Tag: collaboration

Improvising With the Instrument, Not Just On It – A Remembrance of Paul Bley (1932-2016)

[Ed. note: The Canadian-born, U.S.-based composer/pianist Paul Bley, who died at the age of 83 on January 3, 2016, was one of the titans of the free jazz movement and, together with his wife Carol Goss, was a pioneer of the music video. Their prodigious documentation of the work of many of the most important improvisers of the last half-century stands out, along with Bley’s own music making, as a pinnacle of his life’s work. Therefore it seemed fitting to ask Carol Goss to describe how their unique collaboration came to be, and she sent us the following excerpt from Driven to Abstraction, a book in process.—FJO]

Paul Bley and Carol Goss in 1974

Paul Bley and Carol Goss in 1974; photo courtesy Improvising Artists.

Paul Bley and I met January 1973 at his loft on Hudson Street in the West Village. We fell in love and began to travel together. In the winter of 1974, I arranged to bring him and his band, Scorpio, to my hometown of Miami to play at the Space Transit Planetarium for Jack Horkheimer’s show. He shipped the Arp synthesizer down and we recorded it. Right after we returned to New York City, his landlord set a fire in the hall of his building on Hudson Street. Paul managed to pull the Arp out through the back third-story window onto a garage roof. He arrived at my apt at 11 1/2 West 84th St. We put the Arp (which was fine) under the stairwell along with the molten keyboard. Paul then moved in with me.

Two months later, we moved to an apartment Paul had at 26 Jane Street. In the spring of 1974, I produced a concert and reading with Paul Bley and William S. Burroughs at Eisner and Lubin Auditorium at NYU. “Small” video cameras had just become available but were extremely expensive, so I went to Andy Warhol’s Factory on Union Square and tracked down Anton Perrich, who had a camera, and enticed him to record the event for us.

My background was in theater and art, so when I attended a screening of Nam June Paik’s work, I realized I was uniquely prepared for video art. After the screening, Nam June suggested I go to the Experimental Television Center (ETC), then in Binghamton, New York, where there was a Paik-Abe video synthesizer. Around the same time, Paul and I decided to create a company for recording music and video: Improvising Artists.

I began to do residencies at ETC with video synthesizers. I would create a piece in silence and then find a track of Paul’s music of the same length. In the case of “Rings/Lovers,” the music and abstract video were exactly the same length, but created independently of each other. When put together, they synched in an uncanny way, which led me to the realization that editing was counterproductive because everything synchs. “Rings/Lovers” was exhibited, along with “Topography/Please,” at the Everson Museum’s 1976

“New Work in Abstract Video” show. “Topography” was created on the Paik-Abe video synthesizer. The music is as yet an unreleased recording of Paul’s, “Please,” from an electric session with Bill Connors.

I made a number of analog video synthesis projects this way. Then I began renting cameras and recording concerts and studio sessions. I would take the video from these recordings to ETC where I could alter the parameters of the color and contrast, key in images, distort the image with oscillators and feedback. Because everything was analog, it was all done in real time. There was no rendering.

In a few cases, we were able to bring video synthesizers to concerts and improvise with the musicians, who could see the video output on screens—San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall (Bill Hearn, video synthesizer), Axis-in-Soho in New York (David Jones, video colorizer), Gunter Hampel/Marion Brown IAI recording session at Blue Rock Studios (Dan Sandeen, video synthesizer), etc. In 1979 I received a grant to make the first hologram of a raster scanned video image (Rutt Etra, video synthesizer). “Femophagy” was an integral white light hologram which displayed movement horizontally. It was exhibited at the Museum of Holography’s “Through the Looking Glass” show that year.

Paul had pioneered audio synthesis in the 1960s with the Moog and Arp in live performance, so it was a natural progression for me to continue this process of exploration in the visual realm. The fact that it was all analog made it fluid and intuitive. Analog electricity encompasses randomness and accidents. There is an interplay, a tension, between the artist and the instrument. It is truly possible to improvise with the instrument, not just “on” it.

In 1984, Paul sold his Arp synthesizer for $500 to Ralph Hocking, co-founder with Sherry Miller of ETC, so I could buy my first digital video synthesizer, the Amiga 500, thus beginning the next chapter and creation of the Not Still Art Festival, a forum for abstract and non-narrative video artists.

Paul Bley and Carol Goss standing together.

Paul Bley and Carol Goss in 1992. Photo by Jim Kosinski, courtesy Improvising Artists.

Royce Vavrek: So Many Juicy, Amazing Words

Royce Vavrek sitting down in front of a graffiti-strewn wall.

A conversation at Vavrek’s apartment in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NY
December 4, 2015—12:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

While an extremely wide range of composers are writing operas in the United States today, many of these disparate operas share an important trait—a libretto written by someone who was born in Alberta, Canada: Royce Vavrek. Dog Days and JFK (which both feature music by David T. Little), Angel’s Bone (with music by Du Yun), 27 (featuring music by Ricky Ian Gordon), and Song from the Uproar (music by Missy Mazzoli) are only a handful of the projects he has been involved with in the last five years. The gregarious Vavrek at first seems like an unlikely candidate for the mysterious, and regretfully somewhat anonymous, profession of writing opera librettos.

“I don’t know how I made this career,” he acknowledges to us during our talk with him in his Bushwick apartment. “I’m legitimately only writing libretti. Aside from doing a couple of classes at different universities and one-offs, I’m not working in any other capacity. I’m making no money besides from writing libretti and lyrics.”

Though words have become his primary focus, Vavrek also sang, played piano, and even composed music when he was growing up. Given such an immersive background in music, it’s surprising that his own musical ideas don’t sometimes get in the way when he is collaborating with a composer.

“My words do not have a musical idea attached to them, or at least very, very, very rarely,” he explains. “I always find that my words are a container and the music is always additive. … My principle job is to write exciting words that really ignite the imaginations of my collaborators. … My skill level compositionally is not at the level that David T. Little or Missy Mazzoli or Du Yun are composing at, so I think that I leave the composing for the masters. That being said, I am working on a musical where I am co-writing the music. There is music in me, but I tend to focus on the words because I feel like that’s where my true strength lies, especially within the operatic medium.”

Though nowadays many people don’t think much about Francesco Maria Piave (the man who wrote the libretto for La traviata) or Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (the team that created the words that Bizet set for Carmen), Vavrek is quick to point out that audiences for contemporary opera are aware that the composer is not the only person responsible for the final product in this truly collaborative idiom. According to him:

Especially when you have a living librettist, it’s easier to understand that there are two or more people who have come together to create a work. Similarly, a lot of our work is being developed with strong dramaturgical hands—whether it be a dramaturge proper or a director who has very clear ideas as to how he or she wants to stage something. Not only is the librettist an equal partner, but the librettist, composer, and the director often in my experience are really becoming this trifecta, creating initial productions that are the most dynamic manifestations of what the work needs to be.

Frank J. Oteri: So many different composers are writing operas these days, and they are often really making us rethink what opera is and what it could be, as well as what a new audience for opera could be. But despite this wide variety of musical voices, so many of these operas have librettos by you. It’s the one common ingredient in all of this stuff. How do you get involved with all these different projects, and how do you balance them all?

Royce Vavrek: I’m a very curious human being, and I’ve been extremely lucky. I just meet really inspiring people who have led to meeting other inspiring people. For instance, one of my first outings in the operatic world was a presentation at Carnegie Hall. David [T. Little] and I did a 20-minute chunk of Dog Days that was commissioned by Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov. Missy Mazzoli was at that presentation, and she gave me a flyer and said I should come see her Song from the Uproar. So at this big event in my life, I managed to find another collaborator. Little happenstances like that in this community led to a really healthy family. I continue to identify people that I just have to collaborate with, whom I have to be in dialogue with and marry my voice with theirs because I find their music so singular and exciting. One of the most amazing things about classical music right now is that every composer I’ve worked with has such a completely different language. So each collaborator and I have a particular tract—it’s almost as if each different collaboration is a completely different road that I’m traveling on. And that makes it so exciting.

FJO: But how do you balance them? It seems like you’re working on several of these at the same time, which I can see being very schizophrenic.

RV: I tend to have a major project and then smaller projects. I try not to do too many big, full-length operas concurrently, although I’m sure that there will be a time when that is impossible. But even though my projects are so disparate in form and content, I think that if you did look at my libretti, you would be able to find particular things that would suggest that they are a Royce Vavreck libretto. So while I do have my hand in a lot of different honey jars, they all contain elements of me. It’s interesting to see the different things that sort of link them together. There are these elements that do seem like they are of a time in my life and of a general wavelength.

FJO: So you mentioned working on Dog Days with David T. Little and then meeting Missy Mazzoli. It seems like her project had already started without you, and then you came into it. So I imagine some projects begin with nothing and then you and the composer with whom you are collaborating create a piece together, but for others someone brings you in to work on a project they’ve started, or maybe you also interest somebody in a project you want to work on.

RV: One of the more interesting and exciting things about opera is just how projects begin. For Song from the Uproar, Missy had composed a good portion of the piece and asked me to come and complete the libretto. So I not only had Isabelle’s language—Isabelle Eberhardt is the subject of the opera—but I also had Missy’s interpretation and her music. So there was a way for me to provide my voice, to marry my voice with all of these different elements. But that piece was very particular in that there was a good foundation to leap off of and to create a full-length work based on a seed of an idea.

FJO: So then your answer to the classic question—what comes first, the words or the music?—would be that it really depends.

RV: I would say that, 99 percent of the time, words come first. I’m sure that there will be situations coming up where music comes first, and music dictates lyrical content, but it does seem like for an opera, the words need to inspire the musical landscape—the dramatic landscape of the classical music.

FJO: Until I had read Heidi Waleson’s feature about you in Opera News this past April, I didn’t realize you had studied composition, as well as piano and voice.

RV: As a very young kid—not even in college, but yes.

FJO: So you wrote music?

RV: Yes.

FJO: Do you still write music? And if you don’t, what made you stop?

RV: My skill level compositionally is not at the level that David T. Little or Missy Mazzoli or Du Yun are composing at, so I think that I leave the composing for the masters. That being said, I am working on a musical where I am co-writing the music. There is music in me, but I tend to focus on the words because I feel like that’s where my true strength lies, especially within the operatic medium.

FJO: So I’m curious how you came to realize that strength. You were initially studying piano, voice, and composition, not libretto writing. How did you first find words, or did words find you?

RV: I took piano lessons and composition lessons in high school and I was in a choir. I was also really involved in the theater. I had a drama teacher who basically gave me the small budget that was allotted her class, and I wrote something like 17 plays in high school. We took them on the one-act play festival circuit, so I had this sort of practical playwriting education. And I was in love with movies as a kid. That was my window into the outside world growing up on a farm in northern Canada. I was just so in love with international and American independent cinema, especially of the ‘90s. I applied to Concordia University in Montreal and did my undergraduate degree in filmmaking, but then picked up a creative writing second major. So writing has been such a huge part of my life. Even when I was three years old, I remember my mom would take dictation; she would write down stories that I told her.

Telling stories has always been this innate thing that I’ve been participating in. As human beings, we tell stories all the time. So it makes sense that music and storytelling, which were both such a huge part of my life, are now married. I did my master’s degree in musical theater writing. So I do sort of have libretto training. That was more book writing and lyric writing—a libretto is a slightly different animal, but it is very much related to musical theater writing.

Then right after my master’s degree, I did the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program and that really set my career on this track. It provided me with the mentorship and the foundations of writing opera, and it also introduced me to my first collaborators. David T. Little actually came to my final concert and learned about my work through that program. Then it was just this snowball effect, really—meeting all these amazing, young composers who all want to tell stories. That’s sort of the lowest common denominator of all of us: we’re all interested in telling stories through music and words, and some of us through dance and through prose. So it just feels like we’re all coming together because we want to tell stories.

FJO: I’d like to unpack this dichotomy between musical theater and opera. Once upon a time opera and musical theater existed in very different spaces, the works were created by different sets of composers and lyricists-librettists, productions employed completely different singers using completely different vocal techniques, and things were performed for totally different audiences. But that’s not completely true anymore. The walls separating operas and musicals have come down quite a lot. So I found it somewhat peculiar to hear you say that you’re writing music for a musical, but you leave it to the masters to write music for operas. In your mind there must still be a difference.

RV: Well, there is and there isn’t. Musical theater often uses popular music to tell the stories, and I think that I am able to work within some of the popular musical languages. Whereas classical music just seems—I don’t want to say more serious, but there is something. But I think that our job is to blur those lines even further. I love musicals. I love, love, love, love that form. That was what I was raised on—cast recordings of 1776, Sunday in the Park with George, Follies, and Shenandoah, one of my other favorite musicals. I’m desperate to contribute to that medium. But I do think that opera and musical theater are both doing many of the same things. They’re both telling stories through music predominantly.

That being said, I do think the label helps identify what and where the venues are. What would 27, the opera I wrote with Ricky Ian Gordon, be like if we had theater singers doing that? Is this something that a theater singer would be capable of performing, or is it just meant for classically trained vocalists? That’s another big concern. Who do we intend to perform it, how and where, and why do these pieces exist and in what form? I think that what Beth Morrison does so beautifully is she says operas don’t need to be done at BAM or the Met. Operas can be done in all these cool venues. They can and should be done at the Met, and they should be done at BAM, but there are alternative homes that are even more exciting and more appropriate for certain pieces.

David [T. Little] also grew up with musical theater as a language that was really important to him. So you’ll see trinkets of more musical theater-y elements in Dog Days for instance, or in Vinkensport. Then there are moments in Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone that also have sort of musical theater-y things. I think that we’re using the best things about musical theater and the best things about opera and creating a middle ground. I also think that we’re extremely excited about the drama, about the theater of opera, so we are really trying to create dynamic works that feel alive, trying to define what opera in the 21st century is and what it’s going to be. I think that that’s a great opportunity for this community of artists that I work in. We get to put a flag in the ground and say this is what we want opera and musical theater to be going forward.

FJO: One of the problems with opera performance today is that most of what is performed in the big opera houses is very old repertoire. A lot of these works are great theater as well as great music, but I think the big opera houses promote the musical aspects over the dramatic ones, to the point that you see posters for Verdi’s La Traviata and the name of the librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, rarely gets mentioned. Same with La Bohème. Everyone thinks of Puccini, but who thinks about Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa? Lorenzo Da Ponte gets a little more credit for the operas he wrote with Mozart, but that’s probably because he is known for other reasons—like coming to America and founding the Italian department at Columbia. Whereas in musical theater history, Hammerstein is as famous as Rodgers, in terms of public awareness. So as someone who walked into the world of opera with a background in musical theater, do you feel like you’re an equal player and do you feel that audiences now have come to this position where they can see a work as being the creation of the composer as well as the librettist?

RV: I think that’s another example of how we are borrowing from musical theater where we understand that if the composer didn’t have a words person, they would be writing symphonies. Especially when you have a living librettist, it’s easier to understand that there are two or more people who have come together to create a work. Similarly, a lot of our work is being developed with strong dramaturgical hands—whether it be a dramaturge proper or a director who has very clear ideas as to how he or she wants to stage something.

Dog Days, for instance, was created in a room with Robert Woodruff, David, and myself. It felt very organic that the three of us came together to identify how that piece was going to be structured. We went through beat-by-beat to make sure that everything was sound and that we all had had a say as to how the work was going to unfold. With Breaking the Waves, we had two dramaturges in the room for our initial workshops and now we have a director named James Darrah, who is really hands-on and is guiding us in the most beautiful way and pushing us to try to make this project as theatrical and separate from the film—using the narrative of the film, but creating our own version of the story. So I think that is an example of how not only the librettist is an equal partner, but the librettist, composer, and the director often in my experience are really becoming this trifecta, creating initial productions that are the most dynamic manifestations of what the work needs to be.

FJO: To get back to musical theater, you were listening to cast albums before you ever actually saw a show on stage I imagine.

RV: My parents were really great about exposing me to the arts. My father played the piano, and was in a band with his siblings when they were high school age. So I did have access. I remember seeing Anne of Green Gables – The Musical when I was about five years old. We would go to the community theater, so I saw things like Marvin’s Room and Steel Magnolias. And I was in Oliver when I was ten, I believe, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Wizard of Oz.

But I was 20 the first time I came to New York and that was definitely the first time that I had the ability to see something that was professional. Although I did see a touring Les Miz. The first opera I saw when I was 18 at Opera de Montreal was the Cav/Pag double bill and that was sort of just mind blowing. That was also my first operatic CD. So that, especially Pagliacci, has such a huge place in my heart. Then, as a singer, I was doing a lot of competitive musical theater classes and stuff like that at the local music festival and the provincial music festivals. So I was learning about pieces not only through the cast albums but also through singing excerpts.

FJO: I find it amusing to hear you say that if composers didn’t have somebody writing words, they’d be writing symphonies.

RV: I understand that a lot of composers do come up with narratives for their non-narrative pieces—their non-vocal pieces. I don’t want to imply that a symphony doesn’t have a story, because I totally understand that that is not the case.

FJO: Yeah, but where I wanted to go with that is that one of the things I find interesting about the collaborations you have had with various composers is that you not only write operas with them, but you also create song cycles and other kinds of pieces that are intended for performance in concert halls. When you enter the concert hall, you really are entering a zone that is the composer’s domain even more so than in an opera house. I don’t know if people are trained to pay attention to the words as an equal component in those contexts at all. So I’m curious about how some of those projects evolved and what you feel your role is in those projects.

RV: My role is very similar. A lot of concert work is very narrative, so it seems like it’s extremely similar to writing an opera, although I don’t get to have people in costumes running around pretending to be men in dog suits or Gertrude Stein. Am I Born was a Brooklyn Philharmonic commission with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. That was something that was set up by Alan Pierson. He came to David T. Little and said he would love to commission something for what I believe was his first season with the Brooklyn Phil. He wanted it to be Brooklyn specific and, being a Brooklynite, that was a really exciting challenge. So we chose a painting that’s hanging in the Brooklyn Museum and decided we were going to try to bring that to life, to animate that through an oratorio. I structured it similarly to how I would an opera, trying to make it as varied as possible and to take the audience on a 30-minute journey. So while it is different, it really does feel like it is alive in the same way that an opera does.

FJO: Yes, but whereas folks in the new opera community can wrap their brains around the fact that Dog Days is by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, can folks in the concert world do that with Am I Born? I imagine that most concert programs featuring Am I Born will probably list it as a work by David T. Little and your name will only appear somewhere in the program notes. But maybe it’s not that way.

RV: It’s generally a company thing. For instance, looking at how the LA Phil lists things, often it’s just the composer’s last name with a colon and the name of the piece. But I think that times are changing. It seems like it’s less and less difficult to convince people that the librettist or the lyricist is important. For instance, on the cover of the 27 CD, my name is right next to Ricky’s. And with the Hubble Cantata, my cantata with Paola Prestini, my name is right up there with the name of astrophysicist Mario Livio and the film maker Carmen Kordas, and Paola’s name of course.

It is true that with a concert work, it’s less easy. I guess the concert world is a particular animal; it is harder to become recognized for concert work. But I think that a lot of composers, a lot of my collaborators, understand my contribution and they fight for me. A lot of it comes down to that. It comes down to a composer saying, “This is a collaboration, a team effort, and my collaborator deserves to be mentioned.” Often we’re not even mentioned. So I do think the biggest turn is my contemporaries, my collaborators, my colleagues saying, we understand your contribution and we think that it needs to be honored at least in having your name printed.

FJO: Since you have a musical background and you said that the words come first most of the time, I’m wondering if there have been times after someone else has set your words to music that what the composer did clashes with what you thought it should sound like.

RV: My words, when I write them, do not have a musical idea attached to them, or at least very, very, very rarely. The musical idea will be more general, like I feel like this is a sad song or this a happy song or this is a song that accomplishes this narratively. I would never say that the music is wrong. I don’t even know what that means. If there is music that I just don’t connect with, that’s a bigger problem, but I haven’t ever come across that. I can’t even think of an example of a composer who’s let me down, or who has completely derailed my narrative ideas. I always find that my words are a container and the music is always additive. Or it always has been. I’ll let you know when that’s not the case.

FJO: That’s good. You’re lucky.

Royce Vavrek leaning against a graffiti strewn wall.

RV: It’s so hard to make a career, it really is. I don’t know how I made this career. I’m legitimately only writing libretti. Aside from doing a couple of classes at different universities and one-offs, I’m not working in any other capacity. I’m making no money besides from writing libretti and lyrics. But because it’s such a hard industry to navigate, especially financially, you’ve got to be very serious. You’ve got to be very, very thoughtful, and you’ve got to put the time in. These opportunities are gifts, truly.

We’re all working so hard and trying to use our voices to tell the best stories and make the best music possible; that’s the name of the game. I think that if you’re not contributing in that way, that’s where I might have difficulty. Like if it’s just sort of—I don’t want to say hobby, because I think making music as a hobby is a beautiful thing and I would encourage everyone to do that. But I do think that I work with people who are driven to really contribute to the form and to advance the form, and who do really cool things. We have that potential and, especially with these opportunities we have, it seems like we have this unlimited palette with which to create really dynamic stories.

FJO: So what about the reverse of the music being wrong; let’s flip the coin. Have you ever been in situations where you bring in a text and the composer turns around and says, “That’s not going to work; that’s not singable. I need something else there; this isn’t right.” What I’m after with this whole line of questioning is trying to get a sense of what the give and take is in the collaborative processes that you’re a part of.

RV: It’s not so much that particular words don’t sing, I don’t think. The English language is so eccentric and awesome and there are just so many juicy, amazing words. I’ve never had a composer come to me and say it doesn’t sing. I’ve had a composer say I’m having a hard time figuring it out dramatically or finding my way through it. I always think that there are one thousand ways that one can write a scene. So if that ever happens, I’m more than happy—oh my goodness, send me away and have me re-write. I will try to find another way that will get the best music from you. My principle job is to write exciting words that really ignite the imaginations of my collaborators. So if my words aren’t doing that for you, I’m going to do my damnedest to find other words that do. I can give you an example. The final aria in JFK is one big emotional outpouring before the end of the show. I had written a version of that aria and it sort of sat in the libretto for a good nine months, a year maybe. Then David finally got to it. He had worked all the way up to it, but he just couldn’t find a way to make that particular text work dramatically in that moment. So we worked together, talking about what that moment needed to be, and I think I re-wrote that aria two or three times. It’s infinitely better, and it feels so much more true to the dramatic pulse of that moment. So yeah, I’m so open to re-writing and trying to figure out how to make it work for the composer. Not that I want to concede the medium to the composer, but the music needs to be really, really great. So if I can do anything that will help create really, really exciting, awesome music, then I’m more than happy to oblige.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you go away and write another text. There’s this cliché—which is totally not true—about Broadway collaborators and how they were portrayed by Hollywood and by promo photos back in the day. I particularly remember a photo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, where Richard Rodgers is sitting at the piano and Oscar Hammerstein is writing words. But probably the reality is they worked separately and then they came together to work out things. For you, at least, it doesn’t seem like it’s ever been that kind of Mickey Rooney, let’s-put-on-a-show thing.

RV: Very rarely. Little edits can be done in the room. For instance, I was just in rehearsal for Angel’s Bone a couple days ago, and there was a section that we all decided needed to have some words replaced. That was something I sort of did on the fly. But I much prefer to go home and just have my time and allow for the words to manifest. I have not yet had the experience where I’ve sat in a room with a composer while they were plunking out melodies and saying, “Does this work?” That seems like more of a musical theater thing. With opera there are so many more moving parts, so it often seems like the composer and I want our time to go away to sort of messy things up—you know, so you can tear things apart and put them back together. But, just to be very good about honoring people’s time, it might not be the best usage of time to sort of sit and pray that something comes out between the two of you. It just seems much easier to go away and make your work.

FJO: So the process of making your work—where and when does all of this stuff take place?

RV: I like to sit on the couch and write, but I really like to get out of town. My Breaking the Waves libretto was written at home in Canada. I went home for three weeks and sat in my mother’s house and watched the Olympics. It was right around the time that the Olympics were going on. So that was my time to enjoy that and get a full draft of Breaking the Waves. JFK was written in this house. For 27 I went up to my dramaturge’s house, up in Hudson, and had a really good draft of that, but I had a week where I didn’t leave the confines of the house. I would just write new scenes, and he would sit there and take me through every line and make sure that all my “I”s were dotted and “T”s were crossed. More and more, I’m really loving the exodus from New York to get work done. That being said, a lot of work has to happen here. It seems like there’s just so much time that is spent away from home. You tend to want to really make the time count when you’re here. I’m here for January. Then I have to go to Germany for the new production of Dog Days. I’m in Fort Worth for JFK; I’m in Philly for Breaking the Waves. The big thing for me is that there are just so many events that happen in New York. I’m working with so many people. I love the work of all of my collaborators and contemporaries and colleagues. So it’s important for me to be a part of that. But that also means that a lot of writing time is gobbled up by events. It is really great to go away and have that time and to be sort of not within the machine that is the New York classical music community, because you want to participate so much. I’m understanding more fully why residencies are so important and why people find that going up to MacDowell, closing that door and having weeks of uninterrupted art creation time, is so beneficial.

FJO: But you can create a libretto while watching the Olympics?

RV: Well, I did not do it at the same time.

FJO: I know several composers who write music while watching television. I don’t get it.

RV: If I did do that, I wouldn’t be watching the TV—it would just be background noise, which I’m guessing would probably be the same thing for those composers. But I don’t have that type of brain that allows me to do two things at once. I cannot split my attention. I love audio books, but I couldn’t listen to an audio book and retain what’s coming in and be able to make coherent thoughts on the page.

FJO: Can you listen to a symphony while writing?

RV: It would all be sort of peripheral, background.

FJO: So silence is the best?

RV: It’s not necessarily the best, but for me listening means you’re actually taking that information in. If I were to listen to a symphony and write, it would just be sort of a blanket of sound behind my process and I wouldn’t really be retaining any of that musical information.

FJO: Or your phrases would wind up being the same phrases of that symphony.

RV: Yeah.

FJO: Then you would have music in your head that went with your words that would not be the same as the music of your collaborator.

RV: I certainly do listen to music while I write, but there are moments when I’m just like aargh, this is overload! I have to turn it off, and I’ll have significant silent writing time. I think my ideal writing situation would be pretty much silence somewhere that’s cloistered to a great extent.

FJO: To follow up on what you just said about listening: you follow the work of your collaborators, and you mentioned the first opera CD you got was Cav/Pag, and I see there’s a Janis Joplin poster here in your apartment. I’m wondering, how much time do you devote to listening to music that is separate and apart from your collaborations, and how does that listening then become fuel for your own creativity?

RV: I listen to so much music. And I watch as many movies as possible, and I do watch a lot of TV. I love taking things in, so that is an extremely important part of my life. I do think that every story you encounter and every piece of work that you even begin to understand becomes part of you, and you carry that. They become lessons.

I was given the opportunity to write about a particular poet that had really informed my work in some way. The poet that I chose was a singer-songwriter named Kathleen Edwards. She has lyrics that I encountered when I was in grad school that completely blew my mind and in some ways have informed my work more than any librettist. My narrative sensibility I think comes from being reared on Lars Von Trier, Neil LaBute, and Wong Kar-wai. I’m able to not mimic them, by any stretch of the imagination, but to allow their ideas to be tools or methods with which to explore my own ideas. I just encountered Benjamin Clementine for the first time. He won the Mercury Prize last week. I’m sure that my work will in some way benefit from, or will be informed by, just this absolute consuming musical world that is swirling around my head right now based on my insistence to continue going through Benjamin’s work.

FJO: And reading?

RV: Oh, my gosh. I read so, so, so much. There are so many people that read more than me, but I feel healthier when I read. I really, really, really do. And I’ve been exploring audio books a lot. I love lying in bed and just listening to hours on end of audio books. It’s impossible for me to read these days and not wonder how I would adapt those works into an opera or music theater form. There’s always something about, well, how would I do that?

Even going to the cinema, there’s something about wanting to be in dialogue and how I would approach this particular narrative. Going back to reading, I read a lot based on books that people recommend because they may want to tackle them in some sort of opera or musical way. But I’m always looking for interesting languages and how people tell stories just for my general narrative health.

FJO: I’m also curious about your intake of visual art. You mentioned the painting at the Brooklyn Museum that inspired Am I Born, and while we were setting up the recording equipment you talked about this photograph behind you that is by the subject of your musical.

RV: Visual art has informed so many of my projects. Thinking about 27, my opera with Ricky Ian Gordon that was commissioned by Opera Theater of St. Louis and premiered in 2014, that piece was all about the art that hung in Gertrude and Alice’s apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus. In JFK, my opera with David T. Little that was commissioned by Fort Worth Opera and American Lyric Theater, similarly there is an amazing story where there was this woman Ruth Carter Stevenson who knew that Jack and Jackie were only going to have a very limited window in Fort Worth. She decided that because they wouldn’t have time to go to the museums there, that she would bring the museums to them. So she went around and collected a really great sample of the works that were held in Fort Worth and put them all up in their hotel room. Right before the breakfast meeting, Jackie was about ten minutes late, and some people have this theory that she realized that the art on the walls was real—all the paintings and sculptures. The Picasso owl was real. And she was arrested for those ten minutes and that caused her lateness, which is kind of amazing, and this is embedded into the opera. The art becomes these portals into dreams.

So JFK, 27, Am I Born, and the music I’m writing with Ted Shen about Vivian Maier, who was a Chicago street photographer in the mid-20th century. She worked as a nanny and took a lot of pictures of children, but she would also just go to downtown Chicago and New York and take street photos. She certainly was not a famous woman by any stretch of the imagination and she died in obscurity. A young man named John Malouf bought a lot of her negatives in an auction and realized that they were extremely special. He put them online and was encouraged to take those photos offline because they were just so awesome. We are creating a piece that celebrates the mystery of this woman. We don’t really know why she took so many pictures and then didn’t develop them. She was sort of—I wouldn’t say an anti-artist, but she was compelled to take these photographs but then was not really compelled to complete the photographic process, which is really, really cool. Here’s a woman who was taking selfies. Most of her portraits that are so truly beloved are these auto-portraits.

Royce Vavrek on the sidewalk leaning against a metal grating.

FJO: The first work of yours that I saw on a stage was Dog Days, and while I found it totally compelling, I also thought that it was really creepy and really dark—extremely disturbing. You seem like a sunny person. What attracted you to something so grim?

RV: Dog Days was based on a short story by Judy Budnitz that was a little sunnier than our treatment. It was set in the ‘80s, so the Cold War was still on. The foundation of that piece was very much Judy’s, but then it was sort of amplified and heightened and we made it a little bit more grim in concert with Robert Woodruff, the director. But we didn’t set out to write a grim piece. And there are moments of levity and lightness, too, that I think are really funny. It is a hard piece. It’s a heavy piece. I totally understand that. But I also think there’s great life, especially in the Lisa character. I’m writing Breaking the Waves with Missy Mazzoli, which is similarly a rather dark, heavy work. Because of my being reared on international cinema of the late-‘90s and early-2000s, those stories have always spoken to me. There’s always been this desire to tell serious stories about the human condition. Look at Angel’s Bone. That’s not fun and frothy. But also I love comedy, so thinking of David, Vinkensport or The Finch Opera is as frothy and fun as they come. But even that ends with a twist where the final aria is this outpouring of emotion from this one particular character who is releasing his finch and is basically thanking him for years of companionship. So it’s not that I’m not interested in comedy. I haven’t made a concerted decision to tell grim tales, although opera does have the potential to tell those stories in a really, really dynamic and full way. I think that that’s why our artistic impulses often lead us to darker stories. But I think that you’re going to see a lot of comedy, God willing, from me throughout my career.

FJO: Well, definitely not in JFK.

RV: Not JFK, although what David and I have been talking a lot about is our desire for audiences leaving JFK to be grateful and to maybe hug loved ones just a little bit tighter that evening, to understand that life is precious. It doesn’t end with his assassination; it ends with him leaving the hotel. We don’t see the tragedy, but his leaving the hotel is taking him to Dallas, so there is that sense of doom. And the soundscape that David has come up with is extremely varied and there’s something very ominous, especially after the intermission. It really feels like something very monumental is going to happen. The fates are aligning.

FJO: I didn’t realize that the audience never sees his assassination and only gets the hint through what the orchestra is playing when he leaves the hotel. It’s reminiscent to me of what I think is one of the most effective moments in Dog Days—the end where the mother is on the table and there’s a slowly building wall of noise that just blows out your ears by the end. It’s the most intense thing. You never really see what you know is happening, but you know it’s happened. All this stuff is going on, but curiously—and I want to bring this up to you as the librettist—it was all done without words.

RV: But if you look at the libretto for that moment, there is a very particular stage direction. So it’s done with words, but just not sung words. And she does sort of wail a little bit. And she snivels, and she pees. Right?

FJO: In terms of the collaborative process, how did a moment like that get decided upon and who decided it?

RV: The three of us. Judy’s story ends with the dog being shot and eaten. In the dramaturgical sessions that we had with Robert, I remember very clearly he said, “But what happens next?” That was the mind-shattering moment. There were these images that Robert brought up, I believe, about just seeing lions having eaten. I see lions, and I see an act of ablution, and then we went home. We went our separate ways. I came up with sort of the just the general idea, but we didn’t find the washing of the mother with urine until—that was Robert in rehearsal. In the libretto, it talks about how she performs, or she gathers snow and washes her mother’s body. But we decided that water was gone at that point. So what is she going to wash her mother’s body with? In this scenario where there’s nothing, that was very much a directorial find.

I remember reading the stage management report and being like, “Oh, my goodness. What is going on at rehearsal?” I tend to leave rehearsals to the singers and the director and the team for the first few days at least. I like everybody to get their bearings before the writers tromp in. So I was like, “I don’t really know what this is; this seems really wild.” But it is one of the most beautifully heartbreaking moments that I’ve had a hand in creating. I’m so proud of what the whole team came to create in that moment.

FJO: In terms of the hands-on/hands-off thing, you’re traveling around the world. You’ve got productions happening here in New York in January and then in Germany and Texas, all over the place. It’s going to get to the point where you probably can’t be at all of these things. Hopefully there’ll be productions of these works all the time. It’s interesting to hear you say that you wait a little while before you come in. What about the process of letting go?

RV: Oh, I’m so excited for that. I’m finally at the stage of my career where we do have projects that are taking on a life of their own. Dog Days will come full circle. We’re bringing it back to New York as part of the Protoype Festival in January ‘16, alongside the world premiere of Angel’s Bone. But Dog Days after January will have its first new production [in Germany]. So David T. Little is going over and is going to have about a week with them during rehearsals. I’m going to come for opening night. There is something really beautiful in that we feel like we have created the version that we need to oversee. We’ve created one version that was very much hands-on; we were in the room. We worked with Robert to create the production that began at Montclair Peak Performances, then went to Fort Worth Opera and LA Opera, and is coming to Prototype. What we’ve created is a roadmap that is intended to be interpreted in as many ways as possible. So I think that the most exciting thing at this juncture in the life of Dog Days is that it’s open now. We don’t need to be hands-on. We can let other people come up with ideas that will inform the work in ways that we didn’t even imagine.

FJO: And you’re happy with that?

RV: Yes, because in order to make a living and to make a career in the operatic world, your work needs to be done. And I am obsessed and addicted to creating new work. So I need to be able to allow my earlier work to be interpreted in such a way that I can go make new operas with David T. Little and Missy Mazzoli and Ricky Ian Gordon and Du Yun and Josh Schmitt and Matt Marks and all these fabulous people. Missy Mazzoli did say at one point that you’ve just got to hope to God that opening nights don’t happen on the same night. Especially when I’m working on so many different projects, invariably there are going to be things that overlap. But you do your work, and you attend whatever needs your love and attendance. And you hope that everything just sort of fits.

Complicity and the Chemical Senses

Blindfolded patrons sit around a table and eat various food items, smell perfume, and listen to music.

Jozef Youssef presents a multisensory meal for the launch of a new Hugo Boss fragrance. (Photo courtesy Kitchen Theory)

I spent the weekend composing two new pieces of music for another collaboration with chef Jozef Youssef of Kitchen Theory. This time around I was tasked with bringing out the sweet and sour elements of a lavender and pomegranate-based tapioca dessert, part of a multisensory meal that Youssef was organizing for the launch of a new Hugo Boss fragrance. (Previously, I composed music to bring out the sweet and bitter notes in Chivas Regal 18 Ultimate Cask Collection blended Scotch whisky for a similar event.)

My sweet texture is pretty similar to the sweet texture I wrote for the whisky pairing: consonant intervals and mellow timbres in a relatively high register, organized in short, ascending phrases, with a sprinkling of wind chimes.

The sour texture, while similarly drawing on the psychological literature of Charles Spence’s Crossmodal Research Lab at Oxford University, is a bit looser in its interpretation of the research. I used bright, buzzy timbres and descending phrases for contrast, and I picked up on an idea from the music I wrote for a 2012 Azul y Garanza Garciano to depict tartness with dissonance, not only in the musical intervals, but also in the slight detuning of my subtly shifting delay effect. To give me a wider continuum of intervals from which to choose, I composed my music in Harry Partch’s 43-note per octave scale, which allowed me to incorporate his notions of comparative consonance (the simpler the ratio, the more consonant the interval, which is the best explanation of consonance vs. dissonance I’ve encountered and serves as a finely graduated yardstick for crossmodal inquiry). I interpreted the faster tempi that have been linked to sourness in psychological studies more generally as high rhythmic density, reflected in my texture’s pulsating elements. Sourness feels higher than sweetness to me, so this piece is in a slightly higher register as well.

While I wasn’t specifically composing music to accompany a scent, scent plays a vital role in dining, and I think the challenges to accompanying scent with music are similar to taste.

Taste and smell are our chemical senses. They are what allow us to interrogate the makeup of our environment, providing information that perhaps might lead us in the direction of dinner or cause us to spit out something poisonous. The visual arts and the sonic arts arrive to us from a distance, via electromagnetic radiation or fluctuations in air pressure, but taste and smell require direct contact.

Philosophers have long debated whether the fundamentally different nature of these chemical senses precludes the elaboration of an art of ideas based on them, something that goes beyond the ancient and sophisticated traditions of perfumery or cuisine. Taste, which requires a visible delivery mechanism, perhaps has a leg up on smell, which is invisible (like music).

A few years ago, Chandler Burr lobbied New York’s Museum of Arts and Design to establish a new Department of Olfactory Art and was subsequently brought on as its head. His brief tenure culminated in the 2012 exhibition The Art of Scent 1889-2012. A man of passionate pronouncements, he comes right out and says of perfume, “It’s art.”

I’m happy to accept, along with Marcel Duchamp, that if someone proclaims his or her work as art, it’s art. However I’m not sure whether, during the long history of perfume-making, most perfumers have actually been making that claim. We’re not talking about the gradual acceptance of a new technology; unlike photography or video games (my primary arena of activity for the past twenty years, which only recently emerged from its own “is it art?” debate), perfume has been around for a very long time. It might take a little more work than the wholesale rebranding of an existing discipline to bring perfume and art into the same conversation. Perhaps we can repurpose Wittgenstein’s dictum that not every building is architecture to suggest that not every perfume is a work of olfactory art.

(Incidentally, while I’ve seen a couple of announcements in recent years about companies bringing the sense of smell into gaming, my very first game, the maybe not so great Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail!, may well be the first, way back in 1996. The game shipped with a scratch and sniff card, and at key junctures in the game, the “Cybersniff 2000” logo would flash and a sound would play (my processed voice), informing the player which of the nine squares to scratch, neatly addressing the question of synchronization. The soundtrack also featured a 12-tone faux-jazz composition, the sure mark of a young composer fresh out of music school.)

One of the considerations is practicality. In an interview with The New York Times, Holly Hotchner, the former director of the Museum of Art and Design in New York City who brought Chandler Burr on board, conceded that “perfume by its nature has to be wearable, which is not true of other art forms.” Paul A. Young, a London-based chocolatier who devised a charcoal-flavored chocolate to accompany a Francis Bacon painting at the Tate Sensorium exhibition acknowledges the assumption that food should be pleasurable when he says, “Some people will find it repulsive and not want to eat it, some will find it engaging and some people will love it.”

Music has always been considered an art form, but in the last few decades, sound art has emerged and evolved as a parallel practice distinct from music (although I think sound artists ignore the history of music at their peril). There’s no quantifiable difference between sound art and music. The materials are exactly the same; it’s a question of focus. With all of the current interest surrounding food and multisensory perception, I’ve been thinking for a while that taste and smell may be next in line to be appropriated by the art world. But this question of focus highlights the challenges that can arise when people from different creative disciplines come together (as I described in an earlier essay).

As an example, when I attended “The Architecture of Taste,” Pierre Hermé’s presentation at the Harvard Graduate School of Design a few years ago, it was fascinating to get a glimpse into a great chef’s creative process, and the pastry samples were amazing, but it was clear, especially during the Q&A afterwards, that he was thinking of his work in very different terms from the concerns of art and design grad students. Another leading pastry chef, Jordi Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, discussed his relationship to art in the film that documents the multimedia meal El Somni, devised alongside the other two Roca brothers, concluding simply, “I’m just a pastry chef.”

An assortment of desserts on a tray.

Desserts served at Pierre Hermé’s Harvard lecture included an “infringement citron” and other desserts made from unconventional ingredients such as wasabi. (Photo by Ben Houge.)

Dean Dutton provides a good overview of the issues surrounding the notion of olfactory art in his book The Art Instinct, and as I’ve been doing projects that combine food and music, it’s been useful for me to consider these arguments from a musical perspective.

One issue that he dismisses a bit too quickly, I think, is the idea of “internal relations.” He borrows this term from philosopher Monroe Beardsley, pointing out that, while we may recognize corresponding proportional relationships in the spatial layouts of a painting or the intervals of a musical chord, chemical compounds don’t lend themselves to this kind of perceptual organization that can serve as the basis for large, sophisticated structures. There’s no equivalent to an octave or a major 7 sharp 11 chord or a retrograde inversion that would allow a composer like Bach to spin out a ten-minute fugue from a subject of just a few notes. The wine aroma wheel is nowhere near as precise as a color wheel (can you rotate a raspberry note 180 degrees to obtain its opposite?) or the circle of fifths (what’s the secondary dominant of leather?).

A second obstacle is a question of the delivery mechanism, and here I’m thinking about a time-based sequencing or counterpoint of multiple scents that goes beyond the natural diffusion of a scent in the air once it is sprayed or applied. (This is more of an issue for scent than taste.) To think of scent in musical, time-based terms, it’s a challenge to consistently deliver a scent and take it away, allowing for temporal contrast. This issue thwarted some of the historical efforts to bring scent into cinema, such as Smell-O-Vision from 1959.

Many approaches to scent diffusion have been developed with varying levels of technological overhead. The Museum of Art and Design’s Art of Scent exhibition took place in a spare, white room, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, laudably devoid of packaging and other marketing detritus. As visitors inclined their heads over small indentations in the wall, a puff of scent emerged from a sophisticated mechanism designed by Scent Communication in Germany. At Green Aria: A Scentopera, a collaboration between entrepreneur/writer/director Stewart Matthew, perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, and composers Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson which premiered at the Guggenheim in New York City in 2009 (about which NewMusicBox’s Frank J. Oteri has written extensively), scent was delivered to each spectator via a “scent microphone” (functionally more like a “scent speaker”) at each seat, which could be positioned as close to the nose as desired. The inaugural installation of the recently opened Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, masterminded by cocktail impresario Dave Arnold, features a “Smell Synth” that allows visitors to experiment with different odor compound combinations at the push of a button. This echoes the “Olfactiano,” a “scent piano” developed by Peter De Cupere, which he has used for time-based scent-oriented performances such as his Scentsonata for Brussels presented at the Cordoba festival in 2004. At the Crossmodalist rehearsal I attended in London last April, the technique was low-tech but effective; I was blindfolded, and different perfumes (designed by Nadjib Achaibou to evoke concepts such as “lust” and “sorrow”) were manually wafted in my direction, sometimes simultaneously, by unseen hands at different moments of Chris Lloyd’s live performance of Liszt’s piano transcription of Wagner’s “Liebestod.”

A third consideration is representation. I’ve written in the past about what I called the “abstract” quality that food and sound share. By this I meant that, while music can be linked to an external narrative via text or theatrical context, coherence is essentially the result of internal relations, to return to Monroe Beardsley’s term, i.e., a note has meaning in the context of a chord or scale or harmonic structure and how these structures evolve in time. Even without recourse to the same kinds of internal relations as music, tastes and scents are constructed and developed by combining chemical compounds. This is in contrast to the visual and literary arts like painting, sculpture, choreography, cinema, literature, poetry, and video games, in which meaning-making via external representation is the norm. I think it’s important to consider that an extracted chemical essence of an object is still a form or an attribute of the object; the scent of a rose derived from a rose cannot be said to represent a rose in the way that a painting represents a rose, because in a real sense that essence actually is the rose. Representation is the use of one thing to depict another thing; as Magritte put it, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” and no pipe extracts are required to produce a painting of a pipe.

My usage is different from the way the term is used, for example, in Annick Le Guérer’s article “Olfaction and Cognition: a Philosophical and Psychoanalytic View” in the weighty 2002 compendium Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition. Here, the historical assertion (shared by numerous philosophers) is that scent is not “capable of abstraction,” by which she means that a common attribute cannot be extracted from multiple scents in the way that we might refer to an abstract color. This is reflected in the lack of vocabulary for describing scents (at least in English); we generally simply describe scents according to their sources or, in the case of synthetic compounds, by analogy.

So perhaps my earlier usage of the term is nonstandard, but I think the ideas are related: just as mimetic music was by far the exception prior to the advent of recording technology (with timpani evoking thunder in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique serving as an example of a rare exception), it’s difficult for a taste or a smell to be “about” anything other than itself.

I’ve heard people assert that what music represents is emotion, and I could imagine this argument being applied to smell or taste, but evoking and representing are not the same thing. As Frank J. Oteri pointed out in our recent correspondence on the subject, “Associations (e.g. major = happy, minor = sad) are the result of acculturation and not universal. The same, though, could be said for scent.” He notes the curious coincidence that, as I mentioned above, music and scent are completely invisible.

I’ve also heard some people conflate tonality with representation, and there certainly are clear parallels between figurative painting in the visual arts and tonal structures in music, but tonality strictly speaking still does not represent anything outside of music’s “internal relations,” and in fact it is these relations that give tonality meaning. Nonetheless it is certainly worth observing that abstraction in painting and tonality in music experienced parallel ruptures in the tumultuous early 20th century, and it is surely a result of the same cultural forces that Chanel No. 5 was introduced in 1921, unprecedented in its lack of reference to natural scents, “a perfume like nothing else,” in the words of Coco Chanel.

At a certain point, while pondering these questions, I realized that music has been here before. Like many undergraduate music students, I read about the absolute vs. program music debate in my music history classes, and (like a lot of students, I suspect) I was left wondering what the big deal was. On one side of this virulent debate you had Richard Wagner espousing opera as a total art form driven by narrative and deriving power from the coupling of art forms, while on the other side Eduard Hanslick argued for purely instrumental music as the art form’s pinnacle of expression. I recently picked up Mark Evan Bonds’s excellent new book on the subject and realized just how far back this question goes. He organizes his argument around the ideas of essence (what music is) and effect (what it does). This historical perspective has the potential to serve as a useful framing device for discussions of an art based on the chemical senses.

There is a category of “olfactory artists” that has emerged as a distinct practice from that of perfumers, and it seems to be expanding rapidly. Many of the artists working with scent are not working only with scent, and often they’re not working alone. Some of these artists are crafting the scents themselves, but oftentimes the chemical component is outsourced. Pamela Rosenkranz worked with perfumers Dominique Ropion and Frédéric Malle and sound designer Emar Vegt on Our Product, an installation at this year’s Venice Biennale that presented a huge pool of liquid the color of an averaged European.skin tone. Belgian artist Peter De Cupere, perhaps the best known artist in this arena, has been working with scent since the 90s, often incorporating smells into large-scale mixed media sculptures, as in The Smell of a Stranger, presented at the Havana Biennial, which engineers indigenous Cuban plants to give off scents redolent of Western culture. Brian Goeltzenleuchter has been working on a project to capture the smell of each neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Arnica Yi’s 6,070,430k of Digital Spit, presented last summer at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, bridged the worlds of scent and taste by building an immersive installation inspired by the “Mint Pond” dish at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli restaurant. She notes, “I think the most radical artistic statements are being made in the world of cuisine. That interest translates and seeps into my approach to smell. Even though I don’t work with food, I feel the sensibilities are shared.”

Soundscape for Pamela Rosenkranz – Our Product. Swiss Pavilion at Biennale Venice 2015 from Emar Vegt on Vimeo.
The high degree of collaboration that many artists are already exploring points one way forward for an art of the chemical senses. Maybe the lack of “internal relations” and problems of diffusion preclude certain types of standalone olfactory expressions, but by linking art forms, sophisticated new kinds of experiences are possible. Let music aid with the time-based elements. It’s not unlike setting a text or scoring a film; another art form defines the structure. Ramón Perisé of Mugaritz writes that, “how cooking can participate in a multisensory spectacle is something that, in my opinion, is in the first phases of exploration.” The idea of putting different art forms together into a multimedia event is the reason I chose the term “food opera” for my project in the first place.

Listening to music is something we do together. So is dining. As I’ve been working on my food opera project, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the overlap between these two spaces: the restaurant and the concert hall. Food represents community, maybe literally, in the same sense of the word I used when writing about “representation” earlier. When we think of fellowship, we often speak of breaking bread together. Dining is one mode of being in the world together.

To orchestrate a communal dining experience as an artwork is the kind of tactic associated with the relational aesthetics movement of the 90’s. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 1992 piece Untitled (Free), now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, involved distributing free curry and rice to visitors in a gallery space, and since then, Tiravanija has presented a number of other pieces that involve people coming together to eat. Together with his longtime gallerist, Gavin Brown (a collaborator on the original exhibition of Untitled [Free]), he has been developing a commercial kitchen in Hancock, NY, called Unclebrother. In a recent interview, he highlighted some of the same community-oriented values I emphasize in my work, “It’s about eating from your surroundings.”

This is a big part of what my food opera project is about. I have observed that these events promote community in a unique way. Because each seat in a restaurant has its own speaker and functions as a source of music, diners become more aware of the people around them and in fact depend on the presence of other diners to complete their experience. The music foregrounded at each diner’s table becomes the accompaniment for the person at the adjacent table, such that everyone in the restaurant is involved, through their choice of dish and the rhythms of their meal, in facilitating the overall musical experience. There’s a lateral exchange of information that is unlike a typical concert; sound passes not just from performer to audience, but from diner to diner. This strikes me as a rich yet underexplored model for musical communication (something I’ve also explored in my piece The Tomb of the Grammarian Lysias, a setting of a Greek poem by Constantine P. Cavafy for unamplified voice and audience mobile devices).

At several events, we’ve gone so far as to incorporate field recordings from the farms that provide the ingredients and interviews with farmers into the soundscape, since Jason Bond, the chef with whom I’ve collaborated on these projects, is a passionate supporter of local, sustainable agriculture. We used sound to literally bring farm to table. My hope is that diners leave the restaurant with an increased sense of their interdependent roles in a larger ecosystem, which may encourage more responsible food consumption choices.

When I was attempting, in my poor Spanish, to describe this aspect of my work to chef Dani Lasa at Mugaritz, he understood immediately and responded with the perfect word: “complicidad.” Complicity. I asked if Mugaritz had ever done a dish involving sound, not in their various multimedia collaborations, but actually in the dining room. Dani told me about a dish called Mortar Soup with Spices, Seeds, Fish Broth, and Fresh Herbs. No matter at what stage people were in their meals, the entire restaurant was served the dish at the same time, and as each diner applied the pestle to the mortar, the whole room rang with a sound like Tibetan singing bowls. This experience was enabled by the restaurant, but enacted by each individual diner; everyone was complicit in the resulting sound.

A mortar, a pestle, and food.

Sopa de mortero con especias, semillas, caldo de pescados y hierbas frescas. (Photo courtesy Mugaritz.)

This is the goal of my food operas: to bring things together, connecting creative disciplines, connecting farms to restaurants, connecting people to their environments and to each other.

I hesitate to add this coda, but I feel this is an important point. I’ve been writing this essay in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, and in Beirut before that, and of course you can keep going as far back as you like. In these factious times, more than ever we need to find ways to understand those whom we perceive as being different from ourselves as part of the same ecosystem, complicit in the well being of the world. As someone who’s lived a third of his life outside of his home country, I believe that cultivating empathy for others via direct interaction is the best hope for peace. One of the best ways to do this is to come together over a meal. Just as our chemical senses—Le Guérer uses the term “proximity senses”—require contact to perceive our surroundings, we need situations that allow us to come together and better understand our neighbors on this planet. When we break bread together, a meal can do that.

Unbroken Art

A still from the generative video engine that Bill Seaman designed for the s_traits record release concert with Wet Ink Ensemble at Pioneer Works in October 2014.

A still from the generative video engine that Bill Seaman designed for the s_traits record release concert with Wet Ink Ensemble at Pioneer Works in October 2014.

John Supko, composer:  Yes, but…how were the traces of these collaborators—the seams, as it were—obscured and for so long?

Jeffrey Edelstein, critic:  Was it because the result had one name?  Shakespeare, when there were actors and other writers; the King James Bible, when there were committees and individual scholars; Homer, when there was an oral tradition.  But Shakespeare is cooperation led by a forceful and inspired individual; the King James Bible seems a true collaboration.  The idea of collaboration has become trendy, popular and encouraged, and confused with cooperation. Composers struggle to work with other artists—making work that captivates with novel juxtapositions rather than art unbroken between two people. Do you think your creative process on s_traits was collaboration, a summation of two minds, or would you honestly describe it more as cooperation?

Supko:  Collaboration is such a personal process, this business of adding and subtracting parts of oneself in response to those of another.   I don’t see any way to talk about it that doesn’t draw from my own experience.

Edelstein:  I understand. The nature of collaboration is elusive. I was touched by the experience of seeing Einstein on the Beach and I have tried to think about how it was created.  But who did what in crafting that remarkably unified work?  The contributions of Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, and Lucinda Childs seem unmistakable, and yet no element of the production stands entirely on its own.

Supko:  Exchanging ideas with a collaborator sometimes causes me to conceal my individuality.  I modulate my voice, I say things differently, I say different things.  I’m in dialog, but I’m also speaking in tandem.

Edelstein: Yes, but…surely artistic collaboration is not a simple matter of artists working together toward a singular aim.  Merce Cunningham and John Cage demonstrated that it might be something more mysterious—as I said earlier, an art unbroken between two people.

Supko:  I only know what I do when I collaborate.  When I was working with Bill Seaman on s_traits, I actively used his ideas to propel my own into uncharted waters.  The disparity in our approaches helped me to discover new ways of working. But I don’t just think of my collaborators as instruments; I compose in a way that leaves space for them to work.  I try to anticipate—even if I know I may be wrong—how a collaborator’s material will engage mine, and write in a way that invites completion.

Edelstein:  For me the result of s_traits—two composers writing one piece of music—feels tessellated and cohesive; a mosaic created by two craftsmen cognizant of the overall pattern as much as of their own expressive needs.  Is this the result of, as you say, leaving space for your collaborator?

Supko:  Yes, but…it’s not simply a question of leaving space.  There’s also the extent to which Bill and I intentionally adopted each other’s working methods and stylistic tendencies.  This mutual emulation was intentional and explicit.  We learned new ways of working from each other.

Edelstein:  Does it matter if you and Bill work together early or late in the process?

Supko:  I prefer to begin as early in the composition process as possible.  The more I can get to know, say, Bill’s way of doing things in the preliminary stages of a project, the more able I feel to respond and adapt to it.  I’m searching for complementarity:  I recognize deficiencies in my own work and collaboration is one way I try to address them.

Edelstein:  How does collaboration work in practical terms?

Supko:  Bill and I like to begin with a conversation.  We compare our thoughts and goals for the project; then we go away and work individually for a period of time.  Before too long we share our respective parts and consider how they might fit together to make a whole.  This process of blending each other’s work can be long and difficult.  It can also take many forms, from the deconstruction of musical material in order to rebuild it as a hybrid, to the decision of a final track order, as was the case with s_traits.

Edelstein: But haven’t you also involved the computer in your collaboration—in effect a third collaborator?   Is there something about the reduction of your sense of self that’s essential to the process?  Or is the anxiety of completion—of knowing if a work is finished—somehow diminished?

Supko:  I do think of myself as collaborating with the computer, with the software I designed to suggest ideas that would never occur to me otherwise.  I suppose my feelings about collaborating with the computer are similar to my feelings about collaborating with another human artist.

Edelstein: Are you saying that collaboration is a kind of liberation from the self?

Supko:  Yes, but…


a Soviet space dog

A Soviet space dog (source)

Jeffrey Edelstein, critic:  In our last blog post we discussed titles, but we didn’t address any titles you are thinking about for your own music.

John Supko, composer:  That’s right—and a good thing, too.  We could have written a book about the titles we did manage to discuss.

Edelstein:  I don’t think we have a book about titles between us, although I did once read Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History.

Supko: Babbitt’s alone represent every major category of title I can think of.  There’s a book in that.

Edelstein:  Or a footnote… But am I right that you often start a composition already knowing its title?  Perhaps we can approach your thinking as a naturalist might, which in this case would mean looking at the social aspects of composing.

Supko:  Sure, but what do you mean by social aspects?

Edelstein:  I mean the iterative, social activity that allows a composer to mull over their music with some detachment even as they are in the midst of composition.  It might be as straightforward as asking a performer about notation or the range of their instrument, or it might be a subtle and intricate conversation about something that seems far afield.

Supko: You mean sort of like this conversation?

Edelstein:  Yes, but I’d give it a sexy name: para-composition.

Supko: Sexy?  Um…did you ever suggest titles to Babbitt?

Edelstein: Fair point.  You mentioned that you are weighing various titles for a new chamber work inspired by the Soviet space dogs.

Supko:  That’s right.  My emotional response to this story is quite complex.  I feel a deep sadness when I imagine these trusting creatures in their capsules, obediently making voyages so dangerous their human masters wouldn’t attempt them. Then I can’t help but smile at the quaint futurism of the era, seen in everything from cartoons like The Jetsons to the heroic realism of Soviet space propaganda.  That smile is diminished slightly by the sinister residue of Cold War hysteria, the suspicion and apocalyptic foreboding.  But I also marvel at the colossal adventure of space exploration, an enterprise still in its infancy, yet begun more than half a century ago.  I would hope that a title could suggest some of these things, however obliquely.

Edelstein:  It sounds like your title and your music will be drawn from the same wellspring of thoughts and emotions.  What titles are you considering?

Supko:  The first title that occurred to me was Dog Requiems, because I imagined writing something like a secular requiem, but it bothered me; it didn’t have the ambiguity I was looking for.

Edelstein:  I can see that.  It’s general and misleading.

Supko:  Then I remembered a brief, untitled poem by Robert Lax about an encounter with a dog.  Lax’s ultra-minimal poetry fascinates me.  It’s courageously elliptical and repetitive in a way that could easily fall victim to parody, yet it communicates so much.  The text I borrowed from Lax is: “only a visitor.”

Edelstein:  That’s much better.  “Only a visitor” evokes many things in what will be the context of your piece.

Supko: I still haven’t written a single note of the piece, but I’m sure that this thinking about titles is part of the composition process.

Edelstein: That’s my sense of how you work—and really of how many composers work without thinking about it.  May I suggest a title?

Supko: Okay.

Edelstein: It’s taken from Wordsworth’s Prelude (Book 12, line 208): “spots of time”—there’s the joke of course, but there’s also the “renovating virtue” of memory.

Supko:  That’s funny.  The cartoonish banality of “spots,” calling to mind the catchphrase “See Spot run!” makes the first impression, but then “time” renders it more ambiguous.  Still, I’m not sure, perhaps because I haven’t read the Wordsworth poem.  It conjures many associations—Romanticism, self-knowledge, virtue—and I need my own time to think about them.

EdelsteinThe Prelude is far from Lax’s brevity, but it might be valuable to read now—here’s the passage I’m considering:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;

In the context of your piece, “spots of time” evokes many of the inspirations you’ve spoken about.

Supko: That may be—and I can’t help thinking Babbitt missed out on “ordinary intercourse”—but the question of emphasis remains.  Do I want the poignant ambiguity of Lax or the improbable resonance of Wordsworth?  You’ve given me lots to think about.  Does this mean we’re collaborating?

Edelstein:  I’ll bet Babbitt left “ordinary intercourse” for Sondheim.  And no, we’re not collaborating.  But you’re not sitting alone putting notes on a page, either.

Perhaps we can talk about some of the ways composers draw upon colleagues and friends as they compose, say, the way Chopin’s friend, Charles Hoffmann, suggested the soft, spare opening bars of his Etude Op. 25, No. 11.  I can’t imagine the piece without this introduction.  It says something about the nature of inspiration and craft: sometimes it’s a highly social activity.

Supko:  Hoffmann’s introductory idea is similar to your Wordsworth suggestion. Both have to do with the weight given to certain details.  It’s a little more than editing, a little less than composing.  In the etude, Hoffman convinces Chopin to fix a spotlight, however pale, on his modest skiff of a melody before he sends it into the raging sea.  As a result, the music acquires a more vivid narrative element—arguably becomes more communicative—implying things like boats and waves.

Edelstein: That’s a lovely way to describe an etude more commonly known by the nickname Winter Wind.  Both metaphors—roaring wind and raging sea—are useful to some and unnecessary for others.  But our discussion of your title, Chopin’s friendship with Hoffmann—and another friendship we might have touched upon, Brahms and Joachim—suggest a way of working.  It’s difficult to believe that creative work is often completed in isolation.  The prefix “para-“ seems the right one for the subsidiary and the assisting:  all the things a composer might find talking about their ideas, emotions, and music with colleagues and friends, and yes, by reading critics on their work.

Supko: I’ve never responded to the nickname Winter Wind. It seems only to address what I hear as Chopin’s undulating sixteenth notes.  But I know the nickname is shorthand for something much richer.   This distinction reminds me of Kenneth Koch’s poem One Train May Hide Another:

One invention may hide another invention,
One evening may hide another, one shadow, a nest of shadows.

There is undoubtedly a social dimension to the composer’s creative process, but we tend not to discuss it because of prevailing romantic notions about the solitary artist.  I agree that a network of friends and colleagues can provide a necessary escape from the cul-de-sac of the imagination.  A title suggestion or a bit of technical advice from a performer might very well change the direction of a piece.  But whether that direction leads to a destination or a detour is anybody’s guess.  “One idea,” Koch understood, “may hide another.”

Copyright Conundrums for Collaborators

[Ed. Note: We’ve asked copyright lawyer and composer Marc D. Ostrow to write a series of short articles this month to clear up some common misconceptions about copyright and the music business. Marc’s widely read and informative post on rights in arrangements was the reason we thought it would be helpful to our readers to learn more about additional areas where composers and other creators can get into trouble. Marc’s first post below covers legal rights with respect to collaborations, and we welcome your comments and suggestions for other topics that you’d like to see him address.]

Illustrated cartoon of the "Jack and Jill" nursery rhyme including the text: "Jack and Jill went up the hilll / to fetch a pail of water. / Jack fell down and broke his crown / And Jill fell tumbling after."

An illustration from the public domain book, The Book of Knowledge, The Children’s Encyclopedia, edited by Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson, published by The Grolier Society of New York in 1912 and reprinted in 1912.

Here’s a situation that’s commonly misunderstood among creative collaborators: Jack and Jill agree to write a song together. They call it “Tumblin’ Down the Hill.” Jack writes the music and Jill writes the lyrics. Who owns what?

A) Jack owns the music and Jill owns the lyrics.
B) It depends whether the music or the lyrics were written first.
C) Jack and Jill each own 50% of both the music and lyrics.
D) Neither Jack nor Jill owns the music or lyrics.

Some of you may be surprised to learn that the correct answer is C. (Hint: when in doubt, always pick C.) In the absence of a written agreement to the contrary, Jack and Jill each own 50% of both the music and the lyrics.

Now this may seem counterintuitive at first. How can Jill own part of the music when she didn’t write a note of it, and how can Jack own part of the lyrics when he didn’t pen a single word? The key is that Jack and Jill agreed to collaborate to write the song. As a result, they’ve created a “joint work” of authorship under copyright law.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a “joint work” as follows:

A “joint work” is a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.

That’s what Jack and Jill did in our hypothetical. They prepared a work with the intention that Jack’s contribution (music) and Jill’s contribution (lyrics) be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole (the song).

Moreover, ownership of the work, that is ownership of the copyright in the work, initially vests (i.e., is automatically granted to) the authors (i.e., the creators) of the work. Section 201 of the Copyright Act states in relevant part:

Initial Ownership. — Copyright in a work protected under this title vests initially in the author or authors of the work. The authors of a joint work are coowners of copyright in the work.

Absent a written agreement to the contrary, the creators of a joint work own that work in equal shares. So, if Jack and Jill collaborated on that song with John and Jane, each would own an undivided 25% interest in the copyright to the song.

Section 201(d) of the Copyright Act states that “[t]he ownership of a copyright may be transferred in whole or in part by any means of conveyance or by operation of law, and may be bequeathed by will or pass as personal property by the applicable laws of intestate succession.” A “conveyance,” other than a means of moving something from one place to another, is a fancy legal term for a written document. So if Jack and Jill want something other than a 50-50 split, they’ve got to put that in writing.

Some of you who are paying attention may have noticed the reference to an “undivided” interest in the copyright. If you’re wondering what that means, it’s the reason why Jack and Jill each own half of the words and music, even though they didn’t contribute to both parts of the song. Let me explain.

Copyrights, along with patents and trademarks (and a few other things) are often referred to as “intellectual property” or “intangible property.” And the laws for such non-physical property were developed from principles of law relating to tangible property like land (real property), which go back many hundreds of years.

Let’s say that instead of writing a song, Jack and Jill decide to buy a house. Now that “house” consists of the land that the house sits on, the front and back yards (yes, with shrubbery), and the building itself. Maybe it’s like the house I grew up in, a post-war split-level on a quarter acre in the ‘burbs. So, what do Jack and Jill own?

They are “joint tenants,” meaning they have an “undivided” interest in the property. Unless they’ve entered into some weird agreement, both Jack and Jill each have free and unfettered use (and joint ownership) of the whole house (not just the first or second floors) and also all of the front and back yards. So if Jack later sells his 50% interest in the house to June, he’s selling his 50% share in the whole thing, not just the second floor and the front yard, for example. That’s what we mean by an undivided interest in property.

A photo of the facade of the Jack & Jill Store in Hebron, North Dakota.

If Jack and Jill owned property together and opened a store there, perhaps it would look like this. (“Hebron, North Dakota” by Andrew Filer via Flickr.)

“Joint” authors of a work own an undivided interest in the whole work, even if each author contributes only a discrete portion of the work. That’s why Jack and Jill each own 50% of both the words and music to the song they wrote together.

So, let’s say Jack and Jill have a hit on their hands. And unbeknownst to Jack, Jill gets an offer to license the song for use in a new blockbuster movie: The Franchised Five, Part Six. Under what circumstances can Jill do the deal?

A) She must get Jack’s permission and also pay him his fair share of the proceeds.
B) She doesn’t need to tell Jack jack and she can pocket all the dough.
C) She doesn’t need Jack’s permission but she still has to pay him his cut.
D) She can license only her 50% interest in the song.

O.K., you probably figured the answer is C. But how many of you thought it should be A or D? In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, Jack and Jill, having an undivided 50% interest in the song, can each license the whole song (words and music and not just their 50% interest), subject, however, to a duty to account to the other joint author(s) and pay them an amount equal to their interest in the work. So Jill doesn’t have to get Jack’s permission, but she still would need to pay him 50% of the license fee, corresponding to his 50% ownership in the song.

Now, let’s say someone does an instrumental cover of the song and that, too, becomes a hit. CDs and downloads are sold, and the instrumental version is performed live and is broadcast over the radio and streamed over the Internet. Who gets paid the mechanical royalties for the sales and downloads, and who gets paid for the public performances? I think you know the answer: Absent a written agreement to the contrary, both Jack and Jill, as writers of a “joint work” should both get paid. Similarly, both writers should get paid when just the lyrics to the song are re-printed.

I’m sure many of my clever readers can come up with all kinds of scenarios, like Jack licensing the song to McDonalds without Jill’s permission and Jill licensing the tune to Burger King without telling Jack. Since advertisers usually want some sort of exclusivity, it may be that both agreements would be valid, but both McDonalds and Burger King could sue our songwriters for breach of contract.

Parenthetically, what if, instead of collaborating on a new song with Jill, Jack wanted to write a song using a poem that Jill had previously published in a periodical? Since Jill’s poem is a separate, pre-existing work, Jack’s use of Jill’s poem would not constitute a joint work. And just as Jack would have to get permission to arrange Jennifer’s pre-existing orchestral piece for a ukulele quartet, he would need to get Jill’s permission to set her lyrics to music.

But getting back to our collaborating songwriters, we can see that there are many reasons (e.g., Jack is a genius musician but Jill’s a much better businessperson) that collaborators should have contracts to spell out who can do what and to whom. And they should consult an experienced lawyer to help identify and document all areas of concern.

Moreover, many collaboration (and music publishing) agreements state that each party separately administers his own share, meaning you’ve got to get everyone’s permission. And the collaboration issues get particularly tricky when you’re dealing with works like operas and musicals or performing groups like string quartets and new music ensembles. Perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

© 2015 Marc D. Ostrow

This article, including the author’s replies to any comments, is intended to supply general information and guidance. It does not constitute legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. Readers with specific questions should contact an attorney with relevant expertise for legal advice pertaining to their particular matter, as every situation is unique.


Marc D. Ostrow

Marc D. Ostrow (Photo by Karen Haberberg)

Marc D. Ostrow is a copyright and entertainment lawyer in New York City. Prior to returning to private practice, he ran the New York office of Boosey & Hawkes where he also was responsible for all copyright, legal and licensing matters, and served as a publisher member on ASCAP’s Symphony & Concert Committee. Previously, Marc was an attorney in BMI’s legal department. He has taught music business classes at the college level and is also a composer and occasional performer.

One of Our Brothers as Well as a Bright Light—Remembering James Horner (1953-2015)

The news of composer James Horner’s death hit me surprisingly hard. I choked up trying to convey the news to a friend. Why the strong response, Roger? You barely knew him.

“Jamie”—the nickname everyone at UCLA knew him by and which later he came to loathe—finished his master’s degree in composition at UCLA. He started his Ph.D. work, but abandoned it when he started scoring his first Roger Corman film while simultaneously trying to be a teaching assistant.

Over the years, I continually heard stories about Jamie/James Horner from some mutual friends, from his fellow students, his former teachers, and from friends who played his film scores in Hollywood. But I only met him for the first time in 2010 while serving as chair for the UCLA music department. We had several one-on-one meetings, and he generously agreed to give a master class for our composers. Over that time I developed a great affection and respect for him.

James Horner lecturing a group of students in a classroom.

James Horner during his masterclass at UCLA. Photo © 2010 Roger Bourland

In our meetings we talked for hours about concert music, film music, role models, his UCLA teachers and classmates, about Hollywood, and our favorite composers. As we were putting together a curriculum to train young composers for a career in Hollywood, I picked his mind about how we might go about that. He acknowledged that young composers go to school fantasizing about a career such as his, but lamented that the market for composers of his kind (i.e. writing film scores that call for large orchestral forces) is evaporating. “I am a dying breed. Few composers will ever have the opportunity of doing what I have had the privilege of doing as my career.”

He talked about the challenges of working on James Cameron’s Avatar: “Cameron held onto tight control of every aspect of the entire sonic palette. He was clear that he did NOT want any themes or melodies. ‘A tuneless score.’” As challenging as it was, Horner realized his role in the process, and that it was Cameron’s vision, money, and film. It was his job to rewrite until he got it right—and this was the award-winning composer of Titanic, also a Cameron-Horner collaboration.

For the score of Avatar, Horner collaborated with ethnomusicologist Dr. Wanda Bryant to assemble a musico-sonic palette of unique world music instruments. After auditioning hundreds of timbres, he culled them down to a palette of twenty-five and presented it to James Cameron, who then rejected all but five, all of which are heard in the soundtrack today.

As his two-hour masterclass went on, this composer who had been described as quiet, shy, and private, became more forceful. He clearly enjoyed talking and teaching these young and eager students. Many of them stayed afterwards to have their picture taken with him. He graciously stayed late to pose and speak with them.

Jeff Kryka, Yuchun Hu, and James Horner standing together.

Jeff Kryka, Yuchun Hu, and James Horner

I asked him who his favorite film composer was: “I have tremendous respect for John Williams. He is in a class by himself.” We then gushed over Williams’s output and evolution as a composer, citing case after case of terrific compositional cleverness and invention.

Professor and soprano Juliana Gondek, a classmate of his at USC, asked him whether he would ever write an opera. “No, but I would love to write a ballet.”

I asked him: “Talk to us about crying and music. We don’t teach it at the university.” (The class laughed.)

“I could never make people cry in my concert music. In my music for film, I can,” he said. “I loved having the opportunity [in Titanic] to help the audience fall in love with two characters; and knowing that they will both die offered me a unique musical challenge.”

I found James to be a true gentleman, a smart businessman, an excellent teacher, a sensitive artist with a big heart, and a composer who loved the art of collaboration—despite not always getting his way.

In our final private meeting, I told him something I knew would be important for him to hear. When the composition area at UCLA interviews prospective undergraduate students in composition, one of the questions we often ask them is, “Who are your favorite composers?” Expecting to hear Stravinsky, Schoenberg, or John Adams, to our amazement year after year the majority of applicants put James Horner at the top of that list.

I saw a gracious, generous, sensitive but outgoing and humble man.

As a composer, he was “one of us” and we have lost one of our brothers as well as a bright light. James, we will miss you. You have touched the world and left it a better place.

Advice from Strangers: A Path to Collaboration

Collaboration illustration

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This column is fifth in the series.

A rising tide lifts all boats, some say.

There is general consensus in both the contemporary classical music scene and in tech that collaboration is a positive thing, that it is natural and beneficial, and that the possibilities for collaboration are endless. Yet alongside that enthusiasm is a strong expression of “I can’t collaborate.”

We face internal challenges (mostly in music): “It can be difficult to let go of something you really want to do yourself.” “I’m a control freak. That makes collaboration difficult.” “I have yet to find a collaborator whose artistic sensibilities align with mine as closely as I’d like.” “My arts community is isolated and competitive, instead of open and collaborative.”

We face external challenges (mostly in tech): “Conservative managers can limit collaboration with the public.” “Everything at work is secret and walled-off, for good reason.” “At work, we operate on a need-to-know basis.” “People can steal your ideas.”

Both industries rely on collaboration. Can new music artists find ways to get around personal roadblocks to enjoy working together? Can technologists participate in—and foster—a collaborative environment, even in a climate of stealth?

Friends, collaborators, readers: we can, and we do. I asked 30 technologists and new music practitioners how they work together with others. Here is their advice.


Start with people you trust

Some collaborations begin with an idea. Others begin with people. The best involve people you can trust.

“It can be difficult to let go of something you really want to do yourself,” says soprano Hillary LaBonte. “If you have an idea for a collaboration, approach people you already know and trust. My best collaborations have been with artists I trust implicitly.”

“I have been very fortunate to collaborate with the people with whom I do collaborate,” says composer Daniel Felsenfeld. “I also like most of them as people, value their friendships, try never to ‘pass the buck’ in our collaboration, and try not to take criticism of my ideas as a referendum on me as a person or composer.”

Classical violist Heather Bentley recently composed and produced an opera based on the story of the goddess Ishtar. She chose performers whom she trusted with her vision, and whom she trusted to take it further in their own way. She was able to let others have their way with the opera, she says, because she picked them for that very reason.

“I chose them because I wanted to hear what they would come up with,” she says, “and thinking about those people inspired me to come up with the idea of what I wanted them to do.”

If you’re not interested in your collaborators’ contributions, it might be time to rethink working as a team.

Articulate a clear vision

When a collaboration takes a wrong turn, it could be that the vision is flawed or that the team is flawed. But also worth exploring is the possibility that both are fine, and that it’s the articulation of the vision that is flawed.

“Ask yourself, ‘Have I really gotten to something that can be clearly articulated outside my own head?’” says Jacob Smith, partner at A Brave New, a Seattle-based marketing agency. “If you’re going to try to exert control in a collaboration, you have to have enough of it worked out that you can actually explain it to somebody, and if they can’t understand, it might be that you haven’t gotten yourself far enough down the road.”

In tech, product managers often define the priority, functionality, and design of a new feature or product, and it is their responsibility to convey this information to a team of engineers. When done effectively, this results in a timely delivery of a useful, working product. And when product specifications are ambiguous or omit key information, the implementation can become a nightmare.

The same applies to musical collaborations. A clear vision sets expectations for all involved: Is the goal improvisation or strict adherence to a specific piece? Are we starting from scratch, or supporting an idea already in progress?

“My idea for the opera addressed the rift between how it is to be collaborating on chamber music, and how it is to be improvising with other people,” says Bentley, who is experienced in both. “I wanted to know: is it possible to take great improvisation energy, and put it into a long form that has a dramatic arc to it, where everybody in the ensemble would be on board with where we’re going, what we’re illustrating?”

Bentley’s exquisite articulation of her vision—defined structure with improvisation within it—made that possible, and the opera was born.

Skate toward the same goal

“It’s essential to get all the players in an organization skating toward the same goal, regardless of whether that’s a technology implementation or a strategic imperative,” says Jesse Proudman, founder and CTO of Blue Box, a Seattle-based start-up that provides private cloud hosting.

“Inside Blue Box, we’re big believers in small agile engineering teams—but small agile teams cannot be successful without close collaboration amongst everyone in product and engineering, and amongst engineering’s ‘customers’ inside of the organization.”

To get everyone on the same page, he says, over-communication is key. Start with more than seems necessary, then dial it back based on feedback. Also important is face-to-face interaction, not just with teammates but cross-functionally.

Establish clear roles and responsibilities

“Collaboration is about respect, pure and simple,” says Felsenfeld. “But it is also about knowing who has what to do, and who is going to have a kind of final say. I once was told by a famous composer that whenever he gets into a collaboration he figures out who can fire who in the scenario, which makes for at least a clear route.”

“It must be clear who is doing what,” says composer Steve Peters, who directs the Nonsequitur/Wayward Music Series. “Everyone needs to be able to do what they are best at without stepping on each other’s toes, and be prepared to relinquish some control. Power struggles are a sure way to undermine any collaboration. Define everyone’s role and then let them do it; if they ask for help or advice, offer it without steamrolling them.”

Bosco Kante is a hip-hop producer-turned-startup founder. A Grammy winner with a background in mechanical engineering, he’s currently working with a small team to create the ElectroSpit—a mobile version of the talk box that pairs with digital devices—and produce music with it.

“Early in my career, I teamed up with a few other producers. We worked together for a few years, but ultimately we broke up because we couldn’t agree on who owned what. Now, with Electrospit, I’m working with Pete Miser, another producer. He’s a longtime friend and is very experienced, so I believe we can figure that out pretty easily.”

All members of a collaborating team must have a clear understanding of the members’ roles and responsibilities, as well as who has the final say, in order to carry out the vision.

Relinquish control

“We all get great ideas from time to time, but the best ones are fleshed out with multiple minds,” says LaBonte. Great things can happen when you let go of the reins.

Bentley runs a small chamber group with a friend. “She’s an idea factory, and I’m an idea factory, so we throw all these ideas against the wall and see what sticks,” she says. “We don’t feel bad about the ones that don’t stick. When you’re collaborating, I think you need to be able to be ok with the stuff other people don’t want to do, or the ideas they don’t like. That’s a skill.”

Lack of control over circumstances or resources can even be the catalyst for a great creative collaboration.

“I started really collaborating when I was in college,” says composer Steve Layton. “We didn’t have a whole lot of instrumentalists, but we had dancers! So I did a lot of things with dancers. It’s fun—you don’t know what’s gonna happen to you, you just do it.”

Peters agrees. “Having outside parameters imposed on me is an interesting challenge.”

“I’ve often chosen collaboration over working alone, and although it tends to go in a totally different way than expected, I don’t feel like I regret those choices,” says mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen.


Money changes things

“We have to address the 800lb gorilla, which is money,” says Bentley. “Essentially, what we’re doing—the opera, these collaborations, my chamber music series—there’s no money at stake. You make zero money, and sometimes you pay. I love it, and it’s great, but I’d say that the stealth culture exists in tech because it’s possible there’s a lot of money on the line.”

Last month, Bentley and Layton released an album of collaborative works that they made available for free download. Bentley created and recorded improvisations on viola and piano; Layton received the tracks via the internet and mashed, remixed, and processed them.

“Our collaboration is different from those funded with Kickstarter,” says Bentley. “When you do a campaign like that, you’ve got so much invested in the final product because of many factors, and that is going to affect the kind of music that goes onto that album.”

“Sometimes you’re just writing with no specific goal, and I think those are the times it’s easier to collaborate. There’s no expectations other than let’s get together and make something cool and figure out what to do with it later. It’s a great time, being in total creative mode,” says Kante.

It’s especially easy when there’s no money at stake, either because there’s none on the table, or because it’s abundant.

“I’ve watched Kanye West over the years in many kinds of studio environments,” Kante says. “Collaboration for him is a very open process. Once we did a song with violinist Miri Ben-Ari, a couple of comedy sketches, all kinds of percussionists, John Legend singing, Kanye—and I was playing the talk box. It had all these different elements. Part of his creative process is asking, ‘How many great, interesting people can I bring into this room to work on this song and participate in it?’—with almost no regard for the rights issues at that stage of the creative process. We didn’t figure out any of the rights issues until the work was done.”

He pauses. “Looking at that, I should say…‘I’m doing everything wrong’… I should throw everything out the window and just think about how I can make the best record. It’s easy to say, though. If you put a record out and know you’re going to make $50 million, you can afford to figure it out afterwards like that. But if you might make $50,000, it changes things.”

Kante is inspired by the idea of creating a framework for attribution and compensation to set expectations and ease negotiations with collaborators.

“I could probably increase my success by saying, ‘I do want to collaborate, and this is how it would look.’ I’d be free of the fear, once I’d built a framework for collaboration. That’s what needs to happen. I need to engineer the collaborative process to take out the uncertainty and the risk, and then I could just concentrate on the art. I haven’t done that yet. But it’s possible!”

Openness vs. secrecy in tech

“No matter how big and anonymous, tech does feel like a big sprawling community, and sharing feels natural,” says John Reale, director of solutions architecture at a healthcare startup. “And it feels most natural to share frameworks and tools, the things that help build products. But the products themselves? Well, we’ve gotta preserve some reason for people to pay us.”

Startups struggle with this daily. In tech, there’s a very present tension between being open about new ideas and projects—which can lead to groundbreaking collaborations and speedier technological progress—and the secrecy that plays a major role in getting a product to market before the competition (and keeping it there).

Still, there are ways to collaborate in tech that skirt the issue of proprietary information.

“We’ve based our product on a major open source project: OpenStack,” says Proudman of Blue Box. “We contribute to and participate in the development of the open source software itself, and we differentiate ourselves from the competition on raw execution driven via ruthless automation and the way we’ve chosen to bring our OpenStack to market as a service.”

In other words, the code may be public, but Blue Box’s secret sauce is in what they are capable of doing with the code, and how they execute it.

“I lean very much towards open development,” says Michael Snoyman, director of engineering at software development company FP Complete. “When I began working on my largest personal project, there was another framework that was being developed in secret (also to be later released as open source). Had they developed in the open, I likely wouldn’t have even started my project. Instead, I made it open-source, ended up getting a much larger contributor base, and it is now the dominant framework in that space. The downside to being so open is that people can steal your ideas.”

He adds a silver lining: “That forces you to stay on your toes and continue to improve and innovate faster than others.”

The conservatory challenge

“Classical music is a highly competitive field,” says Bentley. “Everybody in a top program is a top student aiming for the top, so you don’t get a lot of ‘Hey, let’s check out what it would be like to think about this piece a different way, and by the way what is the sound of a fuzzy caterpillar?’—you don’t have any conversations like that at all.”

Layton agrees: “It’s not like everybody says, ‘Hey, let’s you and me get together and we’ll just make something here, and I’ll write some stuff, and you guys too, viola and flute and whatever, let’s just play.’

“But you wish you could, somehow,” he adds wistfully. “Is there a way we could encourage that with extra-curriculars, to balance the rest, give students a more well-rounded experience, so they could get introduced to it at least? Because a lot of people never get that, and we end up with this situation where you hand performers a score, they play it, and that’s what they do—nothing else.”

Layton has been running an improv message board, Sound-In, for five years. Musicians post links to their short musical creations, and he turns these into a playlist. With people contributing from California, New Jersey, France, Tokyo, and all at different times, Layton wondered what it would sound like if they mixed some of these tracks together, as if the musicians were playing together.

“Incredibly enough, without much tweaking, we can make it sound an awful lot like these guys are in the same room, playing, that they’re all listening to each other. There can be incredibly weird kinds of music – each track is wildly different – but somehow when you stick them together, it becomes a coherent piece. It’s an interesting sort of collaboration. I’m doing the mixing, but everyone’s just showing up on their own, and waiting to see what happens.”

Does your gut still whisper at you to work alone? Perhaps what you really need is an employee, not a collaborator. It can be difficult to let go of something you really want to do yourself.

If you do crave a collaborative experience, and can’t give up the reins to your own project, consider joining someone else’s. Get involved in an online improv collaboration. Contribute to an open-source project. Call up a few good friends and get in a room with them and start something from scratch.

“Whatever idea you come up with or collaborate on, the most important thing is that it generates other ideas, for other collaborations or other pieces,” says Layton. “Each piece leads to another part of a puzzle or another unfolding aspect of whatever this musical life is. That’s the fun part. You don’t know where it’s going, you’re just seeing what can happen. You’re never going to know until you do it. And then you find out.”

Next: when resources are low.

Miranda Cuckson: String Alchemist

Despite the remarkable breadth and diversity of violinist Miranda Cuckson’s repertoire list, there is a reliable theme that emerges when it comes to reactions to her playing: music critics and fans tend to note how comfortably she embraces even the sharpest, most unapproachable-seeming pieces, conveying the music with such palpable control and insight that it’s as if she’s holding the door into these worlds open for the audience.

Frankly, it’s the impression I carry as well, particularly after I heard her perform an all-Ralph Shapey program in Chicago in 2013. When work is at its most forbidding, she grabs the flashlight that is her skill and artistry and leads the way through.

Cuckson's 1742 “ex-Bazzini” Guadagnini violin

Cuckson’s 1742 “ex-Bazzini” Guadagnini violin

Cuckson’s extensive Juilliard training—from age 9 through her Ph.D—steeped her in a broad array of repertoire, but she discovered a particular affinity for new and often challenging pieces. “One reason that I’ve done well at this kind of thing is that I absorb quickly unfamiliar music, so being handed scores and [being told], ‘Play this,’ I’m able to do,” she acknowledges, laughing. “So I’ve found myself getting work.”

And while she’s more interested in music that has something “really vivid” to say rather than difficulty for difficulty’s sake, she admits that there is something attractive about the puzzle.

“I do enjoy music that presents something for me to really figure out, both in terms of understanding the music itself and how I’m going to play it on my instrument and what I want to convey with it,” she explains. “You feel like there are layers that you go through and certain things that, once you’ve absorbed them, become more ingrained in how you’re doing it. Then you can go further into another aspect of it or another level of it. It’s rewarding to work that way.”

Work, you quickly get the impression, is not something Cuckson has ever been one to shy away from. In addition to keeping up with her busy performance schedule of solo and chamber repertoire, she is an active recording artist and is also the artistic director of the ensemble Nunc. Plus, she writes about music as well, often penning her own program notes.

Cuckson's library of scores, books, and media.

Cuckson’s library of scores, books, and media.

So far, however, for as much as she values her role as an engaged and intellectually curious collaborator, she hasn’t felt the urge to compose new work herself.

But I feel strongly about what I do as an interpreter. It’s both putting all my imagination and hopefully perceptiveness and insight into the music, and skill and all that, but also being a great collaborator with the composers—whether they’re not around anymore so I have to figure that out, or with the people who can actually talk and work with me. There’s a kind of alchemy that goes on, and it’s one of the more mysterious things, music and the melding that goes on between artists’ personalities in performance: the composer’s vision and what they were feeling and the performers and their own personalities and how these things come together.

It’s also a reminder of the profoundly fluid and ephemeral nature of performance, no matter how many hours go into perfecting the delivery of even the most complex score or how much time a listener is able to spend in its company. That’s the interesting thing about new music, Cuckson emphasized. “One performance of something is part of a process, hopefully of either getting to know that piece or that composer’s work or in general just listening to more and more things.”

Miya Masaoka: Social and Sonic Relationships

At the composer’s New York City apartment
May 13, 2014—11 a.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video recorded by Molly Sheridan
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner

Nine summers ago, there were tons of sound-producing gizmos on display during the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival’s “Homemade Instrument Day.” It was a fabulous way to introduce some really avant-garde music to a very broad audience. Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing people encountered that day was an installation by Miya Masaoka in which sound was somehow emanating from house plants. It was like some weird kind of Island of Dr. Moreau phenomenon. Yet it was also somehow both instantly engaging and musically fascinating as it unfolded over time. It involved a lot of brainy science—electroencephalography, data analysis, and computers—yet it was also extremely down to earth.
While it could have degenerated into a clever gimmick, it was much more than that because Masaoka manipulated the data from the plants to construct a very interesting sonic environment. But because it was all happening in real time, with a group of pots containing seemingly innocuous plant life, it became something much more than just a musical experience—it made the audience think about plants, and life in general, in a totally different way.

Masaoka has been making us look and listen to the world around us in totally new ways for decades. There has been a clear socio-political component to virtually everything she has done, but at the core level her work is ultimately always about finding new sounds. She first came to prominence in the Bay Area for her experiments with the koto, a multi-stringed zither which has played a prominent role in the court music of Japan for centuries. Though she was born and grew up in the United States, her Japanese family included traditionally trained musicians who were her earliest teachers on the instrument. While she initially immersed herself into gagaku and other classical Japanese repertoire, she soon found a way to make the koto a vehicle for a broad range of contemporary American music-making—bowing it, electrifying it, playing it in experimental improvisation combos, performing Thelonious Monk compositions and other jazz standards on it, etc. In so doing, she has made the instrument completely her own.
She has also done a great deal of sonic work involving the human body. She has created musical compositions using the brainwaves of audience members as well as data retrieved from participants via electrocardiograms. Her most provocative work has been a series of performance pieces involving groups of insects (bees, cockroaches) crawling over her own naked body; their motion triggering sensors attached to her which amplify the actual sounds the insects are making. Again, what could come across as gimmickry is viscerally powerful visual and sonic engagement, though admittedly probably not for the overly squeamish. (Although it isn’t to her in the slightest.) As she describes it, it is simultaneously politically charged and sound obsessed:

It’s the most amazing electronic kind of sound and it’s actually coming from a bug. Bees also have a very electronic sound component. But they were chosen not only for their sound abilities, [they were also chosen for] the idea of them maybe being individuals, maybe a colony. … I really wanted to understand and study their social relationships to each other. I’m not allergic to bees, so it’s okay. It was the idea of what the individual is, what our bodies are, and what the relationship is of our bodies to nature. It was searching for some kinds of clues to get closer to that. … Collaboration—whether it’s with insects or plants or people or musicians or the earth’s environmental sounds—is thinking about a sound world and how to enter somewhat of a psychological and sonic space.

In the last decade, Masaoka has concentrated somewhat less on performing and more on creating extended musical compositions for others to perform. She acknowledged when we spoke to her last month that her seeming shift in focus was partially a function of relocating to New York City and having a young daughter, but it’s also a way to channel her experiences and creative energy into larger scale projects that she would not have been able to perform on her own. And the results have been equally stimulating: For Birds, Planes and Cello, an all-encompassing sound-scape in which cellist Joan Jeanrenaud competes against a barrage of bird calls and airplane engines; and While I was walking I heard a sound…, an extraordinary choral piece involving three choirs and nine soloists spatialized in balconies which was premiered in San Francisco by Volti, the San Francisco Choral Society, and the Ensemble of the Piedmont Choirs. Last year, inspired by kayaking on a lake near the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, she completed her first orchestral piece, Other Mountain, which was performed by the La Jolla Symphony as part of the EarShot Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings. But she’s still committed to performing. Earlier this season, she performed at Roulette in Triangle of Resistance, a new interdisciplinary work she co-created with filmmaker/videographer Michelle Handelman featuring a score she composed for koto, string quartet, percussion, and electronics, and in a couple of months she’ll be returning to the studio to record a new album of improvisations with Pauline Oliveros, who has been a long-time collaborator and mentor.
After spending a morning talking with her about her music and why she’s made the choices she’s made, I’m even more convinced that whatever she does will continue to push the envelope in ways that are both intellectually challenging and sonically captivating.


Frank J. Oteri: You’ve done so many different kinds of things musically, but people always want to have a tag line, a one sentence sound bite. “Oh, Miya Masaoka, she’s the person who experiments with the koto.” Or “Miya Masaoka, she’s the person who does the music with plants.” Or, “the stuff with bugs.” These projects are all so different from each other and don’t even encompass everything you’ve done. So I’m wondering in your mind if there’s any through line that connects all of these things, something that informs the choices you make and shapes your identity as a musical creator.
Miya Masaoka: Identity is kind of interesting—the relationship between the individual and whatever social context is happening, whatever interaction with the outside world. So it’s really this interior versus exterior relationship, which is something we don’t necessarily have control over. I remember when there were only a few of us calling ourselves composer-performers; it was actually before you could get degrees in such a thing. These terms are really fluid, in a sense, like gender or ethnicity. They’re really social constructs. For example, when I think about what it means to be Japanese or Japanese-American—before my relatives were sent to the Japanese American concentration camps, it was decreed that you had to have 1/16 Japanese blood. This was a definition for if you were Japanese or not, to go to the camps. And so this is what my parents had to contend with. I certainly don’t have to contend with these kinds of blood percentages to define identities, but certainly the idea of aspects of sound, and relationship to architecture, and how pieces are exhibited, or whether there are instruments involved and what the relationship is to performing on that instrument or whether you create music for other instruments—those things are also really fluid and they change from piece to piece. So for me, whatever is fascinating for me and what I am obsessed with at the moment, drives me to create the next piece. I don’t consciously shape an identity. That’s not been so conscious. I wish, in a sense, that things were more narrowed down and could be in a sound bite, because then it would be much easier to do everything in a world that’s sound-bite driven. But I can’t stop myself.
FJO: Sound bites are sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they help explain work to people in a fast, straight-forward way, which can be very useful, especially when there is so much noise out there. But in terms of wanting to create the next piece, or actually wanting to create any new work, it creates limitations if it doesn’t conform to the sound bite—you know, that doesn’t sound like what that sound bite tells me it’s supposed to sound like! So it’s a constant battle between how you establish something so people have some kind of grounding in what you’re doing and how you can grow from there.
MM: That’s true. I also like it if I can find a sound bite. That’s how we organize our minds and organize the vast amount of data that we have for so many artists out there. The next piece I’m doing is using three dimensional objects, sculptural objects, as scores. In some ways, it’s a departure from some things I’ve done, but in other ways, it’s not at all. Then I’m coming off of writing for full symphony. It’s completely different to go in towards making these objects as scores, or scores as objects.
A common thread is this idea of a sound and how to think about sound—whether it’s using forces of musicians or whether it’s thinking of sounds in more of a visual sense, whether the pieces are using kinetic motion or a physicality. Are these waves that interact with air to create a certain kineticsm that we experience as sound? How does it deflect off whichever reflective surfaces are there in terms of the architecture? That’s true whether it’s a concert hall, or whether it’s in a gallery space, or an open air situation. So I think this element of experiencing sound is probably the common thread, and how that can be conceived and perceived and achieved in different angles in different ways.
FJO: Now one of the things that’s been a very long-standing interest of yours going back to the beginnings when you first became active in the Bay Area new music scene has been working with the koto. I’m curious about how you first got involved with the koto and what attracted you to it. Obviously you come from a Japanese background, but you grew up in the United States, you were born in D.C., you spent many years in the Bay Area. There aren’t a lot of kotoists here.

Laser Koto

Miya Masaoka performing on the Laser Koto. (Photo by Lori Eanes.)

MM: Well, my cousin and my aunt played koto, and one of them studied in Japan. I grew up playing piano. It was definitely coming from the Japanese American history of trying to be as American as possible because of the camps and the whole wartime experience. At the time in the Bay Area, there were different Asian American musicians like Jon Jang, Mark Izu, and Francis Wong who were keen about Asian American music and embracing these traditional instruments. So going back to these instruments was something that was a part of what was happening. I became a part of that, as well as having it in my family.
I studied traditional koto, and I also started the Gagaku Society. Gagaku is imperial court music. I did that for seven years in the Bay Area. Our master was from Japan and he was working at UCLA. So we flew him up once a month to work with us. And those concepts of structure, and how sound occurs over time, and how it unfolds and kind of builds up a propulsion and momentum were some of the most fascinating kinds of principles that I still live by.
But a turning point for me was when I was invited to play with Pharaoh Sanders for a few concerts at Yoshi’s. From playing with him and improvising with him, I also got introduced to other improvisers in the Bay area, like Larry Ochs and Henry Kaiser. So then I began collaborating with them, and that opened up this whole other door to what they would call non-idiomatic improvisation, free improvisation and that kind of thing.
FJO: There’s an interesting essay you’ve posted to your website that you wrote back in 1997 in response to Royal Hartigan’s issues about taking a traditional instrument that’s in a certain context and recontextualizing it to make it your own. There has been a lot of debate about this phenomenon. These are cultural artifacts of a specific culture which perceives of them in certain ways. So some would argue that to use them in ways that are outside of that culture are somehow disrespectful to that culture. But I find it interesting that the people who make those kinds of arguments about traditional Asian instruments, and also traditional African instruments, don’t make them for European instruments. It’s assumed that western instruments are somehow universal, that those instruments belong to everybody. You can do anything you want, say, with a piano or violin, but you can’t necessarily do anything you want with a koto, or an mbira or a ney. To exempt the West from cultural specificity seems like cultural imperialism and is really disconnected from 21st-century American cultural experience.
MM: I think some of those arguments that took place in the ‘70s and ‘80s have been really superseded by the internet—concepts of appropriation and taking these cultures from developing countries or from non-western countries and that it is somehow disrespectful or impure. Plunderphonics has come and gone, and there’s access to so many different rare cultures that it’s become a moot point to a certain extent. But I think whatever you do as an artist, whatever choices you make, there’ll always be people who will have issues with things. Especially if you’re doing something new and something slightly different, you’re going to have people who aren’t going along with it. So, that’s fine.
FJO: In the age of the internet, it does seem like everything from everywhere in every time is fair game. At this point to say that you’re continuing a tradition, it begs the question, what tradition? We have access to all the traditions, and we’re not necessarily continuing any of them, and not necessarily continuing “Western classical music.” The term seems meaningless to so much of the stuff that we’re all doing at this point.
MM: Tradition is something that people can personally embrace, whether it’s a tradition of American experimentalism, or a certain kind of tradition of minimalism, or certain kinds of traditions of time-based work, or some kind of performance, or generative electronics—modular synthesis has its own tradition. So there’re all these traditions that exist that are very historical and very meaningful, and we can embrace them in various ways, as individuals, to make them meaningful for us.
FJO: You mentioned playing with Pharoah Sanders. One thing that has certainly been a very important tradition in the trajectory of American music is the music that people call jazz. It’s a loaded word in some circles, but it is a tradition and it’s a tradition that you’ve interacted with in some of your work, though not all of your work. I love the trio recording you did with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille where you’re taking music by Thelonious Monk and completely reinventing it in a way that echoes traditional Japanese music, but that also really is jazz. It really does swing. It feels like Monk to me. So I wonder how you see your own music within the context of jazz traditions.
MM: Well, I grew up playing and listening to all different kinds of music and, of course, studying classical music, teaching myself folk music on the guitar, and studying flamenco music with a gypsy who lived in the town. Listening to rock and roll, listening to jazz—it’s really hard to escape that if you grow up in America. Jazz has this incredibly rich history of ways of being in music and ways of creating music. And I feel very lucky to have worked with some amazing jazz artists. And I continue to work with them.
I think at different times, there’s been a certain fragmentation and diffusion and at the same time a real boxing in of what jazz is into a kind of very boring and negative modality, which it certainly is not. I mean, the history is so expressive. It’s been so influential to so many parts of American culture. It’s had a rough patch, I think, and people like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor have kind of gone through and made it to the other end of that, the narrow definition of what would be swing or how to define jazz. I’m hoping that that’s going to open up again.
FJO: So taking on Monk. Monk’s compositions are iconic jazz repertoire even though he was an iconoclast. He was never conventional in what he did with rhythm. What he did with harmony was also completely unique. You hear a Monk chord, and you know instantly that it’s his. Yet those pieces have become canonic of a certain era in jazz. So to take that on and to do your own thing with it is very brave in a way because people have certain expectations about what that is.

CD cover for Monk's Japanese Folk Song

The CD cover for Monk’s Japanese Folk Song featuring Miya Masaoka with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille.

MM: Well, Monk did an album of Japanese folk songs, so I kind of did a version of him doing a version of Japanese folk songs. And then, like you mentioned, the rhythms are asymmetrical; they’re very spiky and they’re very interesting. It’s definitely very interesting repertoire to dig into. So I thought it was challenging and would be a fun project to do. It’s funny, when I go to Japan, sometimes I still hear it in some of the jazz clubs. They play that record; it’s wormed its way in.
FJO: You did another project that is probably even more clearly jazz sounding—What is the Difference Between Stripping and Playing the Violin?—which for me is definitely coming out of big band music, but it’s also referencing a lot of other things, too.
MM: That was a long time ago. But there was some jazz in there definitely, quotations from Duke Ellington and things like that. I had a big orchestra and I was doing actually something I made up that I called tai chi conducting where I would try to get the energy from the musicians. I used some of the Butch Morris sign language. I also invented some of my own at the time. There were people in that group like Vijay Iyer and Carla Kihlstedt, tons of incredible artists who were living in the Bay Area at the time.
FJO: The more non-jazz improvisatory stuff that you’ve done also in some way connects to jazz’s greater contribution to American culture—this notion of work that’s collaborative in some way, the idea that a group of people can participate in the making of something in real time by responding to one another. It’s not just one person’s vision—I did this piece and now you peons, here are the precise rules you need to follow. Rather you have a group of people who are listening to each other, and they’re responding to each other, and the work becomes what it is because of those interactions. No one necessarily knows what’s going to happen at the end. Something can become completely different from what you had initially envisioned it being.
MM: That’s true. I mean, you know, I’d definitely been open to what kinds of things could change and how that could be meaningful. I did this piece with Joan Jeanrenaud—For Birds, Planes and Cello. Joan was playing the cello and also listening and also looking at some graphic ideas of what to play while she was listening. This was a piece with basically an uncut film recording of the planes at the San Diego airport starting out at six in the morning, and slowly there would be more and more of them. And the birds were in these natural canyons so they were in this enormous kind of sound amplifier; the birds were so loud they sounded like they were being amplified artificially. Whenever a plane went by, they would start screeching with the plane, and then as time went on, there was just more and more sound and it built up to a structural climax with the schedule of the planes kind of dictating that. So in a sense, it’s a kind of a collaboration with the earth, the birds, and the scheduling and creating and taking these kinds of environments and finding some kind of coherence and structure and meaning from them.
FJO: What I find so interesting in terms of the whole sound bite phenomenon is that collaboration has been a hallmark of your work through the last several decades, but the people you collaborate with have been extremely different from each other. So, because of that, the music that results from those collaborations is always very different. I’m thinking of the trios that you were a part of with Gino Robair which can be very frenetic versus, say, your work with Pauline Oliveros, which is often much sparer and much more introspective. I’m curious about what makes you choose a collaborator to work with because obviously those different identities are both you since you’ve done both of those things. They’re both extraordinary, but they’re very different from each other.
MM: Collaboration—whether it’s with insects or plants or people or musicians or the earth’s environmental sounds—is thinking about a sound world and how to enter somewhat of a psychological and sonic space. And a spiritual place you could even say, like with Pauline Oliveros. We’re going to be going into the studio again in a couple of months, actually. She’s an icon, and I’ve been so honored to be able to have worked with her and to work with her in the future. To answer your question about sparseness or density, those kinds of things can be preconceived or not preconceived. Things with Pauline can be sparse or not sparse, or this or not that; it’s working towards a larger whole to a certain extent. There are so many parameters that are a part of getting there.
FJO: So in terms of choosing these collaborators, how do these relationships happen? Who initiates them?
MM: It changes, and it varies. This time this one with Pauline was initiated by Issui Minegishi, a player of the traditional one-stringed koto called ichigenkin. With Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille, there was someone from Germany who said, “Who do you want to work with?” I just named these two names and he got them. It really varies. I often do a lot of just working by myself.
FJO: There is that fabulous album you did of composition and improvisation which is almost completely solo except for the last track that has flute. Once again, from track to track, the music is extremely different. One solo project of yours, although perhaps you might not think of it as solo, is the work you’ve done with bees and Madagascan cockroaches. I find it remarkable, but I have to confess that I also find it unbelievably disturbing, and I think that that disturbance might be an element of why you did it. I’ve never experienced these performances live. I’m not sure I could. I’ve watched the videos online, and I had to stop the recordings repeatedly. It got through my skin, as it were. I felt like these insects were crawling on me.
MM: Well, that piece was about the Japanese American experience. Around that time, they had just come out with some new studies of DNA and the differences with gender and race; people were something like actually 99 percent the same. And it’s really this small miniscule amount that we thought we were different. So I was going back to the 1/16th Japanese that you had to be to go to the Japanese camps. So the idea of the naked human body, as it is, without these ideas being fostered onto it… These large bugs crawling on it, kind of just discovering the terrain, as if it’s for the first time, and seeing this as a blank slate. Now we can buy that or not, you know, in terms of blank slates, but the idea was just having a very kind of cold viewpoint of the human body as the canvas—that was the idea. And then taking the sounds of the bugs, and amplifying them, and making samples of them, and having them create the structure of the piece. So I would be sending an array of lasers over my body, and they would break the beams, and that would trigger the sounds of the piece. The sound worlds are based on their movements.
FJO: So how were you able to do this?
MM: I went to this amphibian store. At the time they were legal to buy and I bought 12 of them. Later somebody took care of them for me and would send them through FedEx to the different places that I would play in Europe.
FJO: But how were you able to have bugs crawl all over you? How did it feel? You don’t move at all during the piece; how were you able to get yourself into that zone?
MM: It’s the idea of the body being this passive canvas that society pushes things upon. And you know, you just do it. I mean, it’s discipline. It’s like anything else. It’s, you know, you just do it.
FJO: What were audience reactions like to that in different venues around the world?
MM: Well, that piece became very popular. It also got picked up by some kind of syndicate in Canada and played a few times. And these Madagascar cockroaches later became much more popular in lots of popular culture. This was before that happened. But, how things get received? I don’t know. I should probably pay more attention to that. I think at the time, people weren’t used to seeing anything like that. Some people thought it was interesting, and some people thought it wasn’t, I’m sure. I can’t have my ear too much to the ground as to how things get received or not received, because it can just get me in the wrong frame of mind.
FJO: I have to confess, before I experienced it, I thought the idea was sort of gimmicky, but then after looking and listening to it, though at times I found it really disturbing, it was also viscerally powerful. But I’m curious about what it means to you as music, because a lot of it is a visual experience, including what you were saying about the body being a blank slate. But it was conceived of as a piece of music, right?
MM: Yes, as a performative semi-installation with music, because that’s my background. I did these collaborations with cockroaches, but their sound sounds like white noise. It’s the most amazing electronic kind of sound and it’s actually coming from a bug. Bees also have a very electronic sound component. But they were chosen not only for their sound abilities, [they were also chosen for] the idea of them maybe being individuals, maybe a colony. I think it’s very fascinating to have a blur of something that’s a whole. Ants are that way, too, but ants don’t have the same kind of obvious sound possibilities as these other ones. I really wanted to understand and study their social relationships to each other. So a lot of pieces from that period have to do with inquiries into the nature of society and culture and politics and sound.

FJO: Now with the bees, there’s the added layer of danger. Cockroaches tend to make people flinch, but with bees you can actually get stung and be physically injured. Is putting yourself in harm’s way part of the aesthetic here?
MM: No, not at all. And I’m not allergic to bees, so it’s okay. It was the idea of what the individual is, what our bodies are, and what the relationship is of our bodies to nature. It was searching for some kinds of clues to get closer to that.
FJO: I found it very interesting when we were talking earlier on about collaborations that you included the insects along with your collaborations with some of the most iconic human musicians. But insects, unlike people, don’t necessarily create a work of art of their own volition, so it’s a different kind of collaboration.
MM: Well, from my point of view, I really try to give the cockroaches agency by having them crawl and their movements create the sound structure for the piece. So I really try to imbue a certain agency for them.
FJO: But they’re not necessarily cognizant of their agency. Or are they?
MM: I have no idea.
FJO: But unlike collaborations with other people which are the creative work of the entire group collectively, certainly work for which you’d all share royalties, you don’t have to share your royalties with these bugs! Ultimately, it’s exclusively your work as a creator.
MM: Correct. But let me tell you about these cockroaches. I would be in the hotel room with these cockroaches night after night, travelling with them, and they were in a shoebox. I stopped taking both males and females, because the males would just attack too much, constantly going after each other and fighting each other. So I ended up with just one male cockroach, and the rest females. But I would just watch the way they interacted with each other for hours and hours in the hotel room, you know, after the performance. They did amazing things—very, very tender things with their antennas to each other, really very dramatic, very erotic things. When they would have sex, the things they would do with their antennas were fascinating. And how they would manipulate each other for food, and keep food from certain other ones. The whole thing was just fascinating. And for me, it was also part of the piece in a certain sense.
FJO: Now, to take it to plants. One could argue that even if insects may not be engaging in the same aesthetic processes that you are in the pieces that you involved them in, they certainly have will. Most people don’t think of plants as having will. I think that what you’ve done with plants is particularly fascinating, because it’s trying to address the living qualities of these life forms that we take for granted.
MM: I don’t think of plants as having will, but I will say some plants are very different from each other, even in one species. Some will be very responsive and some won’t be. I use EEG sensors on leaves, so I can monitor activity, and some plants are really responsive. You can get good readings on the sensors from the ones that are semi-tropical with very sebaceous leaves. If they’re in the jungle, they have to think which branch am I going to have to wrap myself around. Aristotle said the difference between humans and plants is plants can’t move, and human beings can. But actually these plants in the rain forest can actually go several miles by living on the treetops, and then shooting roots down. When they want to go somewhere else, they kill the nutrients off and then they move and get new roots in another location. But there are these plants, of course, like a lettuce, that just open and close; they are kind of like a toggle switch. Other plants grow quickly, and their vines shoot in directions where it’s most beneficial for them. So there’s definitely a lot of going there. These root systems can be considered somewhat like a neuron center of some sort.
FJO: So how does this all translate into music?
MM: Well, they give off mini-volts, which is one millionth of a volt. They recently discovered that plants have ultraviolet sensitivity, which is something human beings aren’t even able to discern. There’s a lot going on there. But it’s like any kind of data piece, whether you’re taking the information from earthquake activity, or wind activity. But my plant pieces were in real time. Often data pieces are not. They’re just taking a splice of something that happened and then interpreting that data. It started from my taking data from people’s brains in concerts, going from brain-activated pieces to using plants’ data. For some reason, those pieces got farther along for me than the brain pieces.

Masaoka performing with plants

One of Miya Masaoka’s performances with plants. (Photo by Donald Swearington.)

FJO: But it’s another one of these things where, if one were to hear it without knowing how those sounds came about, what would be the difference in the experience? And this begs the question of where does the music lie in this for you in all of these pieces—the plant pieces, the insect pieces. What is the musical issue that’s coming out of it for you that led you to create in this way?
MM: Well, they’re very different in a certain sense because the ones with insects are taking the actual sounds of the insects, but the ones with plants are taking their relationship to voltage output. A lot of it is negotiating what’s going to happen, whether it’s an installation, or whether it’s something that’s an eight-minute piece that goes from beginning to end. That’s a challenge for those kinds of pieces, to take the data and to make it interesting. I guess there are different ways of thinking about data, how pure this relationship is to the scientific frequencies coming out or whether that can be interpreted or manipulated for compositional purposes. I always err on the side of artistic license to really take the data and then apply it so that there is some sonic interest and development and satisfaction.
FJO: So how do you know when these pieces end? What is an ending?
MM: For long durational pieces, I think there’s the question of my own attention span and the attention span of the audience, the perceiver, the listener. I’ve been to India many times and have experienced seven-hour concerts, as well as [extended] durational concerts by different composers, like La Monte Young. There’s something very beautiful about this kind of eternity and things going on and on, but I also like something that you can kind of experience and then you have to go back to the memory. Once the piece starts, you start listening to it and then you go back to the memory of what you listened to. It’s like reflecting upon whatever just happened in a time-based way. The last event that happened that was meaningful, maybe you return to that. And then there’s a new meaningful event. And then you return to that along the timeline. And it kind of goes like that. And after a span of time happens, you reflect on the whole experience, and find what was meaningful or satisfying, or maybe what was not. For me, there’s kind of a ratio of attention span plus time plus satisfaction equals end. I just made that up right now. [laughing]
FJO: That’s good! You were talking about using raw data versus manipulating it for aesthetic ends. Even though we’re now in the 21st century, we’re still playing all these games with binaries. It’s either this or that. Either it’s about structure or it’s intuitive. One of the things I was trying to think through for what could be the sound bite to describe your music is its corporeality. At the onset of our talk you described your interest in physical moving sound. There’s a physicalness to most of your music, much more so—at least it seems—than the working out of a rigid process. You do all these experiments, but they’re really about how sound exists in the world more than how it exists in your brain. Is that fair?
MM: Anything’s fair. I think that’s an interesting way of thinking, and that sounds like an approach.
FJO: Here’s where it becomes a loaded gun thing—a lot of recent debates about aesthetics contextualize creative choices in terms of gender. The argument goes that men like to create all these rules which result in highly structured pieces, whereas women are more intuitive and they respond to things. Reality is a lot more complex than that, but this binary is something used to explain, say, why there are no 90-minute symphonies by women composers.
MM: Even 40-minute symphonies, why aren’t there those? They don’t have to be 90 minutes.
FJO: Well, I can think of at least ten 40-minute symphonies by women, but I can’t think of any 90-minutes ones. But is this related to gender and is this kind of thinking an issue for you in your own music making? When we talked about identity before, we didn’t talk so much about gender. How important are those questions for you?
MM: Those questions are very important because they have to do with how we function in our social context. So that’s very important. Some things are just done out of necessity. I would often do lots of solo things, especially in the earlier days, because I didn’t have the funding and the resources to hire people. Then whenever I did get funding, the first thing I would do was create more structured pieces to include more people and hire them. That’s always been something that I’ve done consistently. And there’ve been scores and rules for all of my pieces that have to do with larger groups because it’s too unwieldy otherwise. I think that serialism was kind of an extreme, and certainly it broke down, not just for women, but for men as well, but still there are certain things that are very interesting about serialism. For me, it’s more a question of access, being able to have musicians and being able to get your work performed. These kinds of things are more important to me than thinking that this is generalized for this gender or for that gender, which really is not very helpful for anybody.
FJO: But one thing that certainly is helpful to someone who is creative, especially during one’s formative years, is being able to have role models. While there have always been women composers, they did not really have much of an impact on the greater trajectory of music history until composers of Pauline Oliveros and Yoko Ono’s generation. Before their time, the role models were pretty much all men. I know that Pauline Oliveros is somebody who has been very important to you as a mentor. And on your website you include a fascinating talk you did with Yoko Ono, who also created work that blurs the line between sound and vision and performance.
MM: I don’t consider her a role model per se, but she’s definitely been an iconic artist.
FJO: So who are your role models?
MM: Well, Pauline Oliveros, Kaija Saariaho, Olga Neuwirth… I get very inspired by visual artists as well, like Kara Walker, and writers.
FJO: Everyone you mentioned is a woman.
MM: Well, there are men, too, but they get mentioned a lot. I like to mention people who aren’t mentioned as much.
FJO: The person you chose as your life partner, George Lewis, is also an iconic composer and musical thinker. I’m curious about how having the central person in your life also be a creator has impacted your own work. I know that the two of you have collaborated in the past.
MM: Not for a long time. We have a really separate artistic life, I’d say. We buy different pieces of equipment, even if it’s the same a lot of times, because it just makes it easier. You have your equipment, and no one’s going to mess with it. And then when you need it, it’s going to be in the exact same state in which you left it. Those kinds of things are important. And we have different places where we work. But it’s so enriching, because when we do get a chance to sit down and talk about different things, there’s always something interesting to say. So, I really appreciate that part of it.
FJO: It’s interesting. You were such an important fixture in the Bay Area new music scene, and now you’ve been in New York City for over a decade. Since so much of your music is about the physical world around you, I’m curious about how being in a different place has affected the work you’ve done since you’ve been here.
MM: The work I’ve done here in New York is focused more on composition. I just finished this string quartet. But in some ways, it all somewhat follows a life trajectory to a certain extent, since I’m not in my 20s and 30s anymore. I’ve got a small child. There are these kinds of interruptions of life to a certain extent that affect things. The Bay Area was, too, but New York is such a stimulating place to be, so I love being here every minute.

Score excerpt from "Survival"

An excerpt from the score of “Survival”, part 3 of Triangle of Resistance. Copyright © 2013 by Miya Masaoka. Reproduced with the permission of the composer.

Triangle of Resistance

From the world premiere performance of Miya Masaoka’s score for Triangle of Resistance at Roulette on November 17, 2013: Jennifer Choi and Esther Noh, violins; Ljova, viola; Alex Waterman, cello; plus Satoshi Takeishi, percussion; Miya Masaoka, koto; and Ben Vida, analog modular synthesizer. Conducted by Richard Carrick. Video projections by Michelle Handelman. Direction by Brooke O’Harra.

FJO: You also recently wrote your first orchestra piece.
MM: It was a piece called Other Mountain that was performed by the La Jolla Symphony last year.
FJO: Is that something you’re interested in exploring more now?
MM: Well, the large forces of a symphony are a learning experience, and it’s also a very intriguing way of thinking, how the sounds from each individual instrument work together. It’s something new for me, and it’s been endlessly fascinating. I don’t know really where the future goes with that, but it’s really an incredible thing to be able to have done.

Other Mountain orchestral score excerpt

From the orchestral score for Other Mountain Copyright © 2013 by Miya Masaoka. Reproduced with the permission of the composer.