Tag: chamber music

Sounds Heard: In the Mood for a Melody (Piano Person Edition)

Piano Sounds Heard
Perhaps it is the drama surrounding the Steinway sale that has put me in a piano state of mind (my last Billy Joel allusion, I promise), but this week three unique keyboard albums caught my attention.

At the top of the pile was Little Things featuring the toy piano talents of Phyllis Chen. While of miniaturized stature, the instrument’s impact under Chen’s fingers is full-sized; any misapprehension that this music is simply a novelty exercise on a child’s plaything is quickly curbed. The disc’s seven compositions—some concentrating on the instrument alone, others incorporating electronics, recorded vocals, and/or additional percussive sounds—span a compelling range of sonic worlds that dazzle with their creative use of the toy piano’s unique timbre, the distinctly audible key strokes, and variously employed extended techniques. While often playful, to my ears each piece avoided any coy winks at cuteness that the instrument might encourage. Angélica Negrón’s The Little Things, with its expanded palette of additional instruments and electronics, is a particular disc stand out.

Concentrated from another angle, Cold Blue’s release of Jim Fox’s Black Water as a CD single allows listener attention to cleanly focus on his 18-minute work for three pianos (each part covered here by Bryan Pezzone). Borrowing its title from a collection of short stories Fox was reading at the time of its composition, the work tracks a nearly relentless shimmering movement that explores the full range of the keyboard. When the lines do linger a bit in a particular area of tranquility, the mood easily turns reflective, but the bulk of Pezzone’s work across the three piano parts keeps ears pulled forward, the notes a school of silvery fish rapidly outpacing any ominous predators floating in the shadows.

Bonus points: Where thoughtfully curated collections are fascinating, hodgepodge albums with no clear through line often frustrate my listening enjoyment. I found that this singular presentation significantly strengthened my engagement with the work and easily encouraged repeat listens.

Rounding out this case of innovative ivory pressing is Timo Andres’s album Home Stretch, a three-work collection of pieces that allow the listener to view the pianist/composer’s musical mind from several intriguing and overlapping angles. In performance with the Metropolis Ensemble under the direction of Andrew Cyr, the disc opens with Andres’s own Home Stretch, a piece that embraces a colorful intricacy in the piano line rather than flashy showmanship and encourages a joyful interplay with the orchestra. Andres’s Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno and his completion/recomposition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 (Coronation) both showcase musical dialog of a slightly different ilk. His take on the Mozart in particular really held me up by the lapels. As the disc’s liner notes illuminate, here Mozart gave himself plenty of room to improvise in the original score (and neglected to specifically notate much of the left-hand part). Andres fills in with materials of his own invention, stretching the paths this way and that and inviting in his own ideas and influences with one hand, while holding Mozart’s in his other.

Admittedly, the exercise may not be for everyone—one friend called it “the ultimate act of hubris”—but adore it or despise it, at the very least it’s likely to fuel some animated post-listening thinking.

Mozart / Timothy Andres: Piano Concerto No. 26 “Coronation” – 1st Movement.
Movements 2 and 3, plus Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno, are also available on the Metropolis Ensemble’s Vimeo channel.

In the Bay Area: Cahill at the Piano and [email protected]

Pianist Sarah Cahill’s engaging solo recital last Friday, presented by Old First Concerts, included an advance look at a program that Cahill is planning to perform at San Quentin State Prison next month of music by Henry Cowell. Also included were pieces by three other composers who were either born or now live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and several works by the late Canadian composer Ann Southam. In a hall filled with familiar faces, Cahill introduced Piano Step by Samuel Carl Adams (composer John Adams’s son) by saying “most of you have probably known him since he was little.” Similarly, Cahill and Shinji Eshima, whose Delta 88 was given its premiere performance, have a friendship dating back 40 years, and John Kennedy, who moved to the Bay Area from Santa Fe only a year ago, has already established a regular local presence.

Sarah Cahill, using her forearm to play clusters in Henry Cowell’s High Color

Sarah Cahill, using her forearm to play clusters in Henry Cowell’s High Color

Cahill played two works by Cowell on this program, Rhythmicana and High Color, which were both written in 1938, during the four-year period when Cowell was incarcerated on a morals charge at San Quentin in Marin County, north of the Golden Gate Bridge. (A recording of Cahill playing High Color is available on New Albion Records’ document of the 1997 Henry Cowell Piano Festival in Berkeley, which coincidentally is when Cahill first met Kennedy.) Cahill’s upcoming project is a performance at the prison on September 20 of music that Cowell wrote while imprisoned. In addition to works for piano, Cahill hopes to accompany a few of the inmates in Cowell’s songs from this period and to enlist other musicians to perform Cowell’s United string quartet and other works. (The prison has a history of arts advocacy; the Marin Shakespeare Festival has been working with inmates annually to present a Shakespeare play, alongside works written by the incarcerated reflecting Shakespeare’s themes.)

Delta 88 by Shinji Eshima, a longtime bassist with the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet orchestras, was constructed with the idea of using each key across the full range of the piano once, with the sustain pedal held throughout the two-and-a-half minute work. The metaphor, Eshima writes, is of “the many things we experience but once in our lives.” As such, Eshima moves through some of the notes very quickly using fast arpeggiations up the keyboard, but other pitches are slowed down and observed more carefully, like the final three which settle at the lowest and highest ends of instrument.

John Kennedy’s Naturali Periclitati (“Endangered Natures”) was written in 2007 for a program that Santa Fe pianist Marthanne Verbit was preparing on the deteriorating state of the environment. (Her recording was released on Albany Records’ Endangered.) An evocative 15-minute piece in three movements, Kennedy uses large register separation between voices throughout the work, creating an unsettled sense of multiple realities coexisting uneasily. Piano Step (2010), written for Lisa Moore by Samuel Carl Adams when he was 25, is constructed on an 11-chord passacaglia that begins its eight-minute journey as an oddly mixed-metered homophonic hymn. Along the way it breaks apart into different registrations, dissolves into stuttering single notes, and gets interrupted by occasional interjections, before settling into an unexpected, quiet and simple statement in the distance right at the end.

Richard Friedman introduces work by Ann Southam

Richard Friedman introduces work by Ann Southam

While Eshima and Kennedy were both on hand to speak about their pieces (Brooklyn-based Adams was not able to attend), Cahill asked Richard Friedman, who has a weekly program on KALW called Music from Other Minds, to introduce the works by Ann SouthamGlass Houses No. 7 and Rivers, Series II, No. 2. (Cahill also hosts a new music program on KALW, recently renamed Revolutions Per Minute.) The infectious enthusiasm with which Friedman spoke about coming across Southam’s music for the first time is probably familiar to all NewMusicBox readers who have at one time said, “OMG, I just heard this great thing and I have to play it for you right now!” Indeed, this delight in discovery pervaded the entire concert, which had the feeling of a small group of friends taking pleasure in sharing some nice things they found.

Cahill’s performance of Southam’s fluid, minimalist works—Glass Houses No. 7 has a rolling nine-note pattern in the left hand that repeats throughout; Rivers a gentle rocking pattern in the right hand—were mesmerizing and organic. In his introduction, Friedman said that while many composers write music about water, Southam’s music “sounds like water,” and in fact, as the left hand melody crossed and flowed through the repeating right hand figure in Rivers, the line picked up and subsumed the notes of the ostinato like pebbles carried along by the current.

Cahill closed the program with a spirited delivery of Cowell’s High Color, which evokes the “dazzling gold” in the hills of Ireland. Cowell overlays an Irish jig tune with forearm clusters, which results in a joyous cacophony that Cahill confidently delivered with her refreshing lack of unnecessary showmanship and pretense. The concert was greeted with a rousing standing ovation, which yielded a final work by Southam, also from the Rivers series—a quiet and reflective send-off into the evening.


Christopher Froh, Ian Rosenbaum, and Ayano Kataoka (from left) performing Part One of Reich’s Drumming

Christopher Froh, Ian Rosenbaum, and Ayano Kataoka (from left) performing Part One of Reich’s Drumming
Photo courtesy of [email protected]

The small rural outpost that Henry Cowell was born in bears little resemblance to the Menlo Park of today. Located in the midst of Silicon Valley, Menlo Park is now home to Facebook and numerous venture capital firms, as well as the [email protected] summer chamber music series, which was founded 11 seasons ago by New York-based artistic directors David Finckel and Wu Han, who also head the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Though nearly all of the festival’s programming is traditionally in the Bach/Beethoven/Brahms vein—especially this season, which is titled From Bach—one concert on this year’s Carte Blanche recital series stood out for its programming of Nancarrow, Cage, Reich, and other 20th-century composers, featuring percussionists Christopher Froh, Ayano Kataoka, and Ian Rosenbaum.

Menlo-Atherton High School’s Center for Performing Arts

Menlo-Atherton High School’s Center for Performing Arts

Held in the 500-seat theater at the Center for Performing Arts on the campus of the Menlo-Atherton High School, this shrewdly chosen program of solos, duets, and trios drawn from international contemporary percussion repertoire was an unadulterated delight for the audience throughout. More than once during the intermission I overheard people say with pleasure, “That was really fun!” and “This is not what I expected!” (The only work from earlier than 1948 was Kataoka’s transcription for solo marimba of the first three movements of Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3, which she played with such grace and flair that audience members applauded heartily after each movement.)

Kataoka and Froh perform Kagel’s Railroad Drama from Rrrrrr…

Kataoka and Froh perform Kagel’s “Railroad Drama” from Rrrrrr…
Photo courtesy of [email protected]

The three percussionists, who do not perform regularly as a trio—Froh is based in the Bay Area, while Kataoka and Rosenbaum are from the East Coast, both having been members of CMS Two—collectively demonstrated an interest in theatricality, employing lighting designs for several of the works and programming Thierry de Mey’s Table Music, performed with virtuosic verve and occasional moments of hamminess, and two movements from Mauricio Kagel’s Rrrrrrr…. The three gathered around one bass drum for Nebojsa Zivkovic’s wild and wildly entertaining Trio per uno, and followed that with the highlight of the program for me, Rosenbaum’s supremely elegant and meditative reading of John Cage’s In a Landscape adapted for solo marimba.

Trio per uno by Nebojsa Zivkovic

To conclude the program, four pairs of bongo drums were arranged in a T (instead of a straight line) for the three musicians to play Part One of Steve Reich’s Drumming, written for four percussionists but reconfigured to be possible for three. The [email protected] crowd, which had never before been offered an all-percussion concert at this festival, gave the musicians an enthusiastic and well-deserved ovation, showing yet again that with compelling programming and a charismatic performance, even an audience used to a steady diet of the European classical canon will respond to an excellent concert filled with music new to their ears.

Table Music by Thierry de Mey

New England’s Prospect: All-Lou Harrison Concert At Monadnock Music

Ludwig Zamenhof originally imagined Esperanto as a local balm, not a global one. He grew up in Bialystock, then the capital of the Belostock Oblast, a province of the Russian empire that included about half of modern Poland. In Bialystock, the Jews spoke Yiddish, the Poles spoke Polish, the Russians spoke Russian, the Belarusians spoke Russian (and Belarusian), the Tatars spoke Belarusian (but used the Arabic alphabet), the Germans spoke German, and everybody was constantly at odds with each other. Zamenhof invented Esperanto in the 1880s with the hope that getting everyone to learn a single, simple language, unburdened by history or tradition, would eliminate misunderstanding and thus eliminate conflict—internal conflict, at first; international, as the movement took off.

Lou Harrison, the composer, was an Esperantist. He translated the Mahāyāna Buddhist Heart Sūtra into Esperanto for his choral setting, La Koro Sutro—a universal wisdom in a universal language. And then, paradoxically—and in a reversed echo of the progress of Zamenhof’s idea—he set it in a way that guaranteed that performances would be few, far in between, and heavily dependent on where you were.


Conductor Gil Rose opened Monadnock Music’s all-Lou Harrison concert on July 27 with a quick tour of Old Granddad, a just-intonation assemblage of pipes, sawed-off oxygen tanks, plate metal, and large tin cans spread across the floor in front of the stage of the Peterborough Town House in New Hampshire. (This is the second season Rose has had the directorship of Monadnock Music in his brief, which also includes the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and—just recently announced—the newly formed Odyssey Opera company.) Old Granddad, the original, was the “American Gamelan” Harrison and his partner, William Colvig, built from scratch in the early 1970s. Rose explained how, after the University of California at Santa Cruz (owners of that original Old Granddad) stopped renting the instruments out, he was lucky enough—having already scheduled a BMOP concert requiring Old Granddad’s services—to learn that Richard Cooke, a longtime Harrison associate, was building a copy for the Rhythm Discovery Center museum. Cooke agreed to build Rose a second copy. Rose also strongly hinted that, having performed (and recorded, for future release) the two works on the evening’s concert (La Koro Sutro and the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan), he was now eager to program Young Caesar—the puppet opera that is the only other piece Harrison composed for Old Granddad—and then hand the care and storage of the instruments off to someone else.

The Suite is, on the surface, modeled after a Baroque dance suite, prompting Rose to program it alongside J. S. Bach—the G minor solo violin Sonata (BWV 1001), which Gabriela Diaz played with a phrase-by-phrase rubato, micro rather than macro, that emphasized the music’s complex intricacies. In the end, it made more of a contrast than a complement to the Suite, which seems built more out of measures of moods than layered lines. The piece, the last written for Old Granddad before Harrison turned his attention to gamelans more explicitly modeled after Javanese examples, was a collaboration—Harrison wrote it in partnership with his student Richard Dee—and you can kind of sense where one composer leaves off and the other picks up: the opening movement, full of double-stop drones and ostinati, and the following “Estampie,” busy and wandering, are like A and B sides of the same record; the moody, modal-hymnody-tinged “Air” and the long-line, almost Samuel-Barber lyricism of the final “Chaconne” are more like each other than like any of the rest. But it’s all part of the Suite’s grand tour, a stylistic rail pass that comes out most clearly in the trio of “Jhalas” in the center, the first full of Debussyian haze, the second pentatonic and jangly, almost a Russian-frontier Christmas, complete with sleigh bells, the third (for gamelan alone) stateless and ambient. It was a confidently drawn performance, Diaz indefatigably expressive, the six-man crew of Old Granddad (Craig McNutt, Jeffrey Means, Robert Schulz, Nick Tolle, Aaron Trant, and Mike Williams) working with concentrated efficiency.

Monadnock Music Artistic Director Gil Rose conducts an American gamelan ensemble and the Monadnock Festival Singers in Lou Harrison's La Koro Sutro on Saturday, July 27 at the Peterborough Town House.

Monadnock Music Artistic Director Gil Rose conducts an American gamelan ensemble and the Monadnock Festival Singers in Lou Harrison’s La Koro Sutro on Saturday, July 27 at the Peterborough Town House.
Photo courtesy Monadnock Music.

La Koro Sutro marked the debut of the Monadnock Festival Singers, one of a handful of diversifying initiatives Rose has embarked on since taking over the festival. The singers, recruited from a host of New Hampshire towns, with Krystal Morin as chorusmaster, made a good first showing, especially in those movements where Harrison sends the chorus off on long, elaborate chants in octaves, maximizing the ensemble’s sound and intonation while minimizing the top-heavy imbalance of forces. And long, elaborate chants make up much of La Koro Sutro: it is a piece of ritual and stasis. When Harrison does open out into harmonized singing, the melodies turn in tighter, motivic, repetitive circles; as the singing becomes more expansive, the accompaniment becomes more circumscribed, and vice versa, an undulating equilibrium of texture. The gamelan features most in the bright, steady processional and recessional—“Chime and Glory,” “Mantram and Chime”—or in short, call-and-response litanies with the chorus. The peroration of the 7th paragraph of the Heart Sūtra (“the Transcendental Wisdom is a mantram of true greatness”) unfolds as a SATB anthem, over a drone on the organ (Linda Osborn) and a three-note loop on the harp (Maria Ridenello-Parker).

The sense of asceticism is strong, not so much in the musical surface—which is actually quite rich—but in the lack of the sort of referential web that makes the Suite seem so cosmopolitan by comparison. Harrison later arranged the Suite for Western orchestral instruments, but not La Koro Sutro; it is an insular epic, even more so given its unorthodox equipment. The novelty has kept Old Granddad in periodic use (most recently, in Berkeley last year); still, I realized, there’s a good chance this concert may very well be the only live performance I’ll ever experience. It is a little odd that chances to hear a piece so suffused with a universal, border-free message have been so dependent on one’s geographical proximity to its instrumentation, that a piece steeped in ideas of perpetual change—the renunciant devotion to the attainment of wisdom, the linguistic dissolution of national and ethnic differences—would be necessarily manifested as such a specific, singular event. From the Buddhist perspective, that way of viewing the piece would most likely be judged incomplete, limited. As the Heart Sūtra puts it: “Form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from form. Form itself is emptiness, and emptiness itself is form.” But maybe the better way to consider La Koro Sutro, or even Harrison’s grand, impractical homemade gamelan itself, is as something more akin to a Zen kōan—like the one recorded in the collection The Gateless Gate, attributed to the Chinese master Yúnmén Wényǎn. “The world is vast and wide,” he said. “Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?”

Sounds Heard: Brooklyn Rider—A Walking Fire

With the Kronos Quartet celebrating their 40th anniversary this season, a survey of new music’s current crop of innovative young string quartets reveals a diverse array of ensembles who specialize in unique niches of the music scene. Whereas the original Kronos Quartet lineup performed works by Lutoslawski along with Glass and world music, today’s younger generation quartets seem split between groups like the JACK Quartet—who have defined themselves by a commitment to experimental modernism—and, on the other hand, groups like this disc’s Brooklyn Rider, an ensemble with a predilection for the vernacular and chops steeped in the musical anthropology of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble (of which the gentlemen of Brooklyn Rider are all members).

Brooklyn Rider had enormous success with their previous Seven Steps release, a recording which paired Beethoven’s monumental C-Sharp Minor String Quartet with a group-composed composition that reflected and expanded upon that masterwork’s varied musical facets. Brooklyn Rider thrives in the realm of world music and folk traditions, yet they’ve always sought to tie this impulse into their considerable classical chops—all while at the same time cultivating the ensemble as a kind of composer collective led by violinist/composer Colin Jacobsen.

In this case, Bartók’s Second String Quartet is the glue that holds this new album together, with that work’s blend of folk sources defining the album’s musical core. The Bartók is flanked by two new compositions by present day composer-performers that further burnish Brooklyn Rider’s reputation for hip collaborations that shed light on our relationship to our roots.
Ljova’s Culai (2011-12) wears its Romanian gypsy influence proudly, finding a nice balance between an offhanded, improvised feel and carefully orchestrated gestures that mark Ljova as composer with craft and ingenuity to burn. The work’s central movement—inspired by the stylings of gypsy vocalist Romica Puceanu—is catchy, harmonically pungent, and rich in character. Brooklyn Rider brings a suitably rustic quality to the work—knowing when to lay off of their classical side is one of the group’s strongest suits. “Love Potion, Expired” is easily the fieriest movement, a scampering tarantella that’s as fun and exciting a romp as you’re likely to hear on string instruments. Even the work’s more low-key “Funeral” movement is animated by mournful slides that wring every last bit of sentiment from the scene; Ljova and Brooklyn Rider are a great pair, and I hope to hear more of their collaborations. Ljova inhabits pop miniatures with a sense of care and orchestrated gesture that adds layers of punch and expression to simple textures, which in turn is what Brooklyn Rider’s interpretations offer the attentive listener.

Colin Jacobsen’s Persian-laced Three Miniatures (2011) expands on a tradition of miniature paintings in which epic scenes packed with emotion and action are rendered on tiny surfaces. As something like Brooklyn Rider’s resident composer, Jacobsen has been developing with each new offering and this is perhaps his strongest and most persuasive composition to date: a series of microcosms that encapsulate powerful feelings and gestures, while never seeming overblown or overwrought.

Brooklyn Rider seems to thrive on miniatures and established quartet masterpieces in equal measure, and here Jacobsen serves up a series of movements grounded in ostinato patterns, most obviously in the first movement, “Majnun’s Moonshine.” The suite’s slow movement, “The Flowers of Esfahan,” drifts in like perfumed air, its vivid imagery of nocturnal gardens and birdsong unfolding naturally in trills and runs, demanding passagework that Brooklyn Rider makes effortless and delicate. This is one of the album’s most arresting tracks, and one in which Jacobsen’s potential and personality as a composer is given the most room to blossom into something truly unique and satisfying. The concluding movement, “A Walking Fire,” seems to reach the limits of Jacobsen’s ostinato-based approach but in a glorious way, revving up the intensity over a variety of harmonic and textural shifts.
Like many newly minted compositions for Brooklyn Rider, this one is bite-sized and unrelentingly poppy—which, after the Bartók, struck my ears as refreshing. The particular genius of Brooklyn Rider has been the way in which the group manages to connect established masterworks to new projects that capture the pop infatuation, diversity, and more informal spirit of the group’s namesake borough. A Walking Fire makes a telling argument for the validity of this approach, with an infectious toe-tapping quality that pervades both the Bartók masterwork and the lighter offerings which set it so cleverly in relief.

Austin Chamber Music Center Summer Festival: Victoire and Pride

I’ve commented in recent stories on sea changes in the Austin landscape, both musical geographical. It’s hard not to be a bit curmudgeonly about the growing pains that are impacting the place I’ve called home for 13 years, but it comes with the territory. I suspect that even those who’ve been here for only a few years would have a few things to say as traffic, construction, and festivals pile on, making the most stoic of us think wistfully of the salad days of, say, 2008. A manifestation of this change is the move of blues club Antone’s from its downtown location (not the original 6th Street establishment mind you, but one maintained for some time) to Riverside Drive, just southeast of downtown on the other side of the river. I used to live about two blocks from there over a decade ago, and at the time the building housed a succession of clubs in which things occasionally got shooty and stabby. The area housed all the vices of an early-’80s Times Square and stood in stark contrast to the lovely homes and neighborhoods west of I-35. Despite my concern about change, it was nice to pass by my old digs and to be reminded that sometimes change can be good.
As part of the Austin Chamber Music Center Festival, Victoire was invited to play a show at the new Antone’s venue. This was my first trip there and my first time to see Victoire, so I was primed for something new and different and I wasn’t disappointed. Austin Chamber Music Center’s core audience does skew toward the traditional, so I was also curious to see how the show would be received. For their first appearance in Texas, Victoire chose to perform their debut album in its entirety, and though it’s not a “concept” album, the moods and themes explored did create continuity among the ten or so tunes played that evening. By and large the strings, and to a lesser degree the clarinet, were relieved of their traditional roles and assigned smaller circling riffs throughout much of the set. The opening track, A Door in the Dark, stands as a great example of indie classical in its moody, detached coolness,; a slightly intellectual character showing up in the 4+4+4+3 phrasing, clearly indicated in the conducting and cueing of leader Missy Mazzoli.  Perhaps a nod to the Pixies/Radiohead/Kinks school, subtle alterations of typical pop song structure (such as the lopping off of a single beat from the end of four bars) are among the key elements of this style, and Victoire fires on all cylinders in this department. Cathedral City, the title track, bore these features as well. The piece rides in on an electronic intro featuring a post-808 [1] hi-hat track hyperkinetically chugging along in a pattern that had just enough hiccup in the pulse to keep you guessing. This framework was set up in stark contrast to the longer, measured vocal and violin lines that intertwined above. While recorded elements served as preludes to individual tunes, at other times they carried the banner for an entire work. In A Song for Arthur Russell, this treatment lead to a harmonically static but rhythmically active texture, with punchy sixteenths kicking around above the pulsing electronic bed.

It’s in the vocal parts that Victoire separates the indie from the classical. The lyrics (at least in this performance—the sound and mix were great but you never know!) were uniformly obscured and it was difficult to hear distinct words when they were used, much less get a sense of sentence or meaning from the lyrics. This is not at all meant pejoratively, and truly it could just be that I couldn’t make things out clearly for any number of reasons aside from composer intent…but I think it was in fact composer intent, and that the use of the voice here was as an instrument primarily as opposed to a lyric delivery device.  Even in the music of the late Beatles one finds (not always, of course) the use of lyric and story which are altered based on presumed listener expectations. [2] Victoire simply doesn’t have this discussion and presents the vocal elements as music artifacts, pure and simple. And it works like a charm.

Victoire takes a bow at Antone's

Victoire takes a bow at Antone’s


Moving across town from blues club to St. James Episcopal Church, ACMC’s annual Pride Concert marked its fifth year with an almost exclusively new music lineup. Hosted by composer Russell Reed, local and national composers and performers celebrated the musical contributions of the LGBT community.

Russell Reed introduces the ACMC Pride concert

Russell Reed introduces the ACMC Pride concert

Following a rousing performance of three Szymanowski mazurkas by Jim James, Reed was joined by baritone Phillip Hall for three sections from David Del Tredici’s Gay Life as well as “Matthew Shepherd” from his Three Baritone Songs.  From the lilting sway of “In the Temple” to the tongue-in-cheek earnestness his setting of Ginsberg’s “Personal Ads,” to “After The Big Parade” a lyrically solemn and musically spiky rumination on the impact of AIDS in the early 1990s, the three songs were musically and lyrically crystal clear and made for a well-placed run-up to the final piece of the set. The murder of Matthew Shepherd is horrifying, but Jaime Manrique’s text—which imagines Shepherd’s final moments—is a gripping meditation on transfiguration, and Del Tredici’s encapsulation of the text, from the descending lament-inspired bass line which never fully descends to  the whole-tone ascension representing the spirit leaving the body was completely spot-on and riveting.

Reed’s Fantasy Variations on “Una Furtiva Lagrima” played hide and seek with its theme, the flute, harp, and bassoon trading long lines in odd time, while Pauline Oliveros’s To Valeria Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition Of Their Desperation added piano and clarinet to the mix. An initial thrum-thrum-thrum from all instruments was among the few times that homophony trumped polyphony in the work. Having said that, the various lines did all follow the same gravitational pull, moving to and fro in a flock-like fashion throughout the bulk of the work. Ben Stonaker’s Soliloquy for clarinet alone provided a workout for Jon Guist, whose wonderful tone was complimented by his technical agility. A quiet introduction ornamented with grace notes led to a series of increasingly complex and intricate sections that put both to the test.

The final work was Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Flute and Piano performed by Reed and Timothy Hagen. A simple ostinato in the piano became a compelling counterpoint to the initially simple flute line of the first movement. Labeled Lento con rubato, the movement built to a fever pitch and fooled most of the audience (all of us? I was clapping…) into applause when we thought that perhaps the movements were played attaca. But when the Presto Energico burst from the gate, we realized that the drive at the end of the first movement was just a taste of what was to come. Hagen and Reed tore through the work, displaying a wide variety of technical virtuosity and musical sensitivity, and the final notes only rang briefly before everyone was whooping it up.
ACMC logo
ACMC has been around for decades—long enough to have existed when the governor was a Democrat [3], SXSW was a baby, and Austin was just a gleam in marketers’ eyes. Its summer festival is more recent, and the inclusion and promotion of new music even more so. I suppose that there were people who (like me with the recent general direction of the city) resisted that change, that growth. Though I’m holding steady with my arms-crossed, head-shaking stance on Austin change, clearly in the case of ACMC programming it’s a trend that’s both welcome and growing.

1. You may remember hearing this all over the place 30ish years ago.

2. For instance, what the hell does, “She came in through the bathroom window / Protected by a silver spoon / But now she sucks her thumb and wanders / By the banks of her own lagoon” really mean? I don’t know, but it works lyrically and manages to paint a picture in the same way that “I Want To Hold Your Hand” does without telling a standard story. The Beatles were great at this (both in terms of music and lyric) specifically because they spent so much time playing and writing standard blues and pop fare that they understood it on a molecular level and could therefore change it just enough to make it new and interesting without losing the essence of the style.

3. Fun Fact. Number of Republican governors of Texas: 5, Democratic: 39.

Sounds Heard: Daniel Wohl—Corps Exquis

There’s something a little magical to my ear in Daniel Wohl’s New Amsterdam release Corps Exquis. The music included on this nine-track album showcases a seamless marriage of acoustic instruments and electronics that opens its mouth and sings, up close and personal, in a language that retains its vibrant human energy even while being processed and polished by Wohl’s electronic hand. For a record carrying a title harkening back to a surrealist parlor game, the fact that the tracks follow a somewhat twisted path, one to the next, comes as par for the course. Yet mental exercise aside, I found this music endlessly interesting without ever being “challenging” in that way that sometimes holds my ears at arms length with locked elbows.

Much of the album conjures a sort of poetic intimacy, inviting the listener to experience all manner of fantastic and strange places. The addictive 323 is expansive and beat driven, a camel caravan of rocking movement and color. Neighborhood, also sizable in sonic scope, adds the extra hands of So Percussion into the mix to conjure a radiant sense of sun-on-your-face pleasure. On the other end of the spectrum, in Cantus, something like the echo of church music is filtered through—and perhaps eventually held down and drowned beneath the surface of—a pool of water. Ouverture then traces a sharp percussive line that forms over a reverberation of sound, a foggy memory just beyond grasping.

The turn-on-a-dime twists of Plus ou Moins explore multiple floors of sound, expanding and contracting, racing ahead and then pausing to ruminate on all the sonic elements available for the taking in the acoustic junk drawer. (The bubbling water is a stand out.) Insext, however, follows a scrambled beacon; rather than digging in, its digital signal glides across, skating over rich surface textures.

An attention-grabbing track on the second half of the album is Fluctuations, with a droning timbral character that sent me Googling for electronic bagpipes to see if they had been invented yet. They have, of course, but the samples I heard produced nothing as complex as this five-and-a-half-minute exploration of a quasi piper’s tune built out of melodicas, bass clarinet, violin, cello, and electronics.

Limbs, with its weighty piano line setting the tone, makes it easy to imagine the arms and legs of the title wound in heavy chains, the music shuffling, occasionally tripping, across the aural space in the company of Jacob Marley. Finally, the album bids adieu with the bittersweet sighs of Corpus, for which the multimedia creative collective Satan’s Pearl Horses created this video:

The wordless vocal contributions of Julia Holter and Aaron Roche on select tracks in addition to the guest appearance by So Percussion definitely add a special color to the proceedings, but the TRANSIT Ensemble holds up the core of this music, delivering vibrant performances throughout. I suspect, however, that in addition to composing the music, it is Wohl’s demonstrated skill in programming and sound design that truly makes this music fire (plus loud bonus applause to the recording team). Much that has already been written about this album, including its own accompanying PR, focuses on that favorite trope of genre-less-ness, which the music may very well warrant of you’re looking at it from that angle. But to my mind one of the strengths of the record is that it never once draws any attention to that kind of banter. It doesn’t have any surface cracks betraying a nervous merger to make excuses for.

Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Corps Exquis is that I couldn’t stop listening to it. The tracks are a parade of bright lights and glimpses of secret corridors, all passing by long before they wear out their welcome.

Paula Matthusen: Attention to Light

The work of composer Paula Matthusen draws attention to the way sound and space interact with one another. Her use of light within performance settings plays an important role in focusing the audience’s listening experience, and in creating a sense of space. Whether a composition is realized as an electronic installation or written out in a score for performance by other musicians, the physicality of whatever sounds may be involved—and specifically how they behave within a given context—are always important considerations.

Matthusen’s installation works often involve hand-built electronics in addition to extensive computer programming; she says that she enjoys the sort of “inefficiency” and “Pandora’s box” nature of the results. She likens soldering to knitting, explaining, “I like the repetition of it. I like the heat. I like the smell. It’s fun to see something physical come to life like that.” Her instrumental works, which are specially tailored to the personalities and abilities of the performers for whom they are written, also have a handmade aspect to them.

For portable, eight performers walk around a darkened space wielding flashlights as well as vintage suitcases fitted with radio receivers and transmitters that produce sound based on the location of the performers relative to one another. In nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht, three performers crank away at music boxes while four others strike matches, offering glimpses of the unfurling paper rolls and providing counterpoint to the fragile music box tones.

Given Matthusen’s aesthetic inclinations, she’s the ideal person to teach composition through an experiential approach involving listening, creation, and performance. The Experimental Music class at Wesleyan University (where she is an assistant professor of music) is the very same course that Alvin Lucier taught for over 40 years. (No pressure!) Matthusen actually considers Lucier to be one of her musical heroes. Her 2012 composition for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the ontology of an echo, features field recordings from inside the Old Croton Aqueduct that were created by re-capturing recordings of the performers in a manner consistent with Lucier’s I am sitting in a room.

Flying in the face of what she calls the “cultural fantasy” of synchronization, the sense of pulse in Matthusen’s music is often irregular and broken. Events line up (or don’t) based on organic structures that are set rolling and allowed to run their course. By stepping aside and allowing the music to unfold naturally, she finds satisfaction in the resulting creative discoveries. “It’s a matter of being open to something that is completely surprising,” she explains, “but then also being aware enough to be able to appreciate when it actually happens.” By reveling in the small details and rough edges of her musical landscapes, she creates musical environments that heighten perceptions of the ephemeral nature of sound, and ensures that surprises can be found at practically every turn.

Sounds Heard: Rzewski, Tenney, Parkins—Music for String Quartet & Percussion

From one vantage, almost all music analysis can be summed up in one question: Where does the time go? This lovely new recording by the Los Angeles-based new music specialist Eclipse Quartet and percussionist William Winant is, primarily, united by the relatively unusual, pleasantly mad scientist-ish combination of string quartet and percussion. But it also presents three works that wear their respective approaches to marking the time on their sleeves. It also suggests, however small the sample size, that how the time gets passed depends on what time the composer has passed through; the cohort divide between the program’s composers is audible and fascinating. When it comes to time—to paraphrase one of my favorite time-killers—the perennial problem for each generation is finding a good way to spend it.

Boxes and process characterize the first two works. The nested elevens of Frederic Rzewski’s Whimwhams, for string quartet and marimba—eleven sections of eleven groups of eleven quarter-note beats—is a restrictive yin to a pure-imagination yang: the modules are, ostensibly, the only formal restriction on a form of compositional improvisation, Rzewski filling each module with bits of passing fantasy. But Rzewski’s improvising is disciplined and restrained: his conviction seems to be that the short ideas—a quick little four-note oscillation, for example, is a prominent character—have more variation and potential than might be apparent. Motives stay in play for a surprisingly long time from section to section; much of the music’s hold on the ear hinges on subtleties—some modules circle back to their beginnings, some don’t, and Rzewski has a fair amount of fun with tiny shifts that nonetheless completely change a phrase’s stylistic lean.

The entire process of James Tenney’s Cognate Canons is announced in the title: twenty-five minutes of canonic near-translation, pitched strings and largely unpitched percussion doing their best to echo each other. That the time goes so quickly is due to Tenney’s management of the gap between vocabularies: the relationship between the string and percussion sounds are close enough to recognize but far enough to lose track of, and it’s easy for the listener to slip between hearing the structure assured by the title and setting it aside for an experience of pure sound. The piece wears its ingenuity lightly.

Whimwhams and Cognate Canons are generational cousins: both composers were born in the ’30s, both pieces date from 1993. Zeena Parkins, whose s:c:a:t:t:e:r:i:n:g fills out the recording (and was commissioned by the performers), is of a later time. Parkins got her start in the experimental music world of 1980s New York, and her experience is characteristic of that time and place: a lot of avant-garde rock bands, a lot of music for dance, a lot of free movement between notation and improvisation—and between alternative spaces and academia.

Completed in 2012, s:c:a:t:t:e:r:i:n:g has a structural similarity to Whimwhams—ten continuous movements this time, in which ideas weave and swirl from section to section. But Parkins’s music is cumulative: the ideas don’t so much bounce off of each other as pile up. There’s a heavy overlay of electronics as well, amplifying the instruments, processing the sound, introducing new sounds—manipulated vocal sounds are a prominent feature. The music is deliberately overscheduled, a crowded grid.

One of my listening sessions with this recording filled the time on a long, cross-country drive, and I started hearing the disparate works in similar terms: Tenney’s piece a picture of slow-shifting, rolling landscapes, Rzewski’s a state highway tour of successive small town centers. Parkins’s was a much more urban/suburban landscape—signs and billboards, in such profusion as to make zoning restrictions nominal. From era to era, it seems, fixed points move: regimentation turns mercurial, systems produce mystery, sprawl becomes expressive. The passage of time can also be a handoff.

Stacy Garrop: With a Story to Tell

In the garden at the Church of the Ascension
New York, New York
April 17, 2013—2 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Poster image by SnoStudios Photography

Stacy Garrop is a composer of remarkable balance and discipline. Her composition catalog neatly covers all manner of ensembles, and her subject matter has ranged from Medusa to Eleanor Roosevelt. She may not be one to aggressively sell her music at cocktail parties, but she won’t shy away from cold calling performers from her desk the next day. She teaches her students to identify their weaknesses and figure out how to manage them. It’s a lesson she applied to herself first, pinpointing personal composition hurdles and designing neatly efficient ways to combat them.

When we met during rehearsals for her choral work Love’s Philosophy in New York this past April, she moved between performance preparation with the singers in the Church of the Ascension sanctuary and on-camera conversation in the venue’s garden courtyard, fielding questions about her music and her career with an easy confidence but a notable lack of pretension. Those character traits are perhaps what attracted her to the Midwest, where she now makes her home. Though raised in California, her education brought her to the University of Michigan, University of Chicago, and finally Indiana University. She eventually settled in Chicago, where she now heads the composition department at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.

Stacy Garrop is also a composer with stories to tell. The role of narrative—whether indirectly or overtly applied to the final composition—is a central factor in her typical working process. In it, she had found a way to shape and chart the sonic image she wants her music to ultimately project to the world beyond her studio.

When all is considered, Garrop appreciates that it’s a mix of many factors that have contributed to the music she makes and the success she’s achieved, but ultimately it hinges on what she is willing to do for the work herself:

I think you not only have to have the discipline to write and to get back to people and to be on top of your website, but you also have to be disciplined about chasing down opportunities. You can’t just sit back and think that maybe a publisher will do that for you, or maybe your recording will get out there and, miraculously, everyone will want to do the piece. I just don’t know if one competition or one recording or one piece can change your path all that much….In general, these careers are slow building. They’re one step at a time, and you have to be organized to make that happen.

They are steps Garrop keeps taking. The evening following our interview, the Voices of Ascension performance of Love’s Philosophy won her The Sorel Medallion in Choral Composition.


Molly Sheridan: You’ve spoken often about the place of narrative in your work, so I thought we might begin by discussing how important that is in terms of your working method, and how vital it is for you to communicate that to the audience. Are you demonstrating that storyline to them in the music and the program notes, or is that simply a private part of your own working process?

Stacy Garrop: As a composer, I’m both a visual and auditory person. The visual part likes to see a story in my head—like a movie, basically. It’s not that I’m a movie composer, because I’m far from it, but I feel like if I can tell myself a story, and have myself follow that story as I’m writing, then that narrative will help me guide the shape of that piece. Sometimes I think it’s important to the audience: If it’s about Medusa, I want people to understand that Medusa is going from being lovely to being hideous. But other times the narrative is just mostly for myself. So I have a piece called Frammenti which is basically five miniature movements, but each is based on an abstract idea. For me, what was important was the narrative within each movement—Is it going to get louder? Is it going to get softer? Is it going to get boisterous?—whatever those characteristics were. In that case, I don’t care if the audience gets it or not. That’s not the concern of the piece.

MS: I heard you speaking about the working process surrounding Becoming Medusa in a promotional video, and you mentioned sketching it out and thinking about it narratively in a way that I would imagine a novelist might. What is your working process in that case?

SG: I do like to use charts a lot. In years past, especially when I was working on Becoming Medusa, I had a picture where she was half beautiful and half ugly. I put that up right in front of me as I composed. But I also have a line graph that basically shows tension along the y-axis and time along the x-axis. If it starts with Medusa being ugly, because it’s a foreshadowing, then I’ll have a big spike on my chart and that might say “introduction.” Then I get to the A material, and the tension is now very low. So I can track and write out the form of the piece before I actually start putting notes down. But usually I try to put a few notes down—at least get motives, some idea of what I want to play with. Then that starts to suggest more and more of a shape to me. Usually by the end of the first couple of days, I have the shape down, and more often than not, when I go back and look at it [after the piece is done], I’ve actually attained that shape. Earlier on, I wasn’t so good at that. But now I seem to be doing much better.

Garrop explains the graphs she uses while composing.

Garrop explains the graphs she uses while composing.

MS: What are you actually thinking about when you’re in that very, very early process and you’re making shapes and charts?

SG: The worst part of composing for me is the beginning of a piece. I can’t get settled. If the apartment is messy, I have to clean it. I feel like I have to get my mind in order. And if there’s anything distracting me, I’ll use that as an excuse to run away from the paper. But what I have learned over the years is to just get myself to sit down long enough to brainstorm on a blank sheet of paper—not even manuscript paper, just written ideas about what I want for the piece. So for Medusa, I wanted to tell the story that she starts off the piece as a beautiful woman, who then taunts a goddess. Then the goddess turns her into the gorgon that we know. That’s a slightly different story than the Medusa that we know about from the movies. That gave me enough to say, okay, this is what I’m going to do in words. Now I can sit down at my keyboard and start just noodling around and see what kind of ideas I can come up with from there.

MS: Because your attraction to words is coming up again, why not use words? Why use music to tell these stories?

SG: Actually I’ve started to try to write short stories. I take the El to and from work every day in Chicago, and it’s about a 45- to 60-minute train ride. I absolutely love science fiction short stories, so I started trying to write them. It’s really hard to have that kind of control over words. I have that control, I feel, over music, but not at all in words. So right now it’s a really fun, but kind of scary, side venture. I did try writing poetry much younger in my life, until I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millay and then realized I had nothing on her. That was pretty much it for my poetry days.

MS: But you do feel comfortable writing music?

SG: Yes, once I get past the problem I was describing about not knowing how to get started. Another thing that I do to really help with that is I have what I call a “minute a day” challenge: Every day when I’m starting a piece, I have to write a minute of music. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be bad. It just has to be a minute of music. And that way I feel like at the end of seven days, I’ll have seven minutes of music that I can choose from and start to say, “Okay, that’s a good idea over here, but that’s terrible”—and we just throw that part away. But that gives me some choices. Usually I start that within whatever genre I’m working in. So for instance, right now, I’m working on a piece for the Lincoln Trio, and I’ve been looking at a lot of piano trios. I’ve been looking at Joan Tower’s Trio Cavany and Aaron Kernis’s Still Movement with Hymn, which isn’t actually a piano trio. It’s a piano quartet. But I’m writing a 25-minute piece, and both of those pieces approximate that length. So I’m looking at their ideas, and then I’m brainstorming about what it is that’s important to me that I want to put in there.

MS: You’ve mentioned that you’re a visual person, and I know that somewhere you said that your studio was the mostly brightly decorated room in your home. What do you like to surround yourself with when you’re doing this work? You mentioned pictures and charts, but is there more to that visual comfort zone for you?

SG: My husband and I finally were able to get a condo. It was really great because we’ve been in apartments for so long where you can’t put any paint on the walls. So I painted my studio purple. Then, in addition to that, I went to a lot of colonies back when I was in my early 30s, and I kept meeting all these artists. That’s where I really started getting the visual interest going. So I started collecting pictures, both from trips I was taking and from colony experiences. I also began trading CDs of my music with other artists at colonies. So I’ve had visual artists draw pictures for me or paint something, and all the artwork I’ve collected is sitting on one whole wall of my studio. I also go to a lot of art expositions and things like that. I mean, I can’t really afford the art itself, but artists tend to make these little postcards that have a picture of their artwork, so that goes up on my wall, too.

I also have done pottery for ten years, and I feel like doing pottery helped me think about process in a whole other way. It’s the same thing I got out of going to artist colonies where you sit down with a filmmaker or a writer, and you talk about their process. Then you start to see, wow, they’re using a different language, but they’re also talking about how you get from point A to point B and in a way that’s convincing. Pottery has also taught me a lot about patience. If you are at all trying to force a piece to happen, you’re going to nudge the clay, and then it’s going to be forever ruined. So I think that kind of patience actually has helped me back in the composing world: To just take a deep breath, do my thing where I write a minute of music a day at the beginning and know at the end of that week, I am going to have options. I think all those things are processes that let me know that I don’t have to go with my first impulse. I can really take my time and find the ideas that I feel very strongly about.

MS: That’s a very tactile thing to engage with, too. I suppose composition can be, depending on your working methods, but it’s not quite the same thing.

SG: I think composing is such an isolated thing. Obviously, we have our concerts with performers and all that. But the creation itself, the process for me is sitting in a room by myself, working at my piano. So to be surrounded by 20 other potters and hearing all these conversations going on as you’re trying to work, it’s the utter opposite experience of being a composer. Also, it teaches you that it’s okay to mess up. I think we all get to a level in our careers where we feel that it’s scary to mess up. If we mess up, someone’s going to notice and they’re going to write a review that isn’t positive. In pottery, I feel like I can just mess up all the time, and no one will ever know. I just stomp it back down into a lump of clay and try again. So it’s given me some freedom that I don’t have in the musical world.

MS: What is your musical background? You were a pianist originally, right?

SG: I did play piano, although I was never very good. I can admit that. I sang in choirs starting in third grade and all the way through my master’s. I absolutely loved singing in choirs. I was an alto, and I think that’s why I write such good, juicy bits for altos in choir pieces, because I always felt like we got cheated. I also played saxophone in marching band for three years in high school. So I started off doing all that, but then in my junior year of high school, there was an AP music theory class. The teacher was a jazz trumpet player, and he said one night to go home and write a piece of music. I’d never before thought that anybody wrote music. I was pretty naïve as a kid. I’ll admit that, too. I mean, I know I was naïve because I thought all the history had already been written. But in this case, the minute he said go home and write a piece of music, it was like this door opened that had always been shut. Suddenly there it is and you’re looking at a whole new room, and all these colors are there. I just didn’t want to leave it. So, after that assignment, I just started writing more and more pieces. Then a friend of the family hooked me up with a composer in the Bay Area, and I studied privately with him for the rest of high school.

MS: Voice is obviously something you’ve spent a lot of time with, but overall something that stood out to me about your catalog is that you’re a very balanced composer. You have all the bases covered. It’s a very neat though broad package.

Garrop with the the Capitol Quartet after the premiere of Flight of Icarus March 2013

Garrop with the the Capitol Quartet after the premiere of Flight of Icarus March 2013

SG: I think that was maybe more a result of the schools that I went to. The first was University of Michigan, and they had a really good percussion program and very strong saxophone program. That’s also where I saw composers writing for orchestra and I began experimenting with string quartets. I went to the University of Chicago after that. That was a research school and I really didn’t have as many performances. I discovered that I was probably a happier person if I’m at a performance school. So, I got my master’s, and I went on to Indiana University. They had six orchestras, choirs everywhere, and, once again, they had a strong saxophone program and a strong percussion program. So that really helped open some doors that otherwise I might not have considered. All the saxophone writing I had done is because of the saxophonists that I met, especially Christopher Creviston who is teaching now at Arizona State University, Tempe. We were students together at Michigan, and he asked me to write a piece. Fifteen years later he found me and said, “Do you remember this piece?” And from there, that’s led to a commission with his current group, Capitol Quartet, for saxophone quartet.

But I do feel like I try to be balanced. I want to have orchestra, choir, and chamber, and in particular within chamber, I want to have piano trio and string quartet and saxophone music at all times. I really do want that kind of diversity. The problem I feel like is that there are certain pieces I want to be writing and I’m not necessarily getting the opportunities to yet. For instance, solo piano. I can’t believe out of everything I’ve done, I only have two solo piano works. There was one more at one point, but I didn’t think it should last the test of time so I destroyed it. But other than that, it really is quite funny that I’ve gotten this far without more solo repertoire.

MS: I was curious about another aspect of your works list because there is one piece from ’92 listed in your catalog, and you can the count on one hand material from the late ’90s, and then this huge body of work explodes from there. I’m trying to do the math on your age and where you might have been at that point in your education. Did something concretely shift for you in there, artistically or circumstantially?

SG: It’s funny you noticed that because I feel like, as a composer, I have a sliding scale of what I think works. I call it seeing the holes. When you’re writing a piece, you think it’s perfect. You’re thrilled. Maybe four to five years later, you start to see the holes in it, and realize, okay, that’s not as strong. Maybe it can be two years. But as I was going through school, I was changing and evolving so quickly, that the seeing-the-holes period was only about six months to a year. It really started lengthening after I finished my training or was getting close to finishing my training in Indiana. So what I took out were almost all the student works.

The reason why the one from 1992 is in there is because it’s my first string quartet. I didn’t want to eradicate it. I’ve gone on and I’ve written three more string quartets, and you can’t call something number two if there’s no evidence of a number one. And honestly, for a student piece, it’s not that bad. So I’m okay with it being out there. Actually, that piece helped get me onto a concert series that helped change and shape my entire career. So it’s not bad to have these student works out there, as long as you’re okay with it getting performed. There have been a few other pieces along the way, like the piano solo I mentioned. It took about a year to realize that it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, and I should just remove it from my catalogue. So I think for me, the test of “Am I getting better as a composer?” is, “Do I have less of that happening? Is my catalog staying steady, or am I taking things out?” So at this point, I think I’m doing pretty well.

MS: I was wondering if that was the direction you were moving or if there was a danger you could just become increasingly hypercritical of yourself.

SG: I’m really not that worried about it. There are certainly a lot of areas that I’m very comfortable in now, like the chamber world and the choir world especially. Orchestra writing is always a little trickier because you try to get the balance as well as you can between the woodwinds, the brass, and the percussion and everything, but it takes going to the rehearsals to really start to sort out what’s really going on. But I feel like now, if I know I’m writing badly, I stop myself much sooner. That was my mistake years ago. I wouldn’t do that one minute a day trick, I would just go with my first impulse and, more often than not, I knew along the way that something was wrong. But it was too late. The commission was due, etc. So, what I’ve done is start each piece with just brainstorming for a week. No pressure to just delve into it. That really helps, as well as having a big buffer zone on commissions. If a commission deadline is, let’s say, September 1, I will actually have that score due a month or two before that in my own calendar. Then I have the pressure that I need to make the work happen, but if I’m unhappy with the piece, I know that I’ve got the time to fix it.

Garrop lecturing

Garrop lecturing about various Chicago artists and their websites.

MS: Every time I speak with you, I take away the impression that you are a very disciplined person, both in building your career and making your art.

SG: I feel like going for the doctorate really teaches you how to organize your head. I think that’s the biggest thing anyone can learn going through school. All the time I’m telling my students, you have to figure out how your mind works, and then figure out where your strengths are. If you know where you’re weak, like you’re a procrastinator, you’re going to have to work around that. So I feel like for me, the challenge of all the years of school was figuring out all those issues, so when I graduated, I could really hit the ground running as a professional.

In addition to being organized, as much as I can be, I took on some campaigns earlier in my career. So I wrote a choir piece. I would cold call 30 choirs, and I would send out a recording and the score. I did campaign after campaign like that, but they paid off. It only takes one person programming that piece to then lead to four more commissions. So I think you not only have to have the discipline to write and to get back to people and to be on top of your website, but you also have to be disciplined about chasing down opportunities. You can’t just sit back and think that maybe a publisher will do that for you, or maybe your recording will get out there and, miraculously, everyone will want to do the piece. I just don’t know if one competition or one recording or one piece can change your path all that much. I mean, granted if you were to win something like the Pulitzer or the Grawemeyer, perhaps. Or even the MacArthur. But I think in general, these careers are slow building. They’re one step at a time, and you have to be organized to make that happen.

MS: You don’t strike me as a particularly aggressive self-promoter. So, for you to have started cold calling ensembles in such a strategic way is unexpected. Where did the idea even come from?

SG: The funniest part is that growing up in California—not that California has anything to do with it—I was just very laid back and shy. I guess in my undergrad years, I learned to make friends with musicians. But it wasn’t until my doctorate that it finally hit me: If I was going to take control of my career, I had to do it myself. No one else was going to do it. There was one defining moment where I put this all together. I was staring out my window and realized I could keep staring out that window forever, or I could get off my rear and start making phone calls and get a recital together. And I went with option two.

The campaigns though, I think it’s because I watched too many people in academia who had wonderful music, but it wasn’t getting out there anywhere. And I would ask, “Well, what are you doing about it?” And they would say, “Oh, you know, just getting it published,” or “Just getting it recorded.” It didn’t seem like that was the best strategy for me. I would need to start to push it out there further. I didn’t go to any East Coast schools, and I wondered perhaps if I had, if maybe some more connections would have been presented. But nonetheless, I felt like, okay, I can do this. I just looked at Chorus America, ACDA, the North American Saxophone Alliance. You look at some of these big websites and see who their members are. Chamber Music America is a particularly good one for that. Actually, I did a campaign in the last year or two using Chamber Music America. I got [a list of] all their member string quartets and piano trios, and I sent them all information. This time through email, since now it’s become more acceptable.

MS: You have written a lot of text-based or text-inspired pieces, which makes sense to me considering your narrative interests. It surprised me when you said Edna St. Vincent Millay’s work squashed your own poetry ambitions, because you’ve actually set a lot of her work!

SG: It started because one of the very first artist colonies I went to was the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, New York. While I was there, I was working on a piece for saxophone and piano called Tantrum, but I came across a book of her poetry, of course, and thought, since I’m here, I should give it a whirl. I began reading her sonnets, and they were just so eloquent—14 lines long and having a rhyming verse, but still relevant today. I just thought, okay, I would love to do some massive project, where I set—I think I was aiming for originally about 30 of her sonnets. As the years went on, I think I wrote one sonnet set per year from 2000 to 2006. I got around number 17 or 18, and I finally had to call it quits because a very wise conductor, Christopher Bell of the Grant Park Chorus in Chicago, said to me, “You should really set something other than Millay. You should have more in your portfolio.” And he was right. I was just so thankful that he was blatantly honest with me. Composers need to hear that honesty every now and then. And that’s when he said, “You really have to get past the Millay and move on.”

It’s been really tempting to try to go back and finish the project. I had actually paired up a bunch of sonnets into particular sets. So there’s a set about love, and there’s a set about war, and so on. Maybe someday I’ll go back and visit that. In the meantime, I’ve done other big projects involving text. One is The Book of American Poetry. That’s about an hour of music, and it’s four volumes of poetry. Each volume contains five poems by five different poets. I set the first ten for baritone and Pierrot ensemble, and the second ten are for mezzo and Pierrot. But then I’m also making piano arrangements of all of them.

MS: You’ve done that in a few places, right, offering options on work to give it a broader life?

SG: Yeah, I wrote it for Pierrot ensemble because it was for the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. They had a competition, and I won and they said, “Okay, what do you want to do?” I said, “I want to do a Book of American Poetry.” Once they understood the scope of my project, they were on board. But then I discovered that it’s really hard to get Pierrot ensembles together elsewhere with baritones. So to give the piece more life, my husband is doing the piano arrangements for volumes one and two, and I did the arrangements for volumes three and four.

I’ve done it the other way, too. I wrote a piece called In Eleanor’s Words, about Eleanor Roosevelt; that’s a big song cycle. It started off as a piece for piano and voice, but then David Dzubay at Indiana University and I were talking, and he said, “I’d love to have you come out for a residency. What pieces would you like to have done?” And I said, “How do you feel about an orchestration of In Eleanor’s Words?” So that’s when I created the larger version. That’s also when I discovered that it’s much easier to go from large down to small than it is from small out to large. At least for me it is.

MS: In all these examples of your interest in stories and setting text, it strikes me that these are not your personal stories, but very often items of historic importance or mythology or poetry. What about that speaks to you so strongly?

SG: I wish I knew. I mean, some of these things happened because of commissions. In Eleanor’s Words was a commission by Tom and Nadine Hamilton. They’re residents of Washington, D.C., and they commissioned a piece in honor of Tom’s mother who had been in public service all her life and who liked Eleanor Roosevelt. Since I teach at Roosevelt University, it made sense to put it all together, and what do you know? Out comes a piece. I think that it’s easy for a composer to just see what the flow of the commissions are and to just go with that, whereas if you really have your own agenda, you have to start to force that every now and then. So in the case of the Millay sonnets, I felt so strongly about that project. When I did that cold call many years ago, where I sent out my music to 30 choirs, Volti in San Francisco was the choir that answered. They not only performed the piece that I sent them, but they commissioned three or four others over the next decade and many of those were the Millay sonnets. I said to them, “I want to do Millay. I want to do this big cycle.” And they said, “Great! Let us help you out.” So it’s great to have commissions, but it’s also great to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and make sure that you work that into your commissioning schedule, if you can.

Photo by Don Fogg

World premiere of Garrop’s Songs of Joy and Refuge by PEBCC’s high school mixed voice choir Ecco, conducted by Clifton Massey on March 23, 2013. Photo by Don Fogg

MS: Where did you get this business sense? It seems like you have a really smart way of approaching your career, and I’m curious where you learned this.

SG: I don’t really know. I think part of what happened is I saw how other people handled their careers. For instance, there was a guy at Michigan when I was there. He was very talented musically, but he also had this incredible gift to be able to walk up to anybody and sell his music to them, to basically say, “Hey, I’ve got a performance tonight. You should go hear it.” He would walk up to performers he’d never met and hand out his music. I tried to emulate it, and I just felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t do it. It was not in me. About 12 years ago, as I was getting out of school, I just made the decision that if it took me a little longer to have a career, then that’s the way it was going to be. I’m not the person that’s going to be really in your face all the time. So that’s where I started getting very good at campaigns, and getting good at having a web presence, and doing a lot of business through email. If someone emails me, I answer within 24 hours. So all those parts put together I think eventually started to fill out the bigger picture. Sometimes I do wonder, maybe my career could have moved a little faster if I’d been a little bit more aggressive, but I would not have been comfortable doing that.

MS: Yeah, but on the other hand, you clearly have found what does work for you.

SG: Right, but I think it took all that experimentation back in school and trying to emulate the behavior of others to realize, “Oh, I can’t do that,” or “Okay, that worked.” I think it was observing that really helped me figure out what I wanted to do.

MS: Very early on you mentioned specifically that you’re not a film composer. I was curious about that. For as diverse as your portfolio is, and as much as you love exploring storylines, I don’t believe there are any film scores or video games in it. In a way, that seems like it would be a natural affinity, but you stayed away from that.

SG: It’s not so much staying away as it is that I really haven’t stumbled across the opportunity yet. I have to admit I know a little more about video game music than I should. My husband plays these games, and I realize the music is getting quite, quite advanced. I would love to go into writing movie music, but I’m in Chicago. I’m not on the right coast. Although I do think it would be hard for someone like me. The things that interest me the most in music are form and tension and relaxation. So if there’s not a strong formal structure, then I’m not happy with the piece. What can be hard about writing for movies is that you’re constantly having that formal structure ripped out from under your feet. If you have to extend it by five seconds or they don’t like a theme that you wrote and you have to rethink it overnight—that can be hard if you’re used to having final, set structures that you really feel good about. So, I’d love to explore it someday, but you know, sometime in the future. Not any time soon.

MS: You mentioned not being on “the right coast.” How important is Chicago to you? What made you decide to build a career and life for yourself in that place?

SG: People used to say to me when I was in school, “You should pick your last school carefully, because that might be where you end up.” And I thought, “Ha-ha, that’s really funny!”, but I actually did end up in the Midwest. All my schools just circled the Midwest area.

I feel like Chicago has been really good for me. In the last 15 years, maybe even the last 7 years in particular, there’s just been an explosion of ensembles. So we have new music ensembles. We have choirs. We even have a new opera company that has formed. It’s a great time to be in Chicago. So for someone like me, it’s been a perfect city to not have to go to New York—no offense to New York. It’s a great place to visit, but I’m more of a Midwesterner I would say at this point.

MS: That’s interesting because you came from the West Coast, right?

SG: I’m from California, and I have to admit, every time I go home and visit it’s like, “Why did I give this up? It’s so beautiful out here.” The weather is nice almost the whole year through. But I think at that time, there weren’t enough composition teachers in the West Coast area. Almost all the schools I looked at were in the Midwest or on the East Coast. I have also really enjoyed building a composition program at Roosevelt University. After going to two very large performance schools where there’s a faculty of five or six people, it was a little bit surprising to go into a program of just two people. But that also allowed me to shape it a lot faster than I probably could have if I had been at a major performance school. So my colleague Kyong Mee Choi and I have really tried to focus on giving opportunities that you might not get in a regular college setting. We bring in people like Timothy McAllister, the saxophonist from Prism Quartet, or Timothy Monroe, the flutist from eighth blackbird, and they do workshops with our composers. They sight read the works; they give feedback. We have a competition, and they choose a couple winners and perform the pieces on concerts at Roosevelt. We do the same with Gaudete Brass Quintet—all the students have to write little fanfares. We’ve been having the Vector Recording Project with the orchestra, so students don’t just get a piece read, they actually get it professionally recorded.

Particularly with continually rising costs for a university education, I’m asked by prospective students about the value of a college degree as a composer. In looking back over my own training, I couldn’t have learned all the skills I needed to outside of a university music school—my high school music training had been weak, and I had many, many skills to acquire before I could call myself a composer. I feel that attending a university as an undergraduate is very important to one’s development as a composer, as you get a complete, well-rounded experience over the course of a four-year program. Depending on what you wish to do next, you may have enough skills to exit straight into the real world and carry out a career, or it could be that taking the time to get a master’s first will help you obtain even more skills that you’ll find useful. People who wish to teach at a university need to earn a doctorate in order to have the credentials schools are looking for when hiring, but if you’re not planning on doing so, perhaps you don’t need to go any further if you’ve developed your skills far enough. So it is important to start thinking about what it is you truly want to do when you graduate. Is it to teach? Write music for movies? Start a new music ensemble and write music for it? Investigate what skills you need to attain your goal, and work on developing those skills while still in school so you’ll be ready to hit the ground running when you get out. Play to your own personal strengths. Hopefully you’ll discover a path to a career that will make you feel excited, enriched, and rewarded.

I think a lot of schools are coming around to the fact that they need entrepreneurship programs, and Roosevelt at the moment doesn’t have one yet, but I believe they’re moving in that direction. Nonetheless, I know a lot of us have integrated ideas into our courses. For instance, in my composition seminar last year, all my students had to get into groups of three or four and create new businesses. They had to have a mission statement, a five-year plan, a ten-year plan, and then had to have a website up or something to show that this is what they do. It was really exciting for me to see just how creative they got. It really taught me that they want to be able to put this together before they leave. A part of my job is to really give them professional opportunities that hopefully bridge the gap as they’re leaving the school. They are starting these conversations with professionals. They know how to build their own website, and how to write their own CV or how to go knock on doors and hand out scores. I’m hoping that gives them an edge—that they have not just the compositional skills, but when they walk out the door, they have the business side somewhat already going. Hopefully that will increase their chances of being successful.

MS: How do you make enough room for your own music and your own career in the midst of that work?

SG: It can be a bit of a challenge. I feel like I have to choose my commissions very carefully in terms of when I write what. This past fall at the very beginning of the semester, I wrote one choir piece, and then I wrote a piece for two trumpets and piano and then two art songs. That took me up to probably mid-January. Then I started a piano trio, and that was my downfall, because I got all those short pieces done while teaching—it doesn’t take as much concentration to do a six-minute piece here, or a five-minute piece there. But to do a 25-minute piano trio while teaching, especially during audition season, I learned I’m not capable of that. So that’s one thing: Strategize your year. The other thing is I don’t go into Roosevelt all five days. I try to go in just four, and some lucky weeks, I may just get in three, depending on how many meetings we have. But I find I’d rather work longer days downtown so I have a full day to compose when I’m off. I’m not the type of person who can just turn around after a long day of teaching and somehow have energy left to start composing. I can answer emails. I can send out scores. I can do that other business work, but I can’t actually be creative.

MS: Do you need a specific time of day or routine, or do you just need an actual day where you don’t have to separate the administration from the creativity?

SG: It is better if I just have a whole day, or a week, or a month, or a year. I think that’s why the art colonies were so fantastic, because it removes you from paying bills or anything else. You just sit and you compose all day. I have an 88-key synthesizer, but it’s right next to my computer. So if my computer is turned on and dinging at me as email comes in, then of course you stop composing. I’ve learned I have to just turn everything off. Pretend nothing else exists and just get myself into the space. I mentioned earlier, I think starting pieces is always the trickiest for me and I do a whole thing where I have to straighten up the condo and all that. But once I’m into the process, it’s really quite comfortable to move in and out of it. So I can get up and answer an email, or go get the mail, or whatever, and then come back and be right back into the piece wherever I left off. And that usually lasts up until I finish the piece.

MS: You mentioned the period when you were going to a lot of those colonies. Is that something you had the freedom to do just because of where you were in school or is that something you expect you’ll do throughout your life?

SG: I think I started going to colonies because one of my teachers, Claude Baker from Indiana University, said I should take a look at them. I applied to a few, and I actually got into the ones I applied to. So that’s when I just strung them all up in a row and colony hopped for the year after I finished my coursework but before I’d actually finished the dissertation. One of these was the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada. Another one was the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, where I got to meet Aaron Jay Kernis and we worked together. Then there was the MacDowell Colony and the Millay Colony, and other ones in between.

That’s where I just finally put it all together. When you’re in school and you’re reading books, you’re writing papers, you’re certainly obtaining the knowledge, but you don’t necessarily know how to apply it yet. I felt like that was the first time I learned how to take all that information I’d been collecting and apply it in whatever facet I wanted to. So for me, it was a really great eye opener. I think it gets harder though as you get more responsibility to be able to carve out the kind of time that you really need to go to a colony. I seem to have stopped going for the moment, and that’s fine. Maybe someday I’ll feel the need to go again, but I also have a home studio situation now, which is pretty quiet and which works very well. That hadn’t always been the case in past years. That was another reason to go to these colonies—to have the space and time where I really wouldn’t be disturbed.

MS: You’ll have to go back to the Millay Colony and finish the settings; it’s the perfect application.

SG: Well, that’s just it. When I started the whole process, I had no idea I was going to compose all these sonnets. So I really want to go back and actually write the final sonnets up there. That would be really cool. I think they have a policy where they don’t want people to return, but they do have these small residencies in January, where you can just go with maybe a specific project. It’s not necessarily the actual colony stay. So what I need to do is get my act together and put in an application for that particular type. The thing I regret when I went to the colony is that you’re supposed to get a tour of Millay’s house. It’s left pretty much intact from the day she died. But the day that we were supposed to go, the caretaker’s wife went into the hospital. So part of me feels like I want to go back and get that tour, man. I want to just confront whatever ghosts might be there and just say, “I set your poetry. Don’t be mad at me.”

MS: For as interested in narrative as you are, as a listener, I’ve never felt overwhelmed or emotionally manipulated by that aspect of your work. Instead it’s like being a third-party observer. Is the audience in your mind when you’re composing and is there ultimately a reaction you’re looking for, that you’re listening for in the lobby after the performances? Or is that not a part of your process?

SG: I think there have been moments where I’ve been genuinely concerned how an audience might react. Most of the time I’m not. I think that my language tends to be more accessible than not, so I guess I’m kind of lucky that way, or I’ve made the choice to be that way. But there’s a moment in my String Quartet No. 2, the third movement called Inner Demons, where you’ve heard four themes presented in a scherzo-trio form, and then they all begin to mix together and it’s chaos for about a minute straight. I was panicking before that first performance and wondering if people were just going to tune out or get disgusted. Will anybody do the ultimate “stand up and storm out” thing? When it premiered, I did see a lot of heads turn and people look at each other at that moment. But it passed. They all got through it. The rest of the quartet finished, and it turned out to be, I think, the strongest movement of that piece. So I feel like it was a really good risk to take. Sometimes you just have to not worry about how the audience is going to react.

What is interesting, though, is a lot of times people won’t tell the composer what they really think, but they don’t know who the composer’s husband is. So, there’s been many times where my husband has been circulating in the lobby after and he’ll just hear bits of conversation, and that gets hysterical. So that’s how I really get my feedback. It’s nice when people come up who are supportive, but I would love to occasionally get someone who says, “This part was great, but this other spot didn’t do as much for me.” It’s great to get past that first level and say where’s the feedback? I really need to shape this piece into something stronger. Because I do feel like the first performance is really just a debugging session. It’s not a perfect piece by any means. I’m lucky if I get it 95, 96 percent right. And it’s the second performance where you get it to about 98, 99 percent. And finally, by the third performance, that’s where I think it should be completely settled.

MS: Do you have any reservations about doing serious editing after the first performance?

SG: I will absolutely do it if it needs it. In the case of Becoming Medusa, it was [originally] a minute and fifteen seconds longer than it now is. There’s a minute in there, and another 15 seconds elsewhere, where I just felt that this is not doing anything for the piece. It’s wasting time, and it’s taking away from the rest of the moments. So I had to butcher it, but I think it made for a stronger piece. It is hard to do; it is hard to face up. I think it can also be harder the longer you wait. There’s a piece right now in my repertoire, and it needs a revision, but it was written so long ago now that it’s hard to rip apart. I’m no longer there as a composer. I don’t know what was important to me necessarily that I want to preserve, and what things I should put in that are important to me now in the re-write.

MS: Considering that evolution, when you look back, do you feel like the career that you’ve had so far is the one that you expected to have, either when you went into undergrad, or when you left your Ph.D. program? Have things turned out the way you expected?

SG: I guess the funny thing about me is, I knew I wanted to be a composer, but I didn’t really know what that would be. I knew I wanted to be successful, but I didn’t know what that would be. The one thing I was sure of is that by the time I was 30, I would be married and have kids. I turned 30, and I wasn’t married, and I didn’t have kids. So the one thing I was so sure about did not happen. In a way that freed me up—anything’s on the table. I can go out and do anything I want. I’m not sure if I’ve really attained all the success that I thought I’d have at this point, but I’m very happy with what I have achieved so far. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have more goals, and I have plenty of projects that I want to be doing. So I’m not quite where I want to be in the future, but for as little as I knew when I was getting out of school, I think I’m doing quite well.

Chamber Music America Announces 2013 Commissioning Grant Recipients

Chamber Music America (CMA) has announced the recipients of its 2013 commissioning grants, supporting the creation of new works for small ensembles. CMA will distribute $421,950 to 19 ensembles through two of its major grant programs: New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development, supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and Classical Commissioning, supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grantees in each program were selected by independent peer panels this spring.
A total of $208,500 has been awarded to nine jazz ensembles through the New Jazz Works program, which provides support for the creation and performance of new works in the jazz idiom, as well as funding for activities that extend the life of the work, and allow the ensemble leader to acquire or cultivate career-related business skills.

The 2013 New Jazz Works grantees are:

World Time Zone (led by Michael Blake)
Sheldon Brown Group
Robin Verheyen NY Quartet
Ben Kono Group
Manuel Valera and New Cuban Express
Dapp Theory (led by Andy Milne)
Alan Ferber Nonet
Jacob Garchik Trio (joined in its commission by the Caravel String Trio)
Sicilian Defense (led by Jonathan Finlayson)

Ten ensembles have also been awarded a total of $213,450 through the Classical Commissioning program, which provides support for U.S.-based professional classical and world music ensembles and presenters for the creation and performance of new chamber works by American composers.

The 2013 Classical Commissioning grantees are:

Duo Scorpio / Nico Muhly
Kontras Quartet / Jens Kruger
Melody of China / Yuanlin Chen
Michael Winograd Ensemble / Michael Winograd
Music from China / Chen Yi
Mivos Quartet / Eric Wubbels
PRISM Quartet / Julia Wolfe
Talea Ensemble / Oscar Bettison
ZOFO / William Bolcom
Ensemble N_JP / Gene Coleman

(—from the press release)