Category: SoundLives

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė: Unexplainable Places

SoundLives Episode 24: Žibuoklė Martinaitytė. (NewMusicBox presented by New Music USA)

Growing up in Soviet-era Lithuania, where people were often afraid to express their real feelings, Žibuoklė Martinaitytė discovered early on that music was safer than language and that it could enable her to express her innermost feelings without self censoring. It ultimately led her on the path to becoming a composer whose music is performed all over the world.  Although Žibuoklė now divides her time between a democratic Lithuania and the United States, her formative experiences have led her to explore a sonic vocabulary, which though frequently inspired by nature and always deeply emotive, is completely abstract and open to multiple interpretations.

“Music is enough; not only enough, it’s more than enough,”  she explained to me during a Zoom conversation last month. “It surpasses words; it surpasses the meaning of words because it can go to unknown places and unexplainable places. The beauty of music is that if you are telling some story, some inner story that you don’t want to reveal the details of, you could still tell the story and the listener would relate to that story. … [T]hey create their own story in their minds because nobody’s telling them what to think. But they have the emotional components that come up, like physiological and psychological reactions to the sounds that they hear.”

This approach to narrative is an ideal modus operandi when creating an orchestral composition or a piece of chamber music, and Žibuoklė has made significant contributions to both of these idioms which have resonated with audiences both in the concert hall and on recordings. Horizons, a 2013 symphonic tour-de-force, has been performed in multiple cities and has been recorded twice. Starkland’s recording of her enhanced piano trio In Search of Lost Beauty was described by Richard Whitehouse in Gramophone magazine as “one of the most significant releases thus far” on that label, praising her music’s “potency.” Last season, soon after the Finnish label Ondine released the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra’s recording of her haunting 2019 Saudade, a work inspired by the death of her father as well as her immigration to the USA, the work received a performance by the New York Philharmonic causing Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times to describe her orchestral writing as “intriguingly agitated.” Bang on a Can’s record label Cantaloupe Music recently released her 2020-21 Hadal Zone, an immersive sonic experience for a quintet of low-ranged instruments and electronics evoking the bottom of the ocean. But how does this play out when composing vocal music?

In our talk, Žibuoklė described her reticence to use words when she first received a commission to write a work for the choir Jauna Muzika in 2010 from the annual Gaida Festival, the most prominent new music festival in Lithuania. After feeling more drawn to the vowels of words in certain texts than the actual words, she ultimately decided to eschew text and set only vowels.

“When I made that choice of not using language, I felt, once again, very liberated,” she admitted, which makes perfect sense considering her life’s experiences. “Music was the way to have that freedom and music was the way to express myself in an absolutely free way and nobody could stop me from that. … That sense of freedom, I think, stayed with me to this day. That’s why music is so precious to me. And that’s why I don’t want to use narratives and text because I feel they would put me into some kind of perceptional prison.”

That first choral work, The Blue of Distance, which was subsequently performed and recorded by the San Francisco-based choir Volti, has led to two others thus far: Chant des Voyelles, which was commissioned by Volti in 2018, and Aletheia, a 2022 work created in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which was premiered by the Latvian Radio Choir during last year’s edition of the Baltic Music Days. All of these pieces were without words although that does not prevent her from conveying a visceral narrative, as she acknowledged in describing Aletheia. “I was thinking … about voice being the first and the very last instrument that we might have in our lives and all those people in the war, how they still have their voices with them and they could express themselves in this rage or scream, even as they are being killed.”

However, Žibuoklė confessed that the piece she is working on right now, a half-hour song cycle for female voice and orchestra, will actually have words. “Yes, I know, it’s quite unusual for me, but I must say I’m enjoying working with it, although I have mixed feelings about how I feel about text. But I will insert some vowel singing without text because I can’t go without it. But it’s this text by this very, very old female poet from more than 4,000 years ago called Enheduanna. … It’s fascinating how the poetry that was composed such a long time ago still contains the same subject matters that are very much today’s topics, like war and migration of people and environmental concerns and catastrophes and gender bending identities. It’s just incredible how all the issues remain the same over and over.”

inti figgis-vizueta: the ability to grow

Banner for SoundLives episode 23 featuring inti figgis-vizueta

Composer inti figgis-vizueta creates music that carefully balances experimentation and practicality. She likens her compositions to plants which have the ability to grow and change when different people perform them.

“We’re able to continue to revisit them and see how they’ve changed,” she explained when we met over Zoom in mid-June. “I’ll hear people come back and play something that I haven’t heard in years. I thought I had a stable sense of that piece in my mind and suddenly someone just blows me away with a completely different place that they go with it. And to me, that has to feel really exciting because the idea that like, we’re just writing something to exist in one form and then it just, you know, like time passes, just stops moving–it’s very strange.”

inti’s openness to collaboration and belief in interpretative agency has made her music particularly attractive to soloists and ensembles ranging from Andrew Yee and Conrad Tao to Roomful of Teeth, Ensemble Dal Niente, and even the Kronos Quartet who asked her to compose a piece for their 50 for the Future Project.

“I remember hearing about this project and being like, ‘God, I wish I could do that, but I’m never going to be in this thing,'” inti remembered. “It was kind of a short turnaround … I went through all of the other pieces that were up, because this project had been going on for five years and there was a gamut of pieces. There were ones that were so hard. Maybe a graduate string quartet could do it, with a lot of practice. To like very beautiful and simple and quite lyrical pieces with a 16th note pulse or something. … I ended up kind of going from this really complicated score to this very simple score of a single stave that everyone was reading from. … How it happens over time can be determined by the ensemble.”

Over the past few years, inti has gravitated a lot toward string quartets and percussion ensembles, two groups that might seem at oppositive ends of the sonic spectrum to some composers but not to her. “I do feel like there’s a certain level of a kind of shared musicality, a shared sense of tone and timbre and attack and all of these things that contribute to a group mentality of how to kind of play with and affect texture in like all of their kind of individual ways.”

But she is also interested in vocal music and has begun exploring it again after a hiatus of several years where she was mostly focused on instrumental music.

“I felt like instrumentalists were down to clown a little bit, where I just didn’t always feel that with vocal ensembles,” she acknowledged. “Then this year and last year has been this kind of a big resurgence of that in my music and in some ways, it’s teaching me things all over again, which has been really, really fun. … I get to kind of luxuriate a little bit in the quality of two people singing together, actually using all of the complexities of a word to push forward meaning. But to me it’s not narrative meaning, and that’s what I was afraid of, that when I had to engage language, I had to be tied to a narrative, instead of being tied to the complexities of thinking about something like love, or lots of other things.”

Ultimately, whatever the medium, inti is interested in constructing open structures that take performers and listeners to new places.

“For the most part my pieces are workshops in some ways,” she said. “It’s almost like a loose suit and then we fit it over the rehearsal.”

Brandee Younger: A Hip-Hop Baby Transforms the Harp

Brandee Younger sitting next to a harp with the branded text for episode 22 of the NewMusicBox SoundLives podast from New Music USA

Brandee Younger has carved out a very unlikely music career for herself. A classically-trained harpist but also a self-confessed “hip-hop baby” who loves popular music, Younger deeply immersed herself in jazz as an undergrad at the Hartt School and by the time she entered grad school at NYU was already established in that scene. Then shortly after forming her own quartet over a decade ago, Younger soon became a go-to collaborator not only for jazz artists such as Ravi Coltrane and Marcus Strickland, but also for creative artists across a very wide array of genres, including multiple Grammy winners rapper Common, singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill, and R&B producer Salaam Remi.

“I wanted my instrument to fit into my personality; I didn’t want it to be limited,” Younger explained during our recent conversation. “I knew I didn’t want an orchestral career, but even as a kid I wanted to play other styles of music … Over time I finally became comfortable with blending those worlds together, but it took a long time to confidently try and put them together.”

How Younger has transformed the harp, which is typically associated with salons or angels, into such a malleable and yet still distinctive instrument seems without precedent. But she had two very significant role models in Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby. Her love for Alice Coltrane, whose cascading harp sonorities matched the intensity of the free jazz improvisers with whom she performed, began in high school when her father gave her a Priceless Jazz compilation of her recordings. She was immediately captivated by “Blue Nile” and soon thereafter asked every jazz musician she encountered if they knew her. Brandee never actually met Alice Coltrane but she was invited to play at her memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 2007. Dorothy Ashby, whom Brandee also never met (she was only two years old when Ashby died), has had an even more significant influence on her career trajectory. Ashby also led her own ensembles starting in her 20s and quickly leaped from jazz to a much wider stylistic palette that embraced a spectrum of pop and world music traditions. She even made a guest appearance on Stevie Wonder’s legendary Songs in the Key of Life and, as Brandee pointed out, has been heavily sampled in hip-hop, which is how she first became aware of her.

“The one huge HUGE thing for me in Dorothy Ashby’s music, you listen to what she was recording, she was doing music of the time,” said Younger. “She was playing whatever she wanted. She was not jazz-specific. She was playing traditional Jewish melodies. She was playing the pop tune that came out. She was playing the soundtrack of the most popular movie that came out. And to think back as a kid and what I wanted to do, I wanted to play the pop music that I heard on the radio. I wanted to play these familiar tunes for my friends and family.”

So it makes sense that Brandee Younger would want to record an album acknowledging Dorothy Ashby. But that album, Brand New Life, which was just released in April, is a far-cry from an ossified compendium of covers.

“It was really important for me to make it 2023,” Younger explained. “It wasn’t to be a tribute album, you know, it was to really celebrate her legacy but like moving along. … It was really important for me to collaborate with folks that shared a special kinship with her. And the first person to pop up was of course Pete Rock who was the first person I know of to sample her.”

Brand New Life also features a memorable contribution from Meshell Ndegeocello, who is featured on a reggae-infused version of “Dust,” an Ashby original which was originally released on her 1970 LP The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby. And Mumu Fresh, who is mostly known as a rapper, adds extremely soulful vocals to Younger’s original “Brand New Life,” the title track.

Brandee is currently on tour, her first time traveling to different cities to perform since the pandemic shut down everything three years ago. It’s been a long wait, but she won’t only be playing material from Brand New Life. She’ll also be performing her extraordinary original Unrest, a turbulent composition created during lockdown.

“We’ll be doing new music and some of the stuff from the last album,” she explained. “I also will throw in an Ashby or Coltrane tune because that’s my thing, what I’ve been doing forever. And the tour is mostly going to be trio–Rashaan Carter on bass, Alan Menard on drums. So yeah, harp trio baby.”

Kevin Puts: Keeping Secrets

Banner for Episode 20 of SoundLives showing Kevin Puts during a rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera

Composer Kevin Puts takes pride in keeping secrets, both by being understated in his interactions with people and by never initially giving away all the goods in his music, preferring, as he explained to me last month when we chatted for a about an hour over Zoom, “to keep something in reserve so that there’s a payoff for the attentive listener.” Nevertheless, during the course of our conversation he revealed some fascinating secrets about many of his compositions including his latest opera The Hours (which received its world premiere on November 22 at the Metropolitan Opera), his first opera Silent Night (for which he received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music), his Symphony No. 3 (which was inspired by Björk), and Contact (his triple concerto for Time for Three which just won the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition).

Puts’s opera The Hours received an extraordinary lavish production that most composers can only dream of. It featured a huge cast headlined by three top operatic stars–Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato, and Kelli O’Hara–plus a gargantuan chorus which frequently takes center stage. When the production was announced it seemed to come out of nowhere, but it was in the works for five years. It grew directly out of Puts’s previous collaboration with Fleming, Letters From Georgia, a five moment song cycle based on letters that the painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. After Fleming announced she was no longer focusing on standard operatic repertoire and wanted to devote her energies to singing new roles, Puts casually asked her if she’d be amenable to singing in an opera if he wrote one for her. Within weeks she suggested an opera based on The Hours, a complex narrative that interweaves stories of women in three different time periods which had been a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as well as a successful Hollywood film. Puts, who had read the book and saw the movie and loved them both, said that he instantly “could imagine the kinds of things that you could do on the operatic stage that are not possible in a book or in a film.” Soon thereafter she mentioned the idea to Peter Gelb who was immediately excited about a work that could star three major box office draws. Curiously, these three women don’t actually sing together until the very end of the opera. Even though the entire opera is building toward that moment, Puts admitted that he didn’t compose that material until very late in the game. As he explained, “What I used to do is I would compose where I’m going before I got there, and actually that’s something I don’t do anymore. … Getting there was something I had to earn as a composer.”

Gelb was amenable to Fleming’s suggestion of commissioning Kevin Puts after listening to a recording of Puts’s first opera Silent Night, a work which also juxtaposing three different story lines involving groups of soldiers from Scotland, France, and Germany who come to a brief truce in 1914 during First World War. Based on the screenplay for the multilingual film Joyeux Noël which in turn was based on real life events, it was an ideal opportunity for Puts to demonstrate his skills in setting words in multiple languages and, since one of the German soldiers is an operatic tenor, it also gave Puts an opportunity to show off his ability to compose music that evokes the lush sound world of late Romantic operas.

The other two operas that Puts has composed thus far are based on The Manchurian Candidate, a fascinating political thriller written in 1959 that has been adapted twice for the screen and seems extremely relevant to our current zeitgeist, and Elizabeth Cree based on a Victorian-themed whodunit by Peter Ackroyd, which also allowed Puts to create music that enhances the impact of surprise through introducing new sonic elements. While Puts’s compositional approach is well suited to the operatic stage, it is also how he constructs his extremely effective concertos and symphonies which for him can also be narrative despite being abstract instrumental works. In fact, his first two symphonies were both cast in a single movement so that they would have the same impact as a motion picture which is a continuous experience from start to finish.

“As has been noted many times, there’s a cinematic quality to my music,” Puts acknowledged. “In fact, I love film, and not just film music, but I love film itself. I think with those single-movement pieces, I thought, ‘I want to make an unbroken narrative arc like a film.’ Why should we have to stop?”

But Puts changed his approach with his Third Symphony, a three movement work that was inspired by hearing Björk’s 2001 album Vespertine although it does not use any of her music and is completely original. He got the idea for the piece while he was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome and an art historian also in residence there was watching a music video of Björk on television.

“I’m not up-to-date on a lot of things that are going on, like pop music,” he admitted. “But this is gorgeous! So beautiful timbrally, gorgeous string textures and choral textures. And I really liked the shapes of her voice, the melodic quality of her singing in relation to the oddness and the transparency and the fragility of her singing, and sometimes power as well in relation to this sonic world around her. So I want to do something with it. I want to react to this in my own way. I was interested in making this kind of swirling sound world circling around the melodic ideas of the piece and to have the melodic ideas just in some sense be an imitation of her vocal style, and that’s really all it is. I wasn’t really interested in using melodies. … More just reacting to the sound world of that album.”

Puts just received the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for Contact, a triple concerto he wrote for Time for Three, a string trio that blurs the lines between classical music, Americana, and pop. “Most of the writing of the concerto for Time for Three was done before we went into isolation,” he recalled. “Then we just continued to work on it. We edited, we revised, we tried things out, we added and subtracted and I reorchestrated quite a bit.”

But despite being composed for a group whose usual fare is rooted in the here and now, Puts took the group on a very different musical journey even though it could not been conceived in any other time but in our own.

As he explained, “You probably know this quote from Rachmaninoff. He said, ‘I tried to embrace the music of my time and I feel like a ghost walking among the living.’ I just feel like I sort of do what I do. The sort of things I do as a musician and a composer are so deeply ingrained. They’re such a huge part of who I am. They’re the things that really excite me, and often, the very, very simple things, as you can hear in the music … It’s just truly what I find most exciting about the music I love, these simple, beautiful moments that probably end up being almost nothing on the page, but what they do to me emotionally is fantastic.”

Not worrying about whether your music fits in with the current moment and being true to who you are is also the advice he gives other composers, both as a composition teacher at the Peabody Institute and as the director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute.

“I just feel like what’s going on right now in this moment, of course you should be open to whatever’s going on, the zeitgeist, but I would just look at all of music that you’ve heard, that meant something to you from the very beginning, and feel like it’s okay to incorporate all of that and to sort of build a voice from all of it and have that be the part of you that remains inviolate to all these pressures that exist right now in the world, all the transparency that exists through social media, that feels like there’s no private space now. I would make your music your private space and the place you can do the things you believe fervently in and that you’re most emotionally connected to. That’s certainly been my approach to things over the how many years I’ve been doing this.”

Tania León: The Rhythm of Life

On Sunday (December 4), Tania León was welcomed at The White House by President Joe Biden along with George Clooney, Gladys Knight, Amy Grant, and the four members of the Irish rock band U2 before all of them were feted at the 45th Kennedy Center Honors. And this weekend (December 9-11), the Detroit Symphony will perform her latest orchestral composition Pasajes, a work co-commissioned by five different orchestras led by the Arkansas Symphony (which premiered the work on April 9) through New Music USA’s Amplifying Voices program which fosters collaboration and collective action between US orchestras and composers toward racial and gender equity in classical music.

León has received extensive mainstream media coverage leading up to ceremony at the Kennedy Center, perhaps even more than when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music last year for her orchestral composition Stride which received its world premiere performance by the New York Philharmonic just before the pandemic reached New York City. Particularly poignant and revelatory was Michael Andor Brodeur’s boldly-titled profile in The Washington Post, “Tania León changed the sound of being American.” But those of us in the new music community have been impacted, inspired and transformed by León as a musical creator–as well as an interpreter, educator, and organizer–for decades.

In fact, Tania León holds a very special place here at New Music USA in addition to her being one of the 11 composers involved in Amplifying Voices. Back in August 1999, just three months after NewMusicBox went online, my lengthy talk with her was the very first one-on-one NewMusicBox conversation with an individual composer, a tradition we continue to this day with our SoundLives podcasts. In all those years we have never spoken with anyone twice–until now. Given all the things that León has accomplished in the last 23 years, besides those aforementioned accolades and performances, we had plenty to talk about.

Of course, it was inevitable that we would talk about how the world has changed since 1999. There were so many things we could not have possibly anticipated, including the two most obvious ones: the events of September 11, 2001 and the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. And yet there were so many musical topics we talked about back then that have remained timely to this day–the importance of collaboration, awareness of and appreciation for all musical traditions, and the need for greater gender and racial inclusivity in our music-making and programming while at the same time being mindful of how labeling limits people.

“I don’t like to be categorized because my identity’s fluid,” she explained. “The one that I was last week is not the one that is coming to you right now. Every experience in my life molds me in ways that I never know where it’s going.”

One of the ways that León’s music has been categorized is that it displays “rhythmic inventiveness,” a by-product of her growing in Cuba.

“I don’t invent anything; that’s what I hear,” she exclaimed. “It might have to do with the fact that I grew up in a society or a culture that is very rhythmical. … But not everything is rhythmical; I write pieces that might be very slow, very lyrical, but my interpretation of life had to do in a way with the rhythm of life. Even when something is very slow, there’s a current which is behind, you know. It’s like, I’m talking to you right now, but the beating of my heart is very different than the rhythm of my conversation. … Rhythm is not what we translate as digga-da, digga-da. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. It’s the rhythm of life. The rhythm of watching my plants when a leaf comes out and then, by next week, the leaf is bigger. There was a rhythm in that growth that I didn’t capture, but it would be interesting for me just to sit down and stare at the leaf for a week to see if I understand what is the process or what is the pace of the leaf growing up.”


Elena Ruehr: Turning Emotion Into Sound


Ever since I heard the Cypress Quartet’s first recording of three string quartets by Elena Ruehr over a decade ago, I was entranced by her music. And after hearing the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s 2014 recording of works of hers inspired by paintings of Georgia O’Keefe and David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, I made a mental note that I needed to talk with her for NewMusicBox one day. This fall turned out to be an ideal time for us to finally connect. Her opera Cosmic Cowboy, created in collaboration with librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs, just had a successful three-performance run at Emerson College, and Guerrilla Opera will give the first performance of another Ruehr opera, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, created with librettist Royce Vavrek, at MIT in February. Plus her Ninth String Quartet is receiving its world premiere the first weekend of November.

It’s a remarkable amount of activity after the last two and a half years of pandemic-related cancellations. But Ruehr was nevertheless extremely active during that period, composing over 30 new pieces, some of which were even performed during that time, either in virtual concerts or masked up in controlled environments. Ruehr’s prolific output is a by-product of her maintaining a consistent composing schedule (five hours every day from Noon to 5:00pm) as well as her never-ending inspiration from the visual arts and her constant reading (four books a week), plus her desire to communicate with listeners.

“Beauty is really important, but also accessibility,” she opined during a Zoom chat we had in late September. “I’m sure that your average non-classical musician isn’t gonna necessarily like what I do, but I think most people who like classical music, even standard classical music, will find that the music that I write is something that they can approach. And that matters to me. That’s important to me.”

All the other details that go into creating a piece–whether its her fascination with combinatorial diatonic pitch sets (an influence from serial music that sounds nothing like serialism) or how she sonically interprets O’Keefe paintings and novels like Cloud Atlas and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto–are ultimately much less important for her than the emotional impact she hopes her music will have on listeners.

“I write it not caring whether you know the references, because it’s the emotional transference of one thing to another, and that’s the thing that I hope that the people who are listening get,” she explained. “If they have the references, it enriches it. But, if they don’t, the emotional thing is hopefully contained in it. … I try to make a sound out of the emotion that I’m feeling. And when I say ah yes, I captured it, then I write it down, and then I work on it. So it’s all about turning emotion into sound. As far as I’m concerned, that’s my job; that’s what I do.”

Her love for O’Keefe makes a lot of sense. (“She was doing representational art at a time when abstract art was sort of the thing. … Her story gave me courage to do what I wanted to do, which I think is more representational and less abstract, or more narrative and about expressing emotion.”)  But sometimes the things that have inspired her are quirkier. She actually attributes her attachment to writing for string quartet as well as her music’s polystylistic inclinations to hearing the Beethoven and Bartók quartets when she was a little girl and mixing them all up, erroneously thinking that they were all composed by someone named Bella Bartók, a female composer!

From that formative mash-up, she went on to immerse herself in Medieval and Renaissance music, minimalism, world music, and even pop. Now it’s all part of her compositional language.

“Anything that I like, I will just incorporate or steal, or whatever you want to call it,” she said with a grin.

We had a very pleasurable hour chatting about all these things and I felt it could have gone on much longer. But I made sure we ended before Noon so she could embark on another composition.

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.)


Raven Chacon: Fluidity of Sound

Banner for the Raven Chacon episode of SoundLives featuring a photo of Raven writing music on a piece of score paper.

When Raven Chacon was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in April for his composition Voiceless Mass, quite a lot of attention was given to the fact that he was the first Native American ever to receive this accolade. He is also perhaps the most experimental composer to get the nod, and that is true even considering that previous honorees include Henry Brant and Ornette Coleman. But while his idiosyncratic graphic scores are stunningly original in their conception and have been recognized as works of visual art in their own right (several are in this year’s Whitney Biennial), they have a larger social purpose.

“I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education,” explained Chacon when we spoke over Zoom earlier this month. “I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.”

The ideas that generate Chacon’s often highly experimental sound results are charged stories with deep implications about ecological concerns or social justice, such as Tremble Staves, an immersive work about the environment created for the San Francisco-based duo The Living Earth Show, or American Ledger No. 2, a visceral aural as well as visual response to this nation’s shameful history of enforced repatriations which received its world premiere in the parking lot of the Oklahoma Eagle in the Greenwood District of Tulsa.

“It’s thinking about this space that is existing in a city where there’s folks who don’t have privileges and resources,” Chacon said of the latter work. “Also talking about the policy of forcing native peoples from other tribes into Oklahoma. Once these minoritized communities become successful, such as the black community of Tulsa in the early 20th century, they were then driven out. Were forced out. And so sonically, I was interested in seeing what this system does. Does it create chaos? Does it create organization? Does it create a steady beat? Does it create voice? What happens inside of this?”

To hear Chacon speak of sonic experimentation this way makes his often intentionally inaccessible-sounding music extremely accessible. His occasionally jarring sonorities are always a means to an end. It isn’t always something that even he himself finds pleasant to listen to as he acknowledged when talking about his wind band composition American Ledger No. 1:

I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean. And so in the case of American Ledger 1, the chopping of wood signifies the building of ships. It signifies the building of the colonies that happened in the place after the ships arrived. And it has the potential to talk about then cutting down those buildings–chopping them down with an axe, lighting them on fire. A matchstick is another instrument I use in American Ledger 2 and in Tremble Staves. And I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

One of the most extreme examples of this is his early composition Report in which an ensemble of eight people fire shotguns according to a precisely notated musical score. His feelings about that work now and around whether to let future performances of it occur in an era when mass shootings occur somewhere in the United States every week, are understandably extremely complicated.

Because societal awareness is so central to Raven Chacon’s aesthetics as an artist, he has proven to be a natural collaborator, often placing himself in situations where few composers would feel comfortable. For the opera Sweet Land, which was produced by The Industry just before the pandemic lockdown began in 2020, he immersed himself in a total collaboration with another composer, Du Yun, both contributing their own music as well as harmonizing, orchestrating, and further developing ideas of each other. His collaborative sensibilities were on display most recently in the score he composed for Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli’s documentary film, Lakota Nation vs. United States, which just received its premiere screening at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

“I appreciated not being in the foreground for anything,” Chacon said. “I appreciated being able to reach into archives of things that I have that didn’t fit my normal music. You know, like Baroque fugue or something, why couldn’t that end up in the documentary about the Lakota nation, you know? Because we’re contrasting different times of American history. And sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict. What we’re talking about throughout this documentary is conflict, encroachment. … That was how I approached it because again the last thing I wanted to do was bring new age, reverbed wooden flutes to this score. That’s what’s expected. And so the producers and directors had known my music, and that’s what they wanted. They wanted noise. They wanted the things that one does not associate with native people. Because to do so, might place them in the past. And we’re talking about an ongoing disrespect of Lakota treaties and people that something had to bring it at least into now and into what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Raven Chacon in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded Wednesday, June 8, 2022 at 10:30 A.M. over Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Anthony Davis: Any Means Necessary

A revival of X, a three-act opera inspired by the life of the Black Muslim minister and social activist Malcolm X, opened at the Detroit Opera House this past weekend (and has additional performances through May 22). While there have been a few performances here and there since its 1986 premiere at New York City Opera, the new Detroit production is the most high profile one and it will continue on to Opera Omaha, Seattle Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. Plus there will be another production in June by Odyssey Opera/BMOP in Boston which will culminate in a new recording of the opera scheduled to be released in September. It’s a long overdue recognition for the first opera composed by Anthony Davis, who was finally recognized with a Pulitzer Prize last year for his eighth opera, The Central Park Five, another politically charged work based on recent history (which returns to the stage at Long Beach Opera in June and another production of which, presented by Portland Opera, can be streamed from now until May 20).

Back in 1986, a dismissive New York Times review of X by the notoriously contemporary music-loathing critic Donal Henahan, claimed that “words and ideology, not vocalism,” were “the center of attention in this work” and that the opera “falls into the category of message theater, and by definition its message will not appeal to all who hear it.” While the review undoubtedly dissuaded some impresarios back then, this important work, which was staged a year before Nixon in China, arguably spawned a whole subgenre of contemporary operas based on current or relatively recent events which have sometimes been described as “CNN operas,” although Davis considers that term dismissive and “pejorative. … We’re just borrowing; it’s about the headlines.” Especially because for him this story has all the trappings of a classic opera and its protagonist is “a tragic hero.”

When I spoke with Davis over Zoom last month he was in the middle of rehearsals in Detroit, so X was very much at the forefront of his thoughts. But what I didn’t realize is that this new production might have never taken place had Davis not spent a good deal of the pandemic re-engraving performance materials, which is something he worked on just to make good use of the time.

“All stuff was cancelled… So, I thought, what am I gonna do?” Davis explained. “X was a score I’d done by hand before computers. And then Schirmer had done parts and it was done in Score. So I thought, I’d like to make the piece so that it could be done as, you know, excerpts. … I worked like four or five hours on it during COVID. I had to have something to do. I just about finished the excerpts, which is little more than half of the opera, about an hour and a half of music, and then Yuval [Sharon, Artistic Director of the Detroit Opera] called me, and said he wanted to do the whole thing. So I said, great. Well, I’ve done half, I might as well do the whole thing. … And the revised version of the opera emerged from that. It’s like looking at a mirror and seeing, you know, the Dorian Gray thing or something, see your 30-year-old self staring back at you. But I had to protect that 30-year-old self from my 70-year-old instincts to re-write; I couldn’t change everything. I have to be faithful to what I was thinking then, what my musical ideas were at that point.”

Since X was Davis’s first opera, as he pointed out, “There’s always a fire when you do something for the first time.” But before X, Davis had already established a career as a highly successful contemporary jazz composer, pianist, and leader of the progressive ensemble Episteme. He had also made significant in-roads into the world of so-called contemporary classical music, an early pinnacle of which is his idiosyncratic piano concerto Wayang V, a work informed by his fascination with traditional Indonesian gamelan music. It’s a piece that has been recorded twice, both times with Davis as the piano soloist performing with two different orchestras–the Kansas City Symphony led by William McGlaughlin and, more recently, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose (who is also conducting that new recording of X). Before all of that, Davis was actually an aspiring classical pianist.

“I was playing a lot of Schumann then, so I was playing that Fantasiestücke stuff,” he remembered. “I began to resent the fact that I was playing all white composers. And that really upset me…. I actually did a couple concerts in Italy where I played a half program of classical piano, and then a half program of doing Monk tunes. And then I started doing my own compositions. That’s when I first started writing pieces that I could improvise around.”

The fact that many different musical traditions have shaped Anthony Davis’s aesthetic is something he views not as “eclectism” (another bad word in his estimation), but rather as “a resolution of identity, of discovering who you are as a composer and as a person. And how that is reflected in the music you make. Part of it is your musical education, what you’re exposed to, and to me, all that stuff also recalls emotional states, experiences in terms of what the music implies.”

So, in a way, it’s inevitable that Davis has devoted so much of his compositional energies to opera, and in particular to using the operatic medium to tell stories that either deal with significant historic events or which focus on important social concerns. Aside from X and The Central Park Five, Davis’s eight operas also include: Amistad, about a rebellion on a slave ship in the 19th century; the Patty Hearst-inspired Tania; and Lear on the 2nd Floor, which re-imagines the famous Shakespeare play as the story of a formerly highly-respected woman who is now living in an assisted care facility because she is suffering from dementia.

Curiously, what first triggered Davis’s interest in opera was reading Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy during his student years. “I thought that what Nietzsche was writing about in terms of the Apollonian and Dionysian, and the kind of binary that he created, was more applicable to American music than it was to German. Because we’re African and we’re European. The combination of the musical foundation in these two great cultures, I thought opera could have that. An American opera ideally would be that kind of expression.” But now he sees creating these operas as a mission. “What we face now is so much like the early-‘30s in Germany: the present danger that we could actually lose democracy. We could lose what we have. So it has made it more urgent for me, as an artist, to present things to challenge those forces. I’ve always felt strongly as an artist, but even more now.”

Sarah Hennies: Getting at the Heart of a Sound

Sarah Hennies striking tubular bells

Sarah Hennies was a name that was barely on my radar before the pandemic, but after spending over six months mostly in lockdown I listened to a CD released on New World Records, a label that pretty much always piques my interest, featuring two works of hers, both of which were a little over a half hour in duration. One is a trio for piano, double-bass, and percussion with the peculiar name Spectral Malsconcities which was performed by new music stalwarts Bearthoven. The other is a duo for just piano and percussion called Unsettle performed by the Bent Duo, an ensemble which was also relatively unfamiliar to me. The music seemed to evoke everything I was feeling about this extremely precarious and terrifying time we’ve all been living in, despite the fact that both pieces were composed and recorded before the word Covid became an unfortunate daily household utterance.

I was fascinated and intrigued. I had to hear more of her music and listened to everything I could find, from her early collaborative work as part of the Austin-based experimental rock band Weird Weeds to her multimedia documentary Contralto to extended duration solo and chamber music compositions for various instrumental combinations. Despite the extremely broad stylistic range of this material, it all shared a concern for extremely precise sonic gestures and involved a great deal of repetition, but not guided by any kind of structural process as far as I could discern. Again, very much in the same way days and months seemed to pass over the last two years. I had to speak to her and learn more.

The most significant music has the uncanny ability to tap into a zeitgeist sometimes well in advance of its time although, when I spoke to Hennies earlier this month, she said that she hadn’t associated her time bending compositional aesthetic with our current realities. She did, however, acknowledge the relationship. But everyone listening to this music might come away with a different personal reaction to it and that’s fine by her since how we perceive sound on a psychological level as it unfolds over time is key to the sonic experiences that Sarah Hennies creates, whether it involves hearing layers of counterpoint that are the result of the natural reverberation of a particular physical space or hearing ghost sonorities that aren’t actually there because of the way certain timbres combine.

“Everything for me is about the listening experience,” she said. “I don’t even use quote-unquote systems anymore. … Part of the reason that I like working with repetition so much is that you have this sense that the music is staying in one place, but it feels like it’s developing anyway. And so, it’s like the music is stopped in time, but to me, doing something over and over again, even though the music is not hypothetically changing, your thoughts are changing. Hearing something for one minute is experientially very, very different from hearing it for, let’s say, eight minutes. And so, the listener is changing even though the music is always changing on a micro-level, but essentially you’re hearing the same thing over and over again.”

Sarah Hennies’s scores are extremely economical; the score for the nearly 34-minute Unsettle is a mere two pages. And yet the sonorities feel extremely generous.

“I just think being economical and practical is interesting because you can get at the heart of a sound,” she explained. “I’m not writing melodies and harmonies. It’s like not that kind of music. So it’s about something else.”