Tag: collaboration

Performers as Co-Creators

At the moment we at The Nouveau Classical Project are working on our largest undertaking thus far: Potential Energies, which will premiere in Brooklyn at BAM Fisher on May 29. It’s a modern ballet where the musicians and dancers share an equal role on stage. Each player is paired together with a dancer in order to demonstrate two sides of a single identity which, in the subject matter of the ballet, is an attempt to reconcile ambitions with reality.

This project has involved intense collaboration between musicians and dancers and was unlike anything most of the musicians of NCP and I had experienced. Through the process of directing Potential Energies and creating it with my ensemble, choreographer Barbie Diewald, and her company TrioDance Collective, I had the chance to immerse myself in the world of dance and learned a great deal about collaboration.

We’ve had workshops and rehearsals twice each week since October, totaling four-six hours a week. For the most part, dancers were required to be at all six hours of rehearsal. (I went to all rehearsals, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing my job.) There were times when it was absolutely grueling.

To begin with, the piece involves ten performers: five musicians (myself included) and five dancers. And this isn’t a piece where musicians are simply learning a score and accompanying dancers; in fact, for much of the ballet, memorizing the music (composed by Trevor Gureckis) is required.
Potential Energies-rehearsals
It was clear from the start that musicians would need to contribute movement ideas because the musicians knew what their bodies were capable of doing while playing their instruments, and our goal was to create movement that was as natural and uncontrived as possible. When I started attending the workshops that involved only dancers, what struck me was the way Barbie asked her dancers to generate choreographic material. Sometimes Barbie would have ideas right off the bat, but oftentimes we would discuss the idea behind whatever section of the ballet we happened to be working on that day, and the dancers would create phrases that we would possibly use, discard, or save for later. (As far as the music goes, it is through-composed and that collaboration primarily existed between the exchange of ideas between Barbie, Trevor, and myself.)

While there are opportunities for musicians to have a sense of compositional decision-making in aleatoric pieces or in improv-based music, such as jazz, I am particularly curious about how a classical composer and musician can build a piece together from the ground up. Co-creation is something not often explored in the classical genre, and after working on Potential Energies, I’ve been thinking about how the choreographer-dancer process could be applied in creating new compositions. I know that composers and performers often collaborate, but it often seems limited to commissioning and/or sharing ideas about performance execution rather than the creation of material.

Potential Energies-rehearsals

Potential Energies, rehearsal shot
Photo by Mickey Hoelscher

During the creation of Potential Energies, Barbie mentioned to me that she needs the bodies present (choreography software exists but she said it’s not that great) so that is probably a factor in her highly collaborative process, but she also depends on the creative minds of her dancers and their improvisations, and in the case of Potential Energies, input from the musicians as well. In depth composer-performer collaborations would allow musicians the chance to have a stronger creative voice beyond the artistry of performance, especially for those of us who do not compose. Just like the choreographer in the dance process, the composer would form the final composition, but in this case there would be a significant amount of input from the musicians, and it seems improvisation would be essential to the process as well.

I would love to hear about any unique composer-performer collaborations that have taken place or are in the works! Please share in the comments below.

Boston: Caroline Shaw’s Common Cause

"Your Second or Permanent Teeth" (anatomical diagram)

From Harrison Wader Ferguson, D.D.S., A Child’s Book of the Teeth (1922).

In his 1547 treatise Dodecachordon, Heinrich Glarean, having lionized the likes of Obrecht, Ockeghem, and Josquin (especially Josquin), made sure—like you do—to despair that the younger generation was ruining everything. To be sure, even Josquin had his infelicitous moments: “in some places in his songs he did not fully and properly restrain his impetuous talent, although this ordinary fault may be condoned because of his otherwise incomparable gifts.” Those coming after Josquin, however, made this exception the rule, as Glarean complained:

The art now displays such unrestraint that learned men are nearly sick of it. This has many causes, but mostly it is because composers are ashamed to follow in the footsteps of predecessors who observed the relation of modes exactly; we have fallen into another, distorted style of song which is in no way pleasing—it is only new.

It was probably coincidental that, for the May 10 and 11 premiere performances of Caroline Shaw’s Music in Common Time, the vocal group Roomful of Teeth and the string ensemble A Far Cry preceded the piece with Josquin at his most elegantly, explicitly generational: his “Déploration” on the death of his elder colleague Johannes Ockeghem (in an arrangement by Shaw). But, then again, after winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for her Partita (the youngest composer to ever receive the honor), Shaw came in for a share of Glarean-like grief courtesy of John Adams, who implicitly held Shaw up as an example of “extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight” music: “People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now.” He went on:

If you read a lot of history, which I do, you see that civilizations produce periods of high culture, and then they can fall into periods of absolute mediocrity that can go on for generation after generation.

So to have the “Déploration” on the program, that road from Ockeghem to Josquin to implied musical perdition, was a nice reminder that, if you read even a little history, you see that these sorts of bumpy transitions are nothing new. Music in Common Time is, among other things, a border stone marking one of those most porous yet most impassible of barriers: a proximate, parapatric stylistic divide.

* * *

A Far Cry, seven seasons old, has, since 2010, been the in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (where I heard this program on May 11). They are a conductorless gang of energetic fashion. (Their standard-repertoire contribution to the program, Mahler’s string-orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet (D. 810), was incessantly high-contrast and bracing.) Roomful of Teeth charts a line between musical polish and enthusiasm. Their singing in the Josquin, for instance, channeled the precision of an early music outfit but eschewed the homogeneity: individual voices could still be heard amidst the collective. Both groups are cut from similar cloth: younger-skewing ensembles proficient enough to slip into the churn of the classical-music performance business, and idiosyncratic enough to create the sense that they’re reprogramming the machine. An additional layer of professional and personal connections between the two groups (which Shaw hinted at in a breezy program note) made for a natural collaboration; Shaw’s new piece—somewhat mind-bendingly, her first formal commission—provided the occasion.

Music in Common Time is not quite a concerto, although the eight voices tend to move more as a unified group than the string orchestra, which is frequently divided into distinct factions. An opening stretch—a staggered, rising, arpeggiated triad (D major, picking up where Partita left off)—shifts into the sturdiest of diatonic progressions, then gives way to a vocal break, one of two sections with text: “Over the roads,” the voices sing, in a tongue-twisting interlude of traveling music. (That dialectic, one ensemble gently interrupting the other, happens throughout.) After a bit of folk-tinged, almost Holst-like atmosphere, the opening section returns, only to be undercut by thickets of snap-pizzicato, becoming a conventionally plucked accompaniment, over which the voices embark on a short study in portamento, sliding up and down into pure harmonies.

The center of the piece was engrossing, a negotiation between a perpetually rising sequence of secondary dominants in the strings and faster, descending parallel chords in the voices, occasionally meeting up for chance cadences. It was chased with a brief dose of ringing-partial throat-singing—one of the piece’s few congruences with Partita’s more exuberant kitchen sink of vocal techniques. That led to the final section: first the voices introduced another bit of sentimentally elusive text (“years ago, I forget; years to come, just let them”) set as a sweetly unsteady shape-note sing; then a tranquil standoff of a coda, half the strings staying put while the other half, along with the voices, moved to a different key center.

The overall effect is that of a linked chain, a point-to-point sojourn. Arrivals are based less on contrapuntal resolution and more on the satisfying effect of a particular sonority. (The sound of a widely spaced triad—roots, thirds, and fifths saturating the overtone spectrum—is a recurring component; it also featured in Shaw’s Josquin arrangement, suboctaves from the double basses trundling in to give crucial harmonies a boost of widescreen warmth.)

But what’s most interesting about Music in Common Time is its relationship to style. Current usage of the term “post-minimalist” can be a little squishy, but in a way that goes beyond historical chronology (and to a more immediately apparent extent than Partita), Music in Common Time is truly post-minimalist, at least in the lower-case sense: the structure and gist are not minimalist, but almost all of its building blocks are minimalist signifiers, tropes and gestures that evolved along with minimalist practice. The triad as object; overlapping consonance as a stretched canvas; the chord-to-chord movement of basic progressions turned into scene and act breaks; variation via altered phrase length rather than elaborated melody—all of these figure into Shaw’s rhetoric, but in a way far removed from minimalism’s deliberate, patient process.

The tropes become objects of recognition at least as much as objects of exploration; the garnishes—the Bartók pizzicato, the more exotic vocal excursions, the polytonality—play off of expectations of what we might be accustomed to hearing those other ideas do in a minimalist context. In other words, Shaw is most definitely not observing the relation of modes exactly, at least by the lights of her elders. Which is as it should be. Music always does this, always has done this, always will do this. Music in Common Time is only unusual in the genial straightforwardness with which it repurposes inherited goods.

It reminded me of my favorite piece of curmudgeonly compositional grumbling, coming a century after Heinrich Glarean, when the Baroque era was just getting traction, but was far enough along for Samuel Scheidt to complain about where things were headed:

I am astonished at the foolish music written in these times…. It certainly must be a remarkably elevated art when a pile of consonances are thrown together any which way.

This is both supremely sarcastic and basically true. It is a remarkably elevated art that is so incapable of settling down, constantly inspiring its practitioners to use the output of one set of rules as the input for a completely different set of rules. Musical style is a moving target. It certainly must be.


Human Pyramid

Photo courtesy of din bcn on Flickr

Collaboration is a buzz word that’s thrown around a lot these days, quite often referring to the relationship between composers and the performers for whom they write.  Adam Sliwinski began his series of posts for NewMusicBox in January by dealing with this very issue and exploring the mutually beneficial ways in which performers and composers can work together.  Most astutely, however, Sliwinski pointed out that, rather than discovering this on his own, he and his ensemble, So Percussion, are simply part of a trend that “has been sweeping across the new music world for quite a while.”  This trend is, to me, both as a composer and as an advocate, perhaps the most exciting development in contemporary music in the last fifteen years.
When I was in school long ago, the vision I inherited of a composer, while already changing, was still a somewhat romantic one in which we were expected to work in relative isolation, presenting our finished masterpieces to grateful performers who would then work very hard to present definitive performances of our work.

Well, okay, that’s not exactly true.  There was a lingering sense of this, and I still occasionally encounter this attitude among composers (and some performers) of a certain generation, but many of my teachers, particularly the younger ones, encouraged my peers and me to get out there and get to know instrumentalists, singers, and conductors.  Do you find that you’re having trouble writing a particular violin lick?  Go knock on a violinist’s practice room door and ask them to take a look and make suggestions!  Need to write a big piece for your dissertation and can’t decide whether you want to tackle the idealistic grand opera you’ve always wanted to write, or a violin concerto for your buddy who’s been hounding you for years to do it, has an orchestra lined up, and can program it as soon as it’s finished?  The opera can wait!  You decide to write the violin concerto—including some passages that are nearly impossible. Do you say, like Beethoven is said to have, “Do you think I care about your stinking fiddle?” or do you sit down with your friend and look for ways to make a passage more idiomatic?  I shouldn’t have to ask the question, yet there is a long-held and awfully pervasive attitude in some circles that the score is king, and I’ve been surprised at the number of performers who are nervous about asking for changes or offering solutions to awkward problems because they think I won’t welcome their feedback.  (Although I did have one performer recently who took this too far when, after I suggested that, of course, if some passages need to be reworked, I’d be happy to take a look at suggestions, s/he then went on to essentially rewrite the entire piece to the point that the premiere wasn’t so much a premiere performance as a premiere impression of what I’d written.  It was…odd.)

In any case, yes, this is the most obvious and immediate sense in which collaboration comes up in contemporary music, but I suggest that it’s not the only one.  Along with the attitudes I expressed in my initial, muckraking post—that a musical life is a political life—we must always remember that, as artists, we are all in this together.  In times of economic hardship, art is often first on the chopping block as a luxury item without which we can live and, conversely, is often the last such item to be added to growing budgets in times of plenty.  If we do not advocate not just for our own work but for the work of colleagues, partners, and peers, we continue to be the last line item to be added to budgets and the first to be cut.

Ultimately, what we do makes the world a better place.  While a performance does not literally put food in anyone’s mouth, the infrastructure that grows around performance venues often has an incredible impact upon a community.  I’ve never been much of a numbers person and, therefore, cannot speak to actual statistics, but in my own experience I’ve seen the transformation an arts scene can have on a community.

Three years ago, I was hired by the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington to develop and curate a new music series for them.   The Atlas is an old movie house which had burned down—though the facade remained—during the riots that swept the city in 1968.  A group of enterprising community members, led by the lawyer and philanthropist Jane Lang, bought the Atlas in the early 2000s with a plan to renovate it as a performing arts venue and anchor the renewal of the depressed H Street North East corridor in D.C. around it.  The transformation that has occurred in that neighborhood in the years since Atlas opened has been dramatic and tangible, financially and physically.  The city’s musical culture has dramatically changed as well, now that contemporary music has a wider presence in the area thanks to our efforts at Atlas.

To take the helm of a concert series—on top of an ensemble—is a great temptation for a composer.  It would be very easy to make the programming of my own work a prerequisite for a performance on my series, for instance, but this would be an obvious betrayal of my duty to my musical community. Managing a concert series and an ensemble is a rare privilege and an opportunity to make a lasting contribution to both my immediate community in Washington and the wider musical community of the United States.  Not only are we a part of a vibrant, growing scene in the District, but we are also able to provide work and exposure to some important established and emerging artists and composers.

I believe it’s an important challenge we all must undertake to advocate for one another.  The “mutual benefit balance” of which Adam Sliwinski wrote extends well beyond the immediate benefits of multiple performances and the nitty-gritty work of the composer-performer relationship.  We must see ourselves as collaborators within a much wider network of musicians and citizens, helping each other as best we can—be it through something as complex as presenting performances or something as simple as sharing each other’s work on social media—regardless of personal payoff.  The benefits will ultimately manifest themselves and reach far beyond the immediate gratification of a paycheck (although let’s not forget the importance of that paycheck, lest we get too idealistic and starve ourselves in the process) and into the realm of real, tangible cultural change.

Making New (New) Music

A student recently asked me some thoughtful and detailed questions about how to make collaborative relationships work between composers and performers. I responded that each of her questions deserved specific answers, but that the one inescapable element is trust. There is no substitute for deep mutual trust that is earned over a long period of time, but I believe concrete steps can be taken immediately during the process of commissioning and developing new work to establish a creative bond.
The first question I ask composers is: how can I help? I don’t hand them a list of guidelines and limitations other than the broadest terms we’ve already agreed upon. But I also don’t just leave them alone while waiting by the e-mailbox for my masterpieces to arrive.

The next thing I do is encourage composers to start sending me sketches and harebrained ideas as soon as they’re comfortable. I explain that the purpose is not to critique their ideas, but to give me a head start on inhabiting the world they are creating. (It can be enormously helpful to an interpreter to see how ideas evolve, not only to confront the finished work.) In the meantime, I might have technical advice that will affect subsequent revisions.

I had an amazing and surprising recent experience with this when Steve Reich wrote a new quartet for So Percussion called Mallet Quartet. I was sure that, for this project, we would contentedly sit and wait for our finished score: of all living composers, this was the one who’d done the most to establish the repertoire we were playing. I knew Steve a bit from recording Drumming, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask how it was going. We happened to both be attending an event in New York. After gushing for a while about how honored we were to be involved in his new piece, I simply offered to help him in any way possible.
He said, “Oh yes! Great. I want to write for five-octave marimba, but I’ve never done it before. I know the low range has unusual sound characteristics.”

We embarked on an email correspondence where he sent sketches with multiple voicing variations. I recorded mp3s on the five-octave marimba and emailed them back. To his enormous credit, he didn’t trust his notation software to properly capture the sound, so he waited to hear each voicing on the marimba before making those decisions.

The results impressed me: the chords in the finished work that utilized the bottom range of the instrument were perfectly voiced, open and resonant. In a small way, Reich trusted me to be a part of the composition process, not only to receive a finished score. Really shrewd composers use the performers’ experience and knowledge to make their music better.

I believe that performers, in turn, must cultivate trust in composers as artists in possession of a unique voice and vision.
When performers curate programs of old music, we know exactly what we’ve already got. All of the works can be combined on the program based on their known characteristics. In my opinion, we sometimes make the mistake of treating contemporary composers like their finished pieces, using past work to pigeonhole them. We inhibit the possibility that they may surprise us. The commissioning process can be an incubator for miracles and astonishments, but we have to eliminate some of the “made to order” implications that can come with a contract.

Here’s another example from my own experience: So Percussion commissioned Oscar Bettison to write a new piece. At this point in our career, Oscar knew that our concept of writing for percussion quartet had evolved to include doing pretty much anything we were capable of. The works of his that I was familiar with all had a certain hard-edged energy, reminiscent of Louis Andriessen or the Bang on a Can composers. He had a percussion solo and a drumkit quartet that possessed those common aesthetic profiles.
I expected that his piece for us would follow suit, but we did not require it, or even imply that we had any expectations. We simply told Oscar that we liked his work. He experimented with many ideas, some of them bizarre (melodicas played by foot-pumping bellows were on the table at one point), and in the end settled upon something I’d never seen before.

Oscar requested that we order two sets of chromatic tuning forks, and came over to our studio with some chords sketched out. We experimented with different ways of amplifying them. To our collective delight, by placing the vibrating tuning forks on contact mics the sound manifested as incredibly mellow and eerily electronic, like the cascading layers from those old Robert Fripp ambient records. Oscar liked the results so much that he declared, “Let’s just have you do this for ten minutes.” The finished work, called Apart, hewed very closely to our studio improvisation, and is like nothing else he’s ever written: a time-structure piece that is meandering, contemplative, and indefinite.

By empowering composers to surprise themselves and us, the art we make together comes roaring to life. For that reason, I rarely try to influence the affect or poetic content of a new piece.

One of my favorite collaborative techniques as a performer involves the ways in which you can help the composer explore every technical challenge and possibility in what they’ve written. Too often, I’ve heard fellow performers say “this won’t work,” or “this can’t be done” upon receiving new pages of material. It’s true that sometimes there is a concrete problem, such as writing a note that’s out of range of the instrument.

But often, the problem centers on the player’s own limitations: perhaps the writing is awkward, or fiendishly difficult. I would caution performers against shutting down the composer too quickly for these reasons. If Xenakis had written his bonkers percussion solo Psappha for me, I would have immediately been intimidated by the graph score, as well as the triple mensuration canon and the jumble of notes that clearly were not composed with my ease and comfort in mind. But I hope that I would not have dismissed his innovative work (although I might have postponed the premiere for a while). I’m thankful that either his collaborators were willing to forge ahead or that he was too stubborn to relent.

So Percussion spent the 2011-12 school year mentoring composers on new pieces at Princeton, and the phrase they grew sick of us uttering was, “This is totally doable.” Roughly translated, it means, “I know I look like an idiot right now, but I am capable of playing this after a lot of work.” If I’m not sure that it really is doable, I will show the composer my best effort at executing what they’ve called for. On 99 out of 100 occasions, they will ask what they can do to make the writing flow better on the instrument, or they may realize on their own that the reality of the music they’ve written is not what they imagined it to be.

What I do not do is front-load that subjective judgment, placing the composer on the defensive before we’ve had a chance to learn anything together.

The mode of working that I’ve outlined here is time-consuming. It involves cultivating real human relationships with the people who write for you. As a result, So Percussion’s output of commissioned works is quite slow, and we will end up missing a tragically large number of wonderful composers along the way. We will never be one of the groups who can boast hundreds of premieres in our bio.

But I believe this method places an imprint upon the work that emerges from our collaborations. There is an ineffable vitality in music when the composer’s ideas are filtered through the realm of experience and trusting relationships. The magic happens when the composer is writing for people, and not just for the abstraction of an instrument or ensemble.

The Mutual Benefit Balance

I’m honored and excited to embark on a series of articles for NewMusicBox. For this first entry, I thought a lot about how I might be useful to its community of readers.  While contemplating topics, I returned over and over again to reflect upon satisfying artistic relationships I’ve had:  What made them work?  Are there general principles that can be applied to the process of collaboration? When and how does a professional relationship transcend the purely transactional? 
Many of my collaborations have been as a performer working with composers.  And it’s there that I’ll begin. 
rock balance
The best professional relationships, especially those based on communality and egalitarianism, have a natural equilibrium of mutual benefit.  I can say quite sincerely that my happiest collaborations have been at times where all of the parties involved not only understand those benefits, but also actually celebrate them.

What do I mean by “mutual benefit”?  Simply that each party in the relationship believes that the collaboration is producing something worthwhile to their own mission and body of work.  It does not require that the parties all be of the same stature or experience or that they accrue the same benefits, but only that all people involved feel that the benefits will be useful and desirable for them.

An early example from So Percussion’s career comes to mind:  when we were still graduate students at Yale, we approached David Lang about writing a percussion quartet for us.  We were young, inexperienced no-names.  Jason started cold-emailing every address he thought might find its way to David:  [email protected], [email protected] etc.

We had a small amount of money—which we thought was a lot—thanks to a scholarship that had been awarded to one of the group members.  Other than that, we could offer very little:  David was a well-established composer with plenty of commissions and a flourishing arts organization.  The benefits to us of working with him were patently obvious:  new repertoire from a recognized name, possible concert and recording opportunities, and a higher profile for our group.

Luckily, we were brave and possibly naïve enough to believe that there might be something in it for him as well. (I consistently find that young students don’t possess the confidence to see what they might have to offer a more established artist in a working relationship.)

When we approached David, he told us,  “You only have enough money for me to write either a very short piece, or a very long one.”

In this case, David perceived—correctly—that we were talented and hungry, but also that we had nothing better to do than toil away for months in the basement if a well-known composer wrote us an epic piece.  The benefit we could offer him was the time and energy we were willing to invest in a unique and ambitious project.  Although the money we had would come nowhere close to compensating him for a “very long” piece in the financial sense, he believed we were positioned to help him meet artistic goals that mattered to him.

The work that he wrote was the so-called laws of nature, which requires the players to fabricate most of the instruments themselves out of wooden slats and metal pipes, rustle up precisely tuned flower pots at the hardware store, make tons of personal interpretive decisions, and then grind away for months rehearsing the layered counterpoint he wrote.
Because co-producing a successful piece with him meant so much to us, he felt empowered to make strenuous demands, which we were thrilled to accommodate.

What about finding the balance when both the composer and performer(s) are “young,” “emerging,” “early career,” or however you’d define it?  I’d like to be clear about one thing: first and foremost, what every artist needs is to be paid.  Art and music are incredibly time-consuming, and if we care about good work, artists need to have time to make it without going broke.
But…that’s not always an option, especially when we’re just getting started. In addition to—or in the absence of—money, what do artists need in a collaboration that others can offer them?

Young composers need committed, frequent performances!  Actually, all composers need this. Many of our first commissions for So Percussion were solicited from school friends, sealed with a handshake and a commitment to play their music numerous times. Some of those works, like Dennis DeSantis’s Shifty and Suzanne Farrin’s vibraphone duos, have since made their way into the larger percussion repertoire.

Achieving convincing performances of new work is rare and difficult for composers who are just starting out.  Often, they suffer a deficit compared to established composers not only because they haven’t built a reputation, but also because the well-known composers have access to high quality performances of their music.  For that reason, I believe the benefit of performers offering good performances of new works is completely different than promising “exposure,” that toxic word that gets thrown around to trick artists out of being compensated for their work.

For a composer, especially in the academic world, having a good recording and documentation of multiple performances of their work paves the way for future awards and commissions, entry to graduate programs, and many other things.  Of course, it also makes them better composers!  We as performers often forget how much time composers spend working without their primary medium, trying their best to imagine the music, synthesize it on midi, or bang it out on the piano.

These partnerships with composers are how So Percussion got started. We were furiously ambitious to make a career as a chamber group, but there was an incredibly small extant repertoire to draw from.  Making deals with our friends to generate new repertoire and seeking out other composers was what we needed to do to survive! We didn’t have Beethoven to fall back on, so we leapt headfirst.  There were few acknowledged old masterpieces to plop down after intermission in our concerts, while timidly squeezing a new work into the first half like a piece of “limp lettuce” (as the ever-colorful Joan Tower once described it to me).  We had to play new pieces as if they were old.  Which is to say, as if we needed them to be good in order for our work to matter.
The incredible thing is that sending composers the message that their work was essential to our existence drew stunning, visionary results out of many of them.  Whether there was commission money involved or not—there has been, as often as possible—our mutual benefit equilibrium was optimum.  We needed repertoire as badly as they needed others to be committed to their work.

What can composers do to proactively seek that optimum balance?  This is where the concept of usefulness may come into play.  I’m a huge fan of utopian dreaming in art, so I would never advise anybody to compromise their vision just to get their music played.  But if you’re able to achieve that vision and adhere to your values while also considering the needs and interests of the performers you work with and their role in bringing your ideas to life, it’s going to balance the mutual benefit scales in a way that turbo-charges their commitment to your music.  Simply conceiving the work in a Sibelius-addled vacuum and insisting it go the way you’ve imagined in your head leaves the performer in the extremely unsatisfying role of assembly line worker, with no room for their own ideas or insights in the process.

The process of creating new work together has many nuances to it.  My posts in the weeks ahead will delve into these details, illustrating the best approaches and techniques that I’ve come across.  Seeking equality and mutual benefit does not, for instance, mean that I believe everybody should have equal say in every artistic decision (unless that’s explicit).

Finally, I feel excited and compelled to write about this not because I believe I’ve discovered something on my own, but actually in order to articulate my perspective on a trend that has been sweeping across the new music world for quite a while.  The other artists who have influenced my thinking are too numerous to count, but I’ll do my best to acknowledge them along the way.


Adam Sliwinski

Adam Sliwinski

Adam Sliwinski is a longtime member of the percussion quartet So Percussion. He has had the opportunity to work closely with many of today’s leading composers, including Steve Reich, Steve Mackey, David Lang, Terry Riley, and many others. In addition to his work with So, Sliwinski has premiered a number of works for solo percussion, and in recent years has added conducting and piano performance to his activities. He has premiered more than 20 works as a conductor with the International Contemporary Ensemble at Harvard, Columbia, and NYU, as well as Vijay Iyer’s Radhe Radhe in 2013, and Keeril Maken’s Afterglow on Mode Records. In 2013-2014, Sliwinski is premiering and recording Dan Trueman’s Nostalgic Synchronic etudes for digital prepared piano, a set of pieces that warp the possibilities of the keyboard through cutting edge technology.
Sliwinski is co-director of percussion studies at the Bard College Conservatory of Music, and runs the So Percussion Summer Institute with his colleagues on the campus of Princeton University every summer.

Lisa Bielawa: Fire Starter

At the composer’s home in New York City
November 18, 2013—2 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation and text condensed and edited by Molly Sheridan

It’s difficult to stand anywhere near composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa and not feel energized by proximity. Her dynamic personality fires up a room, making it easy to see how, just a few weeks prior to our meet up for the interview posted below, she rallied hundreds of musicians for the performance of her massive outdoor work Crissy Broadcast on a repurposed airfield in San Francisco.

Raised in the Bay Area, Bielawa has recently returned to her hometown to serve as the artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, an ensemble she herself was once a member of as a young artist. Yet as a touring performer (in addition to her compositional activities, she has sung with the Philip Glass Ensemble since 1992), she began a kind of nomadic existence that continues to carry her from city to city. New York has been her primary address as an adult, but her music has also led to long stints in places such as Boston, where she was in residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for three years; Berlin, where she mounted the first of the Airfield Broadcasts; and Rome where she was a fellow at the American Academy and produced a performance of a previous outdoor work, Chance Encounter, along the banks of the Tiber River.

An extrovert to the core, Bielawa acknowledges that her highly social nature has taken her in some specific directions both as a composer and as a musical citizen. Community building and close collaboration with performing artists is often central to her compositional process. In 1996 she co-founded MATA, a festival which allows young composers to celebrate other young composers outside of a competitive context. Yet the flip side of this outward focus is a deep love for language and careful reading that led her towards a bachelor’s degree in literature from Yale University and now continues to fuel her artistic output.
While there may be some unusual twists to her career trajectory and the scope and scale of her music, Bielawa is quick to point out that her path should not been interpreted as a rejection of traditional concert presentation or compositional education. She is focused on broadening the reach of new music, not completely rerouting it. And in the course of so doing, she is able to allow the sparks and energy of her ideas to fly.


Molly Sheridan: You began your career in a sense as a young singer with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and now you’ve come full circle by returning to serve as the organization’s artistic director. As you listen to the students and reflect back on your own time there as a young performer, how much have things changed—both musically and culturally?
Lisa Bielawa: Before I actually, officially took over my position as the artistic director, the girls came to Berlin to participate in [my work] Tempelhof Broadcast. One of the reasons I got back in touch with them in the first place was that I was working on the project and wanted them to be a part of it. So that discussion started before any discussions about the new position began. I had been in West Berlin on tour with the chorus when I was a girl. It was the first time that I had ever left the country—I was 14 or something—and I remember thinking, “Wow, I really like being on the road!” Of course, apparently I really do like being on the road, because I’ve been on the road ever since.
It was really amazing to see the girls in Berlin and remember what it was like for me to travel with this group—making music with people and understanding that making music at a high level was one of the things that makes travel meaningful. That cultural exchange through music is something that especially young people are hungry for. I think the ambassadorial role that musicians have in the world is incredibly important—just listening and making sound for each other, creating work for each other and with each other across cultures. The world is much more interconnected than it was when I was in the Girls Chorus. Now you’ve got girls from San Francisco meeting host families in Berlin, and they’re still texting each other. But there’s no replacement for actually making music together physically and in community. There are many wonderful uses of social media and interconnectivity online, but music reminds us that engaging with each other face-to-face in space and in real time is irreplaceable. That’s what music making is.
MS: Your own compositional roots are also partially connected to the Girls Chorus in a special way.
LB: For a lot of girls who come through the San Francisco Girls Chorus, that’s where they start their music education. That wasn’t the case for me. I started my music education at home and, at the age of three, in the Suzuki violin program. I had musician parents, so the chorus is not where I got the beginning of my musical education. I got something really important that’s different from that, which is I individuated at the Girls Chorus.
At home, everyone was a composer. When my brother and I were little, we would write music at the piano, just sort of playing at what dad does. You know what that’s like—you play at what your parents do. So I had written music already when I got to the Girls Chorus, but I had experiences there which were my own. I’d come home to the dinner table, and I had had an experience with Brahms or something. It was the first time that I ended up having individual musical experiences that were emotional for me, and that started to build my own sense of what I wanted to hear and why that was. I started writing music that my friends and I could sing. Elizabeth Appling, who was the founder and the artistic director at that time, really fostered that. She saw that I was doing this with my friends and she started to program my music on our actual concerts. She had me conducting my own work at Davies Symphony Hall during the holiday concerts, and it was really the first time that I saw myself as a musician, the way that someone might see someone from the outside. I got a chance to have a witness outside of my family. That showed me that I was an individual artist, and that I had something to offer that was mine. So that was a really important training point for me.

Early compositional efforts

Early work composed at 4 or 5 years of age.

Then I went to Yale, and my very first commission was from the Girls Chorus. My second commission was from the Girls Chorus. That kind of training-wheel support went on. So it’s very meaningful to have it come back around now.
MS: I know that your actual degree from Yale was in literature. That might have been just a formality or perhaps not, but student composers often have a vision of how their education has to go. So when it goes somewhere different, I think it’s worth exploring the impact—both in terms of the big ideas and the practical skills.
LB: One of the things that I’ve actually started to say when I talk to people about this is that I really don’t want to be the poster child for DIY. I’m trained. I came from a family where there was formal training available at home. I trained on the violin. I trained on the piano. I trained vocally. I learned to read music in my mother’s church choir before I even read English. I did composition workshops at the summer music festivals in San Francisco. So to some degree, that means that I had already created a little body of work before I went to college.
My intention at Yale was to major in music and something else. The only thing you needed to do to take advanced classes in music at Yale was to be advanced enough in music to take them. I studied composition there and had private teachers as an undergraduate. I did all that stuff. However, I had gotten very interested in literature in high school, and here I was in the school of Harold Bloom! There was this incredible energy in the air, and all of the boys I had crushes on were literature majors. I was so turned on by the exchange of ideas that I felt you could have as a literature major. But what I discovered was that it was a very competitive major, and you couldn’t get into any of those classes if you were not a major. Plus, if you said you were a double major, then you were deemed not serious enough. In order to take advanced classes in literature and music, I had to major in literature.
So that’s the answer. I think there was a lot of pressure the entire time I was at Yale to major in music. I’m sure I probably fulfilled the major, but I just didn’t declare it. I think it was the right choice for me because I really got so much out of my studies in literature that wouldn’t have been open to me if I hadn’t declared that.
MS: Was that the end of your formal training then?
LB: Yes, it was. I moved to New York two weeks after [graduating from] Yale, and my intention was pretty vague. I had a friend who had graduated a couple of years before me who seemed to be getting some commissions in London. I was sleeping on sofas and basically trying to scrape together enough money to go to London or apply to graduate schools in something. I didn’t know what yet.
I knew I had musical skills, but when I was at Yale, I auditioned for voice lessons and didn’t get accepted. It’s a big opera school, and I didn’t have a big old opera voice. I had a different kind of voice. So I came to New York not really believing that I was a composer necessarily, and not really believing that I was a singer necessarily, but doing both well enough and in ways that were useful enough that I was making a living somehow, here and there, with also some administrative jobs and things like that. Then, through a series of flukes, I got the job with the Philip Glass Ensemble. I was 22 years old, and that totally changed my whole life.
MS: But it doesn’t sound like you were necessarily ready for that life.
LB: I had no idea. I didn’t have any indication from anyone else around me that I was a soloist. In fact, when I first got the job, they were just desperate to have somebody, and they probably would have hired someone more experienced with a more trained voice than mine if they had been able to. But who’s going to be available for a five-and-a-half-week tour in three weeks, except for someone who’s starving and 22?
So, I was really lucky in that I auditioned into that job on sight reading and rhythmic musicianship and the skill set that I had as a basic musician. As a singer, they weren’t so sure about me. And they shouldn’t have been. I was no great shakes as a singer yet. Once I got over the headiness of the first tour, I came to understand—and it was not very easy for me—that I had to get my act together. I had to get formal vocal training, which I basically had never had, or I was not going to keep my job. So I wasn’t an official member of the Philip Glass Ensemble until almost two years after I had started touring. They were actually looking at several people, and I was basically a sub until I could improve my abilities as a singer. It was a very difficult time, and expensive, too. It meant that my standard of living didn’t go up that much. I was getting platinum-style voice lessons and eating canned beans for dinner for the first year or so because I was just trying to catch up.
MS: But in the midst of all that high-pressure catching up and then the ongoing touring with Philip Glass, you still kept the composing going, too.
LB: That’s true, but again, taking myself seriously as a composer and/or as a singer? I knew that I was a musician, but it wasn’t clear to me, or basically anybody around me really, what I was. My brother, who’s 20 months older than I am, was at that time getting his doctorate in composition, and so my family was focused on my brother as a composer. Suddenly then we were kind of focused on me as a singer, but we were all a little surprised, I think. I had sung some of my father’s music as a soloist and when I was in the San Francisco Girls Chorus I got a few solos, but I was not one of the prized soloists in the group. I wasn’t really sure what I was.

Lisa Bielawa at Crissy Broadcast

A singer, a composer, and definitely a leader.
Photo by James Block

I was writing music, but I didn’t think of myself as a composer necessarily until somewhere in my 20s. I wrote a piece for the San Francisco Girls Chorus that won the highest ASCAP young composer award and that completely took me by surprise. I had some people take me aside and say, “Look, maybe you’re a composer.” I just didn’t really understand yet—possibly because it was an over-populated environment. My family was over-populated with musicians, then I went into a school that was over-populated, and then I came to New York and was just trying to figure out how to be useful to make a living. I was always writing music, but it seemed like it was always the wrong kind of music. When I was at Yale, I was writing choral music, and I was writing cabaret songs, and I was writing arrangements of jazz standards for a cappella groups; I wasn’t writing serious music. So I just assumed that that meant I wasn’t a composer.
MS: Do you think not having a structured undergraduate music education, for all the reasons you outlined above, might have contributed to this in a certain way—as in, rather than your path in music being set out for you in clear formal terms, it was all on you to self-direct?
LB: It was all on me. But when I did study composition privately as an undergrad, I wasn’t really a very easy student. The irony is that now I feel very passionate about mentoring younger people. I love teaching, especially teenage composers. I’ve sort of specialized in that, but not because I had such a satisfying experience as a student. I was proud, and I was really independent-minded. I didn’t respond so well to somebody trying to guide me. I just didn’t.
MS: You said you like mentoring teenagers. It’s funny: You weren’t an easy student, and now you specialize in teaching perhaps the most challenging demographic.
LB: Well, teenagers are cool. Grad students are great, too, but they’re really colleagues already. They already have an ideological direction that they’re going in. You’re either going to feed into that ideological direction because you share that, or you’re going to butt up against it, and then you’re going to have to be arguing with your students.
I find that with teenagers, they’re all over the place. They’re discovering that they’re composers. They’re coming up with all these ideas, and they’ve got this fountain of musical energy. They’re complicated because their egos are also developing alongside their abilities in ways that they get ahead of themselves, or they’re super insecure, but there’s something about that sloppiness and about the fact that there’s personal development happening at the same time as musical development that I feel really prepared to deal with. I was writing music that young, too, and I remember what it was like to be trying to figure out who I was as a person at the same time that I was trying to figure out who I was as a musician. It was really an important part of my struggle. And I envied kids who were already cellists by the time they were 16 or who knew they were composers when they entered grad school. I didn’t have that luxury.
MS: You spoke some about how your voice wasn’t the right fit for Yale. A lot of your pieces have a soprano vocalist, but I was surprised to find out that those weren’t necessarily supposed to be sung by you. You were actually writing for a voice much different from your own.
LB: That’s true, although I will say that this spring I had two commissions, both of them European. One of them was for the Academic Male Choir of Helsinki. They wanted me as soprano soloist with this group—fifty men and me—and bass drum of course, because why not. Then there’s the piece for Radio France, which is for myself and chamber ensemble. I now feel ready and totally happy for that to happen. I know how to sing well enough so that I can actually find it interesting enough to write for myself.
First of all, the reason I got into vocal music was really more because of my relationship to language. It had very little to do with the fact that I was a singer. I was a singer because I had played all these instruments, but I didn’t have enough money to buy them. Your voice is free, and I had to make a living. How I became a professional singer was almost accidental and the kind of singing that I was doing—not just for Philip but for Toby Twining, who actually hired me even before Philip Glass did—my music is not like that, and I don’t use the voice that way so much in my own music. So I wasn’t really the right soloist for my music anyway. I wouldn’t have hired myself.
I’m also a collaborator. I just love to have the creative process be about getting to know others. That process is less interesting for me if it’s just me getting to know me some more. Though this last year, it’s been fun because I am finally finding things in my own voice. Something about being in my 40s, it’s like my voice is mature now. There are things it can do that are cool, that I’ve worked my whole life to figure out. I feel like I won’t have that forever, so it’s interesting to celebrate that. But my interest in writing vocal music had very little to do with being a singer. It had mostly to do with being close to language.
MS: We actually spoke at some length about your relationship to language almost a decade ago, just before the American Composers Orchestra premiered The Right Weather. Clearly you still take this aspect of your work very seriously. So why use music and not words exclusively in your creative expression?
LB: I love writing, but I also think one of the things that I love about writing is that it’s not my profession. So it’s a creative thing that I can deepen and that I can get better at, but I can also get away from it for a while and it doesn’t cause any anxiety. It’s nice to have an area that I’m deeply informed about, that I care deeply about, that’s not professionalized—because I have a lot of different areas of my life that are professionalized.
Then there’s also the fact that when I’m deeply moved by something that I read, usually my response is a musical one. So there’s something that happens that’s organic. I read on the sofa in the morning; if something is so beautiful to me that it makes me feel a certain way, that has to be resolved by sitting at the piano. That’s a way of working that when I have to start cranking out music and I’m on the road in practice rooms in universities, or writing music in hotels or on planes, I don’t always have that luxury—that deep cycle that involves contemplation, reading, responding to reading, and then composing. But if I don’t have that cycle every once in a while, then I lose my artistic ground.

Bielawa's Steinway

Bielawa’s Steinway

MS: That seems like a constant through the years with you. You drill down into text. This is not a surface feature—you began learning Russian to compare Pushkin translations! So what does that end up doing to the music in concrete terms?
LB: Making it possible? I remember when I was writing The Right Weather, and I was thinking, “God, I’m such a loser. I’m supposed to be writing for orchestra and there’s no language in this. I don’t know if I can write music if I don’t have language that I’m setting.” And then I thought, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe I am a loser; maybe I’m not a loser. But just because there are no voices singing here doesn’t mean that this is not connected to language.” I could either look at that as a crutch, or I could see myself in it and realize that that’s what it is. Some composers respond to nature. Some of them respond to paintings. Some of them respond to a number of things. It’s just the thing that hits me the most deeply and the most consistently. The place where I can find the most depth in myself is as a reader. So it helps me get to the place where I want to be when I’m writing music.
MS: You touched on collaboration and the importance of that in your work. I was thinking about this particularly as I was listening to your two-CD set In medias res, and I thought it might be good to talk specifically about your relationship with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in this regard.
LB: The truth is I was actually quite scared of what my job was going to be in Boston, because the expectation was that I was going to be there for three years and was going to write these massive orchestral works. There was still a part of me that was like, am I a composer? Not for lack of ideas, but just something about the way I saw myself—or didn’t, or others did or didn’t. Who knows? Maybe it’s left over from the early years when I first came to New York. But I had people around me who had faith in me and who really wanted to see this happen, namely Gil Rose, who really believed in my music and felt that this would be an opportunity for me.
I wanted to make sure that I could keep myself on a schedule so that the piece that I wrote at the end of my residency, In medias res, would fulfill the potential of that. In order to do that, I decided that I would write these short, three- to five-minute Synopses—short pieces for solo members of the orchestra—and that I would write each of them during a week that I was in residence. Composers in residence seldom actually compose in residence, but I was going to write pieces when I was in Boston.
Of course, it was a pleasure, but it did force me to have a regular diet of engagement with the individual musicians for whom I was writing this much larger piece over a long period of time. And it meant that I was actually tilling the soil—not that I know anything about farming, but I was keeping that whole area of my mind and these relationships really fertile for the whole time. So when I was writing the big piece finally, which took me around seven months, I was informed by these 15 shorter pieces that I had written for the individual members of the orchestra.
That personalized it, and that was really helpful for me. Collaboration for me means that you’re beholding the amazingness of some other person and what they can do. Then I’m using my own abilities as a composer to make that shine or to engage with it. That’s a really great way to know people in the world, right? It deepened my connections with the musicians that I was working with, which heightened community in the orchestra itself. And it brought a sense of process to the audience there that was seeing these pieces unfold. So those are the kinds of ideas that I’ve designed for myself along the way—to keep myself on a schedule, but also to enhance community and therefore make composing less lonely and bring the vitality of interaction into the process in as many ways as possible. It’s helpful to me because I’m social and composing is not that social. I’m not really temperamentally cut out for this work, unless I can make it a little more social for myself.

Lisa Bielawa at Crissy Broadcast

Bielawa greeting musicians at Crissy Broadcast
Photo by James Block

MS: Those Synopses then later ended up influencing a piece you did for a dance work, correct? And there are other examples of you developing ideas through multiple works. I thought that was really interesting: it wasn’t that all of your work was a piece of some single uber-arc, but each piece wasn’t always completely self-contained either. Would you speak some about what you hunt for and gain through that kind of occasional revisiting?
LB: I often think that it takes more than one piece to work through an idea. Individual compositions can get burdened down if you try to make them completely saturate or satiate one idea world in one piece. So I like to take the pressure off individual pieces. What if I had been working on one of the Synopses, let’s say, and the purpose at that point was for me to learn as much as possible about the harp and write something amazing for the solo harpist, right? But then later on, some of the material that I developed could, if the piece had gone a different way, maybe have been something really interesting to explore in relation to the human body through dance. I mean, I could just start over every time, and sometimes I do. It’s interesting looking back at pieces—did this come out of the germ of some other piece, or is this a whole new thing just by itself.
But generally what I find with shorter pieces is that I don’t actually feel very comfortable in small forms. I’m a large-scale person. So the only way that I can fulfill those kinds of commissions is to, at least in my own mind, embed them in some larger journey. Then it also ends up creating relationships that mean that those other pieces come along later. Some of these solo instrumentalists that I wrote the Synopses for were actually then the soloists in the dance piece. So it also brings the possibility of deepening those relationships and bringing them further. Many of the musicians that I’ve worked with I’ve written multiple pieces for in some guise or other. Look at Colin Jacobson, who’s been in, what, like nine or something? But they’re all different—just him, or sometimes there’s a whole orchestra, his string quartet. Sometimes I pair him with somebody like Carla Kihlstedt. And those relationships, as they deepen, I think that they really open me up, too, and help me find things through that trust that I would not otherwise find.
MS: What attracts you to the large-scale format with such intensity?
LB: I think it’s just a suitability thing—it’s my temperament. I admire Chopin enormously for the way that he was able to find a whole world in the solo piano works. He’s not here to answer, but we could ask ourselves, why didn’t he have a whole lifetime of writing symphonies or operas? He didn’t. This is what he wrote. It’s inconvenient for me sometimes that I end up wanting to write pieces for hundreds of musicians on an abandoned airfield. But it’s even more inconvenient to try to fit into certain assigned ways of making work that don’t fit. So I’ve accepted that I have to make it work for myself and the best way for me to do that is to go ahead and see things in terms of the larger picture and in terms of broader strokes—whether or not an individual performance or composition is seen that way. I need to see it that way in order to make it work for me and in order to make the best work I can.
MS: Before we get into those big airfield pieces and the musical communities you encourage through those, I want to take a step back. Because in a sense I see things such as the founding of MATA, which takes us all the way back to 1996, as another aspect of this big and social piece of your artistic life.
LB: Yeah, MATA. I really felt a need for it when we started it. I felt that there were all of these contexts in which I was coming into contact with my peers, but every time we came into contact with each other we were actually competing. I’d see so and so because we were two of the four finalists of the such and such thing. We would each have a piece read, and then one of us would win. Yeah, we would have fun and there would be a party, but underneath it all was the knowledge that somebody from on high was going to choose one of us.
There is this sort of protracted adolescence for composers: you get all your graduate degrees, and then you go to summer programs and you study with so and so. That’s another place where you can meet your peers, right? You’re all 31-year-old students of so and so, in like, Europe somewhere. And there may be value to that, too. I participated in both of those kinds of things and had some positive experiences. But why not support each other by having a festival where we all encounter each other’s music, and nobody was going to come and decide or teach. We don’t have to agree. You don’t have to like everything. Nobody’s the winner. I think that was a really driving motivation for me.
And that’s one of the reasons that, as I was nearing 40, I was feeling like I was not immersed enough and my ear was not to the ground as much as it needed to be to be MATA’s artistic director any more. All of a sudden, I was going to become the person on high who was choosing the commissionees for the festival. It was starting to turn into the thing that we were trying to be other than. So I’m still on the board and I’m very committed, but I cycled out and wanted to get younger people in charge. And we’ve really managed to do that, and I’m really super proud of that.
MS: So you shook things up some with MATA, but pieces such as Chance Encounter also gently stretch conventional ideas about how things are done. I love the degree that the venue is woven into the work itself, from finding the text to presenting the piece. But when you take your work out of the concert hall, how does it change the goals and impact of what you make? The loss of control seems like it becomes part of the point of the piece.
LB: Yeah, it’s funny. It’s like talking about the fact that I never got degrees in music. It doesn’t make me an anti-degrees-in-music person. I have nothing against the concert hall. I find myself so often in environments where people really want the fact that I do these public space works—which I’m very passionate about—to mean that I’m against the concert hall. That’s not true—I love the concert hall! These pieces are an affirmation; they are not a rejection. And that’s really, really important to me. I still have more to affirm outside the concert hall. They come out of the fact that I’m a very urban person. I think in my life I’ve been healed by city life. If I’ve gone through difficult times in my life, one of the things that I always know I can do to fall in love with humanity again is to just walk around the city. I’ve had this experience in San Francisco where I grew up, in New Haven where I was in school, in New York, where I’ve lived my whole adult life. Boston, Berlin, all the cities where I immersed myself.
That’s another thing besides reading and besides collaboration: urban life. That’s super important and inspiring to me. There are certain ideas that I have that make the most sense right there in the cradle of active urban life because that’s where my head is. Chance Encounter actually has Susan Narucki singing things that we overheard, so in order to write the piece, she and I had to immerse ourselves by eavesdropping on people for 14 months to collect all these things. There’s no better way to fall in love with humanity than to just go around the world and eavesdrop. So tender, the moments you hear.
Susan Narucki and I did a performance together of Birtwistle’s The Woman and the Hare. I feel like The Woman and the Hare is one of these pieces that if you were to stumble on it, just in the hall of your local community center, it would be a really arresting experience. She and I were talking afterwards, and she said, “I wish there were some way we could make work like this in an environment where people could just encounter it.” So it really came about as a collaborative light bulb. We thought we should make a piece that’s intended to be performed that way. It was only later as I was working on it that I decided to use overheard things. The idea was to have the kind of experience you have with concert works that I love, but to provide that outside in public space. And I’m not done with that.

Souvenir chair from Chance Encounters

Souvenir chair from Chance Encounter

MS: You can’t really speak for the audience, but was the experience that you anticipated having ultimately the experience that you had when listening to the performance in this setting?
LB: I actually have to take the fifth because I have no idea. I have performed Chance Encounter, but my preferred role in the performance of these large-scale public space pieces is to just be like anybody and walk around. I like to put myself at a distance from everybody and feel myself in space. I like to change the arc of my own experience by moving towards or away from certain groups. And I notice that other people do that, too.
I certainly noticed that with Crissy Broadcast in San Francisco. There’s an overhead time-lapse video. There are the groups of musicians that stay together, but in the middle, there was just this constant latticework of people moving around. I heard responses from people that they were having this kind of awareness of being in a space where they were also integrating the sound of traffic and the dogs, and that’s part of it. The music has to sit comfortably in an environment where other sounds are also there. It has to feel mostly successful like that.
So I seem to be getting somewhere with it. I like working in that way. I feel like my experience of it has been sometimes different from what I imagined, but in a positive way. Or other times, it’s not what I thought and I was disappointed. But maybe I would go to the next performance, and the wind changes and then it’s what I hoped, or maybe it’s just that I was not standing in the right place; someone else had the experience that I had designed and imagined for myself.
MS: I guess that’s my question: how much can you even anticipate when you’re working on a scale like this and in an outdoor venue? There are so many wild cards. In some ways, maybe it’s not even possible.
LB: It’s absolutely not possible, but it’s not possible in any music. This is not the exception; this is just the obviation. I’ve heard from some people that they felt that by listening to these pieces, the Airfield pieces for example, that it brought them in touch with that existential thing: I’m always only me, and I’m always hearing what I’m hearing. Even though you’re out in public space, the experience of these pieces is one that’s very private and sometimes quite lonely. You realize that you’re an audience of one inside your own head, and that’s the human condition.
You were asking about the control that I think I have, or can have. There’s a lot of control going on in these pieces. It has to do with the fact that I’m dealing with amateurs and students. It has to be a safe performance environment for hundreds of people. I’m asking them to do some crazy things out there and it’s outside the box for everybody. It’s outside the box for the professionals! So contrary to what it may feel like when you’re out there in it, the listeners hopefully feel an amazing openness. But the actual compositional process has an enormous amount of control of material. If I set up a situation where this group is playing this or that, and there are some choices being made—aleatoric sections where maybe cues are being given from one group to another—I do actually try to imagine every possible way those things could work out using a kind of lay person’s game theory. I do try to imagine every possible outcome of every decision that I’ve allowed people to make in each section, and I have to be O.K. with the sonic result of every possible combination of decisions. If seven out of the nine decisions are going to be really cool, and two of them are going to sound really stupid, then I change the whole game. So there’s a lot of control.
MS: Even The Right Weather at Zankel Hall back in 2004 had you walking through the space and timing out planned musician movement, but I saw the charts you made for the Airfield pieces and this is a whole other level. How did you even begin structurally to make this work?
LB: Chance Encounter is a piece for one soprano and chamber orchestra in two different groups. So in that piece, I was able to experiment with what it means to have groups that are far enough away from each other that they can’t possibly be expected to play together, but they can respond to each other. I got the chance in five cities to experiment with different air densities and different winds, and to experiment with what kinds of sounds and what kinds of cues carried across space. So that was really important, because once I started bringing in more than just two groups, then at least I had that experience with communication between musicians across distances out in the real world—how to make rules, how much to tell them, how little to tell them.
When I started putting together Tempelhof Broadcast, the very first thing I did was work with The Knights again. They wanted me to write a piece for this concert that they did at Central Park in 2011. It coincided with my communications with the Berlin Parks Department, such that I realized that if The Knights were into it, I could use this commission to start working on some ideas, not about distance and space, like I did in Chance Encounter, but to work on some free, aleatoric decision making—large groups of musicians playing things that cue each other in such a way that there is no conductor. It’s 40 musicians or so, and it was a chance for me to experiment with some of these game structures where groups of musicians are communicating with other groups of musicians across the stage. So there were these intermediate steps.
With the Tempelhof Broadcast, frankly everything you do, you can’t really hide. You rehearse [on the field] and you’ve kind of done the piece, right? So in September of 2012, which was eight months before the premiere, we tried some of the sections with 50 musicians out on the field, and it was a way for me again to start experimenting with these large distances and these materials. So I gave myself a lot of experimental stages with this. By the time I got to between 230 and 250 musicians there, I was working with around six to eight different groupings; whereas in San Francisco for the Crissy Broadcast, I had 14 groups and 800 people. It’s like a balloon [being inflated] before the Thanksgiving Day parade gradually becoming Snoopy. It took, like, three and a half years for this balloon to fill. All along the way, I had to design the balloon with no air in it. So it was back and forth between an experiential and a conceptual process involving acoustic research that I did and collected from both parks departments. I took an alto saxophone and a pair of crash cymbals out on the runways and walked around with a pedometer learning about what carried. It was just a long and deep process, and that’s my favorite kind of process. So that graph [you asked about] was maybe the third or fourth solution that I found to write down the material that I had already been developing for months or years. I was just finding a way to represent it to myself, because a score was not going to work, and I finally found this way to use a multi-colored graph. It was in my hand the whole time; I had it in my hand for two months.

Charting out Crissy Broadcast

Charting out Crissy Broadcast

MS: Artistically, what is the point of 800 people on an airfield?
LB: It’s an acoustic decision. The artistic decision is the airfield. Eight hundred people is a pragmatic solution that has to do with no amplification. No amplification is an artistic idea that has to do with the fact that sound comes from a certain place. If you want to experience a space, one of the ways that you feel yourself in the space is if you hear the sounds coming from where they’re coming from. You hear a dog bark; it’s far away. It’s over there. If you heard that dog bark through quadraphonic speakers all over, then you’re no longer in a field. If I want to write music that celebrates a certain space, which I’m interested in, then the way to do that is to articulate the space honestly without manipulating it through amplification. Amplification is a way to erase a space and place another sonic space on top of it in such a way that you no longer feel the space.
So, in order to have an acoustic rendering of a space with human beings, you need hundreds of them. But the great thing about hundreds of them, which is an acoustic necessity, is that it happily brings in a whole other thing that I’ve become passionate about, which is celebrating the whole musical life of an urban area and shining light on all these other corners. Look what this middle school band director has been doing with so little funding for all these years with these amazing kids in the public school system! Check out this chorus that is organized through the Community Music Center in San Francisco of people from the various elder care centers! They have a chorus. That’s so cool. Turns out it was too cold out there for them to be there for my piece, but it’s really awesome.
That was something that was really effective in San Francisco. These hundreds of people—most of them middle school and high school kids—they encountered each other in this project and they were calling out to each other on a field, playing these signals to each other across space. There’s something very beautiful about it, and they really embraced it.
MS: So the piece had to be composed to suit amateur and student musicians?
LB: If you’re outside on a field, you have mezzo-forte and above available to you. The material has got to be declamatory. I wanted it to be joyful. There were some yearning moments, but I wanted declamatory, joyful, bold-colored shapes because that’s what works out there. And you know what? Middle school bands can play that. So can professionals. Everyone can play those things. I don’t need 800 super advanced contemporary music technicians to play this piece. Sometimes I do need them. I love virtuosity. This piece is not about virtuosity. This piece is about something else.
The fact that the model itself can be inclusive of performers at any level then touches something else that’s important to me, which is community. I need 800 people because it’s an airfield, and they can be at any level because the kind of material I need to write, many levels of musicians can in fact achieve together. And so it ends up being a natural fit.
MS: Are you satiated yet on these big pieces, or is this becoming something of a calling card?
LB: Steve Schick was my right-hand man out there in San Francisco. We were joking and he said, “After this, are you going to write a string quartet?” I don’t know! I’m of two minds. I absolutely love working on this project, but I don’t want it to be the only kind of thing I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I also really loved writing the Synopses, and I think those are good pieces. There’s an intimacy that I also need in my work that I may need to cycle back around to soon. But that doesn’t mean I’d be abandoning this forever either. I think the fact that my work sometimes goes in this direction where I’m interested in engaging community in these larger, bolder shapes out in these spaces, that’s a certain direction in my work, but it’s not the only direction. So I don’t think I’ll ever abandon it. I also think, God, are you kidding? If there are other airfields that are now public parks that have city agencies and music communities around them that want to do this, I am so game!

Lisa Bielawa at Crissy Broadcast

Bielawa in the thick of it at Crissy Broadcast
Photo by James Block

MS: Hopefully those airfields exist in a country where you already speak the local language.
LB: So I don’t have to keep learning languages. That’s so right.
MS: I am interested in how deeply passionate you are about community building. You yourself have lived in so many communities in sort of semi-longterm situations in the sense that you go in, deeply connect and make some precision drills, but then when the work is done, you move on.
LB: There’s a really specific thing that happens at the end of the Airfield Broadcasts. The groups go away from the center. By the end in San Francisco, there were 14 groups all around the perimeter of the park, and so the ones over here couldn’t even hear the ones over here. It was just too far away. And then in Berlin it was two, and in San Francisco there were three meeting points where these groups come together. There’s a small group of people that starts playing this little dancing phrase. They start playing that, and then most of the other groups around them join in with them—I wrote them all different parts that all go together, no matter when you enter—so there’s this big party that happens. In San Francisco, it’s like 200 people all doing that. Then some other group, like the Berkeley High School Band or something, shows up and plays something else completely unrelated and interrupts them. And they all stop.
But what you didn’t realize was that while this whole big party was going on, the original people who started playing that little dance-y thing, they snuck away. When the interrupters come and they all stop, [this small group] starts doing it again somewhere else and then they all go over there. This is happening in three separate places on the field inaudibly far from each other. This is exactly, I think, the poetry. There’s something so beautiful about that.
But that’s also kind of what I do, too. I want to go somewhere and I start a party. I get the party going. Then, when the party is at its fullest, I like to sneak away and start another party somewhere else. I wrote it into the piece, and I didn’t even realize I did that. I don’t know why that is. Leaving a party at its height—that’s heartbreakingly beautiful—and then you go somewhere else. That’s my role. I start fires, you know, and then I leave.

Carolyn O’Brien: Making Music as Tactile as Possible

Carolyn O'Brien

Carolyn O’Brien

Chicago-based composer Carolyn O’Brien’s path to becoming a composer wasn’t a typical one. She studied viola, piano, and French horn as a child, trained as a music educator, and taught in public schools for ten years. When she took her first composition lesson at 32, she was disappointed with the contemporary music repertoire for public school students and imagined she might create music for that medium. Now, O’Brien is a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University and known in the community for her humor, irreverence, and the quality of exploration and play that she brings to her process. Upcoming projects include works for Spektral Quartet, Axiom Brass, A/B Duo, and Bent Frequency, as well as people outside of new music such as Scott Carter Thunes—a former electric bassist for Frank Zappa—and Tristan Bruns, a tap dancer from Chicago. When I caught up with O’Brien recently, she had just returned from a five-week residency at the MacDowell Colony.

EM: Going from a doctoral program in composition to a multi-disciplinary colony is a major shift. What was it like to be in that environment?

CO: It was inspiring! Everybody there was truly curious in ways I haven’t seen in a long time. I think removing myself from a homogenous group of artists in my own discipline led to a freer, less stressful environment. It was a life-affirming experience. I realized that, yes, indeed I deserve to be here. Yes, indeed, I’m on the right path. I’m glad I bet the farm to quit my job and be a composer.

MacDowell’s nurturing environment got me out of that “only composer” world and made me start thinking: there are other ways I can use my music off the concert stage. I was inspired by playwrights, authors, visual artists, and filmmakers, and speaking to them about my work made me re-contextualize how I see myself. I realized that my voice is valid and it means something to people outside of composing—in fact, it might mean a hell of a lot more to them than it does to people inside. Being around people at the top of their particular but different fields, and have them appreciate what I’m doing, meant more to me than any composition lesson I’d ever had.

I’m a really different person since I went there. My insecurities have diminished a great deal. Before I had this constant Greek Chorus of No in my mind that has since been shut down. Now I’m rebelling against those guys in togas! They don’t know what’s cool! At MacDowell, I could get out my head, out of my lonely studio and discuss these ideas with real people before my solitude would talk me out of my ideas. They would listen to me and say, “Hell yeah! I would love to go to that concert.”
EM: It sounds like it was a really diverse, affirming environment.

CO: Yes. At communal mealtimes, I got more affirmation and ideas than I ever could on my own. Being social every night made me realize that being a composer had become a very lonely business for me. When I’m home alone too often, I pass on some of that negative stuff to my husband. At MacDowell, it wasn’t a burden to my fellows because they were in the same situation. We’d recognize one another had had a rough day then talk each other out of a funk. Two bites into the meal, the loneliness had eased, and the day’s trek seemed worthwhile.

EM: You connected strongly with one interdisciplinary artist in particular, Brent Watanabe. How did your friendship and collaboration develop at MacDowell?

CO: Brent is an interdisciplinary artist that brings his visual art degree and over a decade of computer programming skills into his work. He uses a technique called projection mapping, where he creates a three dimensional parameter for two dimensional materials to traverse. The framework is an environment for the creatures he has made to rebound from, fall off of, crash against. It’s fascinating, intimate, clever, and as beautiful as it is childlike. Lately, I have been doing the same sort of thing with my music. I create wall, floors, and ceilings with the intervallic compass or the temporal space, so the music can ricochet or get smashed into a corner. I create limits, but then I create chaos to be contained in these structures. I shared my music with Brent before I’d seen his work, and after he’d listened, he came to me and said, “Okay, I’ve been listening to your music. And I know we’ve bonded over our similar sense of humor, and Sesame Street, and these childlike worlds that we want our work to inhabit. But I’m presenting my work tonight, and I think you’re going to be so freaked out over how similar our work is that we’re going to have to work together.” So after a couple of videos at his presentation, I turned to him and said, “Holy $%*# Brent, this is exactly how I think!” “Right!?,” said Brent. “I knew right away that this was meant to be.”

EM: You bonded over Sesame Street?!

CO: Ha! Yes! Sesame Street was incredibly influential on my creative process and still is. It is on Brent’s, too. The original episodes came out when we were little kids. I would have been three or four when I saw Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition” on one of the earliest episodes. I’m always thinking about that show, or how to return to kindergarten, about the physical materials I played with as a child, playing with those blocks you can shoot marbles through. And Brent tries to keep Sesame Street in mind when he creates his pieces. We both approach our work with a very childlike curiosity. It’s a rare thing to find a person who maps their memories on a similar playground and who would kill to work for the Children’s Television Workshop and consider it one of the highest forms of art.

EM: What is it about those very physical materials of early childhood that appeals to you musically?

CO: I think what really attracts me is the elegance of the simplicity of those first lessons—lessons that are all about exploration without self-consciousness. I also think there’s something wonderful about seeing these materials, touching them. Not just hearing them. I’m very attracted to visual artists, because they do something tactile. I’ve always been jealous of mechanics – people who create something you can touch and see, something permanent. The ephemeral arts don’t exist outside of a recording. Music isn’t a physical object that you can enjoy for an extended time. That always makes me a little forlorn, and I long to make music last for extended periods of time beyond noise pollution. So when I met Brent, and he felt my music was similar to his concepts of his pieces using projection mapping, I realized I could make my music as tactile as possible. We’re now talking about a future collaboration and asking, is the music going to affect the picture, is the picture going to affect the music? Are the people in the space going to be able to touch objects and affect them? Or is the art a physical being that makes sound and exists on its own terms? His work can become musical, and mine can become tactile and visual. It’s about as close as I’ll ever get to creating a visual piece of art, and I’m really excited about that.

EM: It’s interesting that a playful, physical approach has remained important for you long after you left public school teaching. How did you come to composing?

CO: I really didn’t listen to any contemporary music until I was in my thirties. The first time I ever heard a new piece was in high school: George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale. That piece seemed completely insane and I loved it. I remember thinking: “God, what am I missing?” This was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early ‘80s. But, then I never heard anything like it again, even when I went to college I got a degree in music education and taught orchestra in Texas and California.

When I was teaching, I started writing music for my students. It wasn’t great stuff because I was completely self-taught, but I realized I needed to explore composing. I stopped teaching public school, and when I was 32 I had my first private composition lesson. I remember thinking, “Let’s just try it and see what happens.” Part of the reason I didn’t take myself seriously at first was that I approached it with childlike curiosity, but an adult’s low self-esteem and perfectionism. When that perfectionism kicked in, I started to realize I cared a great deal more than I expected I would.

I hit a roadblock when I came to Northwestern; I lacked some skills in terms of craft. I really lost it and couldn’t write for three years. That was especially frustrating, to be creatively blocked, because it didn’t seem as if I deserved to be. I hadn’t been composing long enough to be blocked! I was cranking out music very slowly, in the same way, over and over. It felt like a sausage factory. And I realized if I couldn’t get back to that childlike curiosity, I wasn’t going to be able to play anymore. I needed to zoom way out. I realized I needed to look at form. Lee Hyla was very instrumental in helping me with my new process. Now I think of form as a canvas that I stretch before I put stuff on it. I make a building that’s safe for child’s play, and then I bounce a super ball in every room. That’s how I think now. And if I hadn’t been an educator first, I don’t think I could’ve pulled myself out of that funk.

EM: It sounds like you’ve learned a great deal about what you, as an individual artist, need in order to thrive.

CO: Yes. I also discovered a great gift. I now know how my brain works. I discovered at 43 that I have ADHD and cognitive disabilities because of depression. It was a difficult discovery to make, but now that I know how I learn and think, it’s truly informed how I work and is the origin of my recent creative breakthrough. Now I know I can that I can only concentrate for a certain amount of time. I don’t keep banker’s hours, so to speak. When I get restless, I have to do something physical. And if I can be physical and tactile, then return to my work when my mind has regained focus, I can be more prolific.

When I was a teacher, I would gravitate towards ADHD kids and kids with depression, and never realized why until I went back to school and tried to use my mind for much more difficult and abstract tasks. Having been an advocate for children with learning disabilities is now helping me advocate for myself as I try to succeed at this crazy composing gig.

EM: How would you describe the compositional places you want to go now?

CO: I really hope to work more with visual artists—including my brother, Michael O’Brien, who’s a sculptor—to build instruments probably played by percussionists. I want to fuse sculpture and performance together. I’d really like to work with choreographers, too. Now that I realize how tactile and visual my music is becoming, I think those bouncy, kinetic aspects deserve to be featured. My attraction to kinetic art and movement is going to be part of my music from now on.

I am also interested in composing music that spans longer stretches of time, but isn’t necessarily one single piece. I think my doctoral recital is going to be my first foray into working towards a continuous show. Each piece can stand on its own when performed outside this recital, but within the recital they will be used like modules that connect to the next, with transitions that help segue from piece to piece.

Now that I’m starting to find my own voice, I’m realizing I probably have a greater appreciation for American artistic styles than I do European Western art music. I’m not tossing out the latter of course, but these days I’m far more drawn to jazz, to the works of Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow, and to many forms of dance. I’m intrigued by American pioneers of invention, artists, sculptors, and other imported cultures that make America so diverse. I’m surprised by how patriotic I’ve been feeling lately, maybe like Bartók was in his day. I’m not going to take it quite as far as he did, you know, whatever the American equivalent of going to parties in full Magyar clothing would be. But, I am finding the roots of American folk music, jazz, dance, and American industry to be a much more influential source of material for my work than the third Viennese school, the Spectralists, or the New Complexity composers. I’m grateful to be living in a country that might just embrace me for that when I finally emerge from graduate school.

[Ed. Note: A/B Duo is touring O’Brien’s Nocturne for contrabass flute and djembe at various venues around the country in March 2014. In the meanwhile, you can hear several of O’Brien’s other compositions on her Soundcloud page.—FJO]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edie Fake's "Night Baths"

All artwork by Edie Fake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diligence is to Magic as Progress is to Flight

Austin Wulliman

Austin Wulliman
Photo by Doyle Armbrust

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

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

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

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

Prepared string instrument

Photo by Doyle Armbrust

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

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

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

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


Classes began this week for many college, university, and conservatory programs around the country, and it won’t take long for those who teach composition to begin to offer up sound advice to their students for the year ahead. That advice can range from repertoire listening lists and reminders about deadlines to suggestions pertaining to process, technique, concept, or a hundred different aspects of life as a creative artist. One of the primary reasons why students decide to study at a particular institution or with a specific instructor is because of the nature, tone, and content of that advice.

One suggestion that I give constantly and that I’ve heard over and over from innumerable colleagues and guest composers is a simple one to students of any age or at any level: “Make friends with your fellow classmates—instrumentalists, singers, and conductors—as they will be your collaborators for the rest of your life.” It is easy advice to give because it is absolutely spot on; one would be hard-pressed to find composers whose collaborators do not include at least a few classmates from their undergraduate or graduate studies.

From the viewpoint of a young composer just beginning down the dimly lit path of the creative life, this advice rarely elicits a groundbreaking epiphany. Some may be more outgoing than others, but most students will already have their own circle of friends, so hearing from their mentors that they should go out and “make friends” can easily come across as a “Duh! I’ve already done that” moment. It is also very difficult for college students to see their friends and colleagues as anything but that—to imagine that these same people who are making jokes in the student lounge, dozing off during an early morning theory class, or devouring pizza late at night will be the same professional performers who will be commissioning them years later is a monumental feat.
As I mentioned before, however, many experienced composers would consider the relationships that grew organically during their own formative years to be some of the most consistent and long-lasting of their career. In my case, it was in 2006 when I got a message from Chicago-based trombonist Tom Stark. Tom and I are the same age and we’d played in the same bands and jazz ensembles since the late ’80s. (I’ve heard him say that he’s played more Deemer works than anyone because of how many times we collaborated back in the day.) Tom’s message to me said that his chamber group, the Chicago Trombone Quartet, had been invited to the Eastern Trombone Workshop and he hoped that I could write them a new piece.

I had just finished my doctorate and this opportunity to have a new work performed on a national stage was just what I needed at the time. The fact that it was Tom asking for my first post-grad school commission was totally fitting and, in hindsight, almost inevitable. The result of that collaboration, my trombone quartet Shock & Awe, has borne fruit several times over, with performances by several quartets, a recording by the Chicago Trombone Consort, and several new friendships, collaborations, and new works that all spawned out of that one initial piece between two old school friends.

Minor 4th Trombone Quartet performing Shock & Awe, mvt. 1 ‘Spin Cycles’

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the flip side of these long-standing friendships. It would be easy for an objective observer to note that the new music community is rife with exclusive clubs, cliques, networks—I’ve used the term “tribes” more than once. Whatever you want to call ’em, these relationships can seem, from the outside, foreboding, impermeable, and unfair, and so many of these groups can be traced back to the crucible of graduate school. I myself try to look at the entire situation with open eyes: It’s foolish to begrudge performers for sticking with composers who they’ve worked with before and with whom they’ve cultivated strong friendships, just as it’s folly to expect that friendships alone dictate how opportunities arise.

We as a community have moved past the didactic “schools of thought” concept that shaped so much of the new music scene decades ago, but we haven’t splintered into an “every man/woman for themselves” concept either. Connections and relationships ebb and flow constantly (even more so now, with the help of social media), but underneath the skills and confidence that allow for those new connections to be built is the foundation that comes from our friendships of old.