can say that a lot of us felt kind of trapped in the 1980s vocabulary.  There was a lot of octatonic music. I felt like, at the time, there were a lot of people forcing dissonance into what they were writing.  Nobody instructed us to do that. I was studying with Bill Albright, for example, and William Bolcom taught at my school, and those guys were shining examples of how to move between Boogie Woogie, ragtime, the popular music styles of the early 1900s, and contemporary classical tonal and rhythmic techniques.  But somehow the students weren’t getting the memo.  There was some peer pressure to be a certain way.  I’ve looked back on it and I’ve tried to analyze: Was it the teachers?  And I think it was more us; it was more the students than the faculty. We were repressing ourselves in some way.  But I was lucky that I had the two Bills—as I like to call them—because they were both very supportive. They helped me and encouraged me quietly, especially Bill Albright who I was studying with.  I brought him a string quartet that was all Irish jigs and reels, and he said, “Great! I’m happy about this!” I was a little nervous showing it to Gunther Schuller—who actually liked the piece, too, and programmed it at his festival in Sandpoint.  So I feel fortunate in that way, even though I personally had to struggle.

MS:  If it wasn’t coming from the top, so to speak, what was driving that pressure among the students? Why was that the vibe?

EC:  I don’t know. I had one teacher say, “What the fuck is this?  This is fucking Renaissance music.  Don’t do that.  Give me a real piece.”  So there was that.  I had some really important people in my life who I learned tremendous amounts from, but it was still hard. You have Bill Albright saying, “Good, I couldn’t be happier about this,” and yet somehow there’s still internal turbulence. I guess when you’re young and you’re still learning, you’re still forming not just what you can do technically, but also who you are, how you think about things.  You’re forming this worldview and this aesthetic.  It’s hard to figure out where your attention goes.  The negative inputs and the positive ones kind of vie for attention in a lot of ways.

MS: That “folk-inspired” influence, though, carries its own pressures and mischaracterizations. I think the impression might be that this is something that’s somehow quaint or cute, but in reality, of course, folk music can be quite raw and direct, and sometimes quite dark. The influence doesn’t necessarily equate with a watered-down cartoonish approximation of a genre overlaid on concert music.

EC: When I first started writing folk-influenced classical compositions, I worked to overcome the pervasive idea that folksongs were somehow quaint, naïve, or innocent. To me, they are instead powerful, sometimes gritty, bitter and ironic, full of the sadness and longing of life, and I always try to go beyond the texts and musical surfaces to translate a feeling for the expressive values of a participatory whole-body experience.

I have a student now, Tanner Porter, who is writing a setting of “Barbara Allen.” It was one of my father’s favorite songs, and might get dismissed as a polite old chestnut, but it tells a story that is full of hurt, suffering, unrequited love, illness, and death.  In the end even hard-hearted Barbara Allen realizes she can’t bear what she has done—a tragic cautionary tale that might serve to warn us about our own lack of compassion in this world.

It seems clear that at present we are at a very serious environmental, social, and economic crisis point, and for me it all boils down to a crisis of compassion. Things are too dire for us to just keep working to get ahead within the existing system—the existing system is literally killing the planet, and it’s our own hard-heartedness that leads us to tolerate war, homelessness, and the destruction of the living world. We need more of anything that can break through the silent acceptance of what amounts to a gradual apocalypse, that can break through our chauvinisms to instruct us about our real place in the world, that can help us wake up and open our hearts even a little bit. Folk music from our own culture has the potential to remind us about who we are and what truly matters in part because it can bypass our defenses with its familiarity and get straight into our bodies. And if one of the things music can teach us is how to move, then our encounters with traditional music from other cultures can teach us to move in a new way. Both offer us an experience of the transformation and reconnection that we so desperately need in our society.

MS:  That all said and appreciated, I don’t want to give the incorrect impression that your work sounds like you’re soundtracking a Civil War documentary. This is something bigger. The “folk music influence” is a neat biography tagline, but your catalog is of course much broader than that.

EC:  When I started out, it’s important for me to note that I was an unrepentant modernist.  I loved the avant-garde. I was ecstatic when I first heard Messiaen.  In high school, I drove myself downtown to the Dayton Public Library—which seemed like going to the moon, even though it was, you know, 20 minutes away—and I would go to the bin that had the Composers Recordings Incorporated recordings. They were records still. I would check out everything that they had. Then, the next week, I’d go back and get everything else.  It was just thrilling to find the experimentation with sound and the dissonance. There was a composer, Dane Rudhyar, who you don’t hear very much these days, but he had some string quartets with the early incarnation of Kronos that just set my hair standing straight up. That was really important to me.  So it’s true, even though I’m influenced by folk music, it’s more the energy almost than the sound, right? Like I talked about my dad—the physical commitment to sound, this kinesthetic UGGGHH of a moment, trying to get that into the performers’ bodies so that the audience can feel that release and that energy.

I’ve also been influenced by a lot of different kinds of music.  I was really involved in studying ethnomusicology as a graduate student, and my wife is an ethnomusicologist.  So, for example, she took me on a fieldwork trip to Albania shortly after the Communist government fell, back in the early ‘90s, and I had, again, these experiences that were just—I think we all have them, right?  I’m tempted to call them conversion experiences, but peak experiences, peak listening experiences where everything seems to drop away and you’re just left vibrating with the music.  In Albania, I had some experiences like that, so that I feel like it’s my responsibility almost to integrate them into my own singing because they’re so important to me as meaning events and not just as sonic events or cool licks to steal. So even when I’m writing a piece about polka, I figure I’m trying to get inside how it feels to be in it, not writing how it sounds to listen to it.  The same thing with folk music or Albanian music or Sufi Qawwali music—all of which I’ve tried to integrate into the way I sing.

MS:  How does that end up happening in real terms?  I’m asking you questions I know you might not be able to answer in words, but it kind of begs the question: you have an amazing musical experience.  It’s touched you; it’s become part of you.  You want to put that out there, not copy something else, so what really is happening?

EC:  Whoa. This gets into the most intimate, the most non-verbal…how do you synthesize an experience into your life?  How do you take an understanding that opens your heart and your mind and then integrate it into how you act every day?  We don’t know, but we do it. We don’t have a system for it, but we do it.  I mean, I guess honestly, the only thing I could say about that is to quote Rilke.  Saved by the bell! Saved by Rilke again.  There’s that poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” right, and the last line is, “You must change your life.”  So we have these aesthetic experiences, these moments of awareness, and even if we don’t know how, we have to change somehow and that imperative drives the process.  It’s an imperative—you have to do something with that, the rhetorical you has to do something with that.  I have to do something with that.  You have this tremendous enthusiasm to make something out of it, to express it somehow.

MS: There’s also a stream of electronic sound through some of your work, but is this a multi-stranded braid you’re developing through your work, or are these different boxes that you’re drawing out of but keeping distinct?

EC: It’s interesting. Sometimes I’ve been told it’s a good thing that my music doesn’t fit into one category, and sometimes I’ve been told it’s a bad thing.  I think it all sounds like me, honestly. Electronic music was one of the early thrills for me, too.  My parents had a reel-to-reel tape deck, and I “invented” tape deck echo.  I didn’t study it, I just learned that if you do this to this switch, and do this to this switch, and go Pakown, it goes Pakew…kew…kew…kew. That pure joy in sound was so important. Then, when I started studying electronic music, the kind of physical gesture that you can create when you don’t have to use just these muscles to make the music go into the medium you’re storing it in, really that was another thing that helped me release some energy into the music.  I have this idea that music can be kind of like psycho-spiritual Rolfing or deep tissue massage or yoga, where you get into people’s bodies.  If the music has these physical tensions and releases and pushes and pulls built into it, then you can, in a way, inflict those symptoms on the audience.  If you can cause tension and get into that place, you can also then release that for people.  So, electronic music had a real physicality about it that fits with that for me.  And I taught electronic music—I still do—so I’m around those sounds and that medium a lot and think in those terms.  But I’ve been doing it less and less actually in terms of my own composition in recent years.

MS:  It does seem to me in a sense though—and I’m curious what you would say to this—that there’s a kind of parallel between the folk music and the electronics. You’re getting off the page.  These genres seem like opposites on the surface, and yet to me there is an underlying parallel there.

EC:  Yeah, I think there is. Folk music influences the electronic components of my sound, and even my acoustic pieces are deeply influenced by electronic music.  I mean, I cut my orchestrational teeth in a tape studio, cutting tiny pieces of tape that are like five millimeters long to put on the beginning of a ding. So you really come to see how sound is put together, both in time and vertically in terms of timbre. But also, I guess I find that being able to put the physical energy into the taped music is very similar to the kind of physical commitment you can put into folk performance.  And I do want to bring that together in the middle.

MS:  I would also argue that electronics today are in some sense taking the place of what folk music offered, in terms of perhaps a lower bar to participation—the perception at least.

EC: But I think it’s important to remember that the technology, the way it is now, really puts lots and lots and lots of steps between you and the making of the sound.  That’s why I’m much more interested in the live performance, DJ thing where they’ve got record players to play and things to physically control. The sequencing stuff on a laptop—you can end up separating yourself from the physical performance so much that it sometimes loses that sense of every sound being crafted and touched by human hands.  That’s what I love about live music, and it can be a quality of electronic music, too, if you hand craft every note and shape every sound and every timbre.  Then it has this wonderful living feeling, but if you throw things onto a track and leave the same effects on the whole time, it tends to flatten out and be a kind of machine music that I can see the value in, but it’s not my style.

MS:  You yourself have been in the performer’s chair, so you have first-hand experience of delivering these kinds of physical performances. But when you’re at your writing desk, how much and in what ways does that experience filter into the music you write?

EC:  You know, you start out when you’re young, and honestly, for me, the thing that drove me was just that adolescent angst that builds up in your gut and has to get out.  So, the physicality of performance comes in—your hands have to make it, you have to almost squeeze that sound out of the instrument and push it out into the world. Composing is not just collaborating with an eventual performer.  You are the performer in that moment that you’re writing.  You’re thinking about the instrument.  You’re thinking about what position you’re putting the player in, often trying to maneuver them into uncomfortable positions actually, to, again, model a symptom for the audience, to create a pattern of tension and release in the people who are listening and attending to it.  So I don’t think about the music as subsisting in the notes on the page or some rarified autonomous object that is in the world, but not of the world.  To me, it’s not pure proportion or a kind of platonic ideal, the composition.  The composition is a recipe for action.  I’m very focused on the action part of it, so that is performance.  I’m composing that in, I hope.

MS:  I want to talk a little bit about place and your work. It’s not as if your career is limited to this lovely campus, but you have invested a lot of your energies here: first with school and later with teaching, lots of performances with ensembles in the region. Your work is played all over, of course, but there’s also a rootedness and a connection to this place that you’ve taken care to cultivate.

EC:  There’s this tremendous local food movement; we don’t want our food to come from far, far away and be factory made, or made by people we don’t know.  There’s something tremendously rich about knowing the person who grew your lettuce. And for me, art and music have a lot to do with the sense of place. I’ve thought about what it means to be a composer from the Midwest, who lives in the Midwest and has a great love of the Midwest. People driving on the Ohio Turnpike or something will say, “Oh, this drive is so boring.”  But you know, if you look out in the fields when their corn is up, you can see the rows of the corn strobing as you go by, you can see down each individual row.  But it’s more than just even being able to take pleasure in those small details of the world around you.  There’s a tone to the kind of beauty that I think really deeply informs, or I hope deeply informs, what I do with my music.  And I think there’s a value in being rooted in a place.  I ask my students sometimes, What are you going to do when the power grid goes down? I teach electronic music, so they’re working on their laptops, and everything’s electric, so I say, That’s great, but make sure you have something you can do when the power grid goes down.  Because when it does, every single one of us is going to be needed to bring a local community and a local sound and a local activity because we won’t have anything else.  I like going to other places, but I really believe in trying to do something for this place.  I’m writing pieces about this river, and this environment, and these trees. I mean, that’s where I am.  I’m here. I don’t feel like it’s healthy for me to chase after imaginary people and imaginary places, in a way.  I want to belong in this place.

MS:  In an interview you gave in 2005, you drew some lines between your music and poetry: that it wasn’t a straight literal narrative, but it also wasn’t completely without meaning, and you used the metaphor of it being poetry. But that’s all you really said about it, so I wondered if you’d elaborate a little bit further on that idea.

EC: I do think of my music as poetry. A lot.  I spend a lot of time reading poetry, I love poetry—some of my best friends are poets.  [laughs] I have a good friend named Keith Taylor and one of the first collaborations I did with a poet was an electronic setting of his poem “Upper Midwestern Apologia,” which speaks about how people from outside experience the white pines here as “dismal bushes wrapped in ice, and the rivers that we mythologize as creeks,” and how many people “try to love this place but leave bitter, partially broken by our endless gray.”  So even from the beginning of my mature work, I was thinking about being rooted in a sense of place by devoting so much time and energy to that particular piece. I may not be the one to speak about what the process of making poetry is, but to me, what I think about it is, you take experience and match it with language and distill, distill, distill, distill down to this core that has everything packed and encoded into it. It doesn’t explain everything.  It doesn’t necessarily tell a story—or maybe my favorite kind of poetry doesn’t—but when you read it, it opens up like a flower.  And everything is in there.  All these intense interrelationships of sound and meaning and association are all woven together in this small offering that—I don’t like the metaphor of unlocking—but that opens for you when you read it.  And it invites repeated encounters, too, because you hopefully put enough in there that it can sustain you.

MS:  That makes me think of the text from your piece The Old Burying Ground. That isn’t poetry, per se, but the way language is used, there’s some mystery left in it. You could really let it fly in your own head.

EC:  Yeah, The Old Burying Ground came out of another one of those really incredible “smack upside the head” kind of experiences. I was at the MacDowell Colony and I was “called out of my studio” to go hang out at the cemetery with a friend who was going to do rubbings for an installation project—any excuse to play hooky. So I went and ended up reading the tombstones. In this particular place in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, the stones were just absolutely riveting.  It’s kind of amazing to think of a tombstone as being a real grabber, but the man who was the longest serving pastor in American history there, Laban Ainsworth, just really put some heavy stuff on them. I’ve never seen a tombstone anywhere else that had an exclamation point, for example.  In order to read them, you have to lie on your stomach—you’re prone, the words are very small at the bottom where they put the poems.  The guy could write, and he had a message, and when you’re laying face down on someone else’s grave, stern exhortations about how short life is have an impact.  So, there was already poetry there at the heart of that—his poetry, although he’s not directly credited anywhere.  But I knew that I wanted to not make it about that particular place.  I knew that I wanted to make it about, well, about what’s really one of the noble truths about human life, which is that we die.  And there is suffering around that.  Our culture tries to ignore death. Thomas Merton says that by ignoring death, by denying death, American culture actually multiplies it.  In any case, we are, each of us, individually deeply in need of facing this truth about our lives.  So in that piece, I had to generalize things enough that it could be present and past, and specific and personal, and also about the human condition.  One of the vehicles for that was contemporary poetry.  So I have those very old poems from the tombstones, and then I asked friends and people whose work I really admire to write poetry to go in between those, to keep changing the reference and frame and simultaneously turn little lights on between the movements and also put it in a contemporary context.

MS:  In a sense, your work Headwaters is somewhat the inverse of that, a composition that began as a piece about water generally but then focused on a very specific body of water.

EC:  Yes, that’s a place one, too. We were asked to do a large scale, multi-media video/dance/music piece about water, just in general.  And our group got together and decided that we would focus on our river, the Huron River, which is really just down the hill from my house. I go to see it every day. We were working with an environmental scientist, who is also a painter, and we grabbed another environmental scientist to go up there. We went walking around the headwaters of the river and then went to some of the early parts of the streams.  So we were trying to bring together the environmental message, because when you think about your river, you have to start thinking about its health as a being thing, as a living presence in our world.  But you want to try to find a way to do stealth advocacy. If you put in a bunch of facts and figures about the river while the music’s going by and things like that, it just—[shakes head no]. So it was an evening-length work and what we settled on was trying to come up with a way to point, like the finger at the moon.  The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.  The video and the music about the river is not the river.  But the least we can do as artists is use our face time with the audience to point to the things that really matter.

I mean, we’re filming this just after one of the largest, most destructive storms [Hurricane Sandy] in the United States, and we’re living in a time when the environmental, social, and economic issues are so serious.  We’re at such a crisis that we’ve got to do something, even if we feel like it’s not enough.  So we treated this piece as a way to show the place and, in a way, educate [the audience] to love the river.  Because if you love the river, you’ve got to get right with the river.  If you love God, you got to get right with God.  If you love Allah, you got to get right, you know.  So that was the idea.  We tried to give people an aesthetic experience around the ideas of the health of the river, and the river itself, and then hope that they carry that out with them the rest of their lives. I wrote a song called “Where is the River,” and hopefully it’s catchy enough that they’ll leave thinking, “Hmm, where is the river?” Well, it’s everywhere.  It’s beneath my feet.  It’s in my veins.  The river literally flows through us.

MS:  Is this where your work typically comes from, a desire to communicate a kind of message that’s bigger than, or that at least reaches beyond, the notes on the page?  Do you ever sit down and write a piece of music purely with just aural inspiration, or are you usually starting with something more topical and then using music to talk about it?

EC:  It’s the absolute music and program music divide.  This gets to the notion of poetry again; that’s why I would classify myself as a poet-composer. I suppose I have written pieces of music that don’t try to message the way that you might put it.  But I write a lot of music where I’m trying to get something right; I’m trying to get at something.  There’s this idea that there’s something real, and then you put it to music. It’s not fair to music, because that means that music isn’t the real world, and the whole world is the real world.  But I do think of myself sometimes as a translator between experience and sound. I’m trying to put the physical experience of sound into some other kind of experience.

There’s a story behind how Outcry and Turning was born.  I could tell you that story.

MS:  Let’s talk.

EC:  Well, there’s this subcategory of works now where composers are all having to—at some point—write something about 9-11. My version of that is I was writing a piece for the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings—they’re members of the Detroit Symphony—and right in the middle of it, 9-11 happened and the piece just took this turn. At that time, I couldn’t turn it into a memorial kind of piece or anything, but I certainly had just wrenching feelings about it. I had to try to put that in somehow. I’d written several pieces that are related to Sufi Qawwali music and right after 9-11, the backlash against Middle Eastern people and the whole culture of Islam broadly defined across the whole globe was so huge.  So I decided to put a little prayer in this by making it a piece that’s overtly about Sufi music, which I’ve spent some time with but I’m no expert on.  It’s, again, one of those things that’s changed the way I sing and the way I experience music.

That piece got played in Chicago at a conference and there were some things in the program notes about this, and after the concert, a guy in a military uniform came up to me. I thought, oh god, here it comes.  I’m going to get it now—like I’m fraternizing with the enemy, and how could I do that. It turned out that that was just a pure spotlight on my chauvinisms and my prejudices, because the guy came up to me and said he wanted to talk to me about commissioning a piece.  Then we had this long discussion about the limits of military power in the 21st century.  He was a conductor of the USMA band—now they’re going by the West Point Band—and it ended up they played a large piece of mine called Polka Nation and they commissioned this piece, Outcry and Turning, which I wrote as the wars were beginning in Afghanistan and Iraq. I had to say something about this.  It was another one of those things where you could just see the death and destruction that were going to be visited on the world.  All of us have experienced the pain of grief and suffering, and we’ve all, on some level, felt that this cannot be—some loss or death or disaster—and we have to cry out.  So I ended up writing this piece about the wars, but also about our own individual losses and grief and suffering, for the USMA band.  They played it beautifully and they recorded it, and I then I revised the piece and we recorded it just this past week with the University of Michigan band.

MS:  Why the revision? A practical or artistic consideration?

EC:  Well, you can imagine, because it’s called Outcry and Turning, in the outcry sections of the piece especially I was going for something that really hurt: really dissonant, really packed orchestration, really irregular rhythms that lope constantly, push against the beat, and I think I overdid it a little bit.  The piece worked; I think it worked very well.  But I think it would only have worked for the highest level of professional players, and I wanted to try to make it a little more accessible to university bands.  So I had to make some adjustments in thickness and dissonance, so that it could sound more easily. I had lots of very close half-step dissonances in high trombones, for example.  I love that sound.  Just bzzzzzz. I stepped back from that a little bit and tried to make it a little easier to get into people’s bodies, so that you could hear where your part fit into the whole, and also feel where you sat on the beat a little more clearly without trying to change the way it felt for the performers and without changing the music too much.  So that’s the kind of adjustment I was making.

MS:  So to bring it back around to where we began, but having covered all the ground that we have now: There are the common shorthand phrases for your work, things such as that “folk-inspired composition” tag, but then you also have the official bio, which list awards and commissions that have been important, career highlights and such. Still, what words would you choose if these were not already the engrained ways we talk about composers? If you were simply free to express something about yourself and your work that is meaningful to you, what would it be that identifies you as an artist?

EC: I’ve been railing against composer bios for many, many years.  When I was a graduate student, for one of my “big” performances I wrote a bio that talked about, you know, that I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and that I had a dog named Socrates that I loved very, very much and that he had recently died. And I loved going for walks in the woods and spent a lot of time trying to notice things about trees and leaves. The professor said, “No, no, you can’t do that.  Come on, you won this award.  What else have you done?” I’ve been tilting at that windmill for a while. I have written my ideal bio.  I’ve also written what I call my anti-bio that I swear someday I’m going to publish. My colleague Paul Schoenfeld has done this.  He’s brave.  He put it up on the university website.  He and I were always joking that we were going to put our bad reviews in our composer bio and he has things up like, “An undeserved standing ovation”—The New York Times. I’m so proud of him.  So someday I’ll publish my own anti-bio on my blog or something.

But it gets back to our short life and our inevitable death.  The question that comes to the center is not what prizes did you win, but what do you want people to say about you when you’re dead—right after you’re dead, because after you’re dead for a while, we’re all going to be forgotten. What do you want your friends and loved ones and the people whose lives you have touched somehow to say?  And I think it would be something like, “I always tried to pour my heart out in every single piece.”

[long pause]

I think that would be enough.