Category: Conversations

Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen): The Landfill of Meaning

Victoria Shen NMBx SoundLives Banner

 

Beyoncé’s latest album Renaissance made international headlines last week when Australian disability advocate Hannah Diviney called out one of the album’s songs, “Heated,” for using an ableist slur in the lyrics and Beyoncé subsequently agreed to re-record the song without that word and replace the track. Earlier this summer, the electronic music community was up in arms when an advance promotional video for that album made for British Vogue showed the pop icon scratching an LP with her fingernails. It turns out that it is a performance technique created by San Francisco-based experimental artist Victoria Shen, who performs under the moniker Evicshen, and she was not credited. But soon after the outcry, the appropriation was acknowledged and Shen was offered an apology. Both of these stories show that even if Beyoncé’s creative team is not always completely careful choosing all the details, they are paying very close attention to how people are reacting to her work on social media. And in Shen’s case, it actually gave her a new level of notoriety.

Victoria Shen's needle nails

Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen) and her needle nails. (Photo by Caroline Rose Moore, courtesy Victoria Shen.)

“The fact that my work was able to reach a much broader audience than I would have been ever able to have, even if it wasn’t credited at first, I think, is kind of amazing,” Shen said when I spoke with her over Zoom a few weeks ago during her residency at Wave Farm. She also pointed out that the concept, while visually startling and aurally fascinating, is perhaps not the most radical idea. “It’s just kind of like a natural thing. I also used to do nails, so this is a kind of thing where you think somebody would have done this already. It’s sort of low hanging fruit. But of course it takes both someone who used to do nails professionally and does electronics that had to make the bridge.”

As I would soon learn upon digging deeper into Shen’s creative output after she was first mentioned to me by my New Music USA colleague Ami Dang, who also creates electronic music and is a huge fan of Shen’s work, the needle nails technique is just one of many new approaches to making sounds that Shen has used in her performances and sound installations. After hearing and watching a segment of her extraordinary Zero Player Piano, in which disembodied piano strings and hammers are positioned along an ascending staircase and triggered remotely, I knew I had to talk with her.

“That was the gateway into more physical, electro-acoustic things I’m interested in now,” Shen explained. “To me, it was definitely a Modernist strategy … Something that’s self-reflexive. Something that is medium-specific. Like: what is a piano? How far can you push it to its logical conclusion while still maintaining we’re still arguing that it is within the medium of piano?”

Although some of her work can sound quite austere at times, Shen is ultimately suspicious of Modernist aesthetics. “I do like the Modernist kind of mission,” she admits, “but I know that it ultimately fails because all value divides contextually, arbitrarily. It could go in one eye and go out another, or it could be worth something based on some arbitrary factor which is like some institution assigns value to it. Or some kind of cultural capital gets ascribed to it. That’s bullshit. And we all know that, so how can we use things that are hyper, or super full of meaning, I call it the landfill of meaning. I use that in some recognized tactical way. I think I try and create this interface between non-meaning, that which is noise, and that which is over filled with meaning, and then take that interface, that line, and mine that for different conclusions as to how we derive our sense of value.”

Shen is also ambivalent about whether or not she is a composer, even though all the sounds she makes are completely her own, often including all the devices she uses to make them.

“I’m not a composer, I think mainly due to the fact that I don’t work with other people. I think composers really shine when they’re able to provide a set of instructions for other people to execute their work. … I think I’m much more of an improviser than a composer. I think part of composition, at least traditionally, is all about having a pre-packaged work being shipped out and executed, realized anywhere. And so for that, you want to control expression of your piece. You want to control the space in which it takes place. And it’s all about control, control, control. To me, it’s sort of the McDonald’s of sound.”

As for Beyoncé, Shen remains a fan though she doesn’t imagine that the two of them will ever collaborate.

I really doubt that she even knows I exist. I think her PR person knows I exist, but that’s as high as it goes. … I would just love to play at her mansion, to play a pool party or something with needle nails, it would be great.

Victoria Shen carefully scratching a home made record with audio playback styluses affixed to her fingernails during a performance.

Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen) during a performance on February 23, 2022. (Photo by Matt Miramontes, courtesy Victoria Shen.)

  • I just like being able to put in different sounds together at the same time. So Chinese opera, ltalian opera, swing music.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I’m a very technical person, but everything I do is by feel and not by the interest in pure math or manipulation in numbers or anything like that.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • My identity is something that is completely inescapable. I do like the Modernist kind of mission, but I know that it ultimately fails because all value divides contextually, arbitrarily. It could go in one eye and go out another, or it could be worth something based on some arbitrary factor which is like some institution assigns value to it. Or some kind of cultural capital gets ascribed to it. That’s bullshit. And we all know that.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I think I try and create this interface between non-meaning, that which is noise, and that which is over filled with meaning, and then take that interface, that line, and mine that for different conclusions as to how we derive our sense of value.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • The rules of music are also arbitrary. So anything that exists outside of these rules is considered experimental or noise. But that’s the freeing thing; there are no rules here.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • In anything that I’ve released on vinyl, on tape, on Bandcamp, digital, I think I’m playing the role of composer with those pieces. But otherwise, I’m not a composer, I think mainly due to the fact that I don’t work with other people.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • Part of composition, at least traditionally, is all about having a pre-packaged work being shipped out and executed, realized anywhere. And so for that, you want to control expression of your piece. You want to control the space in which it takes place. And it’s all about control, control, control. To me, it’s sort of the McDonald’s of sound.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I always loved experimental music. I was listening to a lot of noise rock and IDM and even psych-folk stuff in high school. But harsh noise was something that was cracked open for me by Jessica Rylan.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I like to dance a lot. I don’t necessarily consider what I do in my performances as dance, but it could be considered movement.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • For me there has to be some kind of grounded-ness, some kind of gold standard. And the gold standard I think for us is always going to be the human body.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • This is why I think improvisation is so good. It’s because you’re risking it all. With composition you can feel really safe because you have an expectation and that expectation is met. If it’s not met, if it’s underwhelming, then oh well who cares, right? But risk and the position of possible failure I think is very important. ... Failure happens all the time! I’m like, oh I have an idea, it’s spur of the moment improvisation. Let me try this out. Uh, will it fail? Sometimes. Is it embarrassing? Maybe. Move on. You know, but I think that is a point that is compelling for people.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I did not grow up with records. My earliest memory is listening to Peking Opera on a cassette tape with my mom and we were splitting the ear buds. I wasn’t around records. I had some records, but never really messed with them.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)
  • I would just love to play at her [Beyoncé's] mansion, to play a pool party or something with needle nails, it would be great.

    Victoria Shen (Evicshen)
    Victoria Shen (a.k.a. Evicshen)

Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture

Susie Ibarra performing on a drum kit

A week before I finally had a chance to have an extended conversation with multi-genre composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra, she performed at Roulette–her first concert with a group in front of a live audience since the pandemic shut everything down around the world. To say it has been a challenging 16 months for everyone is a tremendous understatement, but for Ibarra–whose artistry has been so deeply shaped by collaborations with other musicians–it could have proven stifling. And yet, this strange period has been remarkably productive for her.

Thus far this year, she has released two albums. First, Talking Gong, a spellbinding New Music USA-funded debut album of her new poly-stylistic trio with Claire Chase and Alex Peh. Then Walking on Water, a deeply moving homage to the victims of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsumani created in collaboration with visual artist Makoto Fujimura which uses the sounds of water as a central musical element. Both of these albums were recorded in studios over the course of last summer as COVID-19 cases were raging; musicians were tested before each session, remained masked whenever they could, and maintained physical distances. Susie Ibarra was also able to continue another strand of her output, her remarkable series of solo percussion explorations. An extraordinary performance she gave in a surreally empty hall at William Paterson College back in February is thankfully still available to stream. And a few months before that, in December 2020, she launched the Composers Now Impact series of composer presentations with a fascinating audio-video stream about her music.

Obviously we talked about these unprecedented times in which we are still living; it’s pretty much impossible not to talk about it. But we also talked about a wide range of other topics during the hour we spent together over Zoom. The very first time I ever heard Susie Ibarra, she was part of the legendary David S. Ware Quartet alongside Matt Shipp and William Parker. So I was eager to find out more about how she found herself in her 20s as part of this legendary free jazz quartet as an equal partner in what many aficionados consider to be some of the most enduring music of the late 1990s. I was also curious to learn more about her stint playing with the New Jersey indie rock band Yo La Tengo and the collaborative improvisatory trio Mephista she performed in with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and laptop artist Ikue Mori.

  • We were all just happy to be in the room and back into our practice of attending or performing concerts. I really missed that a lot.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I played that performance the day before one of my dear mentors passed away. Milford Graves passed the next afternoon. I had a kind of spiritual visit from him while I was playing and in one piece, I ended up playing some rhythms that he had directly taught me.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • Putting gender to instruments has always been a strange thing for me, ‘cause it has affected all of us as human beings. And it’s all these inanimate objects that we culturally have put gender on.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • When I hear younger generations, and their voices, and how they’re able to voice this politically right now, and socially, I’m really happy and hopeful. In my generation, I think there are certain things that just weren’t even touched or addressed.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • It wasn’t that I was buying albums. I had some, but I wasn’t a giant collector. I wanted to go to the live performances.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I was just so happy playing music. It's the best way to keep growing and learning.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • Sometimes when we were playing pieces, you don’t know who’s making what sounds. I love that actually, ‘cause we were all really integrated in playing that music in the moment.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • It was never like: "Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman." I didn’t come from that culture. So I feel really lucky. … But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I grew up with a hybrid culture. So it’s what I know. I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • I love rehearsals in any situation. It’s great when you get a lot of players that just want to play, and we want to play and see how it’s going to grow.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • At one point, I was living the winters in the Philippines. It was like having two lives.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist
  • We felt that particularly with water rhythms, listening to climate change, we are personally inviting the listener in to have a more personal experience and to connect, because everybody’s had a connection to water.

    Susie Ibarra, composer & percussionist

An undercurrent that runs throughout Susie Ibarra’s career trajectory is that many of the activities she was engaging in–performing in genres such as free jazz, particularly as a drummer–were unusual for a woman back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Her memories about that era were particularly illuminating:

“Having been a young musician, I definitely went through it, like with the naivete of all of a sudden having to wake up to that–wow, oh, the world is like this. Because I was raised by a very strong mother. She was a doctor and grew up in World War II in Manila. She’s very bright. She skipped three grades. She graduated from med school when she was 22. It was never like: ‘Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman.’ I didn’t come from that culture. So I was really lucky. Really lucky. Because in that particular style, whatever genre of jazz it is, it’s very socially difficult to a point where you think: Well, I can be empathetic and supportive to issues that are going on, but I also know that what my life path is is different than other people who are born into their life paths. So I also can’t just take on giant, heavy stones on my back that are not going to serve a purpose or be useful for anything. So initially, I think I just loved so much a lot of this music and playing, and I was also raised in a certain way. I didn’t see it that way. But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it. And then it’s the question of: do I want to accept that, or do I want to not accept that.”

Another thing that has given her tremendous strength and perseverance has been her immersion into her Philippine heritage. As she would later learn when she began to spend time absorbing the myriad musical practices in the Philippines, percussion instruments were traditionally played by women. So the way that cultures have gendered certain musical instruments is by no means universal. However, being born in California, raised in Houston, and coming of age as an artist in New York City, no single cultural force has exclusively shaped her approach to making music.

“I grew up with a hybrid culture, so it’s what I know,” she explains. “I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Susie Ibarra
June 18, 2021—Noon EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way of Enveloping a Story

For the past 20 years, Ricky Ian Gordon has been creating works for the stage—operas, musicals, or one-of a-kind music/theater hybrids—and getting them produced one after another, seemingly without a pause. But 14 months ago, fresh off from the PROTOTYPE production of Ellen West and with two new works about to open—Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis with New York City Opera—plus a revival of The Grapes of Wrath at Aspen in the works, everything came to a screeching halt as the world went into lockdown due to the pandemic.

“They didn’t even take down the set of Intimate Apparel,” Ricky exclaimed when we spoke over Zoom. “Michael Yeargan’s set is there. Cathy Zuber’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lights, everything’s in place. We just have to get back in the theater. We’ll open the theater again.”

But since everything has been on hold for over a year now, he has taken a break from madly finishing new scores. Instead, he has focused mostly on other things—writing poetry, a candid essay about his teenage obsession with Joni Mitchell which was published in Spin, and he’s now furiously at work on a book-length memoir that will be published in 2022 by Farrar Straus & Giroux.

“I couldn’t get behind writing music and anything that relies on performance during a period when there was not going to be any performance,” Gordon explained. “It just felt like the wrong direction. And also the whole Zoom music thing, like operas on Zoom, just doesn’t interest me that much. … But we’re all fickle, and if suddenly it was a form that was about my work, then I’m sure I’d turn around on it, ‘cause I’m 12-years-old inside.”

  • I actually decided I’m going to take a break from notes for a little while.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • I’m the guy who writes hybrid.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • It’s better to open a house on Madame Butterfly than on a brand new opera that is going to ask new things of this space.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • By the next time you see Pacific Overtures, it might be for like kazoo and French horn.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • If I could go back and have another life, I would be reading 24 hours a day.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • If you want to be a librettist, you have to be attached to the events and the stories.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • There is no such thing as history or then and now.

    Ricky Ian Gordon
  • The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent.

    Ricky Ian Gordon

It’s somewhat surprising that Ricky Ian Gordon didn’t jump on the virtual music bandwagon, since for years he’s been involved in creating works for the stage that redefine possibilities and break boundaries. But he also excels at creating work that is emotionally direct and has an immediate impact with audiences, so it makes sense that he’d be skeptical about creating something designed to be experienced by isolated individuals in front of computer terminals. And what inspires him more than anything else is the narrative arc of a great story, whether it’s a John Steinbeck novel, passages from Marcel Proust, a poem by Frank Bidart about a patient of an early 20th century psychiatrist suffering from anorexia nervosa, or the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. While most of his stage works are based on events from the distant past, these stories are very much in the present for him.

“Is Grapes of Wrath any less resonant now than it was then?” he asked at one point in our talk. “The entire world is one big refugee crisis. One big drought. One big food shortage. One big government saying: it’s not my fault. The Grapes of Wrath could have been written yesterday! When we wrote 27 about Gertrude and Alice, what was the zeitgeist? Gay marriage. And this is like the original gay marriage. These two women were calling themselves husband and wife before World War I. It all feels like it’s happening now. … I never feel like I’m back in time. … I just feel like … I’m making myself available for those stories. Then I feel like they sort of explode through me. There is no such thing as history or then and now. There’s only the current moment and what seems to be my way of enveloping that story.”

Thankfully, though he has had numerous productions put on hiatus, Ricky Ian Gordon has not suffered great hardship during the past year as have so many others who have lost loved ones or have gotten sick themselves. But he is also a war-scarred survivor of the AIDS crisis which claimed tons of people dear to him, most significantly his partner Jeffrey Michael Grossi, whose death inspired his deeply personal adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice and his poignant monodrama Green Sneakers. The lessons Gordon learned from that horrific time inform his outlook on where we as a society are right now.

“It was a very intense time,” he recalled. “Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying … We live in a very divided country right now, but I just can’t imagine we’re not all gonna be affected by this. … The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent. … How do you incorporate that into a new world where at any moment you could get a pandemic and everyone could be killed? What does art mean then?”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way Of Enveloping A Story
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Ricky Ian Gordon
April 19, 2021—1:30pm EDT via Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations

The only thing that is almost as exciting as watching and listening to a multimedia performance by Pamela Z is to hear her talk about it, which she does for almost an hour in a fascinating conversation that spans a wide range of topics including: creating and performing during the pandemic; her artistic beginnings as a singer-songwriter and how she transitioned into an experimental composer; a difficult encounter with TSA agents; dealing with constant changes in technology; and her obsession with old telephones.

Although Pamela is a composer who is mostly focused on creating new sounds by new means, it was extremely interesting to hear her describe her occasional frustration with the ephemerality of so many of the devices on which we all have become so dependent.

At one point she exclaims, “There are a lot of people in the world who all they care about is changing things. They don’t get attached to something. They really think everything is oh so yesterday, so six months ago. That is not compatible in a way with becoming virtuosic on anything. Building an instrument that you can become virtuosic on without having to pause every few minutes to update it and then change all of the things that no longer work with the update and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I always jokingly say: ‘Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a violinist or a cellist or something and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one. And by the way, we’ve made the fretboard a little narrower because you don’t need all that extra space?’”

And yet, those technological changes and sometimes the strange glitches and disconnects that result from them have informed so much of this San Francisco Bay Area-based maverick’s creative work. Attention, a work she created for the Del Sol String Quartet, will forever change your perception of telephones ringing. Baggage Allowance will make you rethink your next airplane trip when it is safe to take one again. She hopes Times3, her sonic installation created for the 2021 Prototype Festival to accompany a walk around Times Square that has now been extended through April 30, 2021, “cues people into the thought of expanding their imagination to past, present, and future of whatever place they’re in.”

  • The time we’re living through right now is turning us all into filmmakers.

    Pamela Z
  • One of my least favorite things is to see somebody making the awkward effort to make their performance visual just because they think that’s expected.

    Pamela Z
  • I’ve actually been telling people that if they do have the chance to go and listen to the piece in Times Square that I also encourage them to have another listen to it, not in Times Square.

    Pamela Z
  • I suddenly woke up one day and realized that the music I was playing for a living did not resemble what was on my turntable.

    Pamela Z
  • I spend just as much time going to visual art museums and galleries as I do going to concerts.

    Pamela Z
  • Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a cellist and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, “Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one.”

    Pamela Z
  • Nothing dies on the internet. Well, except Flash.

    Pamela Z

Pamela Z’s quest for new solutions which create problems that are also an integral part of the resultant work also informs her brand new Ink, a work which includes some surreal reflections on how musicians interact with notated scores which will be premiered by the San Francisco-based chorus Volti in an online performance on April 24.

Aside from learning more about all of these one-of-a-kind compositions, it’s a delight to hear all of her stories since, as anyone who has experienced her work already knows, she is an extremely engaging storyteller. Our time together over Zoom was a non-stop adventure except for, perhaps appropriately, the occasional internet connection hiccup which we mostly were able to fix in post-production editing.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Pamela Z
March 16, 2021—4:00pm EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between San Francisco CA and New York NY
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce and Jonathan Stone; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Judith Lang Zaimont: The Music She Has to Write

Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom

Judith Lang Zaimont has been active as a pianist since she was five. She performed on national television at the age of 11 and began her studies at Juilliard at age 12. But despite her deep love for music from the very beginning, she realized early on that she hated practicing, playing the exact same thing again and again. One day, while sight-reading through some music by Chopin, she had an epiphany. The constant variations in his music meant he also hated playing the same thing again and again. And it suddenly dawned on her that her constant desire to play something new meant that she was a composer.

That endless search for something new still fuels Zaimont’s creativity many decades later. She is defiantly unwilling to be typecast for creating music in a particular style, which makes her music always a welcome surprise. But it has also proved challenging for her in terms of typical opportunities for composers.

“I have very particular ideas or thoughts about commissions,” she explained when we chatted over Zoom in early February. “They open doors. But they always come as a result of knowing past music by the person. And if you are not a one-groove individual artistically, if you have many parts to yourself, then you could open a door you’ve never opened before in a new piece. … We suffer a little bit, if you’ve been at this for a while, from being branded thus or such. And artists are not their brand. If you relax into that groove, beware.”

For Zaimont, composing music is always a work in progress, an ongoing journey of discovery and reinventing oneself. It has also made her very critical of her own work over the years which has led her to take works she no longer thinks are worthy out of circulation.

“The world doesn’t need those pieces,” she exclaimed. “I’m constantly going back and making sure that what I put forward is the best that I can do under the circumstances.”

Thankfully, however, there are quite a few pieces that she does still acknowledge and many performers acknowledge them, too. While so many composers are lucky if a piece they’ve written gets a performance and a recording, several of Zaimont’s works have been recorded multiple times which is, after all, how music becomes repertoire. And that is her goal since her music is deeply informed and inspired by the canon of classical music repertoire. Among the pillars in her catalog are six symphonies, two piano trios, a hefty piano sonata, and two string quartets—at least that she still acknowledges (believing that she only fully grasped the string quartet medium in her 60s). She has also composed a formidable Judaic sacred service, perhaps her most significant choral work although it has yet to be recorded in its entirety.

Yet despite Zaimont’s deep immersion in European musical traditions, her music is very much American. She has composed several rags and the rhythms and harmonies of jazz and various American popular music genres have seeped into her own compositional language, so much so that they’re not influences per se, but rather additional vocabulary that she has mastered and incorporated into her own ever-evolving sound world.

  • I have a super appreciation of the performer’s entry point...

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I think a long time about how the music is going to be notated.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I always want horizons that don’t fence you in.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • All of my pieces solve puzzles.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I have tried not to be branded.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • I do charts of other people’s periodicities. I did all the development sections of all the Beethoven sonatas.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • My father used to come to all my concerts and applaud like crazy. And then he’d get this funny look on his face, like maybe he didn’t understand the music.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • Ned Rorem once wrote that a composer has three arrows in his quiver, and he shoots them over and over again. I took that as a challenge.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • If each piece isn’t a struggle to do, you’ve got to question how valid it is.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
  • Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music. Did it stop me? No.

    Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom
    Judith Lang Zaimont, composer

Early on in her career, Zaimont was also a major champion of other female composers, both contemporaries and women from earlier times, editing an important series of volumes of critical studies of their music.

“Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music,” she remembered. “Did it stop me? No. I knew I was born to write music. Didn’t matter to me. … But I saw there was a whole cohort of women who were writing music. I started to learn the history of music that had been written in times past by women. … These people were not in the history books. They were not there. Generations of the present moment weren’t knowing about them. The world needs to know about what they have accomplished and appreciate it. I got letters from some of the standing composers whom we profiled in the critical appraisals sections of the books to thank me for finally having been able to engender these really critical articles dealing with the stuff of their music. Not who they were as a person. Whether they were married or had children, how old they were. That they were women in a man’s world. None of that. Deal with their music. That’s why I did that. I set my own creative work aside to do this because somebody needed to step up and do it. … I’m very grateful to the music that these people wrote, that it is now in the world.”

But don’t call Zaimont, as she described it, an “adjective” composer.

“The thing I don’t like is being a column B composer. I don’t want to wait until you get adjective before the world composer. Before you think Judith Lang Zaimont. Think of me right up there. I sit at Chopin’s—just behind Chopin, I can’t sit at his shoulder. I sit back there a ways. But I’m on the stage.”


New Music USA · SoundLives — Judith Lang Zaimont – The Music She Has To Write
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Judith Lang Zaimont
February 2, 2021—4:00pm EST via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Maricopa AZ and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Kris Bowers: In Love With Accompaniment

Kris Bowers

Kris Bowers is one of the humblest and most introverted composer/performers I have ever encountered. This is astonishing considering his accomplishments—winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition at 20, a daytime Emmy four years ago, and now one of the most in-demand composers for film and television, most recently scoring the Netflix sensation Bridgerton. And yet it all makes sense when you begin exploring Bowers’s incredible versatility, his openness to all genres of music, and hear how attuned his music is to whatever project he is working on as well as all the musicians he has worked with.

“As a jazz pianist, one of the things that I fell in love with was accompaniment,” he acknowledged when we spoke with him about his music and career back in October. “I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.”

  • I’ve never really wanted to be the center of attention in a performance space.

    Kris Bowers
  • I’ve always been into different styles of music.

    Kris Bowers
  • I always like giving myself limitations or rules, or a box, and then going wild within that space.

    Kris Bowers
  • I have a lot of family members that I don’t agree with… But, at the same time, I have a profound love for them.

    Kris Bowers
  • Until I started doing scoring sessions, I wasn’t able to have a group of musicians of a large size, play my music since college.

    Kris Bowers
  • I felt just as much kinship with John Williams as I did Quincy Jones and Terence Blanchard.

    Kris Bowers
  • I realized I would rather be up until five in the morning at home working on a score than getting on a bus to go to the next city.

    Kris Bowers
  • I have maybe a week to ten days to turn around the score.

    Kris Bowers
  • Whenever you hear a musician’s album, you know whose album it is by who’s the loudest on that album. … I didn’t want that.

Scoring films and television series might be the ideal medium for Bowers since it allows him to immerse himself in the characters and plots which should be foregrounded rather than the music. Nevertheless the music he writes is always attention grabbing and works well as a listening experience independently of whatever it was originally written to enhance, whether it’s the score for the 2018 motion picture Green Book, which was based on the life of composer/pianist Don Shirley, or the 2019 EA Sports videogame Madden NFL 20. Whatever project he is working on, Bowers always operates from a zone of empathy.

“That’s the only way that I can really get to something honest,” he explained. “I think that it’s more likely that it will reach other people if it’s something that came from an honest and emotional place for me.”

Considering his need to relate to the characters he creates music for, it’s somewhat surprising that Bowers also composed the score for Mrs. America, a 2020 Hulu series about the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. “I actually really loved needing to represent this human side to this character that I didn’t agree with,” he admitted. “It even helped me understand or remind myself that those people that I might disagree with politically, especially in a time like this, that they’re humans at the end of the day. And that’s something to keep in mind and to really remember.”

As a Black composer who works in a medium that is still overwhelmingly dominated by White composers, it is also important for Bowers that his music not be typecast and the fact that he has worked on such a wide range of projects, in which he has explored an extraordinarily broad range of musical styles, is testimony to his music being impossible to typecast at this point.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Kris Bowers: In Love With Accompaniment
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Kris Bowers
October 22, 2020—12:30pm EST via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Los Angeles CA and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Julie Giroux: A Wind Band is a Box of 168 Crayons

Julie Giroux on boardwalk

I still vividly remember my very first encounter with Julie Giroux. It was in 2015 during the first time I attended the Midwest Clinic, a massive music conference/festival/expo which is heavily but not exclusively devoted to wind band music held annually in Chicago right before the end of each calendar year.

Though I knew some wind band repertoire and had even attended a few wind band concerts over the years, nothing prepared me for how huge the wind band community is—comprising school-based ensembles, community groups, and musical units that are the pride of each of the branches of the military, plus wind bands from around the world. I was not only floored by the sensitivity and virtuosity of performance at what were basically showcases at a conference center which normally might not inspire such a level of commitment, but also how devoted these musicians were to newly composed music. There were so many new composers I discovered that first year, mostly all men, with one very noticeable exception—Julie Giroux, whose works were featured on several concerts. I still remember two of her pieces I heard that week—Riften Wed and Just Flyin’. Both took the audience on a journey that was a real sonic adventure and, at the same time, both were—dare I say it—fun.

Who was this Julie Giroux? I had to meet her. I tracked her down in the giant exhibition area of McCormick Center, which is where Midwest Clinic attendees congregate in between concerts and panel discussions. In fact, it’s a giant marketplace where attendees can and do buy sheet music, recordings (fancy that!), instruments, and even band uniforms. Giroux was holding court by the stand of her music publisher, Musica Propria. There was a line waiting to get her autograph that was longer than two city blocks. I waited. When I finally got directly in front of her, she was laughing uproariously, perhaps at something someone had just said. I was not sure. It’s very loud in that space. I didn’t have much time since there was a line just as long behind me by that point, but I told her how much I liked her music and handed her my business card saying that I hoped we’d have a chance to have a longer conversation at some point for NewMusicBox. I learned that she was based in Mississippi and began plotting ways of traveling there to chat with her. It proved challenging. Then I thought maybe we could record a convo with her during next year’s Midwest Clinic. That proved impossible since everyone else there wanted to talk to her, too, but at least I managed to say hi briefly again and hear some more of her music. And the cycle repeated itself in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

But strangely in this crazy year of 2020 when no one is able to go anywhere, we’re actually able to go more places than usual—virtually—since almost everyone is online all the time. In fact, this week (December 16-18), the Midwest Clinic, which typically attracts well over 15,000 attendees, is also an exclusively web-based experience and, as a result, might even break their previous attendance records. So, I thought I’d take a chance and reach out to Julie Giroux and see if she’d be willing to talk over Zoom. It took a while to set up, but it was well worth the wait.

“I feel like we’re in one of those really bad sci-fi films from the ‘70s where you get sucked into some computer and are trying to live that way,” she commented at some point during our sprawling conversation in which we explored the ins and outs of the wind band (including an in-depth discussion of her own wind band symphonies), her career in Hollywood (which led to her being the first female composer to win an Emmy), her wacky arrangements of Christmas songs (‘tis the season after all), and how she’s coping with life in quarantine. “I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games,” she quipped.

  • When I was in junior high, I was writing for junior high band, because that was the level I was.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • Because I’d always played piano—when I got into band, I realized I was only playing one note. And that’s pretty boring.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • Now I have a whole other year to sit here, and eat Cheetos and play video games.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • I didn’t know that there weren’t women. I didn’t think about it. … . I didn’t know anybody was alive who was doing it.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • The band is as complex and has as many colors as an orchestra does.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • Elvis stopped being Elvis because he stopped growing.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12.

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer
  • There isn’t a person in the United States that doesn’t know “Jingle Bells.”

    Julie Giroux on boardwalk
    Julie Giroux, composer

I was somewhat surprised to learn that despite Giroux’s interest in a broad range of music making, she is not terribly interested in writing chamber music. “It’s because I am just a spoiled brat,” she confessed. “It’s like I have a box of 168 crayons. Right? And if you want to give me 12, I don’t want to color with 12. I want to color with 168, you know. So to me, it’s always no. It’s like you go to a restaurant and it’s a menu that has one thing on it. You know, you’re like, ‘No, no. I want pages. I want to just be overwhelmed with the choices that I have.’ … I mean it does sound like something I need to do to be a better composer, but it’s not something I want to do.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Julie Giroux: A Wind Band is a Box of 168 Crayons
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Julie Giroux
November 16, 2020—7 P.M. E.S.T.
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Mississippi and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Valerie Coleman: Writing Music for People

Earlier this year, New Music USA launched Amplifying Voices, a program promoting marginalized voices in the orchestral field. Following a national call, eight American orchestras are leading consortium commissions for eight different composers. The seven composers selected thus far are Tania León (the first individual composer NewMusicBox interviewed, in 1999), Tyshawn Sorey (featured in NewMusicBox last year), Jessie Montgomery (featured four years ago), Brian Raphael Nabors, Juan Pablo Contreras, Shelley Washington, and Valerie Coleman, with whom we spoke a decade ago, regarding her maverick wind quintet, Imani Winds.

One of the most exciting aspects of Imani Winds is their commitment to new music from a diverse repertoire of composers, which makes sense given that they were founded by a composer. But what about Valerie Coleman, the composer?

In our first conversation with Valerie, we barely scratched the surface of her compositional activities. Since then, these have become her primary artistic focus. Valerie has recently been chosen to participate in the Metropolitan Opera / Lincoln Center Theater New Works program, a perfect fit for her given her commitment to storytelling through her music, no matter the idiom.

  • I’m not somebody who writes based on the intellectual side of composition, but rather on the side of addressing what it is within all of us.

    Valerie Coleman
  • When I got into college... I started to recognize, whoa, maybe composers are supposed to be White male and not Black female.

    Valerie Coleman
  • It’s so important that educators encourage and not discourage in what they do.

    Valerie Coleman
  • I’m very excited about Amplifying Voices ... I envision working with young composers of color and helping them to find their voice.

    Valerie Coleman
  • It’s our responsibility to convey that story to the performer in such a way that is not cerebral.

    Valerie Coleman
  • A composer doesn’t necessarily have to choose any story to tell. That’s just how I identify and it’s because of what my ancestors have gone through.

    Valerie Coleman
  • The thing that we’ve always worked towards whenever we play music is the idea of playing together. Note for note. Beat by beat.

    Valerie Coleman

So the launch of Amplifying Voices seemed like a perfect opportunity to reconnect and have a conversation about her own music—her aesthetics, her inspiration, and what she hopes she can communicate to listeners.

“That’s just how I identify and it’s because of what my ancestors have gone through,” she explains. “I feel it necessary to tell their story, but also really just embrace this idea of how to walk in the world and inform people around me. … I recognize that there are stories that are yet untold that if they were told, they would transform all those who would hear them. So it’s my job to create music that allows that transformative power to happen.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Valerie Coleman: Writing Music for People
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Valerie Coleman
September 29, 2020—11 A.M.
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Miami FL and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Nebal Maysaud: Rumored “Death” of Classical Music Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

[Ed. note: It has been a little over a year since the publication of Nebal Maysaud’s “It’s Time To Let Classical Music Die,” which is the most widely read article in the history of NewMusicBox. Many readers were drawn to its polemical title, which unfortunately was all that some people noticed rather than the concepts Nebal discussed in the article. One year later, Nebal reexamines these ideas in a candid one-on-one conversation with musicologist and University of Florida Assistant Professor Imani Mosley, discussing the relevance of classical music in 21st century America – and how to nurture a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable community that creates, performs, and appreciates such music. – FJO]

 

 

Imani Mosley: Thanks so much for this. I’m happy to get a chance to talk to you – and talk about this piece and contextualize it, and hear more about your thoughts on the piece itself and everything after. So before we talk about the piece, I’d like to talk about the response. Do you feel that your article was met the way you thought people would react to it? Did you find yourself surprised about dialogue that came about afterwards? Tell me about your reactions to how the piece was received and how people were talking about it.

Nebal Maysaud: I was expecting to receive almost no support – but not as much pushback either. I was expecting fewer people to even read it.

So in my first article I detailed a list of ways white people or people in power respond to marginalized individuals and people of color speaking out. So I was actually surprised initially to find a lot more support than I expected. I still do believe, just from what I’ve seen, that classical music as a field does still have a lot of conservative and neoliberal values.

But what I’ve seen also indicates that, while our structures and power structures reinforce these racial hierarchies of white supremacy, there are a lot of individuals who are aware of that and want to make a change in that power structure; and are not content with how we’re abusing people of color in the field of classical music.

So I was very happy to see that it received support. I was thrilled to get messages from people with varying degrees of interest, and who are in various stages in their careers as musicians. I heard back from some folks who studied classical music in college but left the field because of these systemic barriers.

It was really validating to get statements of support saying I’m not the only one who experienced what I experienced.

There was a great positive response. There were also, of course, negative responses – particularly once it started reaching conservative media, propagating it to a bunch of conservative sources.

One thing as a community I feel like we could and should be doing better is publicly expressing our support for writers who speak out – because a lot of the support faded away, but harassment didn’t. They calmed down quite a bit, but every so often, some conservative influencer shares it on Twitter and, you know, I get a few random messages. They can be hilarious: one time someone messaged me, “Screw you. I’m going to listen to Beethoven!” – and [at the time] I was listening to Beethoven.

IM: [laughs] I definitely can understand and empathize with that particular situation, as it’s one I find myself in fairly often. And there’s a lot to be said critically about those who take more left-leaning positions, as you say, about how their support and allyship manifests in these spaces. That’s a real and necessary conversation that definitely needs to be had. So I completely understand what you’re saying, and I’m sorry for the harassment. Unfortunately it comes with the territory but it’s obviously not something anybody should have to endure.

Since you kind of brought this up, I want to dig a little bit into larger ideas that we can break apart – and talk about those things have manifested in the past year. When you talk about classical music as a field, what exactly do you mean by that terminology. Are you talking about a framework, are you talking about institutions, pedagogy, works? When you use the terminology Western classical music, what is it standing in shorthand for?

NM: That’s a great question, and probably the biggest source of confusion for a lot of folks. My ideas and thoughts on this are constantly evolving. I said Western classical music; nowadays I’m trying to be more specific and say European classical music. But either way I am thinking of it less as a set of repertoire: so I am not going after anyone’s vinyl copy of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or anything like that; everyone’s welcome to listen to any kind of music you want; I am not advocating for any book burning or CD burning or score burning or anything like that.

  • At the end of the day, music is malleable enough for us to understand and interpret and reinterpret.

    Nebal Maysaud, composer
  • We are connected to white supremacy; our field is a tool for white supremacy; and it’s not separate, and you can’t separate it.

    Nebal Maysaud, composer

Instead what I’m actually more focused on is the community and the tradition – and the power structures within that community. I’m barely talking about the music at all. Although the music can support those power structures it also doesn’t have to. At the end of the day, music is malleable enough for us to understand and interpret and reinterpret – to a degree: there are some pieces that have a racial slur in the title or are appropriative; obviously there are inherent problems with pieces like that – but say Bach’s work: what inherently about Bach’s music is racist?

It’s not so much about the music, but it’s how we position the music and how we play the music and specifically the idea that Bach is some sort of prophet, or his music is a gift from god. It’s what Evan Williams writes about in his series of articles on the myth of the composer genius. And it’s really a power structure that uses this myth of the composer genius to reinforce white supremacy in the field. It’s also a power structure that keeps people of color from being seen and treated as equals amongst anyone who wishes to practice the music or traditions established by these European musicians and composers.

IM: This is what I want to pull apart here. I can definitely understand why people would have this general confusion: there’s definitely this surface level desire to read any type of critique as saying “Let’s get rid of all music; let’s not listen to composers or what have you.” But what I want to pull apart here is: how does what you’re describing differentiate from white supremacy as a framework?

For me, the concern is that Western classical music is a tool that works within a white supremacist framework. I have a harder time allying myself with the argument that “Western classical music” (in scarequotes) is itself the white supremacy, rather than being used as a tool within a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist framework.

All of the structures which you’re asserting, they exist outside of classical music; they exist within cultural networks that are infused and tangled with whiteness. So do you separate this idea of classical music as tool versus “classical music as an idea is equivalent to, or analog to, an idea of white supremacy?”

NM: That’s a great question. And that’s also, I think, a position I’ve sort of evolved on. As I learn more about how white supremacy works, and how racial hierarchies work within white supremacy, I would agree that classical music is a tool for white supremacy. I’d say that classical music ended up developing into a tool for both capitalism and white supremacy – which in some ways are almost synonymous, or they work together.

IM: They work together.

NM: Part of a solution I proposed, which is really to try to minimize the effect of racism with classical music; we can’t get rid of racism entirely within this field, unless we get rid of white supremacy in general, and that can’t happen unless we get rid of capitalism.

True liberation means that we have to be united in our communities in every field, and every way. The only thing I want to push back against is this idea that classical music – or European classical music I should say, because there are many different types of classical music – and it’s a belief I’ve seen, that European classical music is separate from “these political ideas.”

Obviously to these folks, our lives are political apparently; but they’re political because we have a political system that dehumanizes us into products of labor.

We are connected to white supremacy; our field is a tool for white supremacy; and it’s not separate, and you can’t separate it.

So I definitely do not see Western or European classical music as a unique entity of white supremacy that’s different from any other field.


This is just the beginning of the conversation between Imani Mosley and Nebal Maysaud. To hear the full conversation, listen on Soundcloud.

Third Coast Percussion: The Collaborative Process

David Skidmore, Peter Martin, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors (Photo by Saverio Truglia)

In the first couple of weeks following the global lock down, we hadn’t completely figured out how we were going to produce the extensive NewMusicBox Cover conversations that we launch on the first day of every month—we were too busy finishing up work on our talk with Nathalie Joachim which we were lucky enough to record just a week before all this began. But we knew that these in-depth conversations about new music were something we had to keep going somehow, especially since the next one was slated for May 1, the 21st anniversary of the launch of this publication online. What to do? So much of what has made these conversations so exciting is the intimacy, empathy, and camaraderie that emerges from an in-person encounter, often in the homes of the people with whom we are talking. But we’re also well aware that this method of recording these talks also comes with limitations. There are tons of exciting people making fascinating music all over this country whom we have wanted to feature on these pages, but we’ve usually been limited to folks who either live in the greater New York Tri-State area, are a possible day trip along the Northeastern Corridor in either direction, or have come to NYC for a performance (and those talks are obviously not at home and so run the risk of feeling less personal).

I’ve long been a fan of Third Coast Percussion which marks its 15th anniversary this year and I’ve been eager to talk with their four members for quite some time about their collaborations with Augusta Read Thomas, David T. Little, Donnacha Dennehy, Philip Glass, and more recently Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) and JLin, as well as their own compositions. (I’m particularly enamored with TCP member David Skidmore’s immersive Common Patterns in Uncommon Time.) However, TCP is based in Chicago and is constantly touring around the country, so the dots never connected.

Then very soon after concerts started getting cancelled all over the country and we all began sheltering in place, TCP started presenting live stream concerts on their YouTube channel which were really motivational, particularly their second one on March 28 which—in addition to featuring the amazing pieces written for them by Glass, Hynes, and JLin, plus an awesome original by TCP’s Peter Martin—was a fundraiser for the New Music Solidary Fund which New Music USA administers. So I just had to figure out a way to make them the May 2020 NewMusicBox Cover somehow! Thanks to the Zoom platform and the fact that each of these four guys—Dave, Peter, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors—was tech savvy enough to record themselves separately with microphones and camcorders, we were able to record a substantive conversation online from five different locations that looks and feels almost like we were all together… almost.

We talked about a very wide range of topics. They started off by sharing stories about how TCP introduces audiences to percussion instruments and how they each came to devote their lives to making music. Then we engaged in a heady series of dos and don’ts for writing and performing percussion music. After that, we spent a long time exploring some details of the staggering range of music they have nurtured from an extraordinarily wide range of creators including in-depth commentary about some of their own original compositions. Finally, we had a heart to heart about what they all have been doing to cope in these unprecedented and uncertain times that everyone has been thrust into. I hope you find what they each had to say as poignant and inspirational as I have.

[Ed. note: To accommodate a broad range of experiential modalities, we’ve included audio links for the entire conversation as well as a complete text transcription. Click on “Read the Full Transcript” and you will also be rewarded with a few video clips from the talk and well as several performances! To facilitate access, both the audio and the text have been divided into four discrete sections, each of which is self-contained, in order to make the experience somewhat more manageable since the total discussion ran a little over 100 minutes. We encourage you to bookmark this page in your browser and return to it multiple times rather than going through all of it in one go, unless you’re extremely intrepid! – FJO]