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Summer Residency Snapshots: Where Trust Meets Productivity

With less pressure to produce concrete results, composers and performers tend to create with more verve. This week, a few more Avaloch New Music Institute examples illustrate how friendship can be a vital collaborative tool and how developing trust over a long period of time generates more interesting, sustainable work.

Written By

Michael Compitello

In the past three articles, I’ve tried to describe some of the work being done at Avaloch. In characterizing a few interesting collaborations, I also wanted to peer at how musical partners accomplish their goals. For each, geographic repose, concentrated time together, the ability but not the pressure to share content, and a community of hard-working and supportive people were elements of dynamic and sustainable collaboration.

Up to this point, I’ve ignored my own forays at Avaloch. I play in a cello/percussion duo called New Morse Code with Hannah Collins, and since 2015, we have been co-directors at Avaloch’s New Music Institute. Before then, we attended Avaloch as a duo, and individually as part of other projects. In my experiences with Hannah in Avaloch’s unusual residency setting, I’ve discovered that ease of collaboration allows for high degrees of productivity in a compressed period of time . As a percussionist, being able to leave instruments set up is immensely productive, and having your collaborators close at hand allows brainstorming, workshopping, rehearsing, and practicing to flow naturally.

Perhaps more importantly, New Morse Code’s work at Avaloch illustrates how friendship can be a vital collaborative tool, that developing trust over a long period of time generates more interesting, sustainable work. For Robert Honstein, the immediacy and concentration created by sharing a residency with performers led to astonishing productivity. For Christopher Stark, a long-term collaboration was focused and altered at Avaloch, and physical place had an enormous impact on his work’s themes and content.

Robert Honstein: Down, Down Baby

Boston-based Robert Honstein has been to Avaloch twice. In 2015 he worked with Ashley Bathgate on her Bach Unwound project, and in 2016 Robert workshopped his Grand Tour with pianist Karl Larson while finding complementary pairings for the work for a touring program. Each time, Robert also worked with Hannah and I on a new piece, tentatively titled Down, Down Baby. In 2015, Robert and New Morse Code created a framework for the piece, brainstorming the work’s unusual setup and creating a notational system that was clear and easy to read. This summer, Robert’s goals lay in “refining the notation/sounds, investigating what works and doesn’t work, and discovering ways to interpret and perform the piece.”

In Down, Down Baby, the cello is laid flat on a table. Hannah and I sit on opposite sides of the table, each with six desk bells, a woodblock, and a foot pedal attached to a dull plastic sound (we eventually settled on two Sterilite trash cans). Robert’s idea was that from these positions, we could create four quadrants of theatricalized motion on the body and rib of the cello, tapping and flicking with fingers, knuckles, fists, or nails. The cello’s strings (prepared with poster tack to create a dull, gong-like sound) are plucked by both players, and with our complement of desk bells, we create composite melodies in a variety of textures from imitative (the opening of the first movement, “Follow the Leader”) to hocketing (tentatively titled “Paddy”) to sliding melody and dry accompaniment (“Strange Dance”).

Honstein's Down, Down Baby

Honstein's Down, Down Baby

Both Hannah and I were in new territory. Robert’s notation was fairly simple for a percussionist to read, but for Hannah, less accustomed to “non pitched” percussion and less comfortable with a musical situation where both her hands are doing the same task, learning was slow at first. At the same time, my terrific incompetence as a singer (even a “pitch matcher”!) and inexperience as a string plucker was embarrassing. Fortunately, Robert considers his role as a composer to be an equal partnership with his performer collaborators. He prefers to work through “back and forth, trial and error, conversation, being in the same room together,” with his ideal flow being reached within what he calls a “real-time feedback loop of ||: idea->experiment->revise :||.” For someone who values such immediacy, a residency with immediate access to performers is an ideal fit, and Robert notes that the possibility for “real-time exploration” at Avaloch pushed him to try ideas he never would have otherwise.

Hannah and I prepared of the movements of Down, Down Baby before Robert arrived at Avaloch, and learned others while he was at the Farm. Each day, we would rehearse with Robert in the room, asking questions and offering alternatives as they accumulated. Because of Robert’s accessibility, we were able to make plentiful small changes, mostly focused on the piece’s orchestration as it relates to idiomatic execution and visual clarity. For example, in “Simon,” I discovered that exchanging some material between my right and left hands allowed me more time to prepare to pluck the cello’s strings. Robert’s ability to quickly check whether my desires would destroy his visual mirroring allowed us to revise quickly and easily without damaging the movement’s choreography. In “Singing Lesson,” Robert asked both Hannah and I to whistle while playing a melody between our desk bells. We found that it was easier and more theatrically effective to sing while we were playing the bells, and the resulting texture more clearly illuminated the rhythmic play between us. “Strange Dance” includes the longest passage in the piece where Hannah and I are doing different actions. She plucks and slides along the prepared strings of the cello while I tap an accompaniment on the body and rib of the cello. Most of Robert’s fingerings worked perfectly—for a pianist. Quickly altering some fingerings towards typically strong fingers for percussionists was simple and didn’t disturb what Robert had in mind sonically or visually.

A work like Down, Down Baby is also difficult to visualize. While Robert had built a sample library and was working with a cello of his own at home, hearing—and more importantly, seeing—Down, Down Baby in action was especially valuable. After hearing a few of the movements, Robert adjusted some of the sounds in the piece, replacing a fist on cello body (soft sounding, dangerous to the instrument) with a fist on the side of the table on which the cello sits. (This process of revision is not rare! In fact, in 2015, New Morse Code worked at Avaloch with Matthew Barnson on his Ars Moriendi, a Britten-inspired take on graffiti in Bushwick, Brooklyn.)

Of course, these are not large changes. But, our ability to make them quickly was essential. In fact, Robert preferred to make revisions while we rehearsed other material, remaining in the room with us in case he had further questions. As I mentioned above, each of these interactions was presaged on the idea that New Morse Code and Robert were partners in the piece, that Robert wanted the material to be malleable and flexible—from the form of the piece (was it too long?), to the sounds involved (are they differentiable), to the techniques used (are they easily repeatable?). In the score created before our work this summer, there were notes for further discussion: “Let’s experiment with the singing in the ‘Lullabies’ and ‘Singing Lesson’ movements and figure out who does what and when.” “We’ll decide later whether you each hum or if it’s better to have only one person hum along.” Even the title was a point of discussion, leading to a shower of criticism, and a barrage of new, far less productive ideas. Eventually, Robert decided the title should convey playfulness and whimsy and that the choreography in the piece is reminiscent of a clapping game, and so he thought of Down, Down, Baby. I’m sure he also decided never to ask for help with titles again!

While our focused work with Robert at Avaloch was extremely productive, taking part in a dynamic community was also essential. In fact, Robert was the nexus for much informal work, from performances of a new piano/marimba arrangement of his Patter, to workshopping new ideas with Hannah and myself, to brainstorming collaborations with other members of the Avaloch community. For him, Avaloch’s blend of a festival’s social events, a residency’s focus, and a rehearsal’s goal-oriented approach was an ideal balance.

Christopher Stark: Marinating in Place

Christopher Stark is professor of composition at Washington University in St. Louis. We met while both teaching at Cornell University, and in 2014 New Morse Code and Christopher were awarded a Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program Grant to develop a large-scale piece for cello, percussion, and live electronics. As a native of western Montana who has incorporated the expansive energy of the mountain landscape of his childhood into his own musical language, Christopher initially wanted to write a piece about how physical landscapes inspire musical personalities. We spent a year developing the piece together, gathering field-recordings in upstate New York, New Hampshire, and Montana. New Morse Code performed excerpts of The Language of Landscapes the Geneva Music Festival and in Bryant Park before premiering the complete work last November at Washington University in St. Louis.

After having performed the first “scene” of the piece several times, Christopher came to Avaloch in 2015 with an eye towards revising it and developing additional material. As has every group I’ve discussed thus far, the lack of pressure to leave with a final product left us the room to be very productive. We saw The Language of Landscapes’ existing content become more idiomatic while the concept driving Christopher’s new material became more piquant, changing from an musical Grand Tour to a series of interactions between “natural” and “artificial” sounds and structures.

Christopher Stark

Christopher Stark gathering sounds for The Language of Landscapes

As we saw with Down, Down, Baby, focused workshopping time allowed New Morse Code and Christopher to make effective and idiomatic changes to The Language of Landscapes. In the piece’s first scene, the cello plays harmonics on the cello accompanied by digitally processed canons, moving at 25%, 50%, 66%, 75% of her original speed. In the scene’s original configuration, I mirrored these canons on the marimba, but we found that the marimba’s fixed tuning couldn’t match the cello’s ability for just intonation, and that most marimba’s top octaves are sufficiently out of tune to render “pitchiness” a non-essential character. Additionally, the rhythmic precision needed to play in exact canon with Hannah while remaining with a strict tape part made long horizontal phrases more difficult to create. At Avaloch, we experimented with me blowing into glass bottles of different sizes, tuned to the pitches in the piece. Eventually, we settled on five bottles, tuned relatively “out of tune” with the cello’s pitch collection and processed with significant reverb, creating an additional musical layer that emphasizes horizontal expansiveness rather than rhythmic precision.

More importantly, our time at Avaloch was also the crucible for a change in narrative direction in The Language of Landscapes that moved it towards a more pointed environmental critique. When we began working together, Christopher’s goal was to explore how physical landscapes can shape our musical personalities. The goal was to trace a musical journey from my desert southwest home, through the deciduous hills of upstate New York (Hannah’s home), finally reaching towards the endless sky of Christopher’s northern Rockies. Instead, inspired by both the sonic beauty around Avaloch and the plentiful waste around us, the three of us scavenged in thrift stores and lumber yards in search of what Christopher calls “sonic representations of human wastefulness,” leading to an instrumentarium of styrofoam bowls, cardboard boxes, and plastic grocery bags. The Language of Landscapes’ second scene combines recordings of wind moving through trees with our manipulation of this junk: Hannah gradually slips a Starbucks’ coffee sleeve between the strings of her cello while I bow, scrape, rustle, and rattle the heavily amplified junk objects. Within each 30-second window—set apart by an abrupt crumpling of plastic water bottles—our sounds quickly become indistinguishable from the wind, a poignant comment.

The final form of The Language of Landscapes was also inspired by places near Avaloch. When New Morse Code had the opportunity to present an engagement activity at the nearby Penacook Community Center, we brought Christopher with us: while Hannah and I led a gym full of school children in brainstorming, making, and performing nature sounds, Christopher processed them electronically, inspiring him to make process-based manipulation of recorded water and wind sounds the focus of The Language of Landscapes’ fourth scene, where a recording of water is gradually bit-crushed (a.k.a. played back at increasingly lower sample rate) to create an extremely distorted but highly rhythmic sound. Each repetition of this clip becomes shorter, and is set in increasingly quick canon between Hannah’s distorted cello and my assemblage of non-recyclable waste.

The changes to The Language of Landscapes that we made over two years have convinced me that long-term relationships can generate interesting, poignant art. Christopher’s patient interest in developing personal relationships and incorporating these into his work were notable. At the same time, Christopher’s work was inspired and aided by a scenic locale. For him, “being inspired is essential to making great art, and great spaces are so inspiring.” Avaloch’s “peaceful and beautiful” setting allowed him to develop his own music while enhancing his relationships with other Avaloch community members. This year, Christopher came to Avaloch to work with HereNowHear, a piano duo of frequent collaborators Ryan MacEvoy McCullough and Andrew Zhou, on a companion piece to Stockhausen’s Mantra. Christopher used Avaloch’s less pressured environment to “listen to the performers talk about the experience of performing Mantra,” experiment with electronic sounds around the piano, and to “get a sense of what might be able to accompany that massive work on a program.”   In the true spirit of Avaloch collaboration, HereNowHear, New Morse Code, and Christopher put on a concert together with The Language of Landscapes in Bennington’s Park McCullough House.

The Language of Landscapes

View from percussion set up of Christopher Stark’s The Language of Landscapes, taken at Historic Park McCullough House in Bennington, VT

Both of these experiences highlight the potential for cross-pollination at musical residencies. For New Morse Code, cross-pollination is the most exciting feature of our time at Avaloch. In 2015, Alex Weiser and Emily Cooley of Kettle Corn New Music came to Avaloch to work with HOCKET. Hannah and I took the opportunity to nail down the details of a future New Morse Code Kettle Corn Concert and make some popcorn. Paul Kerekes came to Avaloch with Invisible Anatomy and stayed on to workshop new material for Unblinking Eye, a forthcoming theatrical show. Andy Akiho organized the entire Avaloch community into a performance of his works while brainstorming future work with New Morse Code. Triplepoint Trio developed a show with Chartreuse. The list goes on and on.

Sometimes the ideas at residencies like Avaloch come to fruition, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they bear immediate results, and sometimes they steep, simmer, then boil. It goes without saying that the range of collaborative structures is as varied as the people who create them, and that people in every discipline create fantastic art together every day. What I value about these residencies is that the focus is on process. With less pressure to produce concrete results, composers and performers tend to create with more verve. Away from their normal habitats and surrounded by natural beauty, they discover a sense of community.