Tag: chamber music

2013 CMA/ASCAP Adventurous Programming Awardees Named

Three ensembles and five presenters will be recognized with CMA/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming during the 35th Chamber Music America National Conference in New York City. A ceremony will be held at the Westin New York at Times Square on January 20, 2013.

Established jointly by Chamber Music America and ASCAP, the annual awards recognize U.S.-based professional ensembles and presenters for distinctive programming of music composed within the past 25 years. The recipients, chosen by an independent panel of judges, were evaluated on the basis of their programming and innovations in attracting audiences to performances of new music.

The 2013 CMA/ASCAP Awardees are:


Contemporary: SOLI Chamber Ensemble (San Antonio, TX)
Through its commissioning activities, the SOLI Chamber Ensemble has expanded the repertoire for its instrumentation—clarinet, violin, cello, and piano—a combination inspired by Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The group was cited for an award based on its programming and commissions, which included premieres of works by such composers as Brian Bondari, Xi Wang, Dan Welcher, Doug Balliett, and Paul Moravec, as well as Prelude to the End—created for the group’s 20th anniversary by composer Steven Mackey and video artist Mark DeChiazza.

Jazz: Slumgum (Altadena, CA)
Among the innovations of the jazz ensemble Slumgum is its practice of choosing a single concept, based on which all four band members agree to create at least one new piece. Other recent projects include the creation of a new work for octet (Slumgum musicians plus a chamber ensemble of flute, horn, clarinet, and voice) and performances of original works interpreting the written word, ranging from a passage in Charles Mingus’s autobiography to poems, a Biblical passage, and a Buddhist reading.

Mixed repertory: Radius Ensemble (Concord, MA)
To introduce new music to its classically oriented audience, Radius Ensemble has been offering programs that pair contemporary composers with past masters—Jan Bach and Katherine Hoover with Mozart and Françaix, György Ligeti with Robert Schumann. The ensemble (wind quintet, strings, and piano) was cited for its programming and related audience-engagement activities, including accessible spoken introductions to the works performed, meet-the-artists receptions, podcasts of live recordings, and live streaming of concerts.

LARGE PRESENTERS (10 or more concerts per year)

Contemporary: Miller Theatre at Columbia University (New York, NY)
Columbia University’s Miller Theatre was cited for its many original new music events, in particular its Composer Portraits Series, evening-length programs exploring the catalogs of Tobias Picker, George Lewis, John Zorn, and Hilda Paredes; its Sounds of a New Century (SONiC) Festival, which included a 12-hour marathon curated by the JACK Quartet and eight world premieres; and Pop-Up Concerts, a newly inaugurated free series.

Mixed repertory: Yellow Barn (Putney, VT)
Yellow Barn is being honored for its summer festival programming and for emphasis on new music in its year-round concerts, lectures, and educational offerings.  The 2012 festival routinely juxtaposed new music and iconic classical works, and included several works by composer-in-residence Brett Dean. A May open-air performance featured Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile (for six percussionists surrounding the audience)—a composition inspired by the discovery of pulsars—and included a pre-concert talk with an astrophysicist. An artist residency in public schools, featuring the ensemble Due East, also highlighted the music of today’s composers.

SMALL PRESENTERS (9 concerts or less per year)

Contemporary: Musiqa (Houston, TX)
Musiqa (Houston, TX) is being honored for its wide-ranging commissioning, performance, and educational activities. “Free of the Ground,”—part of Musiqa’s Downtown Series—was an exploration of fellow artists’ influences on composers’ works; a concert in its Loft Series, held in conjunction with Contemporary Art Museum of Houston’s survey of the career of visual artist Donald Moffett, included politically charged works such as Frederic Rzewski’s No More War. Audience-engagement activities include talks by the composers, question-and-answer sessions, and a variety of new music concerts for children.

Jazz: Magic Triangle Jazz Series/UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center (Amherst, MA)
The Magic Triangle Jazz Series at the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center is being honored for its programming and associated activities organized by music curator Glenn Siegel. James “Blood” Ulmer, Joshua Abrams, Wadada Leo Smith, the Frank Lacy Trio, Shakers ’n’ Bakers, and Steve Coleman and the Elements performed on the series, conducted student workshops, and participated in live radio interviews that were later made available as podcasts.

Mixed repertory: Kyo-Shin-An Arts (New York, NY)
Kyo-Shin-An Arts integrates Japanese instruments into contemporary Western  music. A typical collaboration, supported by the Japan Foundation, was titled Kammerraku (Kammer is “chamber” in German, and raku “music” in Japanese) and featured new music performed by the Voxare String Quartet with koto, shakuhachi, and shamisen players.  Another partnership, with the Colorado Quartet, featured four works composed for shakuhachi and string quartet, including a commission from Paul Moravec. The works were toured to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts during the 100th anniversary of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

(—from the press release)

BluePrint and Mobius Trio Demo SF Conservatory Talent

Nicole Paiement

Nicole Paiement, founder and artistic director of the BluePrint new music concert series
Photo by Matthew Washburn/SF Conservatory of Music

Ten years ago, conductor Nicole Paiement started a concert series based at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music called BluePrint, a new music “project” specifically devoted to performances of contemporary music. The series’ performers are drawn from both the student body and the faculty of the conservatory, while the selection of composers is not limited by the boundaries of the school’s campus. BluePrint’s current three-concert season focuses attention on composers with roots in Latin America, though many of them (including Osvaldo Golijov, Carlos Sánchez Gutiérrez, and Roberto Sierra) currently live in the United States.

The November 17 concert at the conservatory’s Concert Hall featured four works by established composers (rather than students) for chamber ensembles and chamber orchestra. Paiement led the school’s New Music Ensemble in a performance of Gabriela Lena Frank’s Manchay Tiempo, for strings, piano, harp, timpani, and four percussionists, with her trademark crystal-clear conducting style; even viewed from the audience her beat patterns were easily readable throughout this complex, mixed-meter work. Frank, who is a Bay Area native of mixed ancestry which includes a strong Peruvian influence, translates the Spanish/Quechua title as “Time of Fear,” and relates it to childhood nighttime dreams about her mother being in danger. This evocative 13-minute piece begins with the rumbling of distant thunder and, with the entrances of solo strings playing harmonics and a sweep of the harp, Frank quickly establishes a mysterious and ominous place. The work is frequently unsettling, with aggressive wood slaps punctuating the music, and small germs that expand through dramatic crescendos into intense, driving rhythmic material. The work returns to the sound of distant thunder at the end, and closes with a lone solo viola voice gently breathing a slowly oscillating major third.

Also under Paiement’s baton, a student chamber ensemble and mezzo-soprano Kelly Newberry were given the opportunity to perform the premiere of an expanded and reorchestrated version of Chris Pratorius’s Madrigal: Neruda’s Poema XX, a work that he has returned to several times over the years. Pratorius, also based in the Bay Area, is half Guatemalan and a native Spanish speaker. His affection for Pablo Neruda’s famous Poema XX, from his Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty love poems and a song of despair), is evident from his careful text setting as well as his English translation, which was provided in the program. The narrator of the poem speaks longingly of a woman loved and lost, and counter to expectation Pratorius scores the work for mezzo-soprano, with a chamber ensemble of flute, bassoon, violin, viola, bass, harp, and percussion. Pratorius’s setting allowed for clear delivery of this passionate text throughout, at times alternating vocal statements with instrumental interludes, and scoring appropriately according to the singer’s range. Inspired by Monteverdi’s madrigals, Pratorius fills the work with moments of word painting, letting the bassoon quietly deliver a melody as the poet speaks of someone singing far away, and placing the harp in the high register when the narrator mourns his loss under starry skies. The work is framed at the beginning and end by low strings and harp, quietly laying the ground for a work steeped in memory and loss.

The BluePrint series is an excellent ongoing opportunity for students of the conservatory, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, to perform contemporary repertoire, sometimes independent of Paiement, and occasionally alongside faculty as fellow performers. A student woodwind quintet presented the oldest work on the program, Mario Lavista’s Cinco Danzas Breves from 1994 (though a recent recording of the work by the Bay Area woodwind quintet Quinteto Latino perhaps better revealed the dance-like qualities of Lavista’s self-described divertimenti). David Tanenbaum, the well-known advocate of contemporary guitar music who is also chair of the guitar department at the school, joined a student string quartet for Jorge Liderman’s fiendishly challenging Aged Tunes. The late Argentinean Liderman, who taught in the Bay Area at University of California, Berkeley, originally wrote Aged Tunes for Tanenbaum and Cuarteto Latinoamericano. The student quartet gave a solid performance, though one marred by some technical issues, but it was Tanenbaum who brought out the rhythmic clarity, singing lyricism, and playfulness of the piece.


Mobius Trio

Mobius Trio: (l to r) Mason Fish, Matthew Holmes-Linder, Robert Nance

There were no such performance concerns at a house concert celebrating the release of Last Light, a new CD by the Mobius Trio, a classical guitar trio composed of three recent San Francisco Conservatory graduates who studied with Sergio Assad and Tanenbaum. In the relaxed environment of this small private event for friends, family, and Kickstarter donors (plus one party-crashing writer), the Mobius Trio gave entirely serious performances of four works from the album, which exclusively contains music written for these talented and enthusiastic young musicians. Robert Nance and Matthew Holmes-Linder play six-string guitars, and Mason Fish performs on a seven-string instrument with an extended bass range that was crafted by Gregory Byers, a well-known luthier in Mendocino County.

Nearly all of the eight composers on the album are the Mobius Trio’s contemporaries, born in the 1980s; most were also students at the conservatory. (The outlier is Dan Becker, who is chair of the school’s composition department and taught several of the other composers.) All exhibit a comfortable familiarity with the guitar’s extensive possibilities – many of these composers are guitarists themselves – and Mobius executes the dizzying array of techniques and technical challenges written for them with ease and expressivity.

Last Light

Among the four pieces performed at the house concert was Making Good Choices by composer/guitarist Brendon Randall-Myers, who lived in the Bay Area for several years before entering Yale as a master’s candidate this fall. Randall-Myers takes full advantage of Mobius’s technical versatility in this piece, constantly surprising the ear by using different parts of the finger board and the body of the instrument, exploring multiple ways of eliciting sound from the strings, building dialogues between unpitched rhythmic material and harmonic motion, and juxtaposing dynamic extremes. By contrast, a place that inhabits us by Danny Clay (also a guitarist) revealed Mobius’s lyrical playing in a personal and heartfelt work that avoided being uncomfortably earnest through unexpected timbral choices and some genuinely tender melodic writing. (Excerpts from both pieces can be heard on the video Mobius produced for their successful Kickstarter campaign, which reached its goal in just five days.)

From a performance of Persian Dances by Sahba Aminikia at the Kennedy Center.
The trio formed only in 2010, but from the unity of their playing and the constant musical conversation that is visible to the eye in performance one could easily believe that they had been playing together for much longer than that. Last Light is a self-released recording project; the albums is currently available digitally at CD Baby. Even as a casual listener I’ve returned to this CD several times this week; for those NewMusicBox readers who compose for classical guitar, you should certainly check out this album and the Mobius Trio.

Evan Chambers: You Must Change Your Life

Conducted at the composer’s home in Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 2, 2012—12 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Poster image by Myra Klarman
Transcribed by Julia Lu

In conversation, Evan Chambers conveys his ideas using words in a strikingly similar fashion to how he delivers them in music: honestly, intelligently, with neither fear of open emotion nor of making a sharper point than his laid-back demeanor might at first lead you to expect. As he speaks about his familial roots in folk music, his love of poetry, and the responsibility he feels as an artist to acknowledge broader social, political, and environmental challenges, a portrait of the composer emerges that reveals again how incompletely shorthand genre descriptors and professional biographies capture art and artist.

And so it was that we moved from the tag of “folk-inspired” composer to discussions of the brutal side of traditional music and the power it holds over audiences both native and foreign. A commission from the West Point Band became more complex once it was revealed that music that digs around in the messy pits of conflict and loss and death inspired both the request and the resulting piece. Chambers is a composer well versed in electronic music, yet a strong advocate for making a deeply human connection. He is a musician firmly rooted in his Midwestern community, but just as genuinely entrenched to society’s broader concerns. Through it all, he is listening and incorporating his experiences into his life and work. It leads him to quote Rilke:

There’s that poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” right, and the last line is, “You must change your life.”  So we have these aesthetic experiences, these moments of awareness, and even if we don’t know how, we have to change somehow and that imperative drives the process.  It’s an imperative—you have to do something with that, the rhetorical you has to do something with that.  I have to do something with that.  You have this tremendous enthusiasm to make something out of it, to express it somehow.

And so he has, that we might follow.



Molly Sheridan: I know that you tell a story about listening to The Thistle & Shamrock some years ago and undergoing something of a musical conversion experience. And I want you to tell that story again! It is a great entryway into some of the things you’ve done. But I’m also interested in what goes around that story.  Where were you in your music making before that point? Did this inspire a sudden sharp shift or were you already questioning some things and this was sort of a way towards an answer?

Evan Chambers:  I might start crying! [laughs] It was a really emotional experience. My parents were 1950s folk revivalists.  They weren’t professionals; they were just people who loved the music.  My dad played the banjo and the guitar, and he actually “collected” folk songs.  He had notebooks full of songs and all the old Sing Out! magazines.  So my earliest musical experiences were him banging on the guitar and singing with his head tilted back at the top of his lungs—really physically committed performances.  It was a hootenanny kind of atmosphere, people getting together and singing together, and those were the happiest times. When my dad was singing, the family was happy.  It was just this joyous thing in my childhood.  But he also was interested in classical music.  He loved opera, and he played the violin.  He would bang through the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with a cigarette between two fingers on the bow, and he’d stop and smoke.  So I had these two kinds of things going on.

I started music late—I really got into it when I was a junior in high school and went completely gaga for classical music, just buried my head in the trough for many years. By about 1988 or ’89, I was in between degrees, living here in Ann Arbor, working at the original Borders store back before they went bankrupt. I worked on Christmas Eve, and I was driving to Cleveland to see my true love—who is now my wife—for Christmas.  They’d given us a little glass of champagne at Borders before we left, so I had a little happy feeling. I remember I was driving past Toledo, which doesn’t sound romantic but, you know, it’s Christmas Eve and the snow is falling and I’m free from work! I turned on the radio, and it was The Thistle & Shamrock, and there was this group called the Tannahill Weavers, a Scottish group, singing “Auld Lang Syne” in the melody they said was the original one that Bobby Burns intended.  It was like getting punched in the chest.  I just had to pull over—tears streaming, and all of that—because in that moment, I reconnected with some of the energy of that childhood experience.  I always tell my students, if you can find a way to put what you’re doing now together, or to bring it into sympathy with, synchrony with, your earliest musical experiences, then that releases a lot of energy because it’s like being in touch with your roots, honestly. I guess that’s a simple way to say it.

I wouldn’t say I made some kind of conscious decision to change direction. It was like a heart opening, honestly. I started to learn to play the fiddle, and I started working to find a way to integrate that kind of folk music, community music making and energy, into music that I was writing.  Which was a little bit hard at the time—I encountered some resistance.

MS:  I was going to say, these days that kind of thing might be quite accepted—not arbitrarily smashing genres into concert music in a fake, impersonal way, but actively mining all musical experience.  But I imagine that there might have been some push back at the time you were exploring this, either from people you were studying with or your colleagues.

EC:  Yeah, it’s hard to say sometimes exactly what that is.  As a student, I can say that a lot of us felt kind of trapped in the 1980s vocabulary.  There was a lot of octatonic music. I felt like, at the time, there were a lot of people forcing dissonance into what they were writing.  Nobody instructed us to do that. I was studying with Bill Albright, for example, and William Bolcom taught at my school, and those guys were shining examples of how to move between Boogie Woogie, ragtime, the popular music styles of the early 1900s, and contemporary classical tonal and rhythmic techniques.  But somehow the students weren’t getting the memo.  There was some peer pressure to be a certain way.  I’ve looked back on it and I’ve tried to analyze: Was it the teachers?  And I think it was more us; it was more the students than the faculty. We were repressing ourselves in some way.  But I was lucky that I had the two Bills—as I like to call them—because they were both very supportive. They helped me and encouraged me quietly, especially Bill Albright who I was studying with.  I brought him a string quartet that was all Irish jigs and reels, and he said, “Great! I’m happy about this!” I was a little nervous showing it to Gunther Schuller—who actually liked the piece, too, and programmed it at his festival in Sandpoint.  So I feel fortunate in that way, even though I personally had to struggle.

MS:  If it wasn’t coming from the top, so to speak, what was driving that pressure among the students? Why was that the vibe?

EC:  I don’t know. I had one teacher say, “What the fuck is this?  This is fucking Renaissance music.  Don’t do that.  Give me a real piece.”  So there was that.  I had some really important people in my life who I learned tremendous amounts from, but it was still hard. You have Bill Albright saying, “Good, I couldn’t be happier about this,” and yet somehow there’s still internal turbulence. I guess when you’re young and you’re still learning, you’re still forming not just what you can do technically, but also who you are, how you think about things.  You’re forming this worldview and this aesthetic.  It’s hard to figure out where your attention goes.  The negative inputs and the positive ones kind of vie for attention in a lot of ways.

MS: That “folk-inspired” influence, though, carries its own pressures and mischaracterizations. I think the impression might be that this is something that’s somehow quaint or cute, but in reality, of course, folk music can be quite raw and direct, and sometimes quite dark. The influence doesn’t necessarily equate with a watered-down cartoonish approximation of a genre overlaid on concert music.

EC: When I first started writing folk-influenced classical compositions, I worked to overcome the pervasive idea that folksongs were somehow quaint, naïve, or innocent. To me, they are instead powerful, sometimes gritty, bitter and ironic, full of the sadness and longing of life, and I always try to go beyond the texts and musical surfaces to translate a feeling for the expressive values of a participatory whole-body experience.

I have a student now, Tanner Porter, who is writing a setting of “Barbara Allen.” It was one of my father’s favorite songs, and might get dismissed as a polite old chestnut, but it tells a story that is full of hurt, suffering, unrequited love, illness, and death.  In the end even hard-hearted Barbara Allen realizes she can’t bear what she has done—a tragic cautionary tale that might serve to warn us about our own lack of compassion in this world.

It seems clear that at present we are at a very serious environmental, social, and economic crisis point, and for me it all boils down to a crisis of compassion. Things are too dire for us to just keep working to get ahead within the existing system—the existing system is literally killing the planet, and it’s our own hard-heartedness that leads us to tolerate war, homelessness, and the destruction of the living world. We need more of anything that can break through the silent acceptance of what amounts to a gradual apocalypse, that can break through our chauvinisms to instruct us about our real place in the world, that can help us wake up and open our hearts even a little bit. Folk music from our own culture has the potential to remind us about who we are and what truly matters in part because it can bypass our defenses with its familiarity and get straight into our bodies. And if one of the things music can teach us is how to move, then our encounters with traditional music from other cultures can teach us to move in a new way. Both offer us an experience of the transformation and reconnection that we so desperately need in our society.

MS:  That all said and appreciated, I don’t want to give the incorrect impression that your work sounds like you’re soundtracking a Civil War documentary. This is something bigger. The “folk music influence” is a neat biography tagline, but your catalog is of course much broader than that.

EC:  When I started out, it’s important for me to note that I was an unrepentant modernist.  I loved the avant-garde. I was ecstatic when I first heard Messiaen.  In high school, I drove myself downtown to the Dayton Public Library—which seemed like going to the moon, even though it was, you know, 20 minutes away—and I would go to the bin that had the Composers Recordings Incorporated recordings. They were records still. I would check out everything that they had. Then, the next week, I’d go back and get everything else.  It was just thrilling to find the experimentation with sound and the dissonance. There was a composer, Dane Rudhyar, who you don’t hear very much these days, but he had some string quartets with the early incarnation of Kronos that just set my hair standing straight up. That was really important to me.  So it’s true, even though I’m influenced by folk music, it’s more the energy almost than the sound, right? Like I talked about my dad—the physical commitment to sound, this kinesthetic UGGGHH of a moment, trying to get that into the performers’ bodies so that the audience can feel that release and that energy.

I’ve also been influenced by a lot of different kinds of music.  I was really involved in studying ethnomusicology as a graduate student, and my wife is an ethnomusicologist.  So, for example, she took me on a fieldwork trip to Albania shortly after the Communist government fell, back in the early ‘90s, and I had, again, these experiences that were just—I think we all have them, right?  I’m tempted to call them conversion experiences, but peak experiences, peak listening experiences where everything seems to drop away and you’re just left vibrating with the music.  In Albania, I had some experiences like that, so that I feel like it’s my responsibility almost to integrate them into my own singing because they’re so important to me as meaning events and not just as sonic events or cool licks to steal. So even when I’m writing a piece about polka, I figure I’m trying to get inside how it feels to be in it, not writing how it sounds to listen to it.  The same thing with folk music or Albanian music or Sufi Qawwali music—all of which I’ve tried to integrate into the way I sing.

MS:  How does that end up happening in real terms?  I’m asking you questions I know you might not be able to answer in words, but it kind of begs the question: you have an amazing musical experience.  It’s touched you; it’s become part of you.  You want to put that out there, not copy something else, so what really is happening?

EC:  Whoa. This gets into the most intimate, the most non-verbal…how do you synthesize an experience into your life?  How do you take an understanding that opens your heart and your mind and then integrate it into how you act every day?  We don’t know, but we do it. We don’t have a system for it, but we do it.  I mean, I guess honestly, the only thing I could say about that is to quote Rilke.  Saved by the bell! Saved by Rilke again.  There’s that poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” right, and the last line is, “You must change your life.”  So we have these aesthetic experiences, these moments of awareness, and even if we don’t know how, we have to change somehow and that imperative drives the process.  It’s an imperative—you have to do something with that, the rhetorical you has to do something with that.  I have to do something with that.  You have this tremendous enthusiasm to make something out of it, to express it somehow.

MS: There’s also a stream of electronic sound through some of your work, but is this a multi-stranded braid you’re developing through your work, or are these different boxes that you’re drawing out of but keeping distinct?

EC: It’s interesting. Sometimes I’ve been told it’s a good thing that my music doesn’t fit into one category, and sometimes I’ve been told it’s a bad thing.  I think it all sounds like me, honestly. Electronic music was one of the early thrills for me, too.  My parents had a reel-to-reel tape deck, and I “invented” tape deck echo.  I didn’t study it, I just learned that if you do this to this switch, and do this to this switch, and go Pakown, it goes Pakew…kew…kew…kew. That pure joy in sound was so important. Then, when I started studying electronic music, the kind of physical gesture that you can create when you don’t have to use just these muscles to make the music go into the medium you’re storing it in, really that was another thing that helped me release some energy into the music.  I have this idea that music can be kind of like psycho-spiritual Rolfing or deep tissue massage or yoga, where you get into people’s bodies.  If the music has these physical tensions and releases and pushes and pulls built into it, then you can, in a way, inflict those symptoms on the audience.  If you can cause tension and get into that place, you can also then release that for people.  So, electronic music had a real physicality about it that fits with that for me.  And I taught electronic music—I still do—so I’m around those sounds and that medium a lot and think in those terms.  But I’ve been doing it less and less actually in terms of my own composition in recent years.

MS:  It does seem to me in a sense though—and I’m curious what you would say to this—that there’s a kind of parallel between the folk music and the electronics. You’re getting off the page.  These genres seem like opposites on the surface, and yet to me there is an underlying parallel there.

EC:  Yeah, I think there is. Folk music influences the electronic components of my sound, and even my acoustic pieces are deeply influenced by electronic music.  I mean, I cut my orchestrational teeth in a tape studio, cutting tiny pieces of tape that are like five millimeters long to put on the beginning of a ding. So you really come to see how sound is put together, both in time and vertically in terms of timbre. But also, I guess I find that being able to put the physical energy into the taped music is very similar to the kind of physical commitment you can put into folk performance.  And I do want to bring that together in the middle.

MS:  I would also argue that electronics today are in some sense taking the place of what folk music offered, in terms of perhaps a lower bar to participation—the perception at least.

EC: But I think it’s important to remember that the technology, the way it is now, really puts lots and lots and lots of steps between you and the making of the sound.  That’s why I’m much more interested in the live performance, DJ thing where they’ve got record players to play and things to physically control. The sequencing stuff on a laptop—you can end up separating yourself from the physical performance so much that it sometimes loses that sense of every sound being crafted and touched by human hands.  That’s what I love about live music, and it can be a quality of electronic music, too, if you hand craft every note and shape every sound and every timbre.  Then it has this wonderful living feeling, but if you throw things onto a track and leave the same effects on the whole time, it tends to flatten out and be a kind of machine music that I can see the value in, but it’s not my style.

MS:  You yourself have been in the performer’s chair, so you have first-hand experience of delivering these kinds of physical performances. But when you’re at your writing desk, how much and in what ways does that experience filter into the music you write?

EC:  You know, you start out when you’re young, and honestly, for me, the thing that drove me was just that adolescent angst that builds up in your gut and has to get out.  So, the physicality of performance comes in—your hands have to make it, you have to almost squeeze that sound out of the instrument and push it out into the world. Composing is not just collaborating with an eventual performer.  You are the performer in that moment that you’re writing.  You’re thinking about the instrument.  You’re thinking about what position you’re putting the player in, often trying to maneuver them into uncomfortable positions actually, to, again, model a symptom for the audience, to create a pattern of tension and release in the people who are listening and attending to it.  So I don’t think about the music as subsisting in the notes on the page or some rarified autonomous object that is in the world, but not of the world.  To me, it’s not pure proportion or a kind of platonic ideal, the composition.  The composition is a recipe for action.  I’m very focused on the action part of it, so that is performance.  I’m composing that in, I hope.

MS:  I want to talk a little bit about place and your work. It’s not as if your career is limited to this lovely campus, but you have invested a lot of your energies here: first with school and later with teaching, lots of performances with ensembles in the region. Your work is played all over, of course, but there’s also a rootedness and a connection to this place that you’ve taken care to cultivate.

EC:  There’s this tremendous local food movement; we don’t want our food to come from far, far away and be factory made, or made by people we don’t know.  There’s something tremendously rich about knowing the person who grew your lettuce. And for me, art and music have a lot to do with the sense of place. I’ve thought about what it means to be a composer from the Midwest, who lives in the Midwest and has a great love of the Midwest. People driving on the Ohio Turnpike or something will say, “Oh, this drive is so boring.”  But you know, if you look out in the fields when their corn is up, you can see the rows of the corn strobing as you go by, you can see down each individual row.  But it’s more than just even being able to take pleasure in those small details of the world around you.  There’s a tone to the kind of beauty that I think really deeply informs, or I hope deeply informs, what I do with my music.  And I think there’s a value in being rooted in a place.  I ask my students sometimes, What are you going to do when the power grid goes down? I teach electronic music, so they’re working on their laptops, and everything’s electric, so I say, That’s great, but make sure you have something you can do when the power grid goes down.  Because when it does, every single one of us is going to be needed to bring a local community and a local sound and a local activity because we won’t have anything else.  I like going to other places, but I really believe in trying to do something for this place.  I’m writing pieces about this river, and this environment, and these trees. I mean, that’s where I am.  I’m here. I don’t feel like it’s healthy for me to chase after imaginary people and imaginary places, in a way.  I want to belong in this place.

MS:  In an interview you gave in 2005, you drew some lines between your music and poetry: that it wasn’t a straight literal narrative, but it also wasn’t completely without meaning, and you used the metaphor of it being poetry. But that’s all you really said about it, so I wondered if you’d elaborate a little bit further on that idea.

EC: I do think of my music as poetry. A lot.  I spend a lot of time reading poetry, I love poetry—some of my best friends are poets.  [laughs] I have a good friend named Keith Taylor and one of the first collaborations I did with a poet was an electronic setting of his poem “Upper Midwestern Apologia,” which speaks about how people from outside experience the white pines here as “dismal bushes wrapped in ice, and the rivers that we mythologize as creeks,” and how many people “try to love this place but leave bitter, partially broken by our endless gray.”  So even from the beginning of my mature work, I was thinking about being rooted in a sense of place by devoting so much time and energy to that particular piece. I may not be the one to speak about what the process of making poetry is, but to me, what I think about it is, you take experience and match it with language and distill, distill, distill, distill down to this core that has everything packed and encoded into it. It doesn’t explain everything.  It doesn’t necessarily tell a story—or maybe my favorite kind of poetry doesn’t—but when you read it, it opens up like a flower.  And everything is in there.  All these intense interrelationships of sound and meaning and association are all woven together in this small offering that—I don’t like the metaphor of unlocking—but that opens for you when you read it.  And it invites repeated encounters, too, because you hopefully put enough in there that it can sustain you.

MS:  That makes me think of the text from your piece The Old Burying Ground. That isn’t poetry, per se, but the way language is used, there’s some mystery left in it. You could really let it fly in your own head.

EC:  Yeah, The Old Burying Ground came out of another one of those really incredible “smack upside the head” kind of experiences. I was at the MacDowell Colony and I was “called out of my studio” to go hang out at the cemetery with a friend who was going to do rubbings for an installation project—any excuse to play hooky. So I went and ended up reading the tombstones. In this particular place in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, the stones were just absolutely riveting.  It’s kind of amazing to think of a tombstone as being a real grabber, but the man who was the longest serving pastor in American history there, Laban Ainsworth, just really put some heavy stuff on them. I’ve never seen a tombstone anywhere else that had an exclamation point, for example.  In order to read them, you have to lie on your stomach—you’re prone, the words are very small at the bottom where they put the poems.  The guy could write, and he had a message, and when you’re laying face down on someone else’s grave, stern exhortations about how short life is have an impact.  So, there was already poetry there at the heart of that—his poetry, although he’s not directly credited anywhere.  But I knew that I wanted to not make it about that particular place.  I knew that I wanted to make it about, well, about what’s really one of the noble truths about human life, which is that we die.  And there is suffering around that.  Our culture tries to ignore death. Thomas Merton says that by ignoring death, by denying death, American culture actually multiplies it.  In any case, we are, each of us, individually deeply in need of facing this truth about our lives.  So in that piece, I had to generalize things enough that it could be present and past, and specific and personal, and also about the human condition.  One of the vehicles for that was contemporary poetry.  So I have those very old poems from the tombstones, and then I asked friends and people whose work I really admire to write poetry to go in between those, to keep changing the reference and frame and simultaneously turn little lights on between the movements and also put it in a contemporary context.

MS:  In a sense, your work Headwaters is somewhat the inverse of that, a composition that began as a piece about water generally but then focused on a very specific body of water.

EC:  Yes, that’s a place one, too. We were asked to do a large scale, multi-media video/dance/music piece about water, just in general.  And our group got together and decided that we would focus on our river, the Huron River, which is really just down the hill from my house. I go to see it every day. We were working with an environmental scientist, who is also a painter, and we grabbed another environmental scientist to go up there. We went walking around the headwaters of the river and then went to some of the early parts of the streams.  So we were trying to bring together the environmental message, because when you think about your river, you have to start thinking about its health as a being thing, as a living presence in our world.  But you want to try to find a way to do stealth advocacy. If you put in a bunch of facts and figures about the river while the music’s going by and things like that, it just—[shakes head no]. So it was an evening-length work and what we settled on was trying to come up with a way to point, like the finger at the moon.  The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.  The video and the music about the river is not the river.  But the least we can do as artists is use our face time with the audience to point to the things that really matter.

I mean, we’re filming this just after one of the largest, most destructive storms [Hurricane Sandy] in the United States, and we’re living in a time when the environmental, social, and economic issues are so serious.  We’re at such a crisis that we’ve got to do something, even if we feel like it’s not enough.  So we treated this piece as a way to show the place and, in a way, educate [the audience] to love the river.  Because if you love the river, you’ve got to get right with the river.  If you love God, you got to get right with God.  If you love Allah, you got to get right, you know.  So that was the idea.  We tried to give people an aesthetic experience around the ideas of the health of the river, and the river itself, and then hope that they carry that out with them the rest of their lives. I wrote a song called “Where is the River,” and hopefully it’s catchy enough that they’ll leave thinking, “Hmm, where is the river?” Well, it’s everywhere.  It’s beneath my feet.  It’s in my veins.  The river literally flows through us.

MS:  Is this where your work typically comes from, a desire to communicate a kind of message that’s bigger than, or that at least reaches beyond, the notes on the page?  Do you ever sit down and write a piece of music purely with just aural inspiration, or are you usually starting with something more topical and then using music to talk about it?

EC:  It’s the absolute music and program music divide.  This gets to the notion of poetry again; that’s why I would classify myself as a poet-composer. I suppose I have written pieces of music that don’t try to message the way that you might put it.  But I write a lot of music where I’m trying to get something right; I’m trying to get at something.  There’s this idea that there’s something real, and then you put it to music. It’s not fair to music, because that means that music isn’t the real world, and the whole world is the real world.  But I do think of myself sometimes as a translator between experience and sound. I’m trying to put the physical experience of sound into some other kind of experience.

There’s a story behind how Outcry and Turning was born.  I could tell you that story.

MS:  Let’s talk.

EC:  Well, there’s this subcategory of works now where composers are all having to—at some point—write something about 9-11. My version of that is I was writing a piece for the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings—they’re members of the Detroit Symphony—and right in the middle of it, 9-11 happened and the piece just took this turn. At that time, I couldn’t turn it into a memorial kind of piece or anything, but I certainly had just wrenching feelings about it. I had to try to put that in somehow. I’d written several pieces that are related to Sufi Qawwali music and right after 9-11, the backlash against Middle Eastern people and the whole culture of Islam broadly defined across the whole globe was so huge.  So I decided to put a little prayer in this by making it a piece that’s overtly about Sufi music, which I’ve spent some time with but I’m no expert on.  It’s, again, one of those things that’s changed the way I sing and the way I experience music.

That piece got played in Chicago at a conference and there were some things in the program notes about this, and after the concert, a guy in a military uniform came up to me. I thought, oh god, here it comes.  I’m going to get it now—like I’m fraternizing with the enemy, and how could I do that. It turned out that that was just a pure spotlight on my chauvinisms and my prejudices, because the guy came up to me and said he wanted to talk to me about commissioning a piece.  Then we had this long discussion about the limits of military power in the 21st century.  He was a conductor of the USMA band—now they’re going by the West Point Band—and it ended up they played a large piece of mine called Polka Nation and they commissioned this piece, Outcry and Turning, which I wrote as the wars were beginning in Afghanistan and Iraq. I had to say something about this.  It was another one of those things where you could just see the death and destruction that were going to be visited on the world.  All of us have experienced the pain of grief and suffering, and we’ve all, on some level, felt that this cannot be—some loss or death or disaster—and we have to cry out.  So I ended up writing this piece about the wars, but also about our own individual losses and grief and suffering, for the USMA band.  They played it beautifully and they recorded it, and I then I revised the piece and we recorded it just this past week with the University of Michigan band.

MS:  Why the revision? A practical or artistic consideration?

EC:  Well, you can imagine, because it’s called Outcry and Turning, in the outcry sections of the piece especially I was going for something that really hurt: really dissonant, really packed orchestration, really irregular rhythms that lope constantly, push against the beat, and I think I overdid it a little bit.  The piece worked; I think it worked very well.  But I think it would only have worked for the highest level of professional players, and I wanted to try to make it a little more accessible to university bands.  So I had to make some adjustments in thickness and dissonance, so that it could sound more easily. I had lots of very close half-step dissonances in high trombones, for example.  I love that sound.  Just bzzzzzz. I stepped back from that a little bit and tried to make it a little easier to get into people’s bodies, so that you could hear where your part fit into the whole, and also feel where you sat on the beat a little more clearly without trying to change the way it felt for the performers and without changing the music too much.  So that’s the kind of adjustment I was making.

MS:  So to bring it back around to where we began, but having covered all the ground that we have now: There are the common shorthand phrases for your work, things such as that “folk-inspired composition” tag, but then you also have the official bio, which list awards and commissions that have been important, career highlights and such. Still, what words would you choose if these were not already the engrained ways we talk about composers? If you were simply free to express something about yourself and your work that is meaningful to you, what would it be that identifies you as an artist?

EC: I’ve been railing against composer bios for many, many years.  When I was a graduate student, for one of my “big” performances I wrote a bio that talked about, you know, that I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and that I had a dog named Socrates that I loved very, very much and that he had recently died. And I loved going for walks in the woods and spent a lot of time trying to notice things about trees and leaves. The professor said, “No, no, you can’t do that.  Come on, you won this award.  What else have you done?” I’ve been tilting at that windmill for a while. I have written my ideal bio.  I’ve also written what I call my anti-bio that I swear someday I’m going to publish. My colleague Paul Schoenfeld has done this.  He’s brave.  He put it up on the university website.  He and I were always joking that we were going to put our bad reviews in our composer bio and he has things up like, “An undeserved standing ovation”—The New York Times. I’m so proud of him.  So someday I’ll publish my own anti-bio on my blog or something.

But it gets back to our short life and our inevitable death.  The question that comes to the center is not what prizes did you win, but what do you want people to say about you when you’re dead—right after you’re dead, because after you’re dead for a while, we’re all going to be forgotten. What do you want your friends and loved ones and the people whose lives you have touched somehow to say?  And I think it would be something like, “I always tried to pour my heart out in every single piece.”

[long pause]

I think that would be enough.

String Quartet Smackdown! In Austin

How many times during a heated debate about chamber music have you longed for a pair of boxing gloves or perhaps a cricket bat? In the topsy-turvy world of new music, sometimes having a solid piece of wood in your hand can be quite useful. Long gone are the thoughtful, dispassionate discussions of historical significance and the careful dissections of dogma peppered with compromise. These have been replaced by heated accusations, wild ad hominem arguments, and other madness which, if allowed to continue unchecked, will not end well. I say we let the music duke it out and let the audience decide. Via text message. The organizers of Golden Hornet Project’s “String Quartet Smackdown!” clearly agree that the present state of musical debate requires an overhaul. Staid competitions with pedigreed judges be damned! We’ve got smart phones, strong opinions, and a fully stocked bar. Let’s get cracking.

Golden Hornet Project’s “String Quartet Smackdown!”

Featuring sixteen quartet compositions chosen anonymously from among over 100 entries, the Smackdown! was held at Austin’s Scottish Rite Theater, home to regular avant jazz shows as well as secretive, Masonic meetings. Set up to run like the last few rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, the Smackdown! started with a “Sweet Sixteen” round in which the first minute of each quartet was played. Full disclosure: I had a piece in this competition. Its involvement was…brief. This was followed by an “Elite Eight” round with two minutes per piece performed, a “Final Four” with three minutes each, and the Championship in which the last two pieces were played in their entirety. The Tosca String Quartet took on the sizeable task of learning all sixteen string quartets in a few weeks and having each one under their fingers in the event that it reached the final round. One of the entrance requirements was that each piece needed to be right around four minutes (lots of single movements out there), but that’s still over an hour of new music to learn in a relatively short time. Tosca did a fantastic job, not only performing flawlessly but also avoiding having even a single page out of order or any other similar issue which could have easily thrown a monkey wrench into a presentation in which timing and solid performances mean the difference between glory and an early trip to the bar. They also managed to keep straight faces when at the end of each work’s allotted one, two, or three minutes, the gong which signaled “time is up” broke into the flow of the piece, cutting it short as required by the rules. This was funny at first (there used to be this t.v. show…), but after the first few thwacks it started to wear out its welcome. Fortunately, the timers backed off on the hits as the show went on.

Some contests were close!...Some contests were not so close.

Some contests were close!…Some contests were not so close.

Once the gong was struck, the audience was given a few minutes to text their vote and the results came up on a large screen behind Tosca. Watching the real-time “Battle of the Bars” was half the fun, and the audience reactions to contests close and not-so-close were chock full of “oohs” and “aahs.” In the interest of anonymity the quartets were all assigned numbers, one through sixteen, so one would see SQ1 -vs- SQ16 and so on. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that most audience members would be able to “put names to faces” with a given piece, so to speak. For instance, my piece went out in spectacular fashion in the first round, but I suspect that a few of the people who voted for it might have wanted to know who wrote it, and even though the names and titles of each work were included in the program and shown on the screen at the end of the competition, there was no correlation with the numbering system. An industrious audience member (or one with a notebook, pen, email communication with the contest coordinators, and modest research abilities) could probably dig up the facts, but letting people know whose piece was being played at a given time probably wouldn’t have had a huge impact on the voting and would have given said audience member an idea of which composer to check out the next day.

Tosca String Quartet at the String Quartet Smackdown!

Hopefully the audience took those programs home and checked out all of the composers, because there were a number of wonderful pieces included in the show. The gentle introspection of Jonathan Russell’s …in the fir trees: fireflies, with its slow and quiet rising lines, offered a wonderful contrast to the rhythmic intensity and harmonic crunchiness of David Biedenbender’s Surface Tension. Despite its compelling use of pre-recorded materials slowly overtaken by the strings, Steven Snowden’s Appalachian Polaroids also went out in the first round, so I didn’t feel too bad about getting my card punched before intermission. Ruben Naeff’s Little JACKASS (originally JACKASS written for the JACK Quartet) was another strong work; odd time signatures gave shape to quiet high-register rhythmic figures which descended by and by and were joined by longer lines, still walking in lock-step with those asymmetrical rhythms. But in the end, there could be only one, and the catchy rhythms and strong melodies of Chris Black’s Fifteen Grand in a Paper Sack came out on top.

All in all the Smackdown! was a resounding success. It was well attended, and the diverse audience didn’t look to be new music regulars, which I contend is a good thing. As far as I could tell, no one left during intermission, which is a victory for any show. The fact that the audience played an active role in the proceedings coupled with relatively short pieces made for a presentation that was compelling and easily digestible. Given this, I wonder if at the next Smackdown! we could hear the pieces in their entirety from the get go? No one seemed anxious to leave, and while it would certainly add time to the event it would also let more slowly evolving pieces do their thing. (I’m not referring to my piece. It was pretty evolved by the time it got smacked by Sarah Norris’s Stalin Does The Robot).

I can see the Tosca’s reviewing their contract right now…

Composers, Inc. Introduces San Francisco Opera Brass; Subotnick Revisits Silver Apples

Composers, Inc. continued its 29th season of presenting contemporary American music this month with a performance of diverse works for small ensembles as part of the Old First Concerts series in San Francisco. Founded in 1984 by composers Frank La Rocca and Martin Rokeach as an avenue to get their own and their colleagues’ music heard in the Bay Area, Composers, Inc. has remained a composer-driven organization with six composers acting jointly as artistic directors. (La Rocca tells the story of the organization’s genesis here.) Three of the six—La Rocca, Robert Greenberg, and Jeffrey Miller—were represented on the November 13 program.

The San Francisco Opera Brass

The San Francisco Opera Brass, conducted by Dennis Doubin, performing Jeffrey Miller’s Sonata à 11.

The program was titled Brass de Deux, a word play combining the title of Wayne Peterson’s Pas de Deux (performed by flutist Tod Brody and percussionist Jack Van Geem) and the featured artists on the second half of the program: members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra’s brass section performing for the first time as the San Francisco Opera Brass. For the occasion, Miller wrote Sonata à 11, inspired by Gabrieli, and La Rocca transcribed his 1998 a cappella choral work Exaudi for brass choir. Both works received their premiere performances at this concert.

La Rocca’s body of work includes a particular focus on settings of sacred texts for unaccompanied choir. In the original version of Exaudi, La Rocca set sections of four different Psalms, including Psalm 130 (De profundis clamavi, Out of the depths I cry). The choral version was for 12 parts (a perusal score and recording are available here); in transcribing to brass choir, the number of parts was reduced to 11 (3 trumpet, 5 horns, 2 trombones, 1 bass trombone). The vocal writing, full of solemn, extended lines, suspensions, and densely stacked chords, translated well to the unified and rich sound of the San Francisco Opera Brass, which amply filled the church without being overwhelming.

Likewise, Miller’s Sonata à 11 (scored similarly but with a tuba replacing the 5th horn) took advantage of the expansive playing of the San Francisco Opera Brass. As a former trombonist with experience playing Gabrieli’s antiphonal music, Miller wrote for the full and regal quality of the brass choir, placing sustained low brass chords as a bed under more rhythmic trumpet gestures, and horns as a chamber choir embedded in the whole. There was a sense of contained, majestic energy to the San Francisco Opera Brass’s playing in both works that was settled and satisfying.

This was in contrast to two barnburner pieces in the first half of the program, which tapped into a more vigorous and extroverted energy. The evening opened with Greenberg’s Rarified Air (1999) for clarinet, violin, and piano, which takes its title from “that thin, clear high layer of air…known as the stratosphere,” as the composer writes in the program note. The opening and closing movements of this four-movement work, performed with gusto by Rob Bailis (clarinet), Michael Nicholas (violin), and Hadley McCarroll (piano), were dynamic and rhythmically engaging, propelled forward like a train in motion. The more introspective middle movements explored different ranges, establishing a dialogue between the piano and clarinet both in their low registers in the second movement, and placing a clarinet melody and violin obbligato over a mid-range piano chorale with jazz-infused harmonies in the third.

David Biedenbender’s you’ve been talking in your sleep, performed by PRISM Quartet.

The one piece from this program that I’ve since revisited simply for pleasure’s sake is David Biedenbender’s saxophone quartet you’ve been talking in your sleep, performed by the Premiere Saxophone Quartet. (The recording above is by PRISM, for whom the piece was written; a perusal score is available on Biedenbeder’s site if you want to follow along.) In his spoken intro, Biedenbender described one section as being like space alien funk, and indeed the whole single-movement piece explodes into a strange and super groovy late-night sax dance party after some quietly sighing pitch bends in the opening to set the scene. While most of the work is built on complex interlocking rhythmic patterns, there are two homophonic sections that reveal just how precise and virtuosic the performers need to be. (A special shout-out to Aaron Lington, whose nimble baritone sax playing provided an always solid ground for the quartet to work from.) At the end of the piece, Biedenbender sends the soprano sax up into the stratosphere with some screams that were shockingly eyebrow-raising, with pitch bends that echoed the opening but to completely different effect.

you’ve been talking in your sleep was one of two works chosen from 300 entries by Composers, Inc.’s artistic directors for this year’s Suzanne and Lee Ettelson Award, which is open to new chamber works (for up to five musicians) by American composers. The second work selected was Gold Rush for five violins by Indiana University doctoral candidate Ryan Chase (audio here), which will receive a performance at Composers, Inc.’s April 2013 concert. Composers, Inc. is soliciting applications for next year’s award now; the postmark deadline is December 1.


Morton Subotnick performs Silver Apples of the Moon

Morton Subotnick, right, performs Silver Apples of the Moon, while SUE-C creates real-time live video imagery.

If my Facebook feed is to be believed, that same evening a big chunk of the Bay Area new music community (myself included) suddenly became aware that at the end of the week Morton Subotnick was coming back to San Francisco, where he had co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to perform his groundbreaking 1967 work Silver Apples of the Moon live at SFMOMA. Presented in the museum’s Phyllis Wattis Theater on November 15, the performance had Subotnick with a Buchla 200e modular analog synthesizer routed through Ableton Live on one side of the stage and Bay Area video artist SUE-C on the other. Speakers were positioned around the hall, which allowed the opportunity to hear the familiar burbles and tick-tick-ticks moving around in space in quadraphonic sound, rather than the stereo configuration that first made the piece famous.

During the intro and the Q&A afterwards, Subotnick addressed the question of why a work commissioned by a record label (Nonesuch Records), which was inspired by the idea of a new technological paradigm allowing for a new genre of music that exists in a fixed form on recorded media, would need a live performance. His response was two-fold: first, that it allowed for collaboration with another artist, in this case visual artist SUE-C with whom he had worked before at Ars Electronica; and also that it allowed him access to a full palette of sounds while remixing the original work on the spot. For this performance Subotnick utilized elements of Silver Apples, revisiting and transforming them through Ableton, and combined it with A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur from 1978. SUE-C created a parallel and complementary performance, manipulating materials including Mardi Gras beads, a paintbrush, faceted glass from a headlight, and a sheet of brass mesh under the lens of a video camera, and projecting the processed result.

The Buchla 200e

The Buchla 200e: “Select some modules, button them up in a 200e cabinet, and you’re off and running with the most sophisticated analog system ever built.”
Photo by Gina Basso/SFMOMA

Forcing Diversity

Last Wednesday night, we at SUNY Fredonia concluded hosting a satisfying two-day residency with the Lunar Ensemble, a talented group based in Baltimore whose instrumentation is formed around that of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (including voice) with the ubiquitous addition of percussion. Performing a two-evening concert series under the banner of the “Pierrot Centenary Project,” the ensemble not only executed a subtle and entertaining rendition of Schoenberg’s masterpiece but also premiered eight newly composed works. These pieces set the remaining 29 poems by Albert Giraud (from the original collection of 50) that were not included in the libretto for Pierrot Lunaire. I enjoyed both concerts thoroughly, but I was especially surprised by the continued utilization of the singers–it’s a rare occurrence to see a Pierrot-based ensemble incorporate voice unless they’re performing the Schoenberg, and having both of the extremely gifted sopranos (Lisa Perry and Danielle Buonaiuto) tag-team between the many new works really allowed these performances to transcend the realm of the ordinary.

Rewind back several weeks ago and we had another equally able and insightful ensemble in residence, this time from New York City. Initially formed by four graduate students from the Manhattan School of Music’s Contemporary Performance program, loadbang consists of a unique combination of clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and baritone voice. When I first announced that not only would loadbang be performing their concert but performing student works in a reading session as well, I got a lot of quizzical looks asking “what the [insert expletive] am I going to do with that ensemble?” And yet, when they came to campus and flawlessly read down the six student compositions, they inspired the students so much that in both of the student composer concerts that followed, works utilizing the loadbang instrumentation were performed by student performers to great effect.

As Frank J. Oteri’s musings remind us, diversity is a good and rare thing these days. While there are still a number of exceptions, the instrumental makeup of ensembles performing contemporary concert music has ossified into three primary formations: traditional chamber ensembles, “Pierrot + Percussion” ensembles (which groups like eighth blackbird continue to prove is a viable model), and the one-on-a-part chamber orchestra instrumentation found in many university new music ensembles as well as the very successful group Alarm Will Sound. It makes sense that these three models have become commonplace with both performers and composers; the traditional chamber ensembles already have strong and deep repertoires from which to choose (and for composers to study) and so many composers have composed for the other two ensembles over the past 30+ years that they have become staples in their own right.

This consistency in instrumentation is in many ways a good thing, since it simultaneously allows for ensembles to have a wide array of works to choose from as well as a strong number of similar ensembles by which composers may have their works performed. That same consistency, however, has created some unintended side effects. The most obvious is the timbral homogenization that has occurred; the violin/cello/flute/clarinet/piano/percussion combination, for example, has become the de facto mixed chamber sound for new music (just as winds-in-threes became the default instrumentation of symphony orchestras in the 19th century). In addition, the success of these established models has been reached at the expense of many instruments that are not nearly as prominently written for in contemporary concert ensembles (i.e. double reeds, saxophones, brass, violas, and voice, among others; both contrabass and electric guitar have gained some popularity, but are still not used nearly as much as the standard P+P grouping).

Ensembles such as Lunar Ensemble and loadbang as well as several others (including BOAC All-Stars, NOW Ensemble, Newspeak, Cygnus Ensemble, and the Akropolis Quintet) are doing their part to push against that tendency for homogeneity, and one can only hope that more groups (and subsequently composers) will continue to not only experiment but to establish new permanent combinations that can flourish in the future.

Sounds Heard: David Keberle–Caught in Time

Drawing on his work from the decade spanning 1997 to 2007, composer David Keberle’s new album, Caught in Time, showcases six chamber works that blend microtonality, extended performance techniques, and rich textural writing into spacious soundscapes for 21st-century ears.

Keberle revels in many details of performance technique that lend his work a haunting, organic, and particular quality, yet he is above all a composer who paints with broad brushstrokes. The works featured on this release all have an unhurried, larger-than-life, at times epic quality; this is music driven by powerful seismic forces lurking under the surface, music about events that resound with a global sense of scope and impact.

The disc opens with Keberle’s Soundings II, a piece recorded by commissioning flutist Tara O’Connor and the Pittsburgh Flute Club flute choir. The piece is the second in a series of pedagogical works in which Keberle sought to provide a way for student and professional performers of varying levels the opportunity to meet in a masterclass setting and explore the still relatively uncharted world of extended techniques. (In his notes, the composer explains that, “like an iceberg, classical flute study contains many unexplored sonic possibilities that lie under the surface.”) This is a fascinating idea for an educational piece, but in the hands of a composer less artistically assured it could have easily come off as a pedantic catalog of performance techniques. Far from a technical exercise, Soundings II is a haunting composition that weaves all kinds of breath sounds, key clicks, and microtonal glissandi into a large music space that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Keberle’s Four To Go for Pierrot ensemble is cast in four miniature movements that bustle along with a sense of motion that is a refreshing contrast to the opening work’s unhurried wide spaces. Even working with movements of two or three minutes, Keberle seems to paint postcards that function as windows onto spaces more vast than can be contained within the boundaries of each miniature’s brief duration.

David Keberle is also a clarinetist specializing in new music, and he performs on two of the other chamber works featured here, including the 15-minute work for clarinet and piano titled Incroci (literally “crossover” or intersection, and the closest word approximating the term “crossover” in Italian). Keberle’s performance reveals his secure technique and imaginative sense of tone color—many of his microtonal fingerings alter the instrument’s tone even more than they alter pitch, and in Keberle’s musical universe it’s clear that pitch and tone color are interrelated at an almost organic level. One of Keberle’s great strengths as a composer is his understanding of how several seemingly disparate elements may be combined to create impressions of singular expressive power.

The disc concludes with settings of three Yeats poems performed ably by tenor Rob Frankenberry with Eric Moe on piano. It’s interesting to hear Keberle’s compositional muse channeled into a slightly more linear/narrative mold, and both composer and poet seem well-served by the encounter. A very active piano accompaniment provides most of the textural interest, with a surprisingly art song-like vocal part.

This disc represents my first encounter with David Keberle’s music and rarely have I been so taken by a composer’s use of time as aural and expressive space. Each of these works cultivates its own musical space: an atmosphere that belongs to that work alone.

Seattle Symphony: Partying Like It’s 1962

Full disclosure: Seattle Symphony performed my music as part of their Sonic Evolution project on October 26th. However, since they also host a number of interesting and creative music series designed to attract new audiences, I wanted to share with NewMusicBox readers my observations of an event I had the opportunity to attend while I was in town.

After arriving in drizzly, chilly, late-October Seattle, I took a short “disco nap,” in part to battle coast-to-coast jetlag, and also to make sure my ears would be well sharpened for the Seattle Symphony’s new late night contemporary chamber music series called [untitled]. Designed to take place in the grand lobby of Benaroya Hall—a welcoming space with gigantic windows overlooking the city—this inaugural concert celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair by presenting works composed exclusively in 1962. The festivities featured a mixed ensemble of orchestra musicians, as well as six members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) who were in town participating in the symphony’s full weekend of concerts.

When I arrived shortly before 9:00 p.m., people were milling about the lobby, and many were lining up at the several bar areas to procure beer, wine, coffee, and tea. It was over an hour before the actual event was supposed to begin, but I wanted to hear the decidedly post-1962 “pre-concert” event as well; Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntable and Orchestra. A work for chamber orchestra featuring select members of the symphony, it was conducted by assistant conductor Stilian Kirov, and featured DJ Madhatter on turntables. I ended up sitting at a table close to the musicians with some of the volunteer crew (who requested detailed explanation regarding what the DJ was doing and how exactly he was doing it), and although I couldn’t see all of the musicians, I had a clear view of large video displays focused on the DJ’s turntable and electronics setup. It was a satisfying way to experience the piece, as the DJ’s role was highly virtuosic; he kept busy scratching and spinning the bubbling orchestra source material contained on his vinyl records, playing snappy exchanges with the musicians as well as cadenzas of his own making. Happily, the acoustics of the grand lobby are excellent; the performance (and indeed, the entire concert) sounded crisp, clear, and well balanced in the space. The audience gathered closely around the players, and the piece was well suited to such an intimate setting.

Gabriel Prokofiev Concerto for Turntable and Orchestra

Seattle Symphony musicians with assistant conductor Stilian Kirov and DJ Madhatter performing Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntable and Orchestra. Photo by Ben VanHouten.

By the time the “official” event kicked off, after additional drinks and desserts and milling about, the lobby was filling up nicely with several hundred concertgoers. Some took advantage of seating arranged both on the ground floor and around the circumferences of the upper floors, while others parked on the stairs and on the floor. Music Director Ludovic Morlot served as the MC for the [untitled] program, enthusiastically giving background information on the pieces, directing the audience’s attention to each of the two performance areas in the lobby, and imploring people to wander through the space and experience the music from different vantage points.

Seattle Symphony [untitled]

Seattle Symphony [untitled] concert in the grand lobby of Benaroya Hall. Photo by Ben Vanhouten.

The first work on the program proper was John Cage’s Variations III for “any number of people performing any actions.” Morlot emphasized the whimsy of this work as he playfully tossed the transparent circle images which constitute the score under a camera that fed the numerous video screens (which, when not being employed to show scores, projected the program in progress, along with associated information and notes), and added embellishments to the blank sheet of paper with colored Sharpie pens. The musicians, scattered through the performance area, reacted to the visual stimulus, creating a pointillistic sound field that ended all too soon. Although some Cage diehards in the audience could be overheard sounding a little grumbly about the piece not being taken seriously enough (the musicians seemed perfectly serious about the whole affair to me), I imagine that Morlot’s ebullient attitude could warm up a lot of straight-laced classical concertgoers to the adventures offered by Cage’s music.

Next up was Scelsi’s Khoom, which was given a ravishing performance. The audience was transfixed by soprano Maria Mannisto, who navigated the work’s constantly transforming nonsense syllables with ease and clarity. The scene then switched to the second performance area for Earl Brown’s Novara. The score, which is constructed of musical fragments which can be played in any order and combination, was projected on to the video screens, and one could watch the music unfold (or at least try to figure out how it was unfolding) by alternating one’s view from conductor and performers to score. Following that was a taut, intense performance of Atrées by Xenakis, a work for mixed ensemble, consisting of five sections that can be played in any order.

Scelsi's Khoom

Seattle Symphony and ICE musicians with conductor Ludovic Morlot, performing Scelsi’s Khoom. Photo by Ben Vanhouten.

The exclamation, “Did you even know that Morton Feldman has a work that is only five minutes long?!” could be overheard multiple times after the next (and uncharacteristically short) work, Feldman’s For Franz Kline, featuring another beautifully wordless performance by Maria Mannisto. The final piece on the program was the ever charming Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes by Ligeti. The metronomes were set up on one level of a staircase leading to the concert hall balcony, and Morlot invited audience members to join him and the members of ICE in starting them up. A good portion of the audience crowded onto the staircase to help get them started, or to have a good look and listen. Although the somewhat cramped location of the metronomes seemed a bit odd at first—normally the piece begs to be located out in the open in a nice large space—the clicking nevertheless resounded throughout the lobby, and could be heard quite strongly in unexpected spots. Although some of the audience started to disperse about halfway through the clacks, chatting with friends and edging toward the doors, a larger number stood transfixed by the metronomes, waiting patiently until the very last click (I did see one gentleman restart a metronome that finished earlier, so the whole process took a while), and giving the miniature tabletop orchestra a hearty round of applause after the final player ground to a halt.

Poeme symphonique

Ligeti’s Poeme Symphonique for 100 metronomes.

Although presenting music of this sort is not a new occurrence, especially in the rich musical life of Seattle, it was nevertheless heartening to see so many intent listeners of many different ages—from teenagers to senior citizens—and to overhear so much conversation about the music itself. Many audience members who didn’t immediately “get it” were eager to enter into dialogue with others for whom this music is an everyday event. (My personal favorite moment was when a man came up to me and the clarinetist I was chatting with after the event, and pointedly said, “It’s interesting that none of the composers on this program are still alive. Do you actually know any living composers?”) Even if those folks never did completely embrace the experience, that they stuck around to try until after midnight is significant. The [untitled] series is a wonderful example of creative programming that provides audiences with a close-up experience of the orchestra, and at the same time strengthens ties with the city by celebrating its history as well as its inhabitants.

Texas Performing Arts and Conspirare: New Season, New Commissions

The commissioning of new works is the life blood of contemporary music. Whether large or small, from consortiums, ensembles, foundations, or individuals, these nods to compositional creativity provide practical support for composers as well as career-boosting validation. Texas Performing Arts and Conspirare are two of the strongest players in the music scene in Austin, and their commitment to the commissioning and performing of new works is significant. Recently, both groups commissioned and premiered major new works within only a few days of one another. Fall is always overflowing with great sounds, and this embarrassment of new music riches, coupled with a bit of mercifully cool weather, made for an exciting start to the season.

Dan Welcher

Dan Welcher

The double string quartet is a bit of a rare avis. If you happen to attend a concert with a new one programmed, you’re also going to hear either the Shostakovich or the Mendelssohn. It’s going to happen. Or you may hear both as bookends to the new work, which is what the audience experienced when the Miró and Shanghai quartets came together to premier Dan Welcher’s new work Museon Polemos. ** The Shostakovich Two Pieces for String Octet, which preceded the Welcher, featured a common setup for the performers which (from stage right) is the standard quartet configuration (vn, vn, vc, va) but doubled. A little weird, like driving an unfamiliar stick shift, but still quite workable. However, Museon Polemos’ antiphonal requirements not only had the quartets set up opposite one another but also had the viola and cello switch their conventional position such that both groups (when viewed from the audience) were mirror images of violin I, violin II, viola, and cello from the front to the back of the stage on a bit of an angle. I imagine that after a few decades you get pretty used to having the viola right there, so doing a shell game shuffle with the seating positions could be, you know, problematic; something like driving in England with the stick in your left hand, the clutch under your right foot, in the rain, caught in one of those endless roundabouts. Yet during this performance, you’d never know anything was unusual, either from what you could see or hear, all of which was dynamic, compelling, and flawlessly performed. Labeled as a “25 minute ballet without dancers,” Museon Polemos pits the two string quartets against one another in an Apollonian/Dionysian contrast of music and mood with the Shanghai quartet as the thoughtful, cool former and the Miró quartet as the visceral, earthy latter. While the forthcoming Rite of Spring centennial is in the near future, Welcher took inspiration primarily from Stravinsky’s later ballets of the ’30s and ’40s when composing his work.

The Shanghai (top) and Miró (bottom, photo by Nathan Russell) Quartets

The Shanghai (top) and Miró (bottom, photo by Nathan Russell) Quartets

The work opened with a short, sharp tutti chord which contained the harmonic profile of both groups, combined in one thorny punch. This led to an introduction to the character of each quartet, starting with the Shanghai’s bright, clean lines in the violins bolstered by pizzicato in the viola. The Miró responded with sneering, blocky double-stops, violin I rising against accents in violin II. The sabre rattling took the shape of solos with both groups firing shots over the other’s bow until the movement ended, the matter unresolved, illustrated by another statement of the opening chord. The second movement began with Miró weaving a unison line contrasted by chords performed by Shanghai. A solo broke from the unison line, dramatically contrasting and ultimately dominating the chords in the Shanghai. However, before a death blow could be dealt, a slow, melancholy, barcarolle-like motion emerged from the remains of the chords Shanghai had all but abandoned. Miró joined the procession, the music building inevitably to a climax before both groups returned to their introductory material; a quiet ending which left the conflict of the work still unresolved. For the third movement, Welcher pulled out all the stops including rhythmic elements from “Dance of the Adolescents” from part I of The Rite of Spring, his one nod to the centennial. Following the initial onslaught, a calm section provided a break; a gathering of forces for the final push. A Gregorian chant of sorts developed in the violins, pushing forward and mimicking the inevitability of the barcarolle from the second movement. This gave way to big pizzicato lines traded among the players as trills erupted, both providing tension and effectively freezing the forward motion of the work. A high note traded between both first violins was caught in a web of pizzicato and served to illustrate the two groups locked in combat; a conflict neither side would win. Acknowledgement of this dichotomy came by way of another long held chord by both quartets, now spent, which ended the work.




Conspirare is one of the real gems of the Austin art scene. Their recent release, Samuel Barber: An American Romantic, made its debut at #10 on the Billboard Classical Music charts and is the most recent result of their $1 million dollar expanded recording program with the label Harmonia Mundi. Their Legacy of Sound initiative also provides significant funding for the commissioning of new works, and two of those works, If I Were A Swan and To Touch the Sky by Kevin Puts, were recently premiered by Conspirare with the composer on hand. Conspirare’s focus is always on the music, but their presentation is also compelling. As they have in previous concerts, Conspirare began by entering from the back of the room and populating the aisles for the first work, Rene Clausen’s Tonight Eternity Alone. The work began with gentle minor pentatonic melodies slowly cascading as two sopranos broke through, rising above the texture. As the piece closed, Conspirare continued to the stage to perform Steven Stucky’s O sacrum convivium (in memoriam Thomas Tallis). In marked contrast to the Clausen, the Stucky was rhythmically explosive and tonally ambiguous with symmetrical chords sliding up and down in the propulsive texture.

Kevin Puts

Kevin Puts

Following the Stucky was the world premiere of the first commission, Puts’s If I Were A Swan. Starting almost imperceptibly, the male and female voices traded staggered entrances, with the women ultimately yielding to rapid sixteenth notes in the male voices on the plosive “puh.” [1] At moments, these sixteenths were (Phillip) Glass-like as they appeared and faded, playing hide and seek as they traded places with other rising and falling lines. An eventual return to the initial texture intimated an ending, but not before the sixteenths reappeared, giving a bright ending to the work. This concert was part of the Conspirare “Signature Series” in which new works are paired with those that have become part of the Conspirare canon [2], so the remaining works on the first half were terrific arrangements of (and new works based on) spirituals. The second half began with the centerpiece of the concert, Puts’s To Touch the Sky. Set in nine movements, the work was described by Puts as his first “mature attempt at writing for unaccompanied chorus.” Based on the concept of the “divine feminine” manifest in many of the world’s religions, Puts found a variety of texts reflective of this phenomenon to use in the work. The smooth polyphony of the first movement, “Annunciation,” acted as a strong counter to the rising chromaticism of the second, “Unbreakable.” The third and fourth movements also had a paired quality, the former driving, pulsing, (recalling the sixteenths from If I Were A Swan) the latter gentle and quite short. The fifth movement was the longest and served as the centerpiece of the work. Initially evocative of early church music, the quasi-modal language and rhythmically simple delivery was quite effective. The 3/4 time signature was largely populated by a half note/quarter note rhythm which anchored the piece as the soprano line broke from the pack, rising as a string of suspensions played out below. Pairings not dissimilar to the opening movements followed, highlights of which were the whispering susurrus of the seventh movement, “Who has seen the wind?” and the high, clean, and pure boys choir quality of the final movement “Most noble evergreen” which, after a few cadential teases, brought the piece to an end.

The final portion of the concert mirrored the collections of spirituals, this time drawing from arrangements of Sondheim and Bernstein as well as folk music icon Woody Guthrie and local favorite Eliza Gilkyson. I attended the show on Sunday, but both Friday’s and Saturday’s performances of To Touch the Sky were recorded by Harmonia Mundi for an upcoming live concert CD. This recording will be produced in collaboration with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in conjunction with a recording of Puts’s Fourth Symphony under the direction of Marin Alsop.

2011 marked the 30th anniversary of Texas Performing Arts, and this is the 20th anniversary season of Conspirare. Both organizations are shining examples of the world-class art that Austin has to offer; compelling evidence that alongside the spectacular popular music festivals, high-tech industry, amazing food, and dynamic lifestyle, Austin has an art music scene worthy of the world stage.

And these two groups are just hitting their stride.


** Dan Welcher is a professor of composition at the Butler School of Music at UT Austin where I’m a doctoral student.


1. Try it. Puh puh puh puh. It works quite well.

2. Make no mistake; this audience knows its Conspirare canon. The concert program was divided into four sections, some of which had works listed in the program that were not played. For example, the first section had five pieces, of which only three were played. When it was announced that the Tarik O’Regan work I Had No Time To Hate was not to be played, a loud groan rose from the crowd.

Sounds Heard: Annie Gosfield—Almost Truths and Open Deceptions

In the liner notes of her latest recording, Almost Truths and Open Deceptions, Annie Gosfield writes of her “parallel lives” performing music with her own band and writing fully notated compositions for other musicians and ensembles. With both of those worlds represented on this recording, it seems more that her two creative worlds are deeply interconnected, influencing one another and sharing common musical elements and sources of inspiration.

One of the striking things about Gosfield’s music is its unusual combination of visceral rawness and otherworldly distance. It often has a very direct sort of in-your-face quality while her obsession with broken machinery and obsolete technology crafts a somewhat ghostly scrim around the instrumental sounds. But because her connection to the technology is personal—much of it has been inspired by her family history—it is mysterious in the way that wandering around in a grandparent’s attic searching for old letters or hidden secrets can feel haunting and nostalgic at once.

The first track, Wild Pitch, was composed for the ensemble Real Quiet, featuring cellist Felix Fan (a major player, literally, throughout the CD), percussionist David Cossin, and pianist Andrew Russo. The piece travels through episodes of strong, lyrical cello lines that spill into frenetic ensemble interludes, which do indeed give the impression of a baseball game gone mad. The instruments flail away only to exhaust themselves into new contemplative states that give rise to more cycles of stillness and activity. An enticing assortment of small percussion instruments such as cymbals and small gongs mesh well with the sound world created by the piano and cello, and the score is thoughtfully arranged with all instruments nicely balanced in the mix.

Gosfield performs often on a sampling keyboard, mapped with a selection of sounds that seems to bear no relation to a piano keyboard. (I have often wondered how she keeps track of all the samples!) It is a nice surprise to hear her playing an actual piano on Phantom Shakedown, accompanied by an arsenal of electronic sounds created out of recordings made from failing technology, such as a broken radio. Her playing contains hints of numerous styles, from Romantic era to ragtime, and this combination of piano with electronics is quite beautiful and artfully coordinated, especially when the piano lets up after periods of intense activity, allowing the electronics to shine through to the foreground.

The showcase work of this disc, Almost Truths and Open Deceptions, is a hefty chamber concerto for cello with 2 violins, viola, contrabass, piano, and percussion featuring cellist Felix Fan again in the spotlight along with the other 3/4ths of the Flux Quartet. Gosfield pulls a nice big sound out of the ensemble during several raucous tutti sections; about 11 minutes into the work, the group flits briefly into a nightclub-ish sound, evoking a more intimate, smaller space. The music again builds, up to a different shift in texture to pizzicato strings and a pounding bass drum. After another boisterous period, the cello calms everything down to a wavering drone on D that gradually fades into silence.

The following track, Daughters of the Industrial Revolution, is a big change in instrumental scope and sonic palette. Written for Gosfield’s mixed quartet, it features rock guitar and drums with sampled machine and factory sounds set to a pulsing 4/4 groove. In Cranks and Cactus Needles Gosfield brings her passion for the sounds of broken and obsolete technology directly to her instrumental writing, as the Stockholm-based ensemble The Pearls Before Swine Experience recreates the warping, uneven sounds associated with old 78rpm records through their instrumentation of violin, flute, cello, and piano. This piece is structured differently than the others on this disc (to my ear), with a smoother through-line and more subtle gradations between the contrasting spare and busy textures that characterize much of Gosfield’s work.

Almost Truths and Open Deceptions is a selection of well-constructed, carefully recorded works that show how the parallel pathways of a band member and concert music composer can gel into a singular artistic vision.