Tag: commissioning

Some Practicalities of East-West Musical Collaborations

So you want to write music for the koto, the shakuhachi, or the shamisen? Well, you’re in luck. Up until fairly recently, you would have been hard-pressed to find a traditional musician who would be willing to oblige. Beginning in the late 19th century, with its influx of Western culture and the ensuing dominance of Western music, traditional Japanese music was taught within families that jealously guarded their performance practices and repertoire. As a result, a kind of tribalism developed, split along family lines known as Ryūha (schools). Students in one line were unable to venture past the walls of their ryūha. In the last 20 to 30 years, this extreme isolation has begun to fade. Traditional instruments are now being taught in universities in Japan (and in the U.S.A.) where these strictures do not apply. Consequently, a younger generation of traditional players has emerged, and they are very open to a broader musical education. Many seem to be on a mission to share their instruments with a wider world, seeking newly developing and yet-to-be developed musical forms. It is not uncommon to hear jazz being played on the koto or shakuhachi. Some shamisen players have even taken to playing rock ‘n’ roll (and it’s a magnificent fit). In addition, with global culture inspiring an increasing number of non-Japanese masters of traditional instruments, there is a growing pool of performers available. This is particularly true of the shakuhachi, which has truly become a global instrument.

Notation: Most Japanese instruments have an extensive solo repertoire, possibly a reflection of the inward-looking nature of Buddhism. Until the 19th century, instruments were taught and learned orally, so when notation systems were created, each instrument developed its own notation. Of course, they are mutually unintelligible to one another. As a result, in chamber music there are no scores that combine all of the parts, as is the case with Western music. When the instruments first came together to play in ensemble, they simply joined by playing the same melody—hence the heterophonic texture in Japanese chamber music. For all Japanese instrumentalists, their specific notation systems are their primary notations. The good news is that increasing numbers of professional players are now fluent in reading Western music and at last have a common language for printed music; particularly the university-educated generations. Composers can write for Japanese instruments using Western notation and need not learn koto, shakuhachi, or shamisen notation. Frustratingly, many of the subtleties of playing techniques cannot be represented as precisely in this notation, but it nonetheless serves the very important function of providing common ground for music making.

When I commission a piece, composers are generally writing for Japanese instruments for the first time.

Compositional approaches: When I commission a piece, composers are generally writing for Japanese instruments for the first time. But I want them to write music that is in their voice, not to bend their ideas to find an Eastern sonority that somehow suits their style. That green light to go Western can make for some daunting performance and technical challenges, but that is the time-honored role of the beleaguered performer.

Performers of traditional Japanese instruments have spent years mastering their technique based on the melodic patterns found in the Japanese pentatonic scales. Western classical musicians have mastered major, minor, whole tone, etc. scales for their practice. As such, each group will be more comfortable playing what they have for years drilled into their fingers and ears. But this doesn’t mean composers should write pentatonic music for Japanese and diatonic for Western. Composers should write what they write. Performers will either make it work or politely suggest a change.

Audiences: Kyo-Shin-An Arts is in its ninth season of presenting chamber music concerts that mix and match Japanese instruments and Western ensembles via commissions, new music, and standard repertoire from two traditions. Every concert introduces new audience members to one or more Japanese instruments. Some of the audience is extremely loyal and has been returning for years because each concert has a distinct flavor. The differences lie in the unique styles of the composers and the partnering Western ensembles. Over the years, KSA concerts have presented the Arianna, Cassatt, Ciompi, Colorado, Lark, and Voxare string quartets, Ensemble Epomeo, Sybarite5, and many individual virtuosos gamely tackling commissions and favoring the audience with fantastic renditions of Debussy or Beethoven or Shostakovich. I have never heard a single attendee find this to be strange or daunting.

Nonetheless, it is still a common industry paradigm to automatically equate music that uses Japanese instruments (or any non-Western instruments for that matter) with something extra-musical such as cherry blossom season, moon-viewing, or samurai lore. Once, in proposing some of KSA’s commissioned works to a major orchestral institution, the somewhat unenlightened response was typical: “Well, it might work if we were to have some special Asian festival.”  For high-profile institutions, programming new music of any kind has always been a challenge. It can be wielded as a marketing hook or slipped in under the radar of a standard blockbuster. Living composers fight the good fight, and tastes evolve. But from my vantage point, the idea of classical music that incorporates Japanese instruments still sparks the notion of exoticism and “otherness.” I want to change this norm. Imagine a musical landscape where non-Western instruments are heard alongside Western instruments without notice. I am striving to achieve this through Kyo-Shin-An Arts with concerts on our series at home at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC, as well as in concert venues around the country and abroad. It is my hope that one day the sounds of these instruments will be welcomed simply as yet another color in the orchestra, as the clarinet or the celeste once were.

Ensemble partners: Performing partners with whom we have worked with over the years have enthusiastically embraced our commissions. This includes several orchestras in addition to the numerous string quartets, instrumentalists, and singers who have performed with KSA in NYC and on tour. All of the musicians have welcomed Japanese instrumentalists with interest and respect, not merely curiosity and tolerance. Clearly it is the musicians themselves who may be the strongest driving force for the creation and presentation of this new music.

Western classical musicians need to be sensitive—and unbiased—when they encounter Japanese instruments.

Is it difficult to work with Japanese instrument performers? Yes and no. Language can be a challenge, so working with Japanese musicians who speak English or having a member of the Western ensemble who speaks Japanese can be quite helpful. And as I mentioned earlier, Japanese instruments have remained pretty much the same for the past several centuries and did not advance technically as they did in the West. Compare the modern silver flute with the blockflöte of Bach’s day and then the five-holed bamboo shakuhachi across the same time period. Western classical musicians need to be sensitive—and unbiased—when they encounter the limitations of the Japanese instruments. But in general, it is not difficult, and ultimately a joy.

In a time when cultural sensitivity and discourse seem to be receding, understanding through the language of music remains one of the strongest expressions of our humanity. Integrating world cultures through music transcends divisions of nationality, ethnicity, and religion. Creating and presenting new music for Japanese and Western instruments is my pursuit, and over the last several years I have been gratified to discover that more and more composers, performers, and ensembles are exploring this work as well. Audiences and musicians alike are intrigued with the idea and the results. It is a global movement, and I am proud to say that I have been a positive influence for some of it. I look forward to continuing my work and celebrating Kyo-Shin-An Arts’ upcoming 10th anniversary in 2019.

Paul Moravec’s Shakuhachi Concerto, a Kyo-Shin-An Arts and Meet the Composer commission, performed by James Nyoraku Schlefer and the Orchestra of the Swan, David Curtis Music Director.

Yarn/Wire: From The Ground Level

Once upon a time, most performances of new music came about in one of three ways. A performance could happen through the efforts of the few dedicated new music practitioners (many of whom were based at academic institutions). Another way would be by trying to convince more established groups to play a new piece (in addition to the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky pieces those ensembles might rather be playing) and sometimes that worked. Or, if a composer had the requisite performance skills and had some talented friends, she or he could form their own ensemble and hope for the best. But one of the defining phenomena of American music in the 21st century has been the staggering number of dedicated DIY new music interpreters who have established ensembles based all over the country.

Because of the existence of so many self-starting groups of myriad instrumentations, gone are the days when it was safest to write a piece for string quartet or piano trio (though it is easy to find DIY groups with those particular instrumental configurations as well). And because many of these unique groupings lack a pre-existing repertoire, their modus operandi is to commission new work.

One of the most exciting as well as one of the most articulate of these groups is the two piano/two percussion quartet Yarn/Wire, whose studio sits at the edge of Bushwick on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Admittedly, the combined forces of two pianists and two percussionists is not a completely new idea. Next year marks the 80th anniversary of Béla Bartók’s seminal Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, a work that received its premiere the following year at the 1938 ISCM World Music Days in Basel, Switzerland. There were also important pieces written for that combination in the 1970s by Luciano Berio and George Crumb and then, in the 1990s, IRCAM commissioned a bunch of pieces informed by spectralist ideas, many of which also included elaborate electronic set-ups.

In fact, Yarn/Wire began their existence ten years ago playing such repertoire. But they soon discovered that what excited them the most was being able to work with composers from the ground level up to shape pieces that are best suited to their collective musical temperament. They started out working with composers they had befriended during their college days at Stony Brook—people like Eric Wubbels, Aaron Einbond, Mei-Fang Lin, Alex Mincek, and Sam Pluta. Mincek and Pluta have now each composed two major works for the ensemble. But, as their reputation spread, they also began working with major international figures such as Enno Poppe, Tristan Murail, and Misato Mochizuki. Their world premiere performances of the works written for them by Murail and Mochizuki were presented by the Lincoln Center Festival last year.

A few months ago they debuted what is probably the most unusual work created for them thus far: Material by Michael Gordon, an hour-long work in which the four of them surround a single open grand piano and almost ritualistically proceed to eke out a seemingly infinite variety of sounds. Gordon spent hours with the group testing all sorts of combinations of what was possible (both in terms of sound production and in terms of physical endurance), and the resulting still score-less composition—while undeniably music—could also easily be described as theater, choreography, and performance art.

Being the enablers for bringing to life such pieces makes Yarn/Wire an extremely important catalyst for music that is happening right now. Yet, at the same time, the group is devoted to performing whatever they play at the highest possible level, which means intensive rehearsing as well as constant interconnectivity between the four of them. Earlier this year, their interpretive prowess led them to be runners up for the University of Michigan’s highly coveted M-Prize, a brand new $100K cash prize for chamber ensembles that attracted 172 applicants from 13 countries. The award ultimately was given to a string quartet that is devoted to performing older canonical classics that have stood the test of time and the members of Yarn/Wire realize that the jury is still out on whether any of the works they are performing will wind up in the canon. For them the question is irrelevant. That said, they are committed to building a repertoire that they will continue to play and that will hopefully be embraced by adventurous ensembles in future generations.

Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at Yarn/Wire’s Bushwick Studio in Brooklyn, New York
June 30, 2016—12:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  So where did this crazy idea come from to form a group consisting of two pianists and two percussionists?  What were you all doing before it?  Did you ever think you’d be in a group like this for ten years?

Russell Greenberg:  I don’t think any of us thought we would do this.  I know I wanted to play new music, but I didn’t know what form that would take.  Laura and I met at Stony Brook University. Then Ian came in and we played some Steve Reich together.  I think it was Sextet. The group really just formed out of us enjoying each other’s company and enjoying playing together.  It wasn’t so much of a mandate to have this two-piano, two-percussion group.  It just kind of happened. At least that’s my recollection.

Laura Barger:  We wanted to give a performance, and it was part of our doctoral recital requirements. But mostly it was about repertoire we just really wanted to play, pieces we were excited about.  That’s how things got started.  There was not much of a long-term goal beyond that at first.

RG:  Then it changed after that first recital. We started asking composer friends that we knew to write pieces—Mei-Fang Lin, Alex Mincek, Eric Wubbels, Aaron Einbond, a lot of old friends from before we had all met at Stony Brook, and new friends as well.  They started adding to the rep, and then we started playing more and more.  It kind of grew from that.

FJO:  Now Ning, you were not part of the group from the very beginning.

Ning Yu:  No, I joined in 2011; however, I knew everyone from my Stony Brook days, so I knew the start of this group and I’d heard a lot about the group before I joined.  Laura and I actually studied with the same piano professor, so we would see each other a lot.

FJO:  Now, in terms of what you were all doing musically before this.  Russell said that he always wanted to play new music.  I’d love to hear from the rest of you about that.  What you were doing musically before starting this?

Ian Antonio:  I went to Manhattan School of Music for undergrad. My memory is not super clear, but I definitely wanted to be in an orchestra. From the time I was in high school, I loved orchestral music.  I still love orchestral music.  But I found myself drawn towards the collaborative aspect of working on new pieces with living composers and have gotten more and more into it, so I eventually replaced the burning desire to be in an orchestra with the desire to play new things.

FJO:  Certainly, for the pianists in the group, there were many more options besides playing new music. There’s definitely lots of music that doesn’t involve two percussionists.

LB:  I was probably like a lot of music students, especially pianists.  I knew I wanted to be a musician, but I had only a sort of vague idea of what that entailed.  I knew it meant playing music and eventually teaching, but I didn’t really have a clear idea until maybe 2003 or 2004, when I went to Banff.  I did a long residency there and really had time to come terms with the fact that the thing that I was not only the best at, but what I most enjoyed and was most interested in, was playing new music.  So that’s what I wanted to do.

NY:  Before Stony Brook I went to the Eastman School of Music for my undergraduate and masters.  During my time there, there were a lot of groups coming out of Eastman—Alarm Will Sound, JACK Quartet, to name just a couple. There were a lot of great musicians and this really vibrant atmosphere, so I knew from my last year of undergrad that I wanted to devote most of my time to playing new music with all of my classmates.  When I got to Stony Brook, I started realizing this was not just a selective group of students at the school who were into new music.  There were a lot more actually playing at a really high level.

A Yarn/Wire concert poster is attached to a wall across from shelves containing loads of instruments, such as, on one row, a bunch of bells.

FJO:  You formed initially to do a concert, but you weren’t really thinking beyond that. There was just some repertoire you wanted to play.  But there really isn’t a whole lot of repertoire for two pianists and two percussionists.  There are pieces by Bartók and Crumb plus I know a Cage piece that can kind of work for just the four people.

RG:  When we started, there was the Bartók, and works by Berio and Crumb, then there’s like a 20- or 30-year gap, and then there are all these European pieces that were co-commissioned by IRCAM for the Ensemble Intercontemporain and other groups like that.  So there’s a Lindberg piece from the ‘90s and Philippe Leroux has a piece—there’s all this heady electronic modernist kind of stuff—

LB:  —And post-spectral or spectral-influenced music.—

RG:  –So we started playing that stuff.  But I don’t think we’d ever do that concert again.

LB:  Our first concert was the hardest concert we’ve ever played.

RG:  It all had electronics written for IRCAM, so we had to go into MAX and figure it out for ourselves.

IA:  I remember someone who played the [Michael] Jarrell piece in Europe saying that IRCAM literally showed up with an 18-wheel tractor-trailer for all of the electronics gear.  We tried to do it ourselves with a mini-van.  It was so insane, hours and hours of wrapping cables without support staff.  Then the logistics of the percussion—at that time, we didn’t have all this gear [gestures around studio]; we really just had what we had at Stony Brook, and a couple of mallet instruments.

RG:  When you see what was being done in the ‘90s and early 2000s with gear and electronics, that’s all we had to build off of.  So we tried to conquer as much of that as we could.  But it’s a much different mindset than the kind of generative stuff that we do now which, in an ideal world, is asking a composer to have a very small set up and something that’s portable and tourable—something that we can do.

IA:  Or flexible.

RG: Yeah, at least. But it has changed.  In our early days, we were getting pieces that had already been played and we were trying to do our version.  After that initial bump, we started essentially generating material for ourselves.  We’re not co-composers with a lot of the composers that we’ve worked with, but we do collaborate on creating work now.  And that’s been really exciting.

FJO:  So how do you find composers that you want to work with?  Are they recommended?  Do you hear stuff?  How do you put your feelers out?  What’s your process for discovering something new?

NY:  I think just about everything you have mentioned, and more.  I get emails from various people that say, “Have you checked out this person yet?”  And also friends and past colleagues whom we’ve worked with from way before, we’re now thinking, “Can we actually commission this person for a new piece, not for a piece that was written for someone else?”

IA:  It’s largely people we know.

LB:   The new music community is tight-knit, maybe even more so by necessity in some places.  But in New York, there’s so much happening.  Just being aware of what’s going on here, of what’s going on around the United States, and trying to be an active member of the community is a good way to know what’s happening.

Being aware of what’s going on here, of what’s going on around the United States, and trying to be an active member of the community is a good way to know what’s happening.

RG:  I agree with what you guys are saying.  If you look at our first CD, every person on it was someone we knew and had known for years.  So you start with what you know.  Then after that, we got to expand the circle a little bit.  People would suggest things, like Ning said.  For myself, going to festivals internationally was another big way.  Like what Laura said, keeping an eye on the community here, but also paying attention to what’s happening abroad and what seems interesting.  That’s how I encountered Enno Poppe’s music for the first time.  I heard—I think it was—Ensemble Modern play it, and I was like, “This is it! We’ve got to work with this guy.”  It took many years, but then we got to work with Enno.

NY:  The next layer on top of that was getting to play a new work by someone like Tristan Murail, for example. He is not our friend on a personal level. But we also get together and say, “Who are our aspirational dream composers?”

RG:  Like Beethoven.  If he was alive, we would have asked him.

LB:  Totally!

FJO:  I imagine that for a lot of composers you’d be a dream ensemble.  So let’s say that somebody wants to write for you as opposed to you wanting them to write for you.  How does that work?  If somebody contacts you and says, “Oh, I have a great idea for a piece” or “I wrote this piece,” do you deal with envelopes coming in the mail with scores? Does anything ever pass go through that process?

IA:  I don’t think that’s ever happened.  We definitely get envelopes in the mail, but I don’t know if we’ve ever played one, only because we typically like to be involved with newer pieces on the ground level, from the conceptual process to the logistical process, then I think we all like to have a back and forth with composers: This is where we would play it.  This is maybe how long the piece could be. Then they would have this idea.  The back and forth aspect is one of the main things that we enjoy.

RG: All of us have a lot of agency and a lot of desires, and none of us wants to play something we don’t like.  So the matter of taste starts coming up.  I don’t even know how to begin to answer that question.

LB:  And it’s hard for pieces that are already written.  We can’t really do that.

We typically like to be involved with newer pieces on the ground level.

RG:  We can’t just play every piece that comes to us.  We don’t have a venue.  There are so many things that go into putting on a concert and presenting a piece.  So when you get someone saying, “Hey, I got something for you,” we’re really stoked about the idea, but there are only so many notes we can learn at a given time.  When we were students, time was unlimited almost.  But now, as we’re going further and further down this project, we have less of that time so it becomes a little bit harder.

IA:  Logistically also, we’ll get pieces in the mail. I think we always check out and listen to everything.  But I know this happened with me and Russell, we’ll be looking at a piece and it’s got four timpani and chimes. We actually don’t have timpani or chimes, so we just can’t do it.  It excludes it before it begins.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you don’t have timpani.

IA:  I think we have two not-good timpani for special effects like cymbal on timpani or crotale on timpani.

shelves of drums containing a timpano (upside down), three side drums, a pair of congas, and various drum stands.

A lone timpano, upside down, is among the many drums on shelves in the Yarn/Wire studio.

FJO:  That opens up another whole area of questions about what instruments you have and why you have them. Some of what you’ve amassed here, I imagine, came from specific requests from the composers who have worked with you.  I remember coming in here last summer and there being a bunch of bottles with rods in them which you needed, I think, for a piece you were rehearsing that Raphaël Cendo wrote for you. You probably didn’t have those beforehand.

IA:  Wine bottles are not hard for us to get.

NY:  We do acquire a lot of new things.

LB:  Small things.

NY:  Like, what was that, also in Cendo’s piece?

LB:  Oh, the flasks! We had to buy the kind of flask you tuck into your vest at a football game, if you’re wearing a vest. So we acquire a lot of smaller toys and tools.

FJO:  So it’s okay to acquire those, but not four timpani and chimes.

RG:  I would like to, if I could.

IA:  It’s a money thing.

RG:  We have that huge steel sheet also from the Cendo.  We had to go to the steel sheet place and get that cut.  But a set of chimes is a couple grand.

IA:  Seven thousand dollars.

RG:  Set of timpani, same.  So, context is everything.  If we get a grant to do it, yeah.  We’ll get some chimes.  I’d love to get some chimes.

Metal shelves filled with various small instruments as well as various small bells and gongs on a table.

Some of the small instruments warehoused in Yarn/Wire’s studio.

FJO:  But then another thing is how feasible is it to take the instruments on the road. You’ve all said you want things to be practical and you guys tour all the time.  But before we get into that, I’m curious—just in terms of the time factor, because you’ve said there isn’t a lot of time—how much time do you guys actually spend together?  What’s a typical week?

LB:  It definitely depends on how busy we are and how many concerts and projects we have going.  But I would say, at least for the past couple years, we see each other at least three times a week, most weeks.  And we’re in almost constant contact through email, text, and telephone.  So I would say we spend a lot of time together.

NY:  I cannot recall a work day—that’s basically saying Monday through Friday—that we did not communicate with each other.  Whether it’s through email, phone calls, or actually being in here. And that also sometimes includes weekends.  And in a tour situation, we are of course very compact throughout the time we’re on tour.  So we spend a fair amount of time with each other.

FJO:  And the amount of time spent here in this studio?

RG:  We probably do about 12 to 15 hours a week, four-hour blocks.  Some weeks more, some weeks less.

FJO:  If a string quartet wants to tour around the country, that means five airline tickets, one for each of the four players and one for the cello. But with the four of you, I imagine getting on an airplane might be a little trickier.  Obviously, you don’t need to bring your own pianos, but everything else gets packed up.  Right?

IA:  No, we don’t bring a ton. When we have very specific instruments we need, Russell and I will bring stuff.  But it’s limited to two checked bags.  We can check big bags if we need to, but a lot of the places we play will either rent the larger percussion instruments, or it might be at a university where they can wrangle the more generic-type instruments—marimba, vibraphone, those kinds of things.

NY:  Before we go to any venue, the contractual details are a little bit more extended than with a string quartet. We have to make sure that they’re able to host us and that they have all the things that we need.  Sometimes our programming is affected by what we can do in a particular location.

A lone cymbal is suspended on a stand amidst many other instruments including a marimba

FJO:  So, the practical factors that go into choosing a composer you want to work with on a piece: What is possible?  What isn’t possible?  I’m curious about that process.  How long does it take?  How involved are you with the composers while they’re writing their piece?  How often do pieces change from the moment you get handed the score before the first rehearsal to the actual performance?  What have been the extremes?

If you look at our past performances list and see how many times a given piece is programmed, usually it has to do with how logistically possible it is to do a piece.

RG:  Every extreme, you know, because you can say as much as you want but in the end the composer’s going give you the piece that they are going to give you.  In many cases we’ll say, “We would love to play this more than the premiere.” We’re always dedicated to the premiere, and we also want to play it after that.  But if they don’t follow certain things that we say—like, for instance, if you write for three waterphones, we’re never going to get to play that piece anywhere except for this time—it’s going to be very rare.  But if the composer really wants that, it’s going to happen.  We’re going to play the premiere.  They just need to know that it probably won’t get to happen again.  It’s really important that a piece becomes a part of the rep.  And if they’ll take those things into consideration, then we get to play them many times. If you look at our past performances list and see how many times a given piece is programmed, usually it has to do with how logistically possible it is to do a piece.

IA:  And we like to play pieces we like.

RG:  Yeah, that’s a given.

IA:  It’s the meeting of our desire to play a piece again and the logistical possibility of doing it.

NY:  Depending on the composer, the process is also very different.  Because everybody commands different processes. It seems like some people write incredibly fast and some people write incredibly slow.  Certain people really literally write and tell us, “I have a couple of pages.” Then a month later, “Never mind.  Completely new idea.” Then sometimes we don’t get a piece they’re talking about for like three years.  It all varies quite a bit.  But we are enjoying these different aspects of different composers, and their different personalities, as well.  So even ones that we’ve had to wait for three years for, once we have that final piece, it’s also very exciting.  And we’ll try to find every possible venue to perform it.

FJO:  You said final piece; I’m curious about things changing during the process.

Some composers will come in and we will in some ways create the piece together with them.

LB:  Yes.  I think a lot of composers—again just like they have different speeds of writing—have different levels of interest in our involvement and how they write the piece.  Some composers will come in and we will in some ways create the piece together with them.  We have done that before. They have an idea or a form they want to see or hear, and we work together to create that with them through trial and error, or just through playing.  We have composers who’ve come in and made recordings of us trying all sorts of different techniques on percussion and piano, and then they use that to sit down and write in isolation.  Or we all have sketches that we’ll play and some of them will become the piece and some of them don’t. But, for example, I guess we can bring up Murail again, who has a very defined voice and style.  He just wrote the piece, and we got it, and we played it, and that was that.

IA:  Fully engraved.

NY:  Beautiful, and ready to go.

FJO:  And you never met him.

LB:  Well, not at that stage.

RG:  But also then there are other pieces where you get the finished score, and the composer comes in and you’re like, “This doesn’t quite work” and they’re like “Alright, cool, I’ll change it.”  So then the final piece, as you’re calling it, is actually different than what we were sent.

LB:  Or there’s a notation of some technique that has never really been done before, so it’s not perfectly right.  So you and the composer have to find what that sound is.  What do you want?  How does this work?  And that might influence a later edition of that piece as well.

RG:  We even have pieces where we don’t have an official score. That has happened with a very recent one, and we can still play it.  Then we’ll see how the final score ended up—great—and it is the piece, but we actually just have this other thing that we worked on with the composer.

IA:  Reich’s Drumming didn’t have a score for many years.  It was just kind of an oral tradition.

FJO:  I remember that Misato Mochizuki purposefully didn’t give you the last page of her piece until the day before you were premiering it.  Part of her reason for doing that was about ensuring that there was an element of surprise for everybody, including the four of you.  But that’s obviously something you can only pull off at a premiere.  Once it becomes part of your repertoire, the surprise factor is gone unless there are indeterminate elements.  So how do you keep the surprise and the inquisitiveness going once something goes from being brand new to being repertoire?

RG:  We’ve continued to rehearse that piece, and we’ve played it a number of times.

IA:  The end of that piece that you’re talking about is a structure that she came up with in which the content is always filled a little bit differently.  We’re playing it again and she will be here, so I’m curious to see if it’s finished—or not finished, but now fully notated.  I don’t know what that will be like.

LB:  I would also add the performance aspect: any time you do something for the audience it’s new, and so you draw energy and inspiration from that.

Any time you do something for the audience it’s new, and so you draw energy and inspiration from that.

RG:  When we have been rehearsing that piece—we’ve played it like two or three times now since the premiere—every time when we come to it, what we rehearse is actually the pacing, the drama of that thing.  That’s actually a lot of work, because you have to step outside yourself and watch what’s happening with it.  That piece opened up a lot of questions about performance.

FJO:  Getting back to choices of composers.  You’ve now worked with a few very established composers: Tristan Murail, Michael Gordon, and Enno Poppe—you didn’t premiere his piece but you got to work with him on it.  You’ve also done a lot with younger composers and you talked about paying attention to the whole world, the whole U.S.A., and New York City, and you definitely maintain a balance of local and international composers. Additionally, I’m curious, your group is an even 50-50 split: it’s two men and two women.  You’ve worked with several female composers, but our field doesn’t exactly have the kind of gender parity that we might want for composers. So how do these issues factor into your choices of who to work with—gender, generation, geography?

LB:  I think we’re aware of all those things.  We don’t want to be tokenistic, but we also absolutely want to make sure that we are representing the number of really amazing women who are writing music.  So we are aware of that, and I think at the same time we want to work with people that we have access to.  It sounds a little pat to say, but I do think the most important thing, or the thing we want to hold onto, is we want to find good music and interesting music, and that really comes from so many different places.

IA:  Actually, the geography question is maybe the first one that comes up when we’re working on a new piece.  Who do we have access to? Who will we have the chance to be collaborative with?  That’s been maybe the primary driver.

RG:  There’s no prerequisite to who can write good music, so we’re just trying to find what fits that paradigm.  And again, we can’t really answer that.

A bunch of mallets next to a page from a score.

FJO:  One of my favorite pieces that you’ve done is a four-movement work by Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh, who is based in California.  I find his music utterly fascinating, but I first became aware of him in a somewhat random way. He’s not yet on a lot of people’s radar outside of the L.A. new music scene. A piece of his was chosen to be performed on the Gaudeamus Festival a few years back which is how I first learned about him.  Then a few years later, I noticed that you were performing a piece of his which at first I found somewhat baffling since I associate his music mostly with strings. He’s a string player himself and he creates very idiosyncratic microtonal music. It’s not the kind of thing that seems easily adaptable to your instrumentation since, I imagine, you tend to keep your pianos in 12-tone equal temperament.

RG:  I have this friend Corey Fogel; he’s a performance artist and a really great drummer.  He lives in L.A.  I also happen to be from L.A., so I see him every year around his birthday. We were talking about music and he sent a list of people to check out, and I checked out Andrew McIntosh. Andrew’s part of this publishing thing called Plainsound, so you can go on PlainSound.org and he’s listed.  Thomas Meadowcroft is there and Chiyoko [Szlavnics] is there. Quite a number of very experimental composers who are kind of on the—I hesitate to say it—outside; they’re outsider composers.  So the next time I came to L.A. I looked up Andrew and we just started talking.  That’s how that came about.  It was a personal connection.

FJO:  And the piece is microtonal, but not in the kind of systemic ways that a lot of his other stuff is.  So how did that work out?

IA:  He designed a set of pipes for us that are tuned in a very specific way. So that’s a microtonal aspect.

NY:  And also we play wine glasses and bowls filled with water.

LB:  Pitches change as you slowly add or take away water.

NY:  And even though we’re playing the same piano, somehow with the pedal and through the different partials of the harmonics, us playing a seventh or ninth, it creates an illusion of a certain kind of microtonality.  At least that’s how it sounded to me.

FJO:  We talked about working with a composer more than once.  Sam Pluta has written two really interesting and very different pieces for you.  This is a luxury.  We referenced string quartets before; composers tend to write a whole bunch of string quartets, but other ensembles rarely inspire such output. When we did a talk with the Imani Winds for NewMusicBox, they all opined about how most composers will probably write just one wind quintet so they rarely have the same level of familiarity, which comes from experience, of a composer who is in complete control of the ensemble’s resources.  You basically only get their first attempt.  I imagine the same is true for two pianos and percussion.  There certainly isn’t a tradition of writing for this ensemble.

One of the grand pianos in Yarn/Wire's studio.

NY:  I feel that this formation is not easy at all to write for; I can imagine the pain of writing for not just one piano, but two pianos. But the second time around, or the third or fourth time, there is a craft that’s being practiced, so I personally would be really interested in the number threes and number fours.  For example, like Alex Mincek’s new piece for us.  He totally delved into a different type of sound, and we’re just loving playing it.

RG:  That’s his second piece for us.

IA:  I think it is something that we’ve been purposefully doing.  It is actually the exact same thing you mentioned with Imani Winds—the idea of taking the model of writing multiple string quartets and getting multiple pieces.  I know we asked George Crumb a number of years ago if he would consider writing a second piece for our configuration.  He said he wasn’t really in the mood to do it, but he thought it was a great idea.

RG:  A good idea.

IA:  Yeah.  Maybe in a couple years he will want to do it.  He knows our desire is there.

RG:  It would be cool to see, like we have with Alex and Sam, another side of people.  How they develop too, because what’s the space between the two Mincek and Pluta pieces?  Like four or five years.

IA:  Six years.

RG:  That’s a lot of time to develop not only as a composer, but as a person.  Your interests change.

LB:  We’ve changed, too.

RG:  We can play differently, and it’s cool to work with people you know very well as you get older.  And then a new generation can do a whole concert of Pluta or a whole concert of Mincek!

IA:  Yeah.

NY:  The complete Mincek piano/percussion quartets.

FJO:  Then there’s the other extreme, which transcends considerations of whether something is a first piece or a fourth piece—something like what Michael Gordon wrote for you, which totally redefines what this ensemble could be and what you all can do as musicians. You all were all doing things I imagine you’ve never done before.  I’m curious about what the experience of working with him was like and how that piece evolved.

LB:  Well, for a long time Michael definitely was one of those aspirational composers with whom it would be really great to work someday.  He’s so busy, so it was not going to be easy.  But I think once we found the right way and the time, it was a really great process.

IA:  It was really collaborative. It was the most a composer has come to work with us just on pure sound ideas, because it was so specifically exploring what one grand piano can do.  And he probably has six hours of us on video.

RG: Most of that should just get tossed.

NY: There’s a lot of “what if you did that?” 

LB: And “how long could you do that one thing?”

NY:  Then we said, “Have you thought of that turned into this?  We could start at point A, and then go to point B.”  He’s like, “Oh, let me think about that.  And I’ll see you in two weeks.”  Then he comes back, “You know that point B was really interesting.  Can you do a reverse from point B, back to point A?”  So we didn’t know how this piece was going to pull together until pretty late.

IA:  It was really fluid.

RG:  Figuring out the connections.  This is one that we don’t use a score for.  We just have the material we created with him, pardon the pun—this is what the piece is called [Material]. But even the last day, we were changing things. We changed and eliminated.  It was awesome.

IA:  I think there are going to be maybe more tweaks.

RG:  Yup.

LB: And maybe more material. 

IA: Yeah, there could be. 

FJO:  One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the choreographic elements that are often a necessary ingredient to effectively perform your repertoire. It’s obviously very important to Michael Gordon’s piece.  This is the thing that I think people who haven’t written for this ensemble might not understand.  With a string quartet or a wind quintet, typically all the players have music stands and are playing in front of them.  But you move around, all of you.

LB:  Absolutely, yeah.

FJO:  So if a composer is creating a score in his or her studio and not working directly with you, the resulting piece might not be something that is always doable within the originally conceptualized time limits.

LB:  It’s very difficult to get that right.

NY:  With each piece, we talk about that aspect a lot—sometimes the logistics, but a lot of time about drama and about timing. It’s about suspense; it’s about just pure musicality, making something much more beautiful.

FJO:  So things you can do versus things you can’t do.  Things you feel uncomfortable doing.  Is there anything you wouldn’t do in a piece?

RG: Get bloody.

LB:  We would never want to injure ourselves.

NY:  Or the piano.

LB:  There is a limit. Many people would say that we’ve crossed that limit before. But a piano is actually a very strong instrument. The beating that the strings take from the hammers in a Beethoven sonata causes more wear to the instrument than a lot of the extended techniques we do.  However, that being said, there are things that do cross that line. We can’t unfortunately do a piece that asks us to snip the wires of the piano, unless it’s a site-specific piece that happens one time with an old piano.  Then we might do it.  But really, in all seriousness, we have to respect our own physicality and the instrument’s.

We have to respect our own physicality and the instrument’s.

RG:  If someone doesn’t want us doing things on a piano, that’s understandable.  We respect that and we’ll just change the rep.

FJO:  You’re all comfortable with improvisation, since obviously there are improvisatory elements as well as indeterminate elements in a lot of this music.

IA:  And there are two audience participation pieces that we’ve done, but they’re not very fleshed out.

FJO:  So do any of you write your own pieces?

RG:  I think we’ve all written stuff.

LB:  When I was younger I wrote some solo piano pieces for myself that probably should never see the light of day.  My own personal feeling is that composition is a practice and a craft. I would love to have the time to devote to developing that in a way that respects the notion of being a composer.  In some ways, I feel like I don’t have time to do that, so I don’t want to ever call myself a composer because I haven’t put in that time.

I don’t want to ever call myself a composer because I haven’t put in that time.

IA:  I’ve written a lot of youth percussion ensemble music, but that doesn’t take the same time as writing a piece for us to play.

NY:  So the short answer is we don’t play each other’s music.  Not really.

FJO:  I know that this might be difficult to talk about, but I have to bring up the M-Prize and the really profound article Mark Stryker wrote about it—“In first year, M-Prize chooses the past over the future.”  He deeply believed—as did I and a lot of other people—that you should have won the award rather than a quartet that’s devoted to standard repertoire, as fine as they are.  And I think that he really made a very persuasive case.  And yet, mea culpa, even he in that brilliant article wrote, and I quote, “To be clear: I’m not saying that Yarn/Wire’s music, as compelling as it was, is as great as the best of Debussy, Haydn, etc. No repertoire in classical music is more profound than the string quartet monuments that have stood the test of time.”  Is that true?

IA:  Well, they certainly stood the test of time.  You can’t argue with that point.

FJO:  So could a piece written for two pianos and two percussionists ever be as profound as one of the great string quartets?  Could it stand the test of time?  Will it stand the test of time?  Are there pieces that you’re playing that you feel are as great?

RG:  Can we even answer that? I don’t know.  I’ll be dead.

IA:  If someone else is going to play it and decide, maybe. Who knows what the politics will be like in the world?  Who knows anything?  There are pieces that feel good to me.  But I don’t know if they feel as good as—what were you playing yesterday? “Doin’ it Right”? Maybe Daft Punk will stand the test of time for that.

LB:  I think maybe what he’s trying to say is there is a historical tradition. It’s like saying music for flute is not as good as music for piano, because there’s a huge wealth and multi-century tradition of writing for keyboard instruments as a solo instrument.  So, I understand what he’s saying, but I think at the same time, in a way, it doesn’t matter.

A page from one of the drum parts for one of the pieces in Yarn/Wire's repertoire.

RG:  There are a lot of political things behind that question.  What kind of music are we talking about?  What’s the history of that music?  Where are we now?  Who gets to hear that music?  It doesn’t really matter without defining your audience first.  Without defining all those things, it’s a hard question to ask.  What about jazz? Go and listen to Ascension or Giant Steps.  To me, that’s just as strong as that other music.

LB:  Why do we have to limit our discussion to the classical canon?  Music is not necessarily bound anymore, so when we talk about music, it doesn’t feel relevant anymore to only talk about the “Western art tradition” as the only evolved or valuable tradition.  If people feel that way, that’s fine.  I don’t personally happen to feel that way, and I don’t think any of us really do.

RG:  Where does Michael Gordon fit in comparison with any of those other pieces?  How were those other pieces developed?  Were they just developed by themselves?  We don’t actually know one hundred percent.  So maybe we are following in that tradition.  But to compare the Gordon with a string quartet or a symphony or whatever, I don’t even know how that practice of composition is even relatable.

Layers of understanding and meaning accrue over time.

IA:  One thing I would add, though, is that string quartet played some Mendelssohn, or maybe Beethoven, and some Haydn. If you’re comparing that to some repertoire that we play currently—we’ve been rehearsing George Crumb’s piece for the past couple of days.  That piece is from the early ‘70s.  Something that we’ve referenced in our rehearsals is the tradition of playing that piece—like listening to the recording that our teachers made.  Talking about the string quartet repertoire, people have built on many interpretations. There’s now a performance practice that’s been enriched over generations.  I think that’s something that we can see happening with some pieces that maybe are older in our repertoire. Layers of understanding and meaning accrue over time.  There’s also that which you can’t really compare.

NY:  It’s not a value thing.  It’s simply a performance practice question.

RG:  It’s also partly an audience familiarity thing.  To be honest, if you’re familiar with a piece already, like maybe if someone hears composer X’s new piece five or six times over the course of their life, that becomes as important.

LB:  I can definitely attest to the fact that if you’ve never heard Beethoven before, and you hear a Beethoven string quartet, and all you grew up listening to is, say, salsa music, you have a very different reaction to hearing it for the very first time.  And it’s not the same as someone who grew up listening to classical music and going to concerts, or even just being steeped in a certain cultural tradition.  You know, growing up hearing film scores primes your brain to hear instrumental music in a way that if you come from a culture where that’s maybe not as important or as accessible, you’re not going to have that foundation.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you talk about listening to recordings of the Crumb, because one of the things that you’ve done in terms of legacy is that you’ve documented your performances and have made them available through recordings.  You have a disc on Wergo, you recorded a few discs for various independent labels, and you’ve also self-released three recordings—all three last year, in fact!  In an era where—for better or worse—recordings are far less remunerative, this is quite an investment. Do you feel that this is an effective way to get that music out beyond live performance?

IA:  It definitely reaches more people than it would if we didn’t do it.

NY:  I think this very last one, Yarn/Wire/Currents Vol. 3, sold really well. But it’s not about selling, it’s really about people hearing it and saying wow.  And then writing to us.  They’re not just complete strangers, but also colleagues who are being moved and are saying how much they enjoyed the music, how much they love certain pieces.  So I don’t think recordings are over because we cannot play Sam’s piece in every single city.

It’s not about selling, it’s really about people hearing it and saying wow.

RG:  When I was in college, I would buy all those Donaueschingen [Musiktage festival] records, those two to four CD sets.  I had no access to any of that music except through those CDs.  So as we’re generating this music, I was like this could be a really cool thing to be able to do something like what they did.  I mean, it’s nothing compared to Donaueschingen—but to have the music out there, so people could check it out if they don’t see the one concert of that stuff that we’re going to do in New York and maybe never again.  It is a way for people to have access to that music.  It’s really expensive to go into a studio, so what we do is we document the shows and we put it out.  You can donate for the CDs, and for the stream if you want.  But it doesn’t even matter.  Hopefully it’s a way for students and people who just like new music to get to the stuff.  And like Ning said, there’s been a really good response from that. The internet lets you see how many people are listening to stuff, and that’s cool.  But that’s beside the point.  The point is that more people have access to it.  And then you’ve developed this history—a performance practice, like Ian’s talking about.  All these things are part of creating that culture, that community behind the music, so it’s not just this one-off thing.  We spent so much time on it; the more people that get to hear it, the better.

FJO:  Another thing you’re doing to give something back to the community is you’re now off to do a ten-day workshop back at Stony Brook, of all places.  You’ve come full circle.

IA:  We’re going to play ten brand-new pieces by institute participants.

LB:  We and our instrumental participants—all of us together. We’re also going to play a few other—sort of “standard”—pieces. It’s weird to call them standard.

IA:  They’re non-premieres.

Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio holding hand instruments.

Yarn/Wire (from left to right): Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio.

Commissioning Fees Calculator

Commissioning Guide

Commissioning Guide

Ensembles come and go. Venues come and go. Styles and trends, too. And how about that recording industry? The business and technology surrounding new music bear little resemblance to what was standard fifty years ago. But commissions continue, forming an important pillar that supports many composers’ careers.

Cash Week - sm

And so our Commissioning Music: A Basic Guide continues. It’s a modest document, really. A few key ideas and a few numbers delivered in a terse, to-the-point style. It is perhaps this directness and simplicity that has allowed it to last longer than many other things. Even the organization that originally created it has become part of something different. Yet this little guide-that-could is still here, giving composers and commissioners a shared baseline at which to begin their negotiation. It endures as a testament to the vision of Meet The Composer: composing is a profession deserving adequate compensation.

In the spirit of this week of music and money conversation, we present it here in interactive fashion, an offering to set out just what “adequate” means. (If you prefer a document, that’s also still available here.)

For decades, New Music USA’s (formerly Meet The Composer’s) Commissioning Music: A Basic Guide has been an essential and frequently cited reference for commissioning fees. This page is designed to bring you that resource in easy-to-use form. It presents you with typical commissioning ranges for different kinds of projects, from concert music and jazz to dance and video games.

Chicago: Relearning to Listen–New Piano Music for Children

Joann Cho

Joann Cho

For her most recent commissioning project, composer and pianist Joann Cho invited a large group of composers to write a solo piano piece for her. The restrictions for the commissions were fairly simple: each piece needed to be between one and three minutes long, and use the keys of the piano rather than the inside. Most importantly, Cho asked the composers to compose their piece “for children.” The resulting volume of seventeen pieces — called Elaeth Songs in honor of Cho’s infant son -– will have its premiere this Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center. Appropriately, Elaeth Songs will be presented by the Chicago Cultural Center’s Juicebox series, which has the unusual mission of presenting cutting-edge contemporary art in a toddler-friendly setting.

When I heard about Cho’s project, I was moved by the idea of commemorating the birth of a child with a set of commissions. I thought about Bartok’s beautiful set of pedagogical piano pieces for children, Mikrokosmos, and the many other ways that music for children has manifested itself in our art form. I chatted with Cho from the Oak Park home she shares with baby Elaeth and her husband, composer Jonathon Kirk. She was making final preparations for the performance and looking forward to the September release of the Elaeth Songs recording.

How did you initially frame this call for children’s pieces, and how did the composers respond?

I asked composers who had strong compositional identities, many of whom I knew personally. Although at first the project was a little amorphous, when I presented the idea to the composers, they were all very receptive. The restriction of writing for children is a fun idea. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything — you don’t have to change the way you’d compose a piece of music. Some people did [alter their usual language], and some people didn’t. Everyone took something slightly different away from what I asked them to do.

Could you highlight some of the pieces, perhaps ones that had a particularly interesting take on this prompt?

Although I asked for solo piano pieces only, I did have one composer ignore me. And it’s beautiful! The Belgian composer Thomas Smetryns has written a piece that is accompanied by a recording of Swiss cowbells. He wrote a piece that is completely open notation. He’s creating timbres on the piano that are bell-like, combined with the bells of the recording.

My advisor and main teacher at UC-Santa Barbara, Clarence Barlow, wrote me a piece that’s probably one of the more unique pieces in the bunch. Clarence loves to use extramusical ideas, and since Elaeth is half Korean, he started with four traditional folk tunes for children — “Rockabye Baby,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and two traditional Korean children’s tunes. He ends up creating two hybrid melodies throughout, combining the American and the Korean folk tunes. You get this sense throughout the piece where you recognize small motives and phrases from your childhood — you have this strange experience listening to it, exactly because of the juxtaposition.

I understand that Elaeth’s father, Jonathon Kirk, and his grandmother, Linda Kirk, wrote pieces for the collection!

Yes! And Jonathon wrote his piece, Fireflies, before I even prompted him. We were listening to one of Bach’s chorale preludes in the nursery, and Elaeth fell asleep. It’s this beautiful, slow, stately melody. Jonathon was listening to it — and falling asleep himself — and he got the inspiration to use this melody as a basis for his piece. It’s sort of structured like a theme and variations — he has one part in the style of Ligeti, once with a jazz harmonic progression. He places the melody in eight or so different contexts, with these nice transitions between each iteration of the melody.
Elaeth was born into a family and a world of composersI love the fact that I can include works by Elaeth’s closest family members. Jonathon and I are both musicians — we both started out as performers and began composing, we met in music school — so it’s a natural progression for Jonathon to have written a piece for him.

What a lovely family moment to have as a jumping-off point for a piece.

Anytime something like that would happen, we’d have to write it down for the scrapbook. It’s still like that. It’s amazing with a baby how you really notice those moments of calm and quiet. The moment they fall asleep, you finally see things, and you wake up for the first time — you notice.

The concept of time as a series of moments seems particularly important in a set of miniatures – and also in the experience of parenthood.

One thing that I have learned is that I really value time — my time with Elaeth, and also my time alone. All these little ways of compartmentalizing time in my life are really different than before he arrived, and I think doing a project like this also really reminded me that music is something that can transcend that feeling of having less time or more time. You can experience music apart from time.

Did the prompt to write children’s music seem to bring out anything special from the composers you chose?

I think it forced the composers to reflect on their own artistic and creative ideas in a way they hadn’t thought about in a while. Instead of trying to do something new, a lot of them reached into their previous experience. They imagined what they’d want to listen to in its purest form, from a child’s perspective. I don’t see any techniques here that are trying to be something they’re not. The composers worked with elements like harmony and rhythm — these things that we often overly complicate – in a pure and basic way. It reminded me of how children experience harmony and rhythm and form.
Every single piece that I received is completely unique. I was shocked at the diversity of the pieces I received. Even looking at the lullabies – I got several — each one is completely different from the last. These composers, who have established their careers, style, and sound, still have the ability to write a piece, listen to it, and experience the music exactly the way music is experienced by children.

What was the process of preparing these pieces like?

It felt like I was learning how to listen to myself play again for the first time. It was a rediscovery of using my ears to discern how I wanted to play some of these pieces. I was not practicing based on conveying a performance, but with a lot more thoughtful reflection on the music itself.
I was playing a lot for Elaeth — he’s amazing; he responds to all kinds of music — but it’s hilarious because sometimes I’ll play a lullaby. Scott Scharf wrote me this high, ethereal, floaty lullaby and Elaeth started dancing and screaming to it. You never know what kind of effect this type of music will have. I’m not necessarily running the pieces by him, but they were meant to be listened to by him.

Right! How do you imagine this collection, which is kind of a gift to him as well as to yourself, landing with him when he’s old enough to understand?

Actually, my plan is to do this again several more times — not necessarily with the same prompt, but to work with other chamber ensembles and continue to write new music for children. My biggest goal with this project, and doing another volume, would be to allow listeners of new music to be introduced to it without the idea of having to analyze the music. To sort of learn a perspective — not to be afraid of it because it’s in the contemporary classical idiom.

It sounds like your vision for this project expands well beyond what it means for your own family.

I’ve always wanted to include more people in the world where I studied music. I was so inspired at Northwestern when I took my first experimental music class, when we learned about content, and techniques, and zooming in. The course prioritized not only things that were new and edgy and avant-garde, but also an idea of inclusiveness. I’m not saying all contemporary music has to be accessible, or like mainstream popular music. But the first step towards getting to know something is lots of exposure.

Teaching at a community college, I notice now that students are only exposed to what they choose to get exposed to. And people like me are responsible for being advocates. To be exclusive as a contemporary musician or composer seems to me very much against the ideals of the whole reason why we got into it. The idea of including children, including newcomers to this music, is an important concept that’s close to my heart.

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.

Commissioning Music and Stuff

A "pile" of notes from Electric Blue Pantsuit for violin and electronics.

A “pile” of notes from electric blue pantsuit for violin and electronics.

A performer friend and I were recently daydreaming about new possibilities for music commissioning—of chamber music, in particular. She gets frustrated with the long waits involved in seeking grant support for commissioning fees; planning as much as two or three years in advance for something that may or may not actually come through. While I know quite a few composers who have organized consortia of instrumentalists who all chip in money to fund a commission, I always feel slightly uncomfortable about the idea of asking performers to pay for a new piece, when it seems like they should be receiving a fee (and a good fee, to boot) to perform a new work (or any work, for that matter).

My performer friend talked about how great it would be if commissioning music were more a part of everyday life. For instance, if a person commissioned a chamber work as a birthday gift to a partner, or if a community group commissioned a piece as part of an event. While this certainly does happen, it’s not nearly as frequent an occurrence as commissioning a work of visual art, which is fairly commonplace in some circles. What if it became perfectly normal for the tax accountants of wealthy people to say, “You need to rack up a few more beefy expenses this year. How about commissioning some music? Here’s a list of organizations that can help you do that. Go for it!” Or, as my colleague Molly Sheridan has suggested, given that most people of any social stratum have no idea how to go about commissioning a piece of music (the actual piece as opposed to a recording) or other work of art, what about something along the lines of Etsy.com for composers and musicians?

Like I said, daydreaming. In a way, I understand why these scenarios are not realities. People like stuff. Stuff that can be touched, held, hung on a wall, enjoyed by passers by. I like stuff, too. Although in my world music very much counts as “stuff,” the reality is that music is constructed of air and imagination. As physical as it may seem, music can never be touched. However, a physical recording can be touched, as can a score. When Joanne Hubbard Cossa retired from the American Music Center, as a gift she received a box full of notes and score snippets from many of the composers who had been supported by AMC over the years. That was an amazing gift; beautiful, personal, and so interesting. Not exactly music, but the stuff of music.

I wonder if commissioning music would become a more widely accepted activity if, in addition to the music, there was a bit of stuff involved? An autographed score might come with a commission as a matter of course, possibly with a recording at some point, but what if the composer also included some of her or his own earlier scribblings and notes? I realize that in-process twiddlings can be very personal and many composers don’t care to share them, but that material is also something that people outside the process really like; it helps them understand a little bit of how the music comes together. One of the reasons I try to document a bit of the composing process through photos of my music “piles” is because it can provide a little something physical to associate with all of that air. People seem to genuinely enjoy it, and it also serves to gently coax listening in to the actual music.
The biggest question is, of course, how to reach the people who would partake in the commissioning process. Are there any tax accountants out there reading? It’s time to start planting seeds… lots of seeds.

In The Name Of Love

In The Name Of Love
In my household, there are a very few days every year on which new music concerts are expressly forbidden, and today is one of them. (I can’t imagine why.) Considering how many concerts my Much Better Half—I married a civilian—attends with me over the course of twelve months (a large number that is above and beyond the call of duty), I think that having one day off is a totally acceptable scenario.

Today’s thematically related question to composers comes in two parts:

A.) Have you ever written a piece of music for someone? I’m not talking about pieces that are dedicated to performers or to whomever commissioned the work, but rather compositions written specifically for a love interest, or maybe a spouse?
If the answer to A is yes, then:
B.) Did you tell the person the music was written for him or her?

This is always a fun question-set to ask composers (especially when there are cocktails involved!), because many have excellent stories of the pieces they wrote that subtly wove the initials of an unrequited love into melodies throughout their orchestra piece, or that used the same number of woodblocks as the number of years they had been dating, or they included cello in the ensemble because they had a wicked crush on a cellist, etc. Composers do this sort of thing often. And when asked if they actually told the person what was up with that music, everyone without exception (that I’ve asked so far, anyway) has said, “Oh (*insert expletive here*) no! I would/could never do that.”

So who even knows how many people out there have had music written just for them, and them alone, and will never have any idea that it happened?! Actually I don’t disagree with the decision on the part of so many composers to keep quiet; writing music is, for many, an extremely personal, intimate thing, and I think the potential to royally freak out the recipient if s/he is not already close to the composer is quite high, causing an awkward, unpleasant-for-all backfire. (I speak from past experience, ahem). However, I think that writing music for a partner or family member—either to play for themselves or to be performed for them—is a truly awesome thing, and I wish it happened a lot more. Similarly, it would be amazing on numerous levels if more individuals commissioned composers to write pieces as gifts to loved ones. A few years back, a good friend commissioned one of these as a gift for her husband-to-be, and it was performed live at their wedding! Now that is a wedding present.

To keep the questions going:
Have you ever been commissioned to compose a piece of music as a gift to someone?
Would you do this, given the opportunity?
How could you make projects like this happen?

New Commissioning/Publishing Initiative Names First Composer

Zosha Di Castri

Zosha Di Castri. Photo by David Adamcyk, courtesy Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.

“New Voices,” a new creative partnership between the New World Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, and music publisher Boosey & Hawkes designed to identify and nurture emerging composers from the Americas, was officially launched today. Each year, a panel of judges will choose one composer who will be guided through the process of being commissioned and then preparing a new composition for performance. The first composer selected is Zosha Di Castri, a Canadian-born composer and pianist living in New York and currently pursuing doctoral studies in composition at Columbia University. Di Castri will be commissioned to write two new works, one for a chamber ensemble and one for full orchestra. Both of her new pieces will be workshopped and premiered by the New World Symphony and then rehearsed and performed by the San Francisco Symphony in the fall of 2013. Both performances of her orchestral work will be conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, who is artistic director of the New World Symphony and music director of the San Francisco Symphony. During the process, the composer will receive editorial guidance in the preparation of scores and parts from Boosey & Hawkes as well as learn about commission contract preparation, copyright registration, and licensing procedures, plus how to promote the music through publicity and marketing strategies. Additionally, the composer will have significant access to, and guidance from, the presenters’ artistic teams.

Zosha Di Castri (b. 1985) composes both instrumental, mixed, and purely electronic music, as well as interdisciplinary works. Di Castri’s orchestral work Alba received its world premiere at the 2011 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, commissioned in honor of Marin Alsop’s 20th anniversary there by composer John Adams and funded by a special gift from him and Deborah O’Grady. Her compositions have additionally been performed by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the Internationale Ensemble Modern Akademie, l’Orchestre de la francophonie canadienne, Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, JACK Quartet, and the Orchestre National de Lorraine. She has also participated in residencies at the Banff Center, the New Music Session at Domaine Forget, and the National Arts Centre’s composition program. Di Castri was recently named a laureate of the 3rd International Composer’s Competition for the Hamburger Klangwerktage Festival, and is currently composer-in-residence for Ensemble Portmantô. Upcoming projects involve a performance by members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic through the Green Umbrella Series, a vocal work for the New York-based Ekmeles singers, and a commission from the Electric Noise duo for flute, piano, and electronics to be premiered at Cluster Festival 2012 (Winnipeg, Canada). Prior to moving to New York City, Di Castri lived in Paris where she pursued further musical studies after completing a bachelor’s degree in composition and piano performance at Montreal’s McGill University. Her composition teachers have included Brian Cherney, Philippe Hurel, Fabien Lévy, and Tristan Murail; she is currently studying with Fred Lerdahl.

“For a young composer, having the opportunity to work with two such forward-looking orchestras and a renowned publishing company on both a new orchestral work and a piece for chamber ensemble is practically unheard of,” notes Zosha Di Castri. “I’m particularly interested in investigating the vast sound potential of the orchestra, a medium that is relatively new for me, and am looking forward to digging into a chamber work of substantial length. It will also be very productive to be able to revise my works between the East and West Coast premieres; young composers rarely have the chance to hear their orchestral works played at all, let alone twice. Most of all, I am excited to meet the musicians, work under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, and learn more about the publishing world.”

To select the composers chosen for the “New Voices” initiative, a preliminary panel identifies composers and invites them to submit portfolios. The panel is made up of: Zizi Mueller, president, Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.; John Mangum, director, artistic planning, San Francisco Symphony; and Doug Merilatt, senior vice president for artistic planning and programs, New World Symphony. The final selection, however, is made by Michael Tilson Thomas and a panel of American composers and industry leaders. For the inaugural panel, Tilson Thomas was joined by composers John Adams, Steven Mackey, and Steven Stucky.

(—from the press release)

Ring of Fire

Indulge me in a thought experiment.

We’re at a high school in a wealthy exurban district. It’s standardized test season. The stakes are high: Competitive merit-based scholarships hang in the balance. But all is not as it seems; little do the teachers know that a ring of students have organized a scheme to cheat on the exam. One student in particular is the beneficiary of this scheme. He’s no fool, and he probably could have achieved a very strong score on his own if he hadn’t been so busy with other obligations, but in this case he’s leaning heavily on answers provided by his friends. His buddies all do OK—none of them wind up digging ditches after graduation—but this particular student, who boasts not only formidable test results but also a compelling and exotic narrative of the sort that admissions personnel can’t resist, wins a hefty scholarship to attend a prestigious school.

When the ring is eventually exposed, the promising trajectory our successful student seemed to be on is spoiled, maybe permanently. His friends are in trouble too, but in the context of the scandal they come off looking more like saps than like diabolical cheaters. However, mustn’t we ask whether the system that stratifies rewards and opportunities so pitilessly, one whose legitimacy is supposed to rest on its meritocratic process but plainly doesn’t, deserves to have most of the fingers pointed at it?

I don’t like Osvaldo Golijov’s music. I think his musical identity-politics synthesizes and presents a phony solution to the real political problems of globalization. (Almost all writings by or on Golijov, including the Amarillo Symphony program note Rob Deemer mentioned in his comprehensive and very fair post last week, will bolster this impression.) However, in the past I always had to give him his props: He did well for himself in a field whose upper echelon admits very few. The institutions who raised him up on their shoulders and offered him lavish paydays saw something in him, evidently, that they found value in. For better or worse, they wanted Golijov.

But they didn’t get him, as it turns out: They got his well-meaning friends, who must be even more embarrassed than Golijov by this whole squalid thing. The foundation of the mainstream contemporary music economy is that famous composers can get enormous consortium commissions because arts organizations acknowledge them as singular, integral creative subjectivities. In other words, large classical music organizations—businesses accountable for dozens if not hundreds of livelihoods apiece—are willing to deal with a composer who misses deadlines and blows off projects because he putatively has something unique and meaningful to say that a (relatively) wide audience ought to hear. My hope is that this situation prompts arts organizations to have a good hard think about this notion: It would probably be much cheaper, not to mention fairer, to commission Michael Ward-Bergman next time.

Truth and Consequences

The very concept of artistic originality is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before Beethoven, composers considered themselves craftspeople. Mozart’s position in the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg was officially above the cooks but below the valets, and Bach produced a cantata a week for over two years, in addition to his other composing and performing duties. (When I think about this latter fact, it completely boggles my mind, because I don’t think I could copy a score and parts by hand for a cantata a week, much less with a quill pen, while actually composing the work itself.) While earlier composers were writing for specific occasions with no expectation that their works would survive that single performance, the Romantic era ushered in a newfound obsession with originality of voice and the idea of artistry as being born out of original creative obsession. This 19th-century notion of artistic value continues to hold sway.

It’s important to remember the central position occupied by the concept of the composerly voice in discussions of artistic merit when considering the current discussions around the borrowing within Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus. Already, many people have weighed in on the issues raised by Golijov’s indebtedness to Michael Ward-Bergeman’s Barbeich, including Rob Deemer’s “A Real Mess,” an excellent assessment of the situation complete with an easy-to-follow history of the commission on NewMusicBox, Anne Midgette’s “From Pastiche to Appropriation,” and Alex Ross’s “The Golijov Issue.” If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, I suggest that you read all of these well-reasoned and objective articles about a difficult issue: whether Golijov’s creative sins reach the level of artistic crimes. Of course, I’m not accusing Golijov of an actual crime. Indeed, it appears that he very careful assured himself of operating within the letter of the law, including crafting an agreement with Ward-Bergeman that remains satisfactory to both parties. Still, I maintain that Golijov’s approach to Sidereus was wrong and that the new music community should continue to pressure him to openly address the situation.

I have known Golijov’s music for over 20 years. When I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing the music of their doctoral students in an orchestration/composition class led by Crumb and on their graduate student recitals. The skill and creativity among the student composers continually astonished me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the new works by such students as Jennifer Higdon, Pierre Jalbert, and Robert Maggio. To me, Golijov’s music stood head and shoulders above all the others, and I became such a strong fan that I even asked him for recordings of etudes that he composed for our class. When I stumbled upon the Kronos Quartet recording of his Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, the way that he updated the Klezmer sound with beautiful extended techniques and evocative string writing renewed my adoration of his music. Soon thereafter, I began to read about his La Pasiòn and was happy to discover that his music was reaching a wider audience. However, when I finally was able to hear the piece for myself, I was left feeling very cold about the whole experience. I could understand how the collaborative nature of the work might excite others, but to me it felt like the Venezuelan and contemporary classical elements never cohered and that the whole was less than the sum of its parts. For me, all of his music that followed had a similar issue in that the pieces appeared to be style amalgamations rather than composed works. For years, I kept trying to find the spark that had first kindled my love for his music, but each new work left me feeling colder and colder.

La Pasiòn functioned as a collaboration in which roughly half of the artistry of the work derived from the incredible performances of the Luciana Souza and the Schola Cantorum de Caracas. The nature of the work seemed clear: Golijov brought these amazing performers into the concert hall sphere and surrounded them with musical materials that allowed them to express their excellent musicality. That they stood on stage and performed as part of the piece helped to maintain the central notion of the work as one that unified various, seemingly disparate elements.

To me, the central problem with Sidereus is that Golijov now seeks to hide the contributions of his collaborative artists. In essence, he utilized Ward-Bergeman as a ghostwriter in the tradition of Robert Ludlum’s posthumous novels or an “as told to” autobiography. This practice is widely accepted in literature and shouldn’t be problematic in the slightest, except in situations like Charles Barkely’s 1991 “autobiography” Outrageous, co-written by Roy S. Johnson, which Barkely maintains misquoted him in several passages. The distinction is this: no one ever would consider Ludlum for a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and no ghostwritten autobiography would be eligible for a National Book Award. Golijov has enjoyed extraordinary accolades from organizations like the MacArthur Foundation and the Grammy Awards, while not being honest about the amount of responsibility he bears for the works under his name.

At this moment, I must believe that Golijov was aware that his borrowing was wrong and that he tried to hide it. First, although he does credit Ward-Bergeman in a program note available on the Boosey website, he does so in a manner that is entirely misleading. Golijov writes:

For the “Moon” theme I used a melody with a beautiful, open nature, a magnified scale fragment that my good friend and longtime collaborator, accordionist Michael Ward Bergeman came up with some years ago when we both were trying to come up with ideas for a musical depiction of the sky in Patagonia. I then looked at that theme as if through the telescope and under the microscope, so that the textures, the patterns from which the melody emerges and into which it dissolves, point to a more molecular, atomic reality. Like Galileo with the telescope, or getting close to Van Gogh’s brushstrokes.

To call this misleading is somewhat generous, for when you listen to the two pieces side by side the later work orchestrates the melody and accompaniment without changes to the melody itself, to the harmony, or even to the arpeggiation pattern, but with an additional introduction and coda. Golijov eschews such basic variation techniques as ornamenting the melody or interpolating passing harmonies between the structural chords. When I try to imagine the sort of compositional techniques Golijov describes in his program note, I keep returning to one of my favorite works of the 20th century, a piece that takes a traditional melody and puts it through exactly the sorts of processes Golijov describes, the second movement of Olly Wilson’ s masterpiece A City Called Heaven.

In addition, in 2009 Golijov “wrote” a commission for WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Inaugural Concert for Ethel and Michael Ward-Bergeman called Radio. In this interview and performance John Schaefer believes that the work was composed specifically for the event while Golijov nervously laughs a little as he credits Ward-Bergeman and Jeremy Flower as collaborators who “not only are performing but also were creating perhaps the best parts of the piece” (at the 55 second mark of the linked video). That he credits both of these artists similarly adds yet another disturbing layer, for it makes me wonder if the interesting electronics layered in the introduction of the piece, beginning at the 4:04 mark of the linked video, were created by Flower or by Golijov. When you listen to the now-famous music beginning at 6:44, you will undoubtedly realize that not only was Sidereus an unoriginal work, it was not even a new Golijov composition.

The fact that Golijov continues to change the title of the piece as it moves through its various orchestrations forces me to believe that he intended to cover his tracks, to hide the fact that he continues to recycle the works of other composers while taking credit for their work. I hope that he addresses these issues soon and that we continue to discuss the issues of what we expect when we commission an original work from a single composer.