Tag: Chicago

Buddhist music-making: how meditation could transform the way you work

Tian Tan Buddha

Tian Tan Buddha
Photo by Molly Sheridan

The last concert I heard before I went on a silent meditation retreat was the DePaul University Chamber Orchestra’s all-contemporary program. The first-ever performance of its type at DePaul, the concert generated considerable excitement among the Chicago listening community. The evening was an ambitious tour of 20th-century orchestral monoliths, designed by conductor Michael Lewanski to make a strong statement of advocacy and artistry. The young ensemble opened with Xenakis’ Tracees, closed with Berio’s Sinfonia, and played Ligeti’s Lontano and the US premiere of Gerard Pesson’s Aggravations et Final in between.

As I sat during the Xenakis, utterly annihilated by the sound of the tam-tam, I wondered what it would be like for a musician, in particular, to pass seven days in silence.

We musicians know that silence is as precious as sound itself; we try to care as well for the rests as we do for the music in between. But we also, like most human beings, fear the idea of a long silence. Is it safe—is it even possible—to pause our perpetual inner soundtrack and be truly alone with our chaotic thoughts, our chaotic selves?

As it turns out, a week spent in silent meditation is difficult, but quite survivable—even wonderful. I was very fortunate that two of the foremost Western teachers of Buddhism, Christina Feldman (whose phrasing I use below in quotes) and Narayan Liebenson, led the retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. Both teachers spoke about how ancient teachings on mindfulness and compassion can illuminate our modern lives. Now that I’m speaking, reading, writing, and playing the violin again, I’m reflecting on how these teachings could transform our work as composers and performers. While meditation is not a self-improvement or life-fixing project, the principles and guiding intentions behind the practice have the capacity to gently and completely transform the way we live.

Learning to live within our bodies. One of the primary trainings of a meditation practice is to notice how often we are lost in thought, and to redirect our awareness inside the physical body. The first foundation of mindfulness is to “know the body as the body.” For the performer in particular, this is a powerful tool. As we sit onstage, surrounded by a swirl of sound, activity, anxiety, and many other human beings, we can anchor ourselves in awareness of our breath, physical contact with our instrument, or where our body makes contact with the floor or the chair. We can recognize that we are here, and fully inhabit our bodies as they perform their complex tasks.

Learning that each moment disappears and is followed by another moment. This teaching—that all things are impermanent—might be one of the tidbits you learned about Buddhism during your middle-school survey of world religions. Or it might resonate as a kind of New Age cliché: this moment is all we have! Yet performers and composers already inhabit this reality, because impermanence is inherent to our art form. A beautiful chord, a nicely blended timbre, a favorite melody, or a facepalm-inducing mistake onstage: whether pleasant or unpleasant, they’re here and then they’re gone. Getting in better touch with the ever-changing nature of our experience might increase our sensitivity, relaxation, and appreciation of what we’re doing—and help us let go of what wasn’t perfect.

Learning to “cultivate non-distractedness.” What’s the point of sitting still on a cushion for several hours a day, doing absolutely nothing, paying attention to what we are experiencing internally? Perhaps we could consider it a kind of practice session for being present during everyday life. I still remember being a teenager and hearing a professional musician say that he sometimes thought about what color to repaint his kitchen during orchestra concerts. Distraction and boredom are utterly human, but they unfortunately can keep us from being present during the very moments in our lives and careers that we want to treasure most.
Learning to balance between “agency and receptivity.” In meditation and in life, this means striking a balance between doing something and letting things be. For chamber musicians in particular, this is such a huge part of our work. When do we lead? When do we follow? When do we seize control of the tempo to avoid it sagging, and when do we allow the music to simply unfold, trusting that it will do what it needs to do? A silent meditation practice is a kind of training ground for precisely this.

Learning not to be at war with ourselves or others. For about an hour each day on my silent retreat, we did a practice called metta, or loving-kindness, in which we set an intention for the happiness of all beings. During metta, you gradually widen the circle of good intentions: beginning with ourselves, then those we’re close to, then those we don’t know, and finally, those we struggle with. This insight meditation practice acknowledges that we spend much of our lives dwelling in the emotional equivalent of toxic waste, and that we need an active practice to create a more safe and nurturing emotional environment for ourselves and our awareness. In case you haven’t noticed, life in music can be difficult at times. The challenges often lead us into mind-states of competition, criticism, and anxiety. I’m hopeful that my own metta practice will help me make a shift in perspective from separateness to togetherness, and from scarcity to sufficiency.

Very Modern Love Songs: Your Weird, Steamy Playlist for V-Day

Valentine’s Day is here, and for contemporary music enthusiasts, it can be hard to compile the proper twitterpated playlist. After all, laypeople are constantly referring to our favorite pieces as “scary movie music.” Don’t they know we’re just as romantic as the next guy? When we’re cut, do we not bleed?!

I started thinking about what makes new music erotic or romantic, and decided to ask my Facebook friends and Twitter followers the same question. Some of their responses were just weird enough to include…and some were just weird. From openhearted to kinky, we’ve got some pretty wide-ranging ideas of what romance is. Without further ado, here’s your 2014 playlist of avant-garde baby-makin’ music.

What’s sexier than the human body? Few composers explore this question better than Jenna Lyle. We can neither confirm nor deny rumors that Lyle’s upcoming doctoral dissertation will include microphones placed inside certain unmentionable orifices. While you’re waiting for that excitement, check out her duo Aqualung for some sensual girl-on-girl-on-violin action. (Full disclosure: I’m the violinist in this video.) Lyle here explores “the intimacy and claustrophobia of closeness to another in parallel with the intimacy and claustrophobia of being alone with oneself.” What’s more romantic, or real, than that?

You know it. I know it. The phenomenal composer and conductor Matthias Pinscher is a heartthrob on the podium and on the page. Exhibit A is his Songs from Solomon’s Garden, which takes as its text some of the oldest sex poetry in Western civilization. The throbbing (yes, throbbing) trumpet solos were reportedly written especially for his paramour in the New York Philharmonic. It’s not every day we get to know a living composer Biblically.

Is your Valentine’s Day more bitter than sweet? Or is it, er, another taste altogether? The unfailingly raunchy Matt Marks set a text entitled “I tasted another woman in your mouth” for his song cycle I[XX]. As you might expect, this audio is NSFW.

With dating apps like Tinder and Grindr starting to make OKCupid look downright quaint, we could all use a primer on love in the digital age. Composer Robert Honstein’s My Heart Iz Open is a lonely-hearts online love story complete with email subject lines and corny screen names. It even turns its compositional light on dating websites’ heartbreakingly detached Terms of Use.
Thanks to Chicago composer Morgan Krauss, getting in the mood tonight will not be a problem for any of us. Just imagine you’re in a darkened concert hall listening to her Gravity of Shadows: two female vocalists ooh-ing, sighing, and breathing their way through four sensual minutes. The flutes sound just as transfixed, focused and ecstatic as the humans. Are you tingly yet? (h/t Doyle Armbrust)

Let’s not forget the classics. Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet, like great love, creates a sense of deep attunement and intimacy. The piece’s opening sequence has a sense of suspended timelessness, like two lovers lingering over every touch. But at an hour and twenty minutes, the piece more closely resembles a long, mindful marriage than a fling. (h/t Dave Reminick)
Thanks a lot, Jonathon Kirk: I’ll never think of hockets the same way again. When I asked friends to name their favorite “sexy” pieces, Jonathon chose Meredith Monk’s Hocket” from Facing North. This vocal duet evokes either the rhythmic call-and-response of lovemaking or a couple in a lifelong repetitive conversation. Or both.

Things get kinky when the conversation turns toward Georges Aperghis. His quintet Crosswind, performed here by Chicago dynamos Anubis Quartet and Nadia Sirota, has a raw and ravaging energy, punctuated by yelps of unfulfilled longing and, let’s be real, sucking sounds. Though Crosswind feels more like an orgy than the more intimate couplings on this list, there is an innocent, charming little love song nestled in around 5:40. (h/t Seth Brodsky)

But perhaps, dear readers, you’re tired of weird. Perhaps you’re ready for real love. Two of contemporary music’s favorite lovebirds, writers and advocates Larry and Arlene Dunn, recommend “How Important It Must Be,” a kind of lifelong-love song by Maria Schneider on a text by Ted Kooser. While this particular song from Scheider’s Winter Morning Walks isn’t available for free streaming, the equally beautiful “Walking by Flashlight” gives a taste of the song cycle’s tender jazz sensibility.

Finally, for those ready to face the question of love and mortality, I offer up the sad and gorgeous musical legacy of perhaps the greatest contemporary music love story of the past decade. Composer Peter Lieberson was married with three children when he met mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt; they fell in love while working on the premiere of his opera, Ashoka’s Dream. After their marriage, he wrote his Neruda Songs for her. The piece was recorded just eight months before she died of breast cancer; sadly, Lieberson himself has also since passed away. The final Neruda Song begins with this text:

My love, should I die and you don’t
let us give grief no more ground:
my love, should you die and I don’t
there is no piece of land like this on which we’ve lived.

Hold your loved ones close, dear readers, and read a poem or two. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Sounds Heard: Chris Wild–Abhanden

Abhanden (Navona Records) is the debut release from Chicago-based cellist Chris Wild. Wild is a mainstay of the Chicago contemporary music scene; he has been a core member of Ensemble Dal Niente since its founding and is an active conductor and music educator. His onstage presence is intense and contemplative, so it comes as no surprise that Abhanden presents six works which, in radically different ways, explore intimate and interior worlds. The recording is expertly crafted by Wild and his co-producers, engineer Dan Nichols and composer Eliza Brown, and features excellent performances from Dal Niente’s pianist Mabel Kwan, percussionist Greg Beyer, violinist J. Austin Wulliman, and soprano Amanda deBoer Bartlett.

The album’s first work is Chinary Ung’s Spiral (1987) for cello, piano, and percussion. Ung, a Cambodia-born composer whose music draws on (and works to preserve) the musical traditions of his native country, has written a series of pieces for various instrumentations, all sharing the title Spiral. In this, the first piece of the series, Ung frequently places the cellist in the traditionally virtuosic, singing role of soloist. Wild’s approach to the material is soaring, lyrical, and bold. Pianist Mabel Kwan and percussionist Greg Beyer contribute dynamic and exciting performances; they create a rich, dark, percolating atmosphere which can spring to rhythmically ferocious life at any moment. It is hard to imagine Ung’s enchanting music finding finer advocates than these. Each moment of the piece’s heart-stopping final sequence is painstakingly shaped and colored by the trio, and the cello’s final note seems to both swallow all of time, and be swallowed by it.

The next track is Claude Vivier’s 1975 Piece pour violoncelle et piano. (Vivier was a promising French-Canadian composer whose career was cut short by his murder at age 34.) With its dramatic passages of extended recitative, the piece calls to mind great chamber works by Ravel and Debussy. Vivier, like his French predecessors, was interested in the musical cultures of Asia (in this case, Balinese gamelan music). The piece, written for a Canadian performance competition, walks the line between celebrating cellistic virtuosity and taking the formal and harmonic risks we might expect from late-20th century music. Wild and Kwan’s performance is sensitively timed and supremely patient, allowing the work’s material to sparkle as it unfolds at a glacial pace.
Chicago composer Daniel Dehaan’s If it encounters the animal, it becomes animalized begins calmly enough, in an ether of harmonics. But then an arresting groan, as if from the mouth of a living creature, emerges and startles the listener. This is the first signal that the piece, a virtuosic tour-de-force for solo cello, will indeed engage the instrument’s “animal nature.” Dehaan’s piece places the animal (the human performer) in a many-sided physical relationship with the cello and all the raw materials of which it is made. The recording and production work is particularly excellent here, capturing Wild’s full-bodied performance and successfully creating a three-dimensional sonic image of the cello itself that the listener feels she can almost touch. The closeness of the microphones leaves us delightfully uncertain whether Wild’s audible breathing is a part of the notated score or not.
If it encounters the animal… is an excellent representation of the creativity that can result from long-term collaboration between performer and composer. Each cello sound seems to have been carefully and collaboratively developed. The piece feels so multi-layered that one could easily forget it is an unaccompanied cello work. It evokes both an animal–whips, groans, breaths, rasps, slaps–and the windswept chasm in which the animal might manage to survive. This recording is yet another reason why Dehaan has become one of the most exciting young composers in the city.

Andrew Greenwald describes his music as being concerned with “issues of pixelated sound material viewed at increasing resolutions.” His Jeku II for violin and cello, performed here by Wild with J. Austin Wulliman, demands a wide technical range and interpretive daring. The duo delivers a focused and dramatic performance; there’s particular flair in the way the piece’s long silences amp up the tension before another burst of activity. Wild and Wulliman execute Greenwald’s palate of extreme sounds with a combination of playfulness and precision. Every whoosh, clatter, and scramble sparkles in contrast to the surrounding sounds. Wulliman seems to know the dimensions and density of each centimeter of his bow; in one passage, he creates an arresting series of percussive clicks with the movement of what seems like one “tooth” of the bow hair. It’s a clear-sighted performance that demonstrates why Wild and Wulliman are such successful longtime collaborators.

Marcos Balter’s elegiac memoria, for solo cello, shows off Wild’s strengths as an introspective performer. Balter has written subtle and slow-moving shifts of timbre that make the simple addition of a second pitch feel magical. As the piece spins in what feels like one never-ending note, there are haunting glimpses of harmonics that seem to ascend and descend from other dimensions. The recording quality is again excellent, embracing the three-dimensional aliveness of the cello itself.

Eliza Brown’s Ich ben der welt abhanden gekommen–a work for cello, soprano, and electronics inspired by Gustav Mahler’s setting of the same Ruckert text–was, for this listener, the most fascinating and revelatory on the disc. Brown describes her music as exploring “culturally defined elements of musical meaning and syntax,” and succeeds wonderfully here. This is art song that alternates between feeling like Mahler and feeling like Mahler played through a radio on the moon. Brown makes subtle and powerful use of electronic tracks, which move in mysterious waves as Bartlett opens the piece with wide-vibrating long tones and a melodic line of Mahlerian scope. Brown’s setting often finds the cello and soprano in intimate interaction, trading off unisons that blend seamlessly into one another. The electronics are a highly dynamic third character: sometimes tender and lush, lending superhuman strength to the cello; other times self-consciously machine-like, crackling with cold, post-apocalyptic static.
Abhanden offers the listener excellent renderings of work by three of Chicago’s most interesting voices, as well as three fascinating works by composers less often heard in the city–yet each one manages to project a sense of musical intimacy. Abhanden confirms that Wild is not only an exciting performer to watch, but also a wise programmer and collaborator. The album manages a delicate balance between being both a fascinating portrait of Wild himself and an intimate map of the collaborative community in which he works.

Sounds Heard: Spektral Quartet—Chambers

Now in their fourth season, Spektral Quartet is currently ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago and already a well-known champion of Chicago composers, including the six whose works are featured on the group’s first commercial disc release. Since I heard Spektral perform at Chicago’s Empty Bottle this August, I’ve been intrigued by their homebrewed approach to contemporary music. Their first CD offering (also available on cassette, for those with an ’89 Volkswagen Golf or similar playback device) is not only a calling card for the group’s formative artistic collaborations but also a richly detailed portrait of Chicago’s up-and-coming contemporary music scene.

The album’s title, Chambers, is a wry play on the tradition of chamber music that Spektral Quartet is working so intensely to update via their performances at nontraditional venues, but it also reflects the very distinct sonic spaces that each of the six composers recorded here create with offerings mostly under ten minutes in duration. Hans Thomalla’s Albumblatt (2010) plunges us right into a fascinating space without preamble, with an initial pizzicato gesture igniting a series of melting lines that recede almost as quickly as they materialize. Familiar tricks of the contemporary composer’s trade such as extended timbral effects and microtonal inflections are made personal and fresh in Thomalla’s hands—for example, a series of glissandi combined with interesting bowing patterns make for an aural impression that is particular and sharply imagined rather than generic. At times these sliding figurations almost take on the character of mechanical sirens before fading to a whispered, chorale-like passage made tense by extremely slow bow speed, sounding something like a quiet scratch-tone. In the glissandi and spun-tone sounds, Spektral reveals a remarkable sense of control and a nuanced range of expression, qualities that place the quartet in the distinguished company of groups including the JACK Quartet and Kronos in their heyday.

Ben Hjertmann’s String Quartet No. 2, Etude (2013) is the most recently composed piece featured on this recording and also opens with a backdrop of glissandi against which an arching violin line unfolds and elaborates (one of four solos for each quartet member woven into the composition). Before long a more rhythmic section erupts, marked by pizzicato strumming (with guitar picks!) and complex, prog-ish meters giving the effect of a wild guitar jam. These percussive sections are where the piece’s personality really comes out—including foot-tapping and quartet members hissing through their teeth, deftly wedded to the sounds produced on their instruments. A dramatic violin cadenza dissolves into a sustained array of languid artificial harmonics that end with an abrupt and abortive crescendo to the faintest stirrings of mezzo-piano; surely one of the more original endings I have heard, with each gesture obsessively shaped and brought into focus by the quartet.

Eliza Brown’s String Quartet No. 1 (2011) begins with fingered tremolos and flickering harmonics and is marked overall by the purity and simplicity of its crystalline textures. Making its argument in more direct and unadorned terms than the previous works on the album, this is no textbook minimalism but a work in which textural variety is ably engaged with a richness of sound often lacking in similar music of such apparent and beguiling plain-spokenness. Brown’s quartet has something of a surprise ending as well, with a bracing dissonance all the more rewarding because it was saved for exactly this effect, with shadings of microtonality resolving to a luminous C Major.

Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Dig Absolutely (2010) likewise opens with an interlocking network of glissandi (perhaps the unifying sound of the entire album, although handled with different expressive impact by each composer recorded here). Straining and wailing with the inflections of pop vocalism, the piece strikes an enchanting balance between aspects of vernacular expression and contemporary experimental music. For one thing, Fisher-Lochhead writes some incredibly specific and constantly varied rhythms, giving the whole affair a sense of improvisatory looseness more characteristic of roadhouse performance than the concert hall. The members of Spektral draw this feeling into the aural foreground, playing with a kind of “reckless precision” (to paraphrase a Tuck Andress guitar album) that is often difficult for trained classical musicians to achieve with conviction. Also bearing a strong pop influence (although neither work wears this influence on its sleeve or as a form of gimmickry) is Liza White’s 2012 Zin Zin Zin Zin, inspired by Mos Def’s scatting on The Roots’ “Double Trouble.” Beginning with onomatopoeia of the titular four syllables, White’s composition employs inventive techniques such as dead bow-stops and a crunchy harmonic palette of cluster-based chords to create the feeling that we are experiencing pitchless grunts and shouts rather than musical lines. This is the shortest work recorded here and also the most kinetic; the music is passed around the quartet like a superball with great virtuosity, only to slink away at the end in four breathless puffs of sound that mimic the work’s opening. It’s a tour de force of quartet writing that manages to make a vivid impression in under four minutes.

Marcos Balter’s Chambers (2011), which concludes the disc, is—like much of the composer’s work—highly gestural in its musical rhetoric while also pervaded by a feeling of stasis; the work’s three short movements are masterful at establishing moods but do very little to develop their initial gestures as the music unfolds, opting instead to offer three snapshots that invite the ear to linger. The first movement presents faintly shimmering harmonics in a cycling pattern, almost marked with the regularity of breathing or the steady “lub dub” of a heartbeat. This is by far the most minimalistic movement anywhere on the album with an extremely slow rate of change, yet investing its near-stasis with an incredible sense of urgency and suspense. The second movement is initially marked by pizzicato, the crisp notes of the high violin strings contrasted with the rounder, boomier sound of the cello’s low strings to great effect, before a series of cluster chords emerge out of nowhere. The work’s third movement likewise begins with pizzicato in a funky, dance-like groove, against which sagging string lines in canonic imitation animate the feeling of suspended time—whereas the previous movements sometimes feel a bit confined to their respective small chambers, this one feels like a larger room where anything can happen and, as such, provides a great conclusion to this sampler of young Chicago composers.

Spektral Quartet is moving up the ladder fast, and I can only suspect that this is the first of many recording releases for the group. It’s rare for an ensemble with such a predilection for contemporary music to also exhibit such a strong lyrical impulse, and this tendency—amply evidenced on Chambers—sets Spektral apart from many other players on the new music scene. I look forward to hearing them present an album that blends contemporary music with other offerings from the traditional quartet repertoire (their live performances of Verdi and Puccini selections made an impression just as strong as the contemporary works recorded on this disc). After all, what Chicago is perhaps most in need of is an ensemble that can perform the classical repertoire with the same commitment, nuance, and ferocity with which it champions contemporary composers, and the Spektral Quartet is a more sincere and viable candidate than most in bringing these two oft-separated worlds together.

Mixed Media: Collaborative Music and Visual Art Making for Ten x Ten: 2013

This Saturday, three Chicago arts organizations will celebrate the release of Ten x Ten: 2013, a collaborative venture between ten Chicago visual artists and ten composers. These artists and composers, paired up by Access Contemporary Music (ACM), Homeroom Chicago, and Spudnik Press, worked together to craft joint “statements of intent” and create pieces of music and art which speak to each other. While the 2010 and 2012 editions of Ten x Ten paired visual artists with rock musicians and other recording artists, this year’s project is firmly in the realm of contemporary art music. The result is a ten-track vinyl LP, performed for the recording by ACM’s Palomar Ensemble, and a set of ten handmade screen prints. 

The Ten x Ten project reflects the inclusive, community-building spirit that animates the operations of both Homeroom and Access Contemporary Music. Homeroom, whose mission is to “create an artistic dialogue with shared and far-reaching impact,” hosts songwriter nights, dance parties, and one-of-a-kind cultural events like “Barbie 101,” which critically engaged Barbie dolls through performance art, queer studies, poetry, and history. ACM’s contemporary music programs include a highly visible partnership with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, a wildly successful silent film festival, and an international commissioning program that brings music from around the world to Chicago. Thus, it’s no surprise that Ten x Ten has generated a set of fascinating works—and lots of interdisciplinary neuron-firing.     

To learn more about the process of creating musical-visual dialogue, I talked to composer Andrew Tham and his collaborator Edie Fake about their journey from collaborative “blind date” to finished piece. 

Ellen McSweeney: Andrew, did you and Edie get to know each other’s work before crafting a statement of intent and moving forward? What was that like?

Andrew Tham: Basically, the setup was that we met each other at the launch event that ACM and Homeroom set up for us. I didn’t know Edie’s work beforehand, so it was like a blind date of sorts. We sat down that same day and had an hour-long discussion. We talked about what both of us were working on in our own fields. He told me about the concepts that he’d been dealing with, up to that point. I told him about the concepts that I was thinking about in music. We asked, “How can we use this project as a way to combine our interests and further the conversation for both of us?”

EM: How did Edie’s visual language, which is so vivid, so full of humor and self-exposure, affect the way you approached the sounds in your piece?

Edie Fake's "Night Baths"

All artwork by Edie Fake

AT: I was really inspired by Memory Palaces, the most recent project that Edie had finished when we started talking. It’s all these reimaginings of spaces in Chicago—places like gay bars, gay clubs, spaces that have social potential and represent an ideal of social utopian space. And those are really architecturally dense—a lot of patterns, a lot of colors, really dazzling. He was trying to achieve an effect where you get this pattern going, and for the viewer, the more you look at it, the more it begins to throb or resonate. So this is the crux of our piece: we were both trying to achieve a changing temporal experience.

So my piece begins in a way that is very static. The idea is that I want it to be this flat, 2-D thing that over time stirs and becomes something more interactive, that engages the listener more and more as time progresses. And that was what Edie’s work was doing in these pieces. As you look at it for longer, you get more depth.

EM: Physical space also ended up being an important theme in your work together.

AT: Yes. As a way of beginning, I went out and found physical spaces that I wanted to translate into music, or capture an atmosphere. I made some musical sketches and field recordings and sent that to Edie—not telling Edie what it was from. He made sketches from that, and that influenced how I wrote the rest of the piece.

Edie Fake: I’ve been doing fantasy architecture drawings for a little while, usually exteriors. But when it came time to portray the space the music was making, it was obviously an interior space for me. At that time, I’d been reading a bit on how the structures of a house or building roughly psychologically align with our bodies and minds. I guess I’m still puzzling it out, but for me a sound almost automatically crafts an interior space in my mind, whereas an idea, thought or aspiration I usually visualize as an exterior, an edifice.
Edie Fake's "Friendship and Freedom"
EM: What were some of the challenges of the project for you, Edie?

EF: Deciding on the colors for the final print was a big challenge. We were asked to play with the idea of synesthesia, and I needed to figure out what colors meant for the sound of the piece. I usually design with a ton of colors, but Andrew’s sounds had more restraint. It definitely took a while for me to realize I only wanted a couple of colors popping out from a dark space.
Edie Fake's "10 x 10 colors"
EM: As people who normally work alone, how did you adjust to the joint process of creating the work?

AT: We acknowledged off the bat that it wasn’t a long-term, completely integrated kind of collaboration, and that posed an interesting challenge for us. The whole project is about the synthesis of visual art and music. How can we contribute to that concept, even if we’re not collaborating on a super intimate level? So we set it up like a game of telephone.

EF: It was pretty great – by playing a game of telephone between sound and image, we were trying to mimic the spaces we were creating in our own media. I really like when an exchange has an element of play to it. This was a great warm up for what we were going for, using static media to talk about the importance of live space.

AT: We had the same concept in mind, and we were interested in how the game of telephone distorts the process. There’s influence, but it’s never quite the same each time. We tried to embrace that.

You can hear all the tracks from the Ten x Ten project, right here. The release party is this Saturday, November 16, at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.

Diligence is to Magic as Progress is to Flight

Austin Wulliman

Austin Wulliman
Photo by Doyle Armbrust

Two weeks ago, I visited a pair of dynamic, hardworking Chicago musicians in their studio. I was intrigued to see violinist Austin Wulliman (known for his work with Spektral Quartet and Ensemble Dal Niente) and composer/bassoonist Katherine Young (known as a great improviser and increasingly in-demand composer) working together in an entirely new context. The pair was preparing to reveal Diligence is to Magic as Progress is to Flight, the result of more than a year and a half’s worth of improvisation, sound creation, and collaboration. The immersive, fifty-minute piece would find its first home in the Defibrillator Gallery for a weeklong residency and culminating performance.

The instruments Wulliman would use for the performance—a prepared viola, two prepared violins, and a “normal” violin—were scattered throughout the small, windowless electronic music studio where the pair had holed up for the day. Young was stationed at the computer with an enormous array of sound samples arranged on the screen in front of her. Although they were at the end of a long day in the studio, the pair spoke with great energy about their upcoming performance. It was evident that their long-term, close collaboration had led to great mutual admiration and a wide array of new experiences for both of them.

When I asked Wulliman what was new for him in the collaborative process with Young, he answered: “Basically everything.”
“That was the intention going into it,” he explained. “When I approached Katie about this over a year and a half ago, I wanted to do something where I had the freedom to explore sounds with somebody who’s great at that.”

Wulliman saw the collaboration with Young as a chance to embark on sonic explorations that performers aren’t often afforded in the context of a fully notated score. Young began their collaboration by sending Wulliman videos and photographs for him to respond to with improvisations, and from this jumping-off place the pair began to develop a common language of sounds that would comprise Diligence. “This has been by far the most I’ve been in the workshop with somebody,” Wulliman said enthusiastically. “I feel like we made the materials together. I’ve always been in the room helping to make the sounds; Katie has always led the way in terms of shaping things, and guiding it becoming a piece.”

Prepared string instrument

Photo by Doyle Armbrust

The collaborative process revealed exciting new territory for Young as well. “It’s been really exciting to be able to spend this much time with sounds that I am not responsible for producing in the moment,” she said, referring to her work as a performing bassoonist. “I’ve been able to get outside of the closeness of having this instrument that [I’m] so connected to. I can say, ‘What if you do this thing, Austin?’ It’s hard to ask yourself those questions in terms of your own instrument. You feel it’s not possible. You think you know what’s possible, with your own instrument. It’s been exciting and has freed me up to think more about structure.”

The result of this collaboration, revealed September 27 at Defibrillator Gallery, was a subtle, sensual performance that enveloped the audience in an ever-changing ecosystem of sound and color. Many moments of Diligence were surprising, even revelatory: Wulliman tearing into a growling prepared G string with cadenza-like fervor, blending hushed bridge sounds with the surrounding tape part, or turning wild pizzicato textures into a virtuosic anti-caprice.

What made Diligence so satisfying was that it brought the greatest strengths of both composer and performer into bold relief. Young’s compositional hallmarks—her visceral approach to sound; her organic use of repetition, structure, and pacing; her attentiveness to the smallest details of timbre; her adventurousness in using instruments in unexpected ways—made the work feel like a living thing, breathing and unfolding as the evening progressed. And Wulliman’s strongest characteristics as a performer—his intensity of focus, his absolute commitment to each musical gesture—made listeners feel that the pair’s collaborative vision was being fully embodied in each moment.

As the performance ended and the packed gallery gave a series of enthusiastic ovations, an unexpected quote came to mind: Mother Teresa’s adage that “we can do no great things; only small things with great love.” In our contemporary music landscape, long-term collaborations can be logistically and financially difficult to achieve. We live in a culture where bigger is better, where more is more. Composers and performers are often required to write, learn, and perform music on tight timetables, and without a great deal of time for inquiry and reflection. Diligence, then, was a particularly rare treat: the chance to enter a sonic world created by two gifted musicians over a long period of time; the chance to hear sounds that were crafted intentionally, gradually, and with great love.

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.

Katherine Young: Notes of Collaboration

Composer, improviser, and bassoonist Katherine Young takes an adventurous, creative, and extremely hardworking approach to her career. She seems at home in a variety of musical communities: from the DIY band scene in Brooklyn to the improvised-music scene in Chicago to the academic composition department at Northwestern where she now studies. To help me prepare for our interview, Young handed me an impressive stack of CDs. Most were released on small boutique labels; one cover was beautifully hand-stitched by Young herself. Each of the represented projects—Young as solo bassoonist, her improvising duo project Architeuthis Walks on Land, her rock/experimental quartet Pretty Monsters—has toured in the United States and in Europe.
Young cites Anthony Braxton, with whom she studied at Wesleyan, as a profound influence on how she has developed a body of work. “Working with Anthony was very influential in this ethos of how you see a project through,” she says. “He both demonstrated, and would explicitly say: you write a piece, you get it performed, you make a record, you tour it, and then you’ve done the project. You don’t write a piece, get it performed once, and call it a day. This comes from the idea of being a performer, and getting your music out in the world.”

Young’s approach to the bassoon, which is on fascinating display in her 2009 solo record Further Secret Origins, is as physical as it is conceptual.  With this record, it’s clear that Young’s years of work as an improviser have led to a highly detailed and expressive map of the bassoon’s sonic possibilities. The percussive clacks of the keys, the multiphonic capacities of the reed, the resonance of breath—Young deploys these varied colors like a great orchestrator. Being an active bassoonist not only helps Young “keep [her] feet on the ground,” but also provides a place to experiment with sound. “Developing the sounds that I use on the bassoon, especially with amplification and pedals, is really informing my current interests as a composer,” she explains. “Teasing out these small sounds and making them big. Maintaining an active relationship with an instrument gives you a laboratory to explore sounds very immediately.”

In some of her current work, Young is experimenting with how extra-musical elements—like a collection of photographs, a poetic text, or even the opening scene of Once Upon A Time in the West—can be a “foundational part” of the composition process. In two upcoming large-scale collaborations with violinist Austin Wulliman and artist Deniz Gul, Young is experimenting with how to make these elements “not just this inspirational flash at the beginning of the process of composing, but rather, [something that] informs the whole piece.”

Her collaboration with Gul, a Turkish artist, is allowing Young to explore a long-standing interest in transcription. The piece began with a series of found interviews which Gul then transcribed into a poetic text and then used as the basis for a sculptural installation. Now, the installation will be the inspiration for Young’s improvised sound.

Although Young’s growing profile as a composer means that she is working more within traditional commissioning structures—including upcoming pieces for Northwestern’s Contemporary Music Ensemble, Spektral Quartet, Fonema Consort, and Distractfold—working directly with the musicians she’s writing for continues to be of primary importance for her. “I think the collaborative ethos of being a performer is still incredibly important to my process of composition,” Young explained. “Working closely with other people, involving multiple perspectives—a lot of my current work is very collaborative.”

For a composer like Young, who often allows for improvisation and somewhat open parameters in her work, this relationship is particularly essential. “Part of the goal for me is finding the right balance between specificity and openness, for whatever group it is, whatever the performance practice will be. When you’re working with a group of people, different structures and different specificity will work better than others.” In each project, Young is renegotiating the boundaries between performance and composition. “In some ways,” she says, “it’s just about getting to know people.”

Scratch That: Chicago’s Weekend Update

Scratch doesn’t want to make anybody jealous or anything, but we’re typing this column on a plane whose nose is aimed directly at the state of Florida. While we’re looking forward to reacquainting ourselves with that yellow orb in the sky, there are some exciting Chicago concerts we wanted to tell you about. If you’re in town—bravely enduring gray skies, icy sidewalks, and people who play low-quality radios aloud on the train—you deserve this fantastic weekend of shows.

On Friday night at the Merit School of Music, hometown heroes Third Coast Percussion will play works by Steve Reich and George Crumb, alongside guest artists Timothy Andres and David Kaplan.

Also on Friday—forcing a very painful choice for some of you—respected Northwestern composers Chris Fisher-Lochhead and Eliza Brown welcome German duo Noise-Bridge in a performance of new works. Fascinating composer and bassoonist Katherine Young will open the show with a solo set, as if you needed another reason to check it out. This is part of the always-lively programming at Elastic Arts.


The German-based soprano/clarinet duo NOISE-BRIDGE (Christie Finn and Felix Behringer)

On Saturday night on the stage of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Fifth House Ensemble presents their latest narrative chamber-music program, which includes some very exciting new works from Caleb Burhans and John Zorn.

Fifth House Ensemble

Fifth House Ensemble

Don’t feel like leaving the house? Every musician everywhere has probably seen Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk, but it’s worth mentioning here, since our first article for NewMusicBox dissed her pretty emphatically. Scratch believes that Palmer is about 10% insane, but that this talk is valuable for anyone who’s interested in funding a project, building a professional network, or growing an audience base. Yup, pretty sure that’s everyone.

If you need anything else—which, given the excitement of the above, you probably won’t—we’ll be reclining in the sun with a book.

Heartbreak and Hallucination: Ensemble Dal Niente Performs in vain

Ensemble Dal Niente performs in vain

Ensemble Dal Niente performs in vain
Photo by Chelsea Ross

From the moment that Ensemble Dal Niente announced that George Friedrich Haas’s widely admired work in vain would be the cornerstone of their 2012-13 season, Chicago has been buzzing about the performance. Ensemble members declared on social media that the piece was on their performance bucket list. Critic Peter Margasak of the Chicago Reader—which rarely covers fully notated contemporary classical music—described it as the concert he was most excited about this year. The performers, composers, and new music lovers that make up Ensemble Dal Niente’s audience seemed to feel the same way: that a very special and important work was finally coming to Chicago.

Eager to know what all the fuss was about, I delved into both the political and aesthetic contexts in which the work was written. I learned that Haas’s music is closely connected to the spectral school, but that it also contains shades of Ligeti, of Bruckner, even of Schubert.

As a newcomer to Haas, I wanted to interview Michael Lewanski, Dal Niente’s conductor, about why the ensemble had made Haas the center of its programming this year. I asked Lewanski why the piece was such a big deal, and he smiled. “I just love this piece. But there is a slightly mysterious, unknowable aspect to why it’s a masterpiece.”

“Accessible is a word I don’t like to use,” he continued cautiously. “I’m resistant to the notion that contemporary music is NOT accessible—but people nevertheless think that. If someone said to me, I hate contemporary music. What should I listen to? This is the music I would give them. It’s very viscerally beautiful. Somehow, it also seems to fit into this tradition that the Viennese have where they’re worried about two very different types of publics. There’s a lot of music that has the title, “For Connoiseurs and Amateurs,” because they really cared about doing both. They wanted to be able to appeal to both and speak to both.”

“I think it’s a mistake,” he continued, “to think that in vain is super original. It’s not Haas showing us a bunch of new sounds. It’s contextualizing all this stuff in new and unimagined ways. There is nothing less new than the overtone series. That is the least new thing in music. But the way he presents it—there’s this moment in the first dark section when the strings gradually coalesce into the harmonic series over B. It’s this riveting, spine-tingling, jaw-dropping moment. It’s the same thing you’ve heard for your whole life, but you hear it in this new way. You’re hearing it with new ears.”

One of the most important things I discovered during our interview was that Lewanski saw a key difference between Haas and the pure spectralists: while they write “music about sound,” Haas uses “sound as a metaphor.”

And this made sense, because in the course of learning about in vain, I had begun to construct elaborate metaphors around the piece. And I’m not the only one: in this video, Simon Rattle compares the music to the staircases of M.C. Escher, or to Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill. In his column on Haas, Alex Ross identifies profound themes of truth, of human darkness, even of Biblical pride.

Why does in vain lend itself so easily to broad metaphorical brushstrokes? Perhaps because in the years preceding in vain‘s composition, the far-right Austrian Freedom Party was becoming increasingly reactionary and increasingly powerful. This surge was led by Joerg Haider, the charismatic and controversial son of Nazi parents who, in 1999, led the party to a 27% victory and a firm place in the coalition government. Haider said publicly that “the multicultural society is a fiction that cannot work”; Haider was virulently anti-immigration; Haider regularly attended the retirement parties of Nazi soldiers without comment.

This was the dark stuff that, according to everything I’d read, in vain would be “about.” The narrative arc of the piece—where an extended episode of equal-tempered scales yields to a darkened paradise of the overtone series, only to be vanquished by the tyranny of the scales once again—certainly seemed to resonate with Austria’s recent political history. For progressive Austrians and for observers all over the world, the electoral success of the Austrian Freedom Party indicated a terrifying backslide into the xenophobia and racism that characterized the worst period in European history. Haas described the end of in vain as “the return to a situation thought to be overcome.” And so my mind prepared the analogies:

equal temperament : the specter of history :: just intonation: a hopeful future
scales : political noise :: long tones : truth

Because my research had yielded such a compelling narrative of political history, I wondered if there was a layer of musical history in the metaphor, too. What significance does, say, a Schubertian seventh chord or a Brucknerian climax have for Haas? In this musical world of stark contrasts—light and dark, scales and long tones, chaos and unity—are Haas’s Austrian predecessors good guys or bad guys? I needed to know. Did the analogy look like this?

Murail : progress :: Schubert : dubious tradition

Or more like this?

Grisey : presence :: Bruckner : revelation

In the evening’s program note, there was an even more compelling idea: that in vain is a meta-narrative about the futility of composition itself. And indeed, the work is built from such elemental building blocks—scales, arpeggios, and long tones—that it very well could be music about music. At times the musicians, repeating their fragments over and over in long episodes, seem like 24 obsessive souls toiling alone in their practice rooms.

But as it turns out, there is nothing to compare this music to. As it turns out, I was grasping at straws. When the performance of in vain began, none of my research mattered. I scratched blindly at my paper in the dark concert hall, wondering if I’d be able to read a word. Or if I would care. If that isn’t an example of futility, I don’t know what is.


What I saw and heard at Dal Niente’s performance last Thursday was, for me, more than a political statement. It was more than a treatise on intonation. It was more than any metaphor could have prepared me for.

The opening musical landscape—the strings fussing anxiously at their scales, the horns portending doom—suggested the hyperactive loneliness of modern life. But then came the lighting change that Haas calls for in his score. Like a flock of unsuspecting birds, the musicians (and the audience as well) were plunged into complete darkness. Here, it seemed the players could finally speak with their real voices. In the dark, the instruments seemed to be living creatures, calling to each other across a chasm. When, after a great silence, the harp began to play its coaxing, gentle fragments, I was certain we had entered the underworld.

But I could never be sure where I was. Throughout the work, sound was in a state of transformation. Perfectly consonant harmonic-series chords evaporated as quickly as they had appeared. Long tones were passed from instrument to instrument in a slow-motion, timbre-bending relay. There was a pervasive sense of auditory hallucination: did I just hear what I think I heard?
When the second “dark section” began, and all the lights in the hall were again extinguished, the cascading tremolos felt like the music of religious revelation and ecstasy. Sudden flashes of light made the onstage ensemble flame, glow, and recede like an apparition. The music went on and on, the tension stretching like a rubber band. At some point, the percussion roared so loudly, the lights flashed so brightly, and the sound became so urgent that I leaned back instinctively, like a cartoon character who stands inches away from the open jaws of a lion. The brass sounded a kind of alarm and the lights flashed in panic. And it must have been my imagination, must have been another ghostly vision, when I caught a glimpse of Michael Lewanski’s face. Surely that could not have been the conductor, facing us, hands down at his sides, a powerless witness to this apocalypse of sound.
And then, with the excruciating cry of the tam-tams, heaven collapsed. The light returned, and we were left only with 24 exhausted creatures, dragging themselves through their paces once again.

A desolate emptiness settled into my body. I reached for my pen.
Heartbreak, I wrote. Whatever that was, it’s over.