Category: Conversations

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.

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.

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.

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]

Nathalie Joachim: Stepping Into My Own Identity

Nathalie Joachim

It’s hard to believe that our sit-down talk with composer, flutist, and vocalist Nathalie Joachim was a mere 23 days ago. So much has changed in the world for everyone. I imagine that many of us have now spent weeks sheltering in place—if we have been lucky—in our own homes with no foreseeable end in sight in order to protect ourselves and each other from the further spread of a deadly pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives around the globe.

But I have to remain confident and believe that Nathalie’s exuberant, forward-looking attitude about music-making and her inspiring comments about how she came to follow her creative path still represent our collective future. It’s something I believed about her music the first time I encountered the debut album of Flutronix, her duo with Allison Loggins-Hull, nearly a decade ago which I then described as “a strong case for a post-stylistic, post all-powerful-single-auteur-driven music, one that allows multiple voices to share in the shaping of a music that is equally indebted to and comfortable in several musical lineages.”

At that time, and in fact until our conversation on March 7, I had no idea how Nathalie and Allison met or how they decided to make music together. It was fascinating to find out that they actually discovered each other via MySpace and that when they finally met in person they immediately decided to collaborate.

“So that day Flutronix was born,” Nathalie remembered. “Our rapport with one another was super natural. Not supernatural, but it was very natural! We just sort of hit it off. Sometimes you just meet your people and you know. And Allison was that for me. We just shared that instinct. Immediately we were like, ‘Alright, well there’s no music for two flutes and electronics or two flutes and beats. Who’s writing that music?’ Right away, we were like: ‘Alright, we better get to work, because if we’re going to play some concerts, we need some music to play.’ We started writing music right away.”

It was a sea-change from Nathalie’s experience as a classical flutist studying at Juilliard.

“If you’re a performer, it becomes a little bit harder for you to engage as a composer at this school,” she explained. “That wasn’t something that I could do within the curriculum, because I would have had to formally audition to do that. And up to that point, it had never even occurred to me to call myself a composer, even though I was experimenting with writing music. I had a deep interest in exploring different styles. I was doing a lot of song writing with my grandmother, but unless I could formally present someone with a score of mine, I just wasn’t going to be studying composition at that school, at that level. Not to mention the fact that the people who claimed that title of composer did not look like me, did not live like me, and did not write the music that was coming into my brain.”

Still, she concedes that her time at Juilliard, which began in her childhood as a student in the Music Advancement Program through the Pre-Collegiate Program and progressed through her undergrad years, has provided her foundation as a musician. No matter what genre of music she finds herself involved with (or, more to the point, what genre other people might assign to her), she acknowledged that her in-depth study of classical music “informs my understanding of every other musical style that I engage in.”

In fact, she confessed that at one point in her career an internal “obligation … to the classical world” she was feeling led her to question whether the music she was engaged in was “serious” enough. At the same time these thoughts were tugging at her, she received an email out of the blue from Lisa Kaplan from Eighth Blackbird asking her if she’d be interested in auditioning to be a member of that celebrated contemporary music ensemble. Although she was just beginning to receive commissions to compose works for other musicians and Flutronix continued to be an important focus in her musical life, she auditioned, got the gig, and moved to Chicago.

“It was an incredible experience,” she said. “But for me it was very challenging. … I was the only one who came to the group with this kind of band identity with Flutronix, if we’ll call it that. My sort of alter ego. And I’ve got this composition work that’s starting to brew and I come with this different music education background, but I also was so challenged right away with touring; you kick up with what that schedule is. Everybody else in the group, when we weren’t on tour, they were home with their families, taking a rest. Not that anyone’s taking it easy in that group, but I was just fitting in these other parts of my career in the midst of that. So I was ridiculously busy. I almost was never at home when everyone else was at home. I was really working constantly around the clock to succeed in all of these other ways. I think I didn’t realize how much everything else would take off at the same time that I joined the group.”

During her last two years with 8bb, Nathalie began developing Famn d’Ayiti, her most significant musical undertaking to date. A celebration of her Haitian heritage, this song-cycle cum sonic documentary cum concept album ties together multiple strains of her composite musical identity, merging her classical training, her singing traditional folksongs with her grandmother, and even her early explorations of audio production and sound design. It received rave review from “classical” music critics and even managed to fetch a Grammy nomination in the “World Music” category.

“It was interesting to have ended up in a category that I think no one else saw me popping up in,” she admitted. “I’m committed at this point in my life to making music that is true to me. And so I’m happy for it fall into whatever box it needs to.”

Towards the end of our hour with Nathalie, we talked about what was to be the next live performance of Famn d’Ayiti at the extraordinary Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she was also scheduled to appear on a panel about defying genre, organized and moderated by New Music USA’s own Vanessa Reed. Obviously neither of those events happened, since the 2020 Big Ears Festival was one of the many casualties of the waves of cancellations that hit the performing arts community in the past few weeks. Nevertheless, we decided to include that part of the conversation after a section break at the very end of this transcript to reflect on what might have been and what we must continue to hope will be again after we get past the current hiatus in all of our lives.

Viet Cuong: Game for Anything

Composer Viet Cuong

Composer Viet Cuong says that he is very impatient, but you’d never know it upon meeting him. His outward persona is relaxed, warm, and friendly, and at the same time he is bristling with enthusiasm and refreshing ideas about music. When challenged on this self-characterization, he laughs and says, “Maybe I’m just so impatient in my music that I can’t be impatient anywhere else.”

Although Cuong’s compositional output began with works for wind ensemble, he has branched out into numerous other mediums including chamber and orchestral music. One of his most recent works, Re(new)al, is a concerto for percussion quartet originally commissioned by the Albany Symphony and General Electric (GE) Renewable Energy. The original version was written for Sandbox Percussion and Albany Symphony’s Dogs of Desire, and the piece has since taken on multiple forms with versions for percussion quartet and full orchestra, and for band. Re(new)al is an ideal example of the playful-yet-substantive character of Cuong’s music that incorporates refreshingly imaginative ideas that fit effortlessly into the music without being gimmicky. He is currently at work on a piece for Eighth Blackbird with The United States Navy Band, saying, “To bring these two groups together is going to be a beautiful thing.”

We chatted inside the lovely orangery (the small greenhouse where plants and small trees are kept over the winter) of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., where Cuong is serving as the Early Career Musician in Residence. He talked about growing up as a “band geek“ and the importance of band music in his life, his work bringing together different musical worlds, the nuts and bolts of incorporating extended techniques into his music, the realities of self-publishing, and more.

Molly Joyce: Strength in Vulnerabilty

Composer Molly Joyce

One of the hallmarks of many different kinds of music performance—whether it’s a classical piano recital, a jazz combo in a club, or an arena rock show—is the demonstration of extraordinary physical feats on musical instruments. A cult of virtuosity has perpetuated the belief that the harder something is to play, and hence the fewer people who are able to play it, the better the music, and that the rare specimens of humanity who are able to play such music have special superhuman powers. At the same time, embedded in the word virtuoso is the word virtuous, implying that the rest of us who can’t scale these heights are somehow lacking in moral goodness.

Composer/performer Molly Joyce explained to us when we visited her in Washington, D.C. at the Halcyon Arts Lab, where she’s in residence this year, why perpetuating the notion that only a small select few are physically worthy enough excludes most people from the experience of making and ultimately enjoying art:

I think it’s problematic when one type of body or one type of being is reinforced through new music that still seeks a physically virtuosic connection. And I think that’s why, at least for myself, I always try, in my own passive way, to hopefully suggest other types of physicality.

Although she eschewed pyrotechnics in her own music long before she publicly identified as disabled (which was only about two years ago), Joyce has found many alternatives to virtuosity since embarking on exploring disability aesthetics as an artistic pursuit. For her, vulnerability is the new virtuosity. As she explains, “It’s not like you have to necessarily get rid of virtuosity all together, but you can reimagine it through other forms.”

She realizes, however, that music lags behind other artistic disciplines in embracing disability, and because of that she has been drawn to working with video artists and choreographers. One of the most fascinating projects she has been involved with is Breaking and Entering, a collaboration with the disabled interdisplinary artist Jerron Herman, which was awarded a 2019 New Music USA Project Grant. During the course of the piece, she and Herman swap roles—she dances and he sings:

My dance is definitely not super on point, and he’s not super in tune all the time, but the whole point for us is, through the disability aesthetic, we’re coming together. It’s not perfect. There are enough mistakes and we’re showing this, and also showing our vulnerability through that, a breaking and entering through, hopefully, to something else. That’s just as interesting as a very virtuosic piece.

[Ed. Note: This month, guitarist Jiji will perform Molly Joyce’s Plus and Minus at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ (February 1). The South Carolina Intercollegiate Band, conducted by Jack Stamp, will perform her All or Nothing in Columbia, S.C. (February 8). NakedEye Ensemble will perform Less is More at The Cell in New York City (February 16). Cellist Alistair Sung will perform Tunnelvision at Batavierhuis in Rotterdam, Netherlands (February 20), and the Harvard Glee Club, conducted by Andrew Clark, will premiere a new Molly Joyce work with text by Marco Grosse at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA (February 21). On March 31, Joyce will moderate a Disability and Creativity Panel at the Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington, D.C., and on May 15, New Amsterdam Records will release her first full-length album Breaking and Entering which features her voice, vintage toy organ, and electronic layering of both sources “in an act to reimagine disability within the human body.”]

Bonnie Jones: The Sounds of Not Belonging

Bonnie Jones

If you are attending an event in Baltimore that includes improvised electronic music, experimental theater, or multimedia installation, the chances are good that you will cross paths with sound artist and poet Bonnie Jones. She is arguably one of the most active and engaged members of the Baltimore art community, and rightly so—she gets things done, and has been doing just that for the past 20 years. Whether she is curating shows at The Red Room, helping organize the annual High Zero Festival, performing a set of her own improvised, noise-based music at the H&H Building, or teaching young girls to build contact mics from scratch through her organization Techne, she is actively bringing art to life, and at the same time feeding her own creative practice. Jones considers creation, performance, curation, and community service all as crucial facets of her artistic persona.

Jones’s music, which fuses electronic noise and text, emerges in large part from the sounds of her childhood, growing up on a dairy farm in New Jersey. She explains, “I grew up in a rural, very quiet, sound space that was punctuated by atypical sounds, which is to say machinery. Like a lot of machinery. The sounds that I remember as a kid were the buzzing of the low flying crop-dusting helicopters that came through. Airplanes overhead. Lawnmowers—big ones, not suburban ones, but huge tractor-like mowers. All kinds of other mechanical sorts of sounds…and the sounds of animals mixed with that.”

Those sounds made an impression, but Jones’s first artistic interest was in creative writing. She studied English Literature and poetry in college, and upon moving to Baltimore after graduation, she became immersed in Baltimore’s experimental poetry community. Her interest in the performance aspect of poetry led naturally to improvised music-making, and soon she was experimenting with combinations of language and sound in live performance contexts.

“When you are writing, or when you have a piece of text, you can talk about the past. And you can take a person to the past in language. It’s not quite as easy to do that musically. It’s hard to use sound to move people through time. Even though it’s a time-based medium, you can move people through the present time, but it’s not the same as moving a person through historical or subjective time.”

“It’s hard to use sound to move people through time. Even though it’s a time-based medium, you can move people through the present time, but it’s not the same as moving a person through historical or subjective time.”

It was while she was living and studying in South Korea on a Fulbright grant that Jones discovered the sonic materials that fit her artistic voice; electronic music pedals that could bend and twist sounds into nearly any form possible. She says, “When I went to Korea, and I was first introduced to these electronic music pedals, the moment that the sound came out of those, I was immediately like: This is the sound. These are the instruments. This is the sound space that I’ve been interested in intuitively but hadn’t really found the instrument for… These are the sounds that nobody wants.”

As it turns out, the sounds are indeed wanted, as she has increasingly been receiving grants and commissions to create new work. Her recent installation, 1,500 Red-Crowned Cranes, funded in part by a Rubys Artist Project Grant from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, incorporates text, sound, and objects to create, “a layered, intricate, installation work about bodies in migration, the consequences of borders and boundaries, and the imaginative potential of in-between spaces.” This work marks the beginning of an artistic shift for Jones, from improvised performance to the more fixed, less ephemeral experiences that installation work can provide. She says that her focus will still be on sound but will emphasize different ways to experience the work in real-time, such as moving sound through space, or the effect that objects have on the transmission of sound.

While Jones’ work takes many forms, the thread through it all hinges on creating visceral experiences that can lead to an increased understanding of the materials and subjects at hand. In this interview, she discusses the benefits and challenges of combining sound and text in improvisatory settings, her personal development as an artist, and about elevating the art scene in one’s community through participation and service.

Bryce Dessner: I’m the Same Musician Wherever I Go

A caucasian man with a denim shirt and sport coat

Bryce Dessner is the first person we have ever featured on NewMusicBox who glowingly talked about both Paul Simon and Helmut Lachenmann. Like many of the most inventive creative musical minds of the early 21st century, Dessner does not compartmentalize music into different genres. However, it is clear that he has learned different lessons from his immersion into different kinds of music-making and that these lessons have made him a stronger musician, whether he is writing songs and playing lead guitar in the indie rock band The National, co-scoring the soundtrack for the motion picture The Revenant, or composing a double piano concerto for the Labeque sisters.

“I find scores to be a very advanced form of technology,” he opined during our hour-long conversation with him at the Archives of the New York Philharmonic immediately after a rehearsal for his composition Wires (for which he joined the orchestra on electric guitar for three consecutive nights in between their performances of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius). “With digital music, or sequence music, whether it be using Pro Tools or GarageBand or Ableton, or whatever, everything is based on patterns and loops,” he elaborated. “With a score, you see very clearly how to defy that. You can write across the bar and the sense of form is much more fluid and asymmetrical. In that way, in fact, I use score a lot in the band to create some of those details. We’ll write a song that’s basically doing the same thing for four minutes, but then I’ll look at it in a score and I’ll create patterns and motion in it that maybe would have been hard to see if I was just playing an Ableton loop or something.”

But scores can also impose limitations, as he then acknowledged. “Right now I’m in a season of needing to liberate myself from … that kind of isolation of looking at music and manuscript, and to be closer to instruments and to this idea of sound and the physical relationship of when I’m hearing notes played, I’m also feeling the bodies playing them. This physicality of music obviously translates the most when I’m on stage with my instrument. … So the balance of those things, maybe to capture that kind of lightning or that physical energy and then put it into a composition, has been something that’s really evaded me but has also excited me at times.”

Bryce Dessner has never been content to rest on his laurels. He’s always eager to explore something different. When he was asked by Sō Percussion to create a companion piece for David Lang’s The So-Called Laws of Nature, he wound up creating a new instrument for the members of that quartet to perform his visceral Music for Wood and Strings. Similarly, The National’s song “Lemonworld,” from their breakthrough album High Violet, was a by-product of Dessner messing around in the studio and tuning his guitar “all the way down until the strings were almost flub.” While he was composing Wires, the piece he performed with the New York Phil, he literally wrote himself “emails every day with large caps saying, ‘NOT ALLOWED TO DO THIS’” in order to try to “break old habits.”

“Part of why I’m drawn to doing this is because I’m still learning,” he explained. “I’m trying to be humble about my art and to be open to trying new things and also to say, ‘I don’t think I know.’ I’m dialing in deeper to what my true voice is and not being scared to try things.”

Dessner’s fearlessness about taking risks coupled with his openness to and fluency in so many different kinds of music have made him an ideal ambassador, not just between musicians from different backgrounds, but also with audiences. This has made him an ideal music curator, a role he has had at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival in 2010, at the Cincinnati’s MusicNOW Festival, which he founded, since its inception in 2006, and most recently at a NY Phil Nightcap concert last month. Ultimately, the experiences that Bryce Dessner has acquired and now shares as a musician are valuable life lessons that can be applied to all human interactions.

“I’m happy to be a kind of diplomat if people need me to be,” he said. “I find when you come into a room with judgment towards someone who is different from you …, you automatically cancel out all kinds of exciting possibilities that can happen.”

Myra Melford: Freedom and Form

A woman in front of a dark mural

Like so many of today’s most exciting music creators, Myra Melford is not easy to categorize, although she is “happy” being described as a jazz musician, and that is how most of her music has been characterized and marketed for decades.

“Jazz is an inclusive music,” she exclaimed when she visited us at the New Music USA office in September. In recent years, however, she has also been creating compositions for so-called contemporary classical ensembles such as the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players.

“I understand that a lot of what I do works in the jazz context,” Melford elaborated. “Not all of it, but I identify as a composer-performer-improviser, which includes jazz, but isn’t limited to jazz in terms of improvisational music. And the longer I’ve been teaching in the composition program at the University of California at Berkeley, the more I feel comfortable in the new music community.”

She is less comfortable when she is labeled “avant-garde,” despite the cutting edge nature of so much of her work since the term has become saddled with tons of preconceptions that limit the music. As she explained, “When I get together with my students early on in the semester, it’s interesting to me that they conflate free jazz and avant-garde and that playing free jazz today will sound like it did 50 or 60 years ago. That’s what I think the problem is. Avant-garde to me has always meant someone in the advance of where the music is going, so it seems to me that there’s a problem if we don’t agree on what the term means.”

Melford is equally comfortable performing an Otis Spann blues tune with Marty Ehrlich, jamming in a completely free-improvisatory trio with Zeena Parkins and Miya Masaoka, or exploring more predetermined structures in the compositions she creates for her own ensembles, though most of the time these are also left somewhat open for there to be room for improvisation and individual interpretation.

“I don’t have a formal idea about what’s going to happen in any given order,” she admits. “It’s more like: I like this bit of material and that bit of material and that bit of material; let’s see, do they naturally flow together if I switch them around? Then usually I’ll have a pretty worked out draft of that material to take to a rehearsal and then I may make changes after the rehearsal. … If I have a very strong idea of what I want, then of course, I’ll put that forward, but if I’m still questioning how to do this or what would be an interesting way to approach this, I love getting input from the people I’m working with … I think what really makes it work is that the vocabularies of the people who play my music are so vast and can reference so many different things and are the kind of people who are adventurous and would get bored playing the same way all the time.”

Call it an “organic approach to composition,” which is how her one-time teacher Henry Threadgill described his process during their studies. Melford’s approach curiously also comes, albeit somewhat intuitively, from growing up in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

“I had been studying the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright since I was a high school student,” she remembered. “He had also referred to his own process of developing a building or an architectural project as organic, wanting the building to look as if it had grown out of the environment, blurring the distinctions between what was outside the building and what was inside the building. For instance, having paving stones inside the building that extended outside the building. Or the way he used windows and an open floor plan where one room flows into the next. These kinds of things really dovetailed with what Henry was talking about. You start with a cell and you create these permutations. Instead of forcing a form on it, or predetermining the form, you let the form grow naturally out of how the musical materials expand. So, for sure, that also contributed to this aesthetic that I was going to blur the boundaries between what was improvised and what was composed and would be looking for ways of creating form that allowed for a lot of freedom.”

Frank. J. Oteri in conversation with Myra Melford
September 13, 2019—1:00 p.m. at New Music USA
Video recording by Molly Sheridan
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner