Category: SoundLives

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

Victoria Shen NMBx SoundLives Banner

 

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

Victoria Shen's needle nails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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.”

  • As composers, it’s very hard to say what you want to say with instrumental music. You can make the title say what you want to say. You can write program notes all day about it. But ultimately, what does the music have an opportunity to actually convey?

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • In all honesty, I kind of accidentally found myself in that art side of things. I’ve always considered myself a composer first. It’s just that I found opportunities and maybe different attention from that world. And it did come about by way of scores. Some of the graphic notation that I was working with were things that people wanted to exhibit. And I kept telling them it’s just the document to make the music happen.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Every music you listen to, probably everything you’ve ever listened to, will end up in the music you make. ... If you live near a highway in a city, that might influence a kind of music to be made. If you live near a highway in a very rural place, that might end up as another kind of music. And so I think that second one is the kind of music that I end up making.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • often get asked okay, am I supposed to hear native music in here? You know, a particular tribe’s melodies or rhythms, and I say no. I don’t do that. I don’t have to do that actually, if that’s a connection that a listener makes because of all the tropes they’ve heard throughout popular culture, then that becomes their thing that I get to play with. But it’s not something I’m going to intentionally put into a music work.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • The interesting thing about ruins is unless you’re some kind of expert, an archeologist or something, you might not be able to tell how old the ruins are.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I’m not a person who tries to write difficult music to stump people. I’m not a new complexity type of person.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education. 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.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • 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.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • If anything is possible, then I should write a piece of music that is going to have limitations on myself. No pitch. No timbral changes. No volume. I can’t control the volume. And maybe no tuning, no harmony. Nothing. No time. Of course, I found you can’t escape time. But everything else I felt I could. What kind of instrument can I find that could eliminate all of these possibilities and choices? And so I was thinking, okay a snare drum. But no, you could play a snare drum very quietly. There’s still a lot you can do with a snare drum. And so I thought, okay guns. You know, being in New Mexico, it’s something we would actually go do on the weekends: go practice shooting. And it’s ten minutes to drive out to the desert and nobody cares what you do. I have relatives who hunt. Friends who hunt. It’s a way of life in rural places.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon
  • Sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict.

    Raven Chacon
    Raven Chacon

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.”

  • Where I grew up in State College, my brother and I were the only black people in the school. So I began to think about that. And I began to resent the fact that I was playing all white composers. And that really upset me.

    Anthony Davis
  • 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.

    Anthony Davis
  • I used to imagine playing with Blackwell and Ornette, I was thinking how I could be Charlie Haden in the left hand and Don Cherry in the right.

    Anthony Davis
  • Opera is so much about memory. You can always go back to things that are in the opera. You’re creating your own kind of world in it, but it also has the extra world of what it refers to in terms of the whole genre of opera, and also what other music you bring into opera.

    Anthony Davis
  • I had this image of Malcolm listening to John Coltrane’s quartet, or Sonny Rollins. I felt that the link to music was really evident.

    Anthony Davis
  • One of the advantages of working with black singers is that they have many experiences. They sing in church. Maybe they sang in the black church. They’d sing opera, but some of them of have sung jazz too. It’s not an alien artform. ... So you can find the hybrid musician.

    Anthony Davis
  • Sometimes they call it eclectism, which I think is a bad word for it. ‘Cause that’s like thinking or picking pebbles on the beach or something, you know. It’s actually a resolution of identify, 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. I think what that can relate to is subtext in a dramatic sense, what is the subtext of what’s going on. And so the music always provides a subtext.

    Anthony Davis
  • It was kind of a pejorative the way it was used: CNN Operas. It was kind of dismissed as this trend. We’re just borrowing. It’s about the headlines, etcetera.

    Anthony Davis
  • Right now, it’s a really dangerous time in America. We can be on the edge of Fascism; that’s something I worry about every day. ... We could actually lose democracy. We could lose what we have. So it made 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.

    Anthony Davis
  • Someone asked me, how do you write music for Trump? I said well, first of all, he’s a tenor. Second of all, he repeats things a lot. Third thing is he never finishes a sentence. Why was that appealing to people? I mean, this launched his whole career as a politician. He exploited the racial divide for his own personal benefit as a political figure.

    Anthony Davis
  • There’s always a fire when you do something for the first time. There’s a flame that goes, it’s like you’re discovering all these things.

    Anthony Davis

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.”

  • Hearing something for one minute is experientially very, very different from hearing it for, let's say, eight minutes.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • If I find myself wanting to hear something or do something over and over again, and I can't totally explain why, then that to me is a very, very good reason to put that into music because then you can then externalize those thoughts or see it from a listener point of view.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I just think being economical and practical is interesting because you can get at the heart of a sound.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I'm not writing melodies and harmonies. It's like not that kind of music. So it's about something else.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • The easiest way to get a performer to do what I want without a bunch of extra nonsense is something that has played into how I write music really, really profoundly

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • Everything for me is about the listening experience.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • There's no guarantee that a player is gonna play a mathematically perfect C-sharp every time ... something else that I love doing is playing on inherent imperfections in human performance.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • Simple thing equals complicated experience. Not to make it sound it too dumb, but that's really it.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • There have been a few moments over the last ten to 12 years where I did something, and I immediately thought: oh, I'm somewhere else now.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • It doesn't make sense that Orienting Response would be engaging. You know, it's like 45 minutes of bing-bong, bing-bong. But I just found it addictive or intoxicating.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • That is something that I still feel I'm doing, to be strange in a way that's not aggressive or dissonant for the sake of dissonance.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I very intensely identify as a DIY artist ... I don't have a world as far I'm concerned, except my own.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • This is a semantic thing, but I don't consciously want to go in a new direction.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I don't want to be permanently attached to any organization, or genre, or movement, or whatever. I just want to be out here wandering around by myself and just going where people want me basically.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • My experience generates the music, but that's not the thing that I need people to know about.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • I didn't want to be "Sarah Hennies: the Trans Composer."

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies
  • For a long time now I've thought it would be great to write a piece that was three or four hours long.

    Sarah Hennies
    Sarah Hennies

Alice Parker: Feeling the Same Emotion at the Same Time

 

It is difficult to think of anyone more loved by the musicians with whom she works than composer, arranger, conductor, and teacher Alice Parker who has been a fixture of the choral music community for eight decades. Since becoming an arranger for the legendary Robert Shaw Chorale when she was fresh out of college in the late 1940s, Parker has devoted herself almost exclusively to music for the voice, since she strongly believes that people find their common ground through singing together.

During an inspiring conversation over Zoom, Parker explains how our lives become enriched when we can share a communal music-making experience.

When we sing something perfectly lovely together … and it really clicks, you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.

Sadly though, as she also points out, singing is no longer something that most people do: “As a society, as a culture, we don’t sing. … [W]e simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.”

Music has been a presence in Alice Parker’s life since growing up in Boston in the 1920s, attending concerts by the Boston Pops as a little girl, attending an African American church sing while staying with her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina, and hearing African-American lyric tenor Roland Hayes sing spirituals in a concert in the 1930s. Soon after she began taking piano lessons, she started to compose her own music, though her teacher had to find another instructor to help her write it down. But Parker doesn’t think that made her special.

“The ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift,” she claims. “I think everybody would if they were encouraged to. And I was encouraged to, right from the beginning.”

Parker formally studied composition at Smith College before studying choral conducting at the Juilliard School, deciding to switch majors because she did not want to compose the music they wanted her to compose.

“They were trying to get me to write 12-tone music,” she remembers. “I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn’t do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong in the sense that what really lasts is not necessarily tonal music, but modal music. Somehow or other, that peculiar mixture of whole and half steps is much closer to musical truth than any system that is drawn out of equal half steps or equal whole steps. That’s too much. Henry Ford making everything exactly match. Things in nature don’t exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.”

Perhaps the most tell-tale sign of Parker’s lifelong humility is her devotion to creating music for and with community groups rather than for big celebrities. She has no interest in writing music unless it serves a purpose, as she explains:

If someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don’t see any purpose for it. In a church, there’s loads of purpose. It’s all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you’re in the good schools, there’s lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there’s almost always purpose.

Although she was writing music up until 2020 (you can hear a performance of her glorious hymn “On the Common Ground” which is embedded in the transcript below), her deteriorating eyesight has made it impossible for her to either enter notes on staff paper or even on a computer. But she’s enjoying spending time with her four great grandchildren and has become obsessed with Wordle.

  • We simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • My general prescription for the healing of society is that we establish a Department of Peace in Washington to go beside the Department of War.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • When we sing something perfectly lovely together ... and it really clicks, you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • If you can speak, you can sing. And the singing may come first.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • Music is only sound. It is nothing else but sound. We spend a whole of our education talking about sound and not making sound.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • Somehow I was able to withstand the strong conditioning that I got certainly when I got to college, and was trying to major in composition, and they were trying to get me to write 12-tone music. I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn't do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong. ... Things in nature don't exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • I am not telling my music where I want it to go. I'm listening for where it wants to go.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • The ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift. I think everybody would if they were encouraged to.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • There is absolutely no difference between brain tissue from male and a female. It's just my feeling about race is actually close your eyes, and can you tell whether it's a black person or a white person, otherwise from the language? You can't. Color has nothing to do with it. Nobody chooses where they're born. ... You come up where you are. What you can do is of course enormously influenced by your surroundings. If your parents say right away, "Well you can't do that; girls can't do that," you're pretty much taken for granted or else you're a terrible rebel and you risk the ire of your society all around you.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • I've always said if someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don't see any purpose for it. In a church, there's loads of purpose. It's all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you're in the good schools, there's lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there's almost always purpose.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • I think music is food for the ears, just as food is food for the stomach. And I want to feed people's ears. I want to nourish them through the music. I'm not interested in scaring them or frightening them, or stretching them beyond their beliefs. I need to find the thing that they will just love.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • Somebody called me an entertainer once. I said, "I am not an entertainer." Music isn't an entertainment art for me.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor
  • I think so many kids have never heard their parents sing, just for the fun of it. We don't sing as we do the dishes. We always did when I was little. We don't sing as we do chores because there's always some background music on. And nobody's really listening to it. I think the way to get people back into it is just simply to get a roomful of people singing or a family.

    Alice Parker
    Alice Parker, composer & conductor

Huang Ruo: Creating Four Dimensional Experiences

Huang Ruo

 

Were it not for the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, last week would have been the 10th anniversary season of PROTOTYPE, a festival held in New York City each January devoted to boundary-pushing new opera and music theater. One of the highlights of this year’s offerings was to have been The Book of Mountains and Seas, a collaboration between Chinese American composer Huang Ruo and experimental puppeteer Basil Twist. I was so excited to see and hear this work, especially after being so deeply moved by Huang Ruo’s hour-long string quartet A Dust in Time which the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet premiered online in October 2020 as the virus raged around the world. (In October 2021, Bright Shiny Things issued Del Sol’s recording of A Dust in Time on a CD that is packaged with a coloring book of Tibetan mandalas which listeners are encouraged to color in as they listen to the music.)

So in late December, I talked with Huang Ruo about A Dust in Time, The Book of Mountains and Seas, and many other works of his. No matter what he composes, whether it’s a bona fide opera or an instrumental work for a chamber ensemble, there is usually some kind of visual stimulation and often an element of theater involved in the performance. For Huang Ruo, music–like theater–exists in a four-dimensional space, which is why it is often difficult to capture his work in a merely two-dimensional medium like, say, most CD recordings. In fact, in one of his most intriguing creations, Sound of Hand, the solo percussionist barely produces an audible sound.

In our conversation, Huang Ruo remembered telling David Schotzko, the percussionist for whom the piece was originally written, “I want to approach it like a Chinese medicine. I want to give you this piece; clean out all your right or wrongs in your system. Just to rebuild you, from nothing to something. From bottom up. So then I created this piece, I want a piece to have the hand, just as the instrument, without holding anything. The hand itself could be the skin of the drum. The cymbal. The surface of a percussion instrument. Sometimes they are moving in the air. People might not hear anything, but they could see everything. It is a performance art piece. It is not just a piece for solo percussionist. … A dancer could do it. A regular person, they could see the score, they could learn it almost like Tai Chi, like a Kung Fu piece. I hope this piece could help people to build their own being, mental and also physical.”

There is a larger purpose in most of Huang Ruo’s work. His recent Angel Island Oratorio is based on poems that were scrawled on the walls by East Asian detainees in the immigration processing center located on this San Francisco island which is the antithesis of Ellis Island and all the myths we’ve been taught of how welcoming the United States has been to immigrants. His 2014 opera An American Solider, which he created with playwright David Henry Hwang, was based on the true story of Private Danny Chen, who committed suicide in Afghanistan after being harassed and beaten by his fellow soldiers for being Asian. The Sonic Great Wall, which was a joint commission from Ensemble Modern, Asko Schoenberg, and London Sinfonietta, shatters the fourth wall between performers and the audience.

There was so much to talk about with him and our conversation all in all lasted an unwieldy hour and a half! But since the performances of The Book of Mountains and Seas have been postponed until next year, we decided to save the portion of our conversation about that piece for a later date. There is still so much material in the hour we are presenting here which we hope will be inspiring to read and or listen to during these unfortunately ongoing precarious times.

According to Huang Ruo, “We need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic.  One thing for sure, art and music should continue and should find its own way to be shared, to be created. And of course, doing it online. … We all need to connect, but also we need to be safely distancing ourselves. Now, yes, physically performer and audience might need to be distancing, just for safety reason, health reason. However, the main idea, why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that’s the joy, the tears, that’s the laughter. That’s why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.”

  • Listening to a CD will give you two-dimensional space, instead of four, when you really see a theatrical performance.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • One big lesson I learned during the pandemic is accepting our fate. Accepting where we are, but also learning how to let go of the things we might have to lose.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • The only way we can learn not to repeat the same mistake is by really learning what happened in the past.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • A critic who came to review our opera wrote that both David and I created this very bombastically anti-American work. ... It was absolutely not our intention to create division.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • Each character has their own dilemma, has their own duty to be bound to. It's not just easily black and white, who is right or who is wrong. To me, opera should tell a story more complex than that to let audiences reflect and to think. To find their own answer.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • The true meaning of revolution is not about just being successful, but about keep trying.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • I believe everything happens in our life for a reason.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • To me the idea is to use music to bring down the barrier of what the physical wall normally is.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • I think we need to learn to live with challenges, including this ongoing pandemic.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo
  • Why we exist, why we create art, why art exists, thousands of years, even until we are long gone, I believe this idea will still be there, is to be shared, to connect, to connect people, to share with people. And that's the joy, the tears, that's the laughter. That's why we feel the burning of the art. I believe that no matter what, that will still be felt, and still carry on. If we are persistently looking, searching, and thinking, we will find a good way to create that.

    Huang Ruo
    Huang Ruo

Matthew Aucoin: Risking Generosity

Matthew Aucoin

 

Although the Metropolitan Opera House gave the first American performances of then new works by Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and other works that are still in their repertoire, an opera by a living composer has been a rarity at the Met for decades. Yet this year, the Met opened its season (after being closed for over a year due to the pandemic) with Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. And currently on stage at the Met is a second recent opera, Eurydice by Matthew Aucoin, who additionally just had his first book published, The Impossible Art, as well as the first commercially released recording of his music, the two CD set Orphic Moments on BMOP/Sound.

Despite this extraordinary amount of activity these past few weeks, the 31-year-old composer-pianist-conductor took some time out of his overextended schedule to have a wide-ranging conversation with me about opera, myth, climate change, poetry, and many other topics. Among the recurring themes during the course of our talk was generosity and risk-taking, something that is in abundance in Matthew’s own music as well as his personality.

“I do think that I tend to risk generosity, even messiness, in my music,” he admitted. “It’s scary. And I don’t always succeed. But I would rather err in this direction.”

Yet despite a child prodigy and now leading a life completely immersed in music making, when he was an undergrad at Harvard, he considered permanently abandoning music and pursuing poetry instead.

“I got really hung up on this idea that music was too good for us and we were better off communicating to each other in language, which really felt to me like the human medium,” he remembered. “So I felt for the first time in my life a little bit distant from music. Then around the time I graduated college, it all rushed back. I really felt like I had to do this, and I felt that for a few reasons. One was that I sensed that if I didn’t dive in and commit myself to music, the musical muscle was at risk of atrophying, because it does take constant practice and upkeep. Whereas, somehow words, maybe it’s because we all use words every day anyway, I had this instinct that maybe that muscle would not atrophy. And it would be okay to leave it be for a few years, and come back to it.”

But of course, words remain extremely crucial to Matthew Aucoin’s creative endeavors, whether he’s setting poetry by Dante or Walt Whitman, writing about his own music or the work of other composers, or using words with music to tell a story in operas for which he has often written his own librettos. The other crucial thing for him is community, which is partially why he so deeply loves opera which is something that can’t exist without a community. It is also a key reason for his co-founding of the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC).

“It’s an attempt to build a better and more agile model for an artist-centric company or collective,” he explained. “There’s no such thing as art that’s for everybody all the time. We’re all dealing with communities. I think that’s going to become clearer and clearer over the course of the 21st century. A big part of what AMOC is doing is we’re trying to build our own community, which is open. Everybody’s welcome. You can all join. But we’re not trying to pretend that it’s literally for everyone. I think that is going to become clearer as the way that we experience art continues to be ironically both more mediated and more kind of listener driven. And I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing. If you think of it as the building of communities, it can actually make for a better experience.”

  • There comes this moment when you either engaged with what the trio in Vienna were up to, or you didn't. And it's curious to me that mainstream opera in America just didn't. It almost seems like a conscious decision.

    Matthew Aucoin
    Matthew Aucoin
  • I think history is more recursive than it is linear.

    Matthew Aucoin
    Matthew Aucoin
  • Nobody asks the members of the Rolling Stones to play Slavic folk music. They play Rolling Stones songs. But if you play in one of these orchestras, never mind choruses sing in all these languages, you might be playing Handel one day, and Janáček the next, and Philip Glass the next. I do sometimes think that there are virtues in specialization

    Matthew Aucoin
    Matthew Aucoin
  • We would never talk about the one audience for the Met Museum. We recognize that because there is this vast array of different kinds of art, that people gravitate towards different things.

    Matthew Aucoin
    Matthew Aucoin
  • If you write an instrumental piece, even a substantial one, you're still prey to juxtapositions of programming that you might not like.

    Matthew Aucoin
    Matthew Aucoin
  • Music is better than us in a certain way.

    Matthew Aucoin
    Matthew Aucoin
  • I tend to risk generosity, even messiness, in my music. It's scary. And I don't always succeed. But I would rather err in this direction.

    Matthew Aucoin
    Matthew Aucoin
  • Music was my first love... It was the thing that taught me life was worth living before I knew how to ask the question.

    Matthew Aucoin
    Matthew Aucoin
  • Music opens us up for communication, even if it can't solve the problems directly... It speaks to people directly in a way that they don't have words for. And strangely, that can actually open up a space for dialogue.

    Matthew Aucoin
    Matthew Aucoin
  • We all need to realize that no matter what we do, whether it's Kanye West or Chaya Czernowin, we're all dealing with a niche audience.

    Matthew Aucoin
    Matthew Aucoin
  • Everybody's welcome. You can all join. But we're not trying to pretend that it's literally for everyone. I think that is going to become clearer as the way that we experience art continues to be ironically both more mediated and more kind of listener driven.

    Matthew Aucoin
    Matthew Aucoin
  • The need for in-person connection is not going away. We may have to take occasional pauses, when things are bad in a particular place, but we're not gonna stop trying.

    Matthew Aucoin
    Matthew Aucoin

Special Thanks to:
Colin Manjoney and Amanda Ameer at First Chair Promotion;
April Thibeault at AMT Public Relations;
Michael San Gabino at the Metropolitan Opera; and
Andrew Stein-Zeller at G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers/Wise Music Classical.

Terri Lyne Carrington: A World of Sound Waiting for Us

Terri Lyne Carrington behind a drum set.

NEA Jazz master and three-time Grammy Award-winner Terri Lyne Carrington was practically born into music. Her father was a saxophonist and her mother played piano. Plus her grandfather, who died before she born, was a drummer who played with Fats Waller and Chu Berry among others. In fact, his drum set was the first set Terri Lyne played on at age 7.  Being raised in such an environment gave her access to just about everyone in the scene and at the age of 10 she was already performing on stage with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, in the process become the youngest person ever to be issued a union card in Boston!

But that doesn’t mean that Terri Lyne Carrington is a hardcore jazz traditionalist. Growing up, she listened to everything from Earth, Wind & Fire to Michael Jackson, and that music ultimately also seeped into her own vocabulary.

“People can’t just tell you to choose,” Terri Lyne says during our conversation over Zoom on a Sunday afternoon in later October. “It’s all part of my experience.”

Not choosing, or rather choosing everything, makes Terri Lyne’s own musical language extremely expansive. By embracing elements from rock, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop into her own compositions (as well as occasionally interpreting more recent popular songs with the same level of creativity that characterizes the most exciting jazz renditions of classic standards), she is making music that is very much about the present moment and it is extremely vital. However, at its core, she still thinks of her music as an extension of musical practices that go back many generations.

“There’s a historical and cultural context that the music was born from, and that has to be acknowledged as well,” she explains.

Also, either through including singers and lyrics or pre-recorded samples of spoken texts, her music frequently contains pointed social messages. Some of the songs on Waiting Game, the most recent album she recorded with her band Social Science, such as “Trapped in the American Dream,” “Pray The Gay Away,” or “No Justice (for Political Prisoners)” are a powerful soundtrack to our extremely complex and fractured zeitgeist. But none of them offer simple solutions.

“People are going to come to any of these issues differently,” she realizes. “They’re going to come in there wherever they are at the time, and so it leaves a bit more of an open door, an open palette for people to discover maybe what they need at the moment. I don’t know if it’s about changing minds, because most people that are hateful may be a little difficult to change. If you’re just ignorant, then it might be easier to educate, with satire and the hook.”

One of the things that Terri Lyne hopes to change is the gender imbalance among jazz instrumentalists, why is why she founded the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice and has now partnered with New Music USA to create the Next Jazz Legacy program.

“There’s always been a bit of a nurturing environment for men to be creative, and women just never had that same support,” she says. “Young women and, of course, also the transgender and non-binary community, people on the margins of what’s been normal in jazz, don’t have as many opportunities; that’s just the way it is. … There’s a world of sound waiting for us that hasn’t necessarily fully been developed, fully tapped into within this genre; it’s coming.”

  • I believe in themes, but I also believe that the themes don’t have to be narrow.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • If it's constructed well, you are able to hear different things every time you listen.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • I'm not sure I would call it jazz if I can't hear any history or lineage in what they're doing.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • Once labels got out of the way, and people were able to be independent and produce and release the music that they really wanted to, what was really in their hearts, I feel like it opened things up, and it's such a creative and fertile time for jazz.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • I'm totally into how the industry has shifted ... It's a new frontier. ... There'll always be the haves and have-nots, and the people more privileged than others, but there's also an opportunity there.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • I've done a lot of free things. It's all just putting me in a place that more people can experience, and it all works together in the end.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • Most musicians are hearing their own symphonies, but everybody has the barrier between what they're hearing in their head and what they're able to actually produce.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • There's always been a bit of a nurturing environment for men to be creative, and women just never had that same support.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • If I turn on the radio, If I look at advertisements or flip through music magazines, I don’t see myself represented. If I thought I needed that support, then yes, it's going to make me shy away from wanting to pursue this.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • I didn’t need to see myself represented because I had no identity when I started. Like I didn’t think, "Oh, I’m a woman playing drums." I was a kid. So I had no gender identity, basically. When people told me, "You're good for a girl," they made that association, but I didn't because I didn't feel like a real girl. I didn't feel like a little boy, I just didn’t know, you know. I was just playing. And I gravitated to tomboyish things. So I had no problem inserting myself with boys.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • There’s a lot of masculinity that's made the sound of the music making music what it is. And I love it. I love what it is. I also possess some of that, though. I have to if I'm going to go out on stage.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • The mentors need to be men, only because men need to participate in solving some of these issues. If women just mentor women, we're still siloed and siphoned into a bucket of women jazz musicians.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
    Terri Lyne Carrington
  • There's a world of sound waiting for us that hasn't necessarily fully been developed, fully tapped into within this genre; it’s coming.

    Terri Lyne Carrington
    Terri Lyne Carrington

Renée Baker: Nothing’s Gonna Stop You From Creating

Renée Baker

 

Spending an hour over Zoom chatting with Renée Baker about her more than two thousand musical compositions and perhaps almost as many paintings was inspirational as well as motivational. Especially during this time when the ability for anything we do to have a certain future seems somewhat precarious at best. But Renée does not let anything deter her and while her music is extremely wide ranging and gleefully embraces freedom of expression, her daily schedule is precise and meticulous.

“I don’t separate life from creation,” she explained to me as she outlined a typical day in her life. “Breakfast about 7:30. And right behind that, about 8:15, started [making] dinner. … When I’m done with my conversation with you, I have four gallons of paint in the hallway that will make their way to my studio garage; I’m working on a series there. … These might not be finished for a couple of weeks while I determine what the palette is gonna be. You know, it has to strike me. Once I do that, I might wander out. I’ll go past a thrift store or something looking for pieces because I do make sound item sculpture, so that’s always fun, especially with wood and glue. And then I’ll probably nap and watch a few zombie movies. I’m a Walking Dead aficionado. When I’m done with that, since dinner’s already fixed, my husband can eat whenever he wants, I will probably go to a coffee shop or sit outside a coffee shop. I keep my manuscript book in the car. So anytime I’m driving or going to sit by the pond, or sit by the lake, or feed the ducks, I keep adding to these compositions. When they’re finished, I pull them out and I put them in the envelopes. So I touch almost everything every day.”

Her discipline has paid off. In addition to the ensembles that she herself has formed to perform her compositions, most notably the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project, organizations around the country and the world have commissioned and presented her music including the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Spektral Quartet, Boston’s ECCE Ensemble, Berlin’s International Brass, DanceWright Project SF, the Joffrey Ballet, Berkeley Books of Paris, the Destejilk Museum in the Netherlands, and on and on. Plus her paintings are represented by two different galleries—and they sell.

Given her broad range of artistic pursuits, it’s no wonder that Renée Baker is a member of Chicago’s pioneering AACM (The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), an organization founded in 1965 by the late Muhal Richard Abrams who counts among its members such legendary genre-defying Black artists as Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Amina Claudine Myers, Henry Threadgill, George Lewis, and Tomeka Reid. Yet at the time Nicole Mitchell first suggested she join, Renée had acknowledged that she had never actually improvised. And while she proudly identifies herself as “a Black woman in America that survived classical music,” she “never sought to do an all-Black anything.” As she explains, “When you’re looking at my music, you can say, oh, it’s Black music because she’s Black, or whatever. But the fact is I’m interested in people who can play in four with my beat pattern and stay with me. It’s very simple. I don’t care; I don’t care what you are.”

Also, despite the fact that she creates vital work as a composer and as a painter (plus she also writes poetry and makes sculptures), Renée Baker does not compartmentalize. She does not think in terms of synaesthesia, but if you spend enough time looking and listening to the different forms of art she creates, you will notice clear aesthetic affinities. E.g. the striking combinations of colors in her paintings share a kinship with the way different timbres interact in her musical compositions. In fact, she has worked extensively with graphic scores that are as fascinating as visual art as they are as music. Ultimately, Renée Baker’s work is a by-product of an extremely healthy confidence, and her advice about perseverance is something that all artists should heed, especially in these extremely uncertain times:

“If your heart is married to creating, then there’s nothing, even a pandemic, that’s gonna stop you from creating. You might not create as much. You may experience a bit more stress, some financial worries—no telling what everybody individually is facing. But you can’t stop the train. Just keep going. Just keep going. Look at other directions. Maybe the direction you were going in would have been stopped without the pandemic. Maybe you’d gotten to a wall and there’s something else for you to access. Don’t be frightened, and don’t be cowed by criticism.”

NOTE: As part of this month’s Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago, Renée Baker will lead a string quintet from her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project in a performance of her composition Eternal Units of Beauty for one of the Spotlight Concerts at Chicago’s Phantom Gallery on September 26. Learn more about Ear Taxi’s Spotlight Concerts here. She will also participate in Ear Taxi’s panel discussion “What are the components of a thriving ecosystem for new music?” moderated by New Music USA’s CEO Vanessa Reed on September 29 at the DePaul Art Museum. More info about that panel can be found here.

Adolphus Hailstork: Music is a Service

Adolphus Hailstork

 

Adolphus Hailstork turned 80 in April, but he has been celebrated since the beginning of this year. On January 20, a wind band arrangement of his Fanfare on “Amazing Grace” was performed by the United States Marine Band during the inauguration of President of the United States Joe Biden. It was only the second time that music by a contemporary African American composer had been selected to be part of the repertoire performed at a presidential inauguration ceremony. And in June, as part of a digitally streamed concert on the first Juneteenth that was an official U.S. national holiday, J’Nai Bridges and the Harlem Chamber Players gave the world premiere performance of his concert aria Tulsa 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust), a retelling of the Tulsa Race Massacre to mark its centenary. The concert was even previewed on CNN which rarely covers music outside the commercial mainstream.

It was definitely time to catch up with Dr. Hailstork to talk about his life in music. His passion for making music stretches all the way back to his childhood when he sang as a boy chorister. While growing up, he sang his way through all the parts, eventually singing bass. After he embarked on his path as a composer, he never lost his love for the human voice and for melody.

“Choral music is so rich,” Hailstork exclaimed during our conversation over Zoom. “It is my favorite medium.” And Hailstork’s music has been treasured by choirs for half a century. He received his first significant compositional accolade, the Ernest Bloch Award, for his choral composition Mourn Not the Dead in 1971, the same year he received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Ironically, only a few years earlier, as he confessed during our talk, he didn’t even know what the words “graduate school” meant. After he had completed his Bachelor’s degree at Howard University, he went to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, not really sure about what his next steps would be.

Hailstork, however, took a very different path from most composers who pursued academic degrees during that time, eschewing what he described as the “plink, plank, and plunk” of the avant-garde music of his contemporaries. And for many years, his music was overlooked as he acknowledged. “It used to be a lot more difficult for lyrical types like me to have a place, just to be recognized, to be heard.”

Throughout this time, Hailstork, nevertheless, held his aesthetic ground, settling in Virginia and teaching for decades at Old Dominion University in Norfork while composing a stunning output of chamber music, solo piano and organ pieces, as well as many formidable orchestral works including four symphonies, in addition to writing numerous works for chorus. But while he is clear that he wants his music to be “a continuation rather than a breaking away from” the Western classical tradition, he very clearly has his own voice which has been enriched by his immersion into African American spirituals.

“I do worship the spirituals,” he explained at one point. “They’re gorgeous melodies and they’re very useful, and also I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also. I decided that Dvořák was right, and that’s what I wanted to do and I tried to work them in.”

The result of Hailstork’s idiosyncratic amalgamation of these two traditions has yielded an extraordinarily rich compositional language which also serves his other goal, “to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.”

 

  • We almost killed music 50-60 years ago as a group experience.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • This whole thing of plink, plank, and plunk, count to 12--I couldn’t get into it.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I learned a lot from those wonderful musicians who took the time to let me know that: "Your harp writing sucks, man. We got to teach you how to do this."

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • Harp makes a great melding together kind of goo.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I wound up teaching comp to undergrads without any kind of theory background. It was excruciating. They didn’t know what they were doing. "I’m going to be a Composah." Well, sorry, it helps to know how to; it’s like if you’re going to build buildings and you never knew what a girder was.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I believe in the old statement by Dvořák that an American art music could be based on using African American materials or Indian materials also.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I think "We Shall Overcome" is a great classical melody.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • In my music, I try to capture or reflect the tribulations and the occasional triumphs of African Americans in this country.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • Music is supposed to have meaning to me.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I salute all the band directors of America for their constant looking for new pieces.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I was reacting to all the black men who are getting shot in the back--16 bullets here, seven bullets there

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I love grand opera, though I never had a chance to write an evening’s length opera. I’m getting kind of old for that.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • If anything good came out of the pandemic, it's that so many artistic groups have started to rethink their hopes, their plans, and also their whole programming.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer
  • I once called music a service art, and that’s probably because growing up as a chorister, I was performing service. ... You take all that out of listening to music, and no wonder people are gonna stop coming to it.

    Adolphus Hailstork
    Adolphus Hailstork, composer