Tag: composer-performer collaborations

Then, Now, Tomorrow: Collaboration in Writing Music for Student Players

(Text by Belinda Reynolds with video content by Ashley Killam)

I first wrote about the lack of works by living composers for younger players 15 years ago. Fast forward to today. Sadly, essentially nothing has changed. Contemporary music is still desperately needed in the teaching repertoire for most orchestral instruments.

Back then, I addressed the problem by creating a set of progressive level instrumental books, called CUSTOM MADE MUSIC SERIES (CMM). The 6th book has just been published by PRB Productions: CUSTOM MADE MUSIC VOLUME 6 – 10 Progressive Solos and Duos for Trumpet. Using this new CMM addition as a guidepost, I wish to share with you some tips on how to successfully compose for student players and make a lasting difference in new music for all of us in today’s challenging times.

Step One:
In approaching composing at the student level, find a collaborator who is both a player and a teacher of your chosen instrument(s). They will bring the expertise and knowledge needed to help you create a project that can make lasting change in the pedagogical repertoire. They can come from any avenue in your life – a former teacher, a colleague, a friend, a connection, anywhere! For my new project I collaborated with trumpet player/music educator/new music advocate Ashley Killam (she/her). She actually found me when she was researching composers to be listed in her open source music catalog of brass music by underrepresented composers. We wound up having a conversation about students and the trumpet repertoire and I asked her if she would be interested in being the Editor of a new CUSTOM MADE MUSIC book for trumpet. She was and thus began our project.

Watch the video below to hear Ashley’s point of view on the CUSTOM MADE MUSIC collaboration.

Step Two:
Together identify the technical gaps in the pedagogical repertoire of the instrument(s) you both wish to approach with your project. In this case, Ashley immediately knew what was needed, thanks to her extensive experience in working with music students and teachers across the country and in her studio. After a Zoom session and a few emails we decided to create a book mostly containing solos and some additional duos for three levels of trumpet players: beginners, late beginners, and early intermediate learners.

With each work I introduced the basic techniques that Ashley said were essential concepts for young trumpeters to master. I also kept all of the compositions limited to a one octave range because it was the maximum reach for most beginner players. All of these issues were addressed in composing a tasty melody for them to play. For me such challenges are creativity drivers; I believe in the motto “Limits Create Possibilities”.

Watch the video below to hear Ashley describe in more detail the ins and outs we addressed in the creation of these new compositions along with her playing one of the solos for beginner, “Carefree.”

Step Three:
Do workshops during the entirety of the creation of your composition(s). From day one I included Ashley almost as an equal partner, for I believe that bringing musicians into the creation of a new piece just makes for a higher quality composition. This is almost essential when composing for students. I learned this during my 25 years as a member of Common Sense Composers Collective, as well as with my own independent career. Ashley found this approach to be extremely rewarding, nourishing and a wonderful creative outlet for her. Together, along with her students, we ironed out the kinks and even found some new possibilities for some of the pieces. The results, we feel, are a stellar group of small pieces that young trumpet players can easily learn and gain technical skills while doing so. Take a look/listen below to one of the pieces that came to its true ‘life’, thanks to workshopping it:

Step Four:
Beta test all of your project before you bring it to its premiere and to market, so to speak. After workshopping your music, before it hits the limelight have the intended students or a similar group of learners “test” out your pieces. These young players are the final arbitrator of whether your music will or won’t work for them, regardless of what you and your collaborator have done thus far. What may seem idiomatic to a professional can sometimes seem weird and awkward to a newcomer. Ashley did this with many of her students, who gave her insights as to what articulations to finally use in some of the works.

Step Five:
Be enterprising and do tons of outreach and marketing to insure your project lives beyond the first performance/publication release. All too often a new music gem is lost into the past after its premiere because nobody pushed hard and long enough to give it a foothold in the repertoire. Compared to 15 years ago, marketing is easier than ever thanks to social media and other internet resources. Both you and your partner must utilize these tools. Urge your friends to help and reach out to all of your professional contacts that may have interest or contributions to make to your release. Outreach in the music education community is also essential, even more than ads. Get your music into the hands of teachers via networking with educational organizations, instrumental guilds, and music conventions, among other areas. Bring it to classrooms and teaching studios with creative workshops showcasing your project from the start to the finish. Folks love to know how something works before they purchase it! Once your project is ready for the public both you and your collaborator must invest in the time and effort to do these actions; creating room in the repertoire of an instrument is a long term investment. You must get fans of your project on board, those who teach the instrument(s) and those who play it/them.

I hope this presentation will inspire you to try writing at the student level. Don’t worry if you think your style is not ‘kid-friendly’. I have found that EVERY style can be student friendly if it is tested and presented in a way as to welcome the learner into its universe and not alienate them. Young players are mostly more open to the sounds of new music than their older counterparts. Your efforts will plant the seeds for long term sustainable growth of new music in both today’s and tomorrow’s professional players and audiences. In addition, it will help both your creative skills and your career trajectory as an artist. I have received numerous performances and commissions thanks to the reputation of my work in composing music for younger players. I welcome you to try this venture!

The cover for the latest volume in Belinda Reynolds's Custom Made Music Series: 10 Progressive Solos and Duos for Trumpet, edited by Ashley Killam

Belinda Reynolds, Composer
Raised in a Texan-Florida Air Force family, Belinda Reynolds (she/her) now considers herself an “adopted native” of California. Her music is performed worldwide and has been featured in such festivals as Lincoln Center’s Great Performers Series, the Spoleto Music Festival, and many more. As a Music Educator Ms. Reynolds is in demand nationwide helping children learn to create music. For more information, go to www.belindareynolds.com.

Ashley Killam, Editor
Ashley Killam (she/her) is an international speaker, researcher, and educator based in Radford, Virginia. Killam is President of Diversity the Stand and General Manager of Rising Tide Music Press. Killam’s work centers around educating musicians on the importance of making ethical and sustainable changes in performing and teaching music. For more information, go to www.ashleykillam.com.

The Flauto d’Amore Project: A New Language for New Communication

Flauto d'Amore

How does a nearly forgotten Baroque instrument generate a wave of connection through the antipodes of the world in 2020?

On this last January 1st many of us (including, most obviously, me) were cheering to the new decade, the return of the Roaring Twenties, to a year charged with bearings of hope of change, evolution, liberation. Our expectations were far more glamorous than PJs and Zoom with a pinch of confined existentialism. 2020 took the most dramatic stumble in its incipit, from which it seems to not be able to recover yet, as in one of those grandiose slips down the stairs that keep bouncing you down and down for an apparently infinite time. And yet, the stubborn beauty that forces itself out of any circumstance has revealed itself in the form of resilience, connection, and creativity – despite the situation, or most probably because of it.

The experience I had through my living-room-directed Flauto d’Amore Project during the pandemic lockdown has been a journey of overwhelming inspiration, and of constant wonder.

When I began the Flauto d’Amore Project in 2018, my goal was to bring new life to an instrument that fell into the cracks of history in the 19th century, and lost its opportunity at any modern or contemporary repertoire. Considered the true voice of flute playing by J.J. Quantz, who in his monumental Versuch on woodwind playing writes that the sound of the flute “should resemble the voice of the alto rather than the soprano, and mimic the chest sound of the human voice,” the flauto d’amore was a companion instrument to the viola d’amore, oboe d’amore, and even the clavicembalo d’amore that were all the rage throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. It was beloved and regularly utilized by major Baroque composers (François Couperin, J. S. Bach, Telemann, Graupner, and Hasse to name a few), as well as by Romantic salon virtuosos. One of the most mesmerizing dances from Aida was scored by Giuseppe Verdi for three flauti d’amore (in 1871!).

The flauto d’amore lived on for centuries thanks to its fascinating, unmistakable sound, and yet, just as great artists at times unjustly fade away from the memory of the public, this instrument’s popularity waned as the flute system revolution occurred toward the end of the 19th century. Theobald Böhm, the father of the modern flute, invented the alto flute in G, which ended up replacing the flauto d’amore in the general flutist’s arsenal, despite its very different characteristics.

It takes visionary minds to bring new life to buried potential: in 1989 the vision of Italian flute scholar Gian-Luca Petrucci (if you are noticing a last name correspondence, yes – it is my father), and that of Albert Cooper, a legendary flute artisan of the 20th century, came together, and the flauto d’amore was reborn, through the very first modern system prototype, dreamt up and designed to give new resonance to a long muted voice.

The Flauto d’Amore Project was created in synergy with composer Nathan Hudson with the goal of creating a space for direct collaboration between composers and performers in the exploration of a sound that had, so far, no precedents in new music. It became clear from the very start that the most unique element of this initiative would have been the feeling of mutual wonder at the discovery of the potential of the instrument in the most disparate genres and styles. Working closely with wildly different composers for the mapping of an elusive instrument, a totally uncharted territory, yielded results that bewildered performers, audience, and often the composers themselves.

With the wildfire quality of good ideas, this one sparked up on the New York subway, on a bumpy evening ride on the uptown A train. By the time my final stop came, the structure was there, and in the morning we started making calls. We looked at the composers who were closer to us, those whose intellect and craft we most respected, and who we’d know would sit down to listen to what in the years became to be known as “The Spiel” – the explanation ab ovo about the instrument etc., which you have in fact just read in digital form. We gave the very first rough version of The Spiel to Gleb Kanasevich, Max Grafe, and Liliya Ugay who, together with in-house Nathan Hudson, formed the OG pioneer group in the exploration of the instrument. The first premiere recital happened a few months later, and offered the NY audience a very first taste of a new sound through four entirely different lenses. Since then, we have added to our roster of composers Erin Rogers, James Young, Nirmali Fenn, Clint Needham, Howie Kenty, Chris Bill, Flannery Cunningham, Sunny Knable, Roger Zare – and across the pond Italian composer David Fontanesi, who scored the second movement of his Academic Concerto for flauto d’amore.

Ginevra Petrucci performing on the flauto d'amore at a live in-person house concert, prior to the pandemic.

Back when there were live in-person indoor concerts.


When the pandemic hit, we wanted to have this instrument become a communal element for artists stuck in their studios all over the world to find creative stimulation, and to come together through a remote collaboration to explore something new, removed in so many ways from their physical reach, but present in their imaginations as a trigger of exploration.

In mid March we launched a call for scores through social media, asking that composers with no limitations in age, geography, background, style, or education write a 1-2 minute piece for flauto d’amore, pledging I would record and premiere them within 48 hours of receiving them. Here we saw the unexpected happen – yet another unexpected in the year of expectation-shattering: we had over 30 artists from all over the US, as well as from the heart of Europe and all the way from Thailand shower us with pieces – which made for a very busy month of daily video-recording and premiering. (Since I recorded all pieces on a rolling basis, I was able to premiere a piece every day!)

  • The stubborn beauty that forces itself out of any circumstance has revealed itself in the form of resilience, connection, and creativity.

    Ginevra Petrucci, flutist
  • My goal was to bring new life to an instrument that fell into the cracks of history.

    Ginevra Petrucci, flutist
  • I was able to premiere a piece every day ... for a month.

    Ginevra Petrucci, flutist

In their inherent differences, the pieces all showed a yearning for the creative process, for new inspiration, and for the experimentation of a sonic ground unexplored, non experienced, remote in all senses – but enticing, captivating, challenging, desired. We had established composers such as Joe Sferra from SUNY Potsdam, Italian academic scholar Federico Favali, Iranian-born Rouzbeh Rafie, David Mastikosa from Bosnia-Herzegovina; with Eric Malmquist we envisioned a remote-duet for Baroque and modern flauto d’amore, which we put together with Leighann Daihl Ragusa who owns a Baroque flauto d’amore (still in A, but tuned at A=415 Hz). We had a cohort of talented composers from Bangkok (miracles and mysteries of Facebook algorithms!). We collaborated with Lebanese poet Hyam Yared for Marco Buongiorno Nardelli’s electronic piece based on her work and featuring fragments of her recitation. We joined forces with the New York Composer’s Circle for a feature collaboration with selected composers from the collective. We even had a little venture into blues with a composer offering their original tune for flauto d’amore, trumpet, and bass.

Receiving, practicing, recording and premiering this outpour of works in a time when physical movement was confined and our mind felt compelled to reimagine its potential within constrained boundaries, has been one of the most inspiring experiences of our careers. The sense of invisible connection with artists at the corners of our suffering globe, coming together through one communal element, connecting their energies to create some beauty at times of hardships, has made me (and I would say, all of us) feel more “together” than we would have felt during normal times. The feedback we received from a great number of the composers involved in this project showed that relief was offered and absorbed, energies were exchanged, beauty and hope were created.

The cover image for the Flauto d'Amore project's recording "Creativity Quarantine"

Once we closed the call for scores, we re-recorded all the pieces in higher audio quality in order to issue two Bandcamp albums, Creativity Quarantine Volumes I and II. We donated the proceeds from the two albums to the New Music USA Solidarity Fund, and proceeded then to publish a vast selection of the works in two collections for the Flauto d’Amore Editions, so to make this music available to a wider public (including versions for standard flute and alto).

During the same period we also had a chance to take part in Gabriela Lena Frank’s initiative #GLFCAMGigThruCOVID, where I had the luck to be paired with the wonderful composer Aida Shirazi, whose style and aesthetic really shone in her “Miniature” for unaccompanied flauto d’amore.

The arts community has come together in ways that would have seemed far fetched if discussed over our last New Year’s Eve champagne toast. It was – it is – an uproar of desire of making art to erase, to elevate, to heal, to empower. The New Twenties are still roaring after all.

a flauto d'amore

The flauto d’amore looks almost identical to a regular flute, if you disregard the slightly larger size.

Toward a Music of the Spheres

My summer project: write a piece for solo violin influenced by Bach’s Chaconne in D minor. It’s August and I can finally turn my head to a collaboration with Polish violinist Kinga Augustyn for a concert in mid November. I’d sketched a few phrases after listening to her recording of the Telemann Sonatas—which, by the way, made me a new Telemann fan. And now, I turn my attention to the Bach Chaconne—how great!  But does this fit with my initial sketch? Or how does it fit? Where? What? When? Why?

I listen to the Chaconne over and over, both entranced and mystified by it.  Looking at the score, I want to know its secrets.  How does it make the effect it does?  What does this cyclic form mean in the hands of Bach, with his deep spiritual life?  What patterns can I find? How does each small thing relate to the whole? I sense a cumulative meaning as themes return, carrying different meaning over time. I find some overarching processes that echo through the macro and the micro.

I’m struck by Bach’s use of opposites, and how consistency is consistently broken.

I’m struck by Bach’s use of opposites, and how consistency is consistently broken. Pairs of opposites emerge throughout the Chaconne. In the macro, D minor becomes D major. The dotted rhythm of the opening goes through diminution and augmentation and leads eventually to the culminating “trumpet call” of the dotted eighth and sixteenth near the end of the piece.  In the micro, pairs of phrases end high then low, counterpoint above leads to counterpoint below, syncopated rhythms appear in palindrome (just like in jazz!), lingering embellishments become forward-moving scalar passages

I realize why the Chaconne seems to unfold organically.  It’s because it does!  As Bach breaks his established patterns with an anomaly, he develops the new element.  Sometimes the thing is a small change, a surprise—the repeated chord progression acquires variation as embellishments gnarl their way through the harmony. Sometimes it changes the trajectory, or leads to a culmination.

Not to be too literal, but I am often struck by the seeming metaphorical connection between musical process and effect, leading me to muse about the correspondence between physical science and our supposedly abstract art of music, which dances again around my fascination with the idea of the Music of the Spheres: What does it mean?  Different things in different ages, but is any one of these complete?  Does it relate to the new physics and its String Theory, which builds upon the fact that everything is vibration, and suggests that the universe is a vibrating symphony? Is this the unified theory that Einstein was searching for, a completely quantifiable universe, yet so vast and interrelated that it is still ultimately unknowable.

In my first sketches, I work with some of the elements I’ve noticed in Bach’s writing: pairs of phrases, with a sense of development by their end.  As I try to emulate Bach, I become more and more aware of his finesse at keeping this potentially static form going more than 60 times round the four-bar pattern! How did he do it? In many subtle and ingenious ways.

I track the phrasing.  In the opening, each pair of four-bar phrases begins identically, but the second one ends differently and as the new material is developed, it brings forward momentum to the unchanging aspects of the four-bar cycles.  The form becomes a many-layered experience that reflects back upon itself and also forward into uncharted territory.

About half way through the piece, he breaks this pattern. A group of three phrases leads out of the minor into major.  Knowing Bach’s “music for the glory of God” worldview, I can’t help but think of this as a reference to the trinity. This anomaly leads us to the new, now on a more macro level. There’s a sense of endless variation as Bach plays out this process, introducing a changing element amid the unchanging.

In the big picture, the rhythmic flow of the piece is formed by its mysterious opening. Bach skews the momentum. He begins on the second beat, but doesn’t end on the downbeat as expected to complete the 3/4 bar with a sense of finality.  Instead the piece ends on beat two, a little beyond the known, as though passing itself off into the ether and leaving an air of mystery. What now? Will it begin again? Perhaps, in inner hearing, it will—seemingly out of nowhere as it did initially, a tonic (home) chord on an upbeat moving to a dominant (away) chord on the downbeat, leading us forward through the life of the piece.

I notice how the music crests and falls in a series of culminating points.  It quickens until you think it can go no further, then pulls back into itself in stately half notes, and points yet again onward, round the cyclic form, the four-bar pattern of the chaconne, the cyclic form of life, glancing both forward and backward, returning to the same place, yet experiencing it differently. “And the circle, it goes round and round.”

Bach described himself as a musical scientist.  I can only think what that meant to him, living as he did in the late Baroque poised on the Enlightenment: a spiritual, metaphysical world transitioning to the rational perspective we generally assume today. I imagine his thinking carried the wisdom of his nature, looking both forward and backward to the traditions surrounding him.

We are still trying to heal the dichotomy brought about by our rational, enlightenment-style thinking.

We are still trying to heal the dichotomy brought about by our rational, enlightenment-style thinking.  Scientists have been hard at work trying to prove what mystics long intuited, and it seems to be coming together in our time. Maybe String Theory is right and this spiritual connection which we sense in music, is indeed a rational supposition.  Not either/or, but both/and, connecting science and the mysterious, unknowable creation and continuance of the universe.


So what was I to do with all this?  Fascination turned to fear, a daunting task ahead.  I’d been blown away by how Bach took this repetitive form and developed it so profoundly. I aspired toward such a depth.  Could I do it? And how?  The answer that came: Be yourself (a good answer to any question)! Write your piece; let him be an inspiration.  You don’t have to write a chaconne. Time to get rational, choose some elements and processes you learned from him.

Kinga Augustyn wearing a red dress to which a violin-shaped pin is affixed and holding a violin and bow in front of a shelf filled with violins.

Kinga Augustyn

From the time I’d first heard Kinga’s recording of the Telemann Sonatas, I’d wanted to do something that had the gestural, improvisatory feel of Baroque ornamentation but in a more jagged, 21st-century way.  Something that would show her sensitive musicianship and virtuosity, and her nuanced use of the bow that brings a vocal quality to her playing at times.

Be yourself (a good answer to any question)!

As in the Bach, I wanted the music to be a many-layered experience and to have a sense of organic growth, to be both cyclic and developing, to reflect on its themes like memory does, and to move into uncharted territory. Kinga’s understanding of historical styles would allow me a wide range of musical styles; I was happy for that.  And in a practical way, with deadline looming, I wanted to be able to integrate what I’d already written with these new ideas.  Necessity is the mother of invention, not a new thing!

I usually find my way into a piece by getting a sense of its emotional terrain or trajectory, but now I struck out on a different path and chose form to give me a sense of direction.  To integrate the Bach-like phrases with my initial sketches, I decided to intersperse them in a kind of modified rondo form with the goal of attaining a sense of development over the course of the piece.  Like Bach, I’d develop a new element in each new section.  To help get the sense of reflection and development, repetition might include variation. The piece would culminate at the end by quoting the beginning of the Bach Chaconne.

I’d keep in mind the underlying processes that I’d found most striking in the Bach, but I would write freely and intuitively by playing off of things I’d noticed in the Bach and then spin them in whatever ways suited me. I settled on a title, Turning In Time. The music opens with pairs of phrases, though not always of equal length.  This pattern is broken when the first Bach-like phrase enters, standing alone in its four bars.  I referenced Bach’s characteristic dotted rhythm in my own Bach-like phrases, and played with shifting the rhythmic emphasis, a technique I’d noticed in the Chaconne.  I used the idea of a characteristic rhythm, and chose a quintuplet, adding unity to the piece when it returns as a pass-through to another destination, as a declamation on the downbeat, and later developed it into its own section.

Opposites abound.  In the macro, the form I’d chosen gives a sense of opposites through its juxtapositions, where the Bach-like phrases are regular and mine, more jagged and inconsistent.  As in the Chaconne, major comes as a relief to the minor in these Bach-like sections as the piece draws to a close. Augmentation and diminution are used throughout to develop the motifs, sometimes unfolding in a minimalist line, other times when the motif returns. The use of high and low becomes a feature of the piece as phrases end high and then low, or are repeated at the octave.

I emulated Bach by accelerating into arpeggiando near the end of the piece, a contrapuntal line emerging in the upper register.  Changing meters abound, but the music is generally in 3/4, as is the Chaconne.  The meter is most clear in the Bach-like sections, where it remains consistent. To highlight the difference between the 21st century and the Baroque, Bach-like phrases are at a slightly slowed tempo. I think of Turning In Time as a conversation between the “then” and “now,” our time and his.

Now that I had a cyclic form, and ways to develop it, it got me thinking about time and cycles in life, and how the same things, events, etc., carry different meaning over time.  And again, of the Music of the Spheres as a correspondence between musical processes and life processes.

Debra Kaye's solo violin score covered with a variety of emojis.

Kinga Augustyn’s markup of Debra Kaye’s solo violin score.

Reclimbing the Heaven Ladder

The idea for playing some joint recitals with Terry Riley was conceived in January 2017 when I met up with him at one of his solo concerts at Los Angeles’ Geffen Contemporary gallery. His twin grandchildren, Simone and Misha, were with him, and I was delighted to meet them. Until that day I had only known of them as the newborns who inspired the eponymous first and final movements of The Heaven Ladder, Book VII, Terry’s 35-minute pianistic tour-de-force completed in 1994. It was a piece that had been commissioned through a Meet the Composer/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Grant by four pianists from around the country: Kathleen Supové, Stephen Drury, Charles Wells, and me. Kathleen had scheduled a June 1995 world premiere of the piece in NYC, and I gave its West coast premiere in October and recorded it for Telarc shortly afterwards.

“You mostly play written music and I almost always improvise.”

During our brief conversation at the Geffen, Terry and I agreed that it had been far too many years since I had performed the suite in full—and why not plan do so the following season in a concert that we’d play together? I would be the “opening act,” playing Terry’s Two Piano Pieces (1958/1959), The Walrus in Memoriam (1991, rev. 1993, written for Aki Takahashi’s Beatles project on EMI Records and based on “I Am the Walrus”), and the complete Heaven Ladder, Book 7. Terry would then take the stage with two semi-improvised pieces, Requiem for Wally (1997) and Simply M (2007). For our first such performance in March 2018, on the Los Angeles-based Piano Spheres series, Terry completed a 4-hands finale in the form of Cheng Tiger Growl Roar.  In an email as he was working on it, he wrote, “It will be a challenge as you mostly play written music and I almost always improvise, but I am sure it will be great and hopefully fun for both of us.”

In his youth Terry pursued training as a classical pianist; the renowned Bay Area-based Adolph Baller was one of his teachers. (As a student at Stanford some years later, I also studied with Baller.)  An online recording from Terry’s U.C. Berkeley Master’s degree performance of his Two Piano Pieces (1958/1959) reveals that he was already a stunning virtuoso destined to perform and compose extensively for the piano. Yet 35 years would pass before he composed his next fully notated piano piece, The Heaven Ladder, Book VII.

In terms of the stylistic and technical requirements for the pianist, the piece poses formidable challenges. The five movements are highly contrasting in style. “Misha’s Bear Dance” is a polymetric romp with “Russian” overtones. “Venus in ’94” is, in Terry’s words, “a waltz-scherzo with a somewhat edgy quality to its romanticism. Its beauty comes with a price-tap of quite a hazardous course, requiring the pianist to execute wide but delicate leaps through its intricate voicings and rhythms.” “Ragtempus Fugatis,” as its title implies, is a ragtime fugue that is labyrinthine and good-natured. “Fandango on the Heaven Ladder,” is a sensual Spanish-flavored fantasy. And finally, “Simone’s Lullaby,” is a tender love letter to Terry’s newborn grand-daughter.

The original score pages of The Heaven Ladder, Book 7, contained minimal performance indications or expressive markings. Terry has always been an awe-inspiring improviser who spins gorgeous, elaborate narratives out of the sparsest, if any, of printed instructions. I am not. I’m an interpreter—my imagination gets aroused by being the actor, not the playwright. Nonetheless, Terry’s directive on the title page of The Heaven Ladder, “Dynamics and phrasing should be worked out by the performer or in collaboration with the composer,” proved to be a daunting task.

Over the course of several months and with frequent changes of mind, I scribbled instructions to myself in Terry’s unadorned urtext, eventually making my own personal “edition” of the piece. It wasn’t only the dynamics and phrasing that required coordinated calibrating. Terry had left open any number of questions both big and small about pedaling, articulation, touch, pacing, tone color, movement order, and the essential nature and shape of his expressive forms. Balancing all of those elements in support of his massive 5-movement architectural design took a lot of experimentation. I made different choices almost daily during my practicing, and arrived at multiple versions that I believed to be equally viable. Finally, a few weeks before my October west coast premiere I committed to a basic interpretation and drove north to the Gold Rush town of Camptonville, the home of Terry and Ann Riley, to consult at the piano with Terry.

I recall Terry’s directions to his home as being as unembellished as a jazz chart.

Though Camptonville is a ten-hour drive from Los Angeles, I recall Terry’s directions to his home as being as unembellished as a jazz chart: “Just make a left off of Highway 49 onto Moonshine Road.” I stopped in San Francisco overnight and found the house the next day with no small amount of effort (remember that this was the pre-cellphone, Thomas Brothers Guide era). The street sign for Moonshine Road was non-existent. “Oh, people just love that sign so much,” said Ann upon my distracted arrival, “It gets stolen all the time.”

In 1994 Terry’s airy studio housed a 9-ft Yamaha Midi Grand, an array of microphones and synthesizers, an early Atari computer, and an assortment of instruments from India, the Middle East, and China. We sat down at the piano, but I didn’t get very far in playing the piece for Terry. Almost from the start, in phrase after phrase, we found ourselves to be in profound disagreement. Where I aimed for lyricism, he heard preciousness; where he asked for less rubato and more drive, I felt the results to be unmusical and square; where he felt many of my choices to be overly sentimental, I secretly believed that his requests rendered the music inexpressive. In the end, I channeled as much of Terry’s approach as my temperament and technique allowed for. The results of our interpretive wranglings of long ago found their way eventually into the first edition of the piece (offered until recently on Terry’s website), more comprehensively on the Telarc CD that I recorded 23 years ago, and in the beautiful Chester Music edition issued in 2015.

When I revisit my recording, I hear things that I would, and indeed do, play very differently now. I relearned the pieces from the 2015 published edition, and seeing our hard-won musical choices of 1994 “authenticated” there, I give myself occasional permission to disobey them. I didn’t consult my old recording until very close to the performance date. When I mentioned to Terry just before our concert that I would play the pieces very differently from the way I did on the recording, Terry responded “Oh, but I really love the way you played it on the recording.”

The cover for Gloria Cheng's 1998 Telarc CD featuring music by Terry Riley and John Adams

Gloria Cheng’s debut recording of Terry Riley’s The Heaven Ladder Book 7 (released on Telarc in 1998)

Performance decisions are never set in stone. With the passage of time, interpretations evolve. Not only can I now fully embrace the conception that Terry shared that day in his studio, but I’m also older and hopefully better at integrating his disposition with my own. One of the joys of preparing repertoire after a long hiatus is rediscovering it from a new perspective and finding new treasures in it. In this case, another pleasure has been the opportunity to compare notes (sometimes literally) and musical decisions with my friend Sarah Cahill, whose long and fruitful association with Terry is well known. Terry’s piano works, and the pianists who play it, as yet lack a long and varied interpretive tradition to draw upon. We are bonding with each other to create it.

Performance decisions are never set in stone.

When playing the music of composer-pianists, it’s possible to sense the anatomy of their hands, their innate physical approach to the keyboard, their idiosyncratic touch, even their comportment at the instrument. All of this finds its way into the shapes of their chords, passagework, and other characteristics, making the piano music of composer-pianists behave—and most assuredly feel, to other pianists—like a pianist wrote it. Terry’s music feels physically challenging under my fingers, but it is serious fun to channel his persona at the keyboard.

For me, playing works by composer-pianists also invites an excursion into their personal piano-playing histories. Terry’s primary relationship with the piano is that of an improviser—an extraordinary one. Expressing a lifetime of knowledge and experience from his studies of classical, jazz, contemporary, North African, and Indian classical music, his playing is widely known to defy stylistic boundaries. “A lot of intersections between these musics occur in my mind. As I’m writing or playing something like a raga, suddenly a kind of ragtime motive might come into it.” His composed music for piano, much of which emerges from his improvisations, does much the same thing, often switching multiple times within the same piece or movement. With his own virtuosic command of the piano at the service of his global, kaleidoscopic, consciousness-expanding imagination, I’m sure that he would welcome the idea of future classical pianists like me approaching his notated music with free flights of inventiveness rather than a conscientious fidelity to a decades-old conception of the score. Pianists of the future: take note!

Gloria Cheng and Terry Riley playing piano four-hands (Photo by Carolyn Yarnell)

Gloria Cheng and Terry Riley (Photo by Nick Volpert/recording.LA)

[Ed. note: Gloria Cheng will perform with Terry Riley and the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco on December 5, 2018 and again at California State University at Chico on March 6, 2019.]

Collaboration as Performance Practice

There’s a moment in Kate Soper’s duo for soprano and violin, Cipher, that tends to stick in people’s minds. The soprano, delivering spoken text, moves toward the violinist and places a mute on the instrument, filtering the tone color. As the violinist continues to play, the soprano moves closer still and places several fingers on the strings, activating specific pitches along the fingerboard. With intricately choreographed movements, the two musicians play the instrument together, creating harmonies that would be otherwise inaccessible to a solo violinist. Simultaneously, the violinist begins to speak. The roles of voice and instrument, which up to this point have been vying for primacy, have become equal and intertwined.

The physicality of it all is striking. It brings the violin into sharp focus. The expressive and sonic capabilities of the instrument have been tested throughout the first half of the piece, and now, in a radical extension of instrumental technique, the violin sings in an entirely new way. It’s also personal, drawing attention to the relationship between two performers and embodying the spirit of openness essential to adventurous musicmaking.

By crossing over into the visual realm, that moment illuminates an intensely personal, non-hierarchical creative process that is embedded throughout the sonic fabric of Cipher, a process that is a galvanizing force behind the extraordinary invention and experimentation in the piece. As the musicians converge on the violin, it is apparent that open dialogue must have been integral to developing the mechanics of the playing technique, and that the process must have involved a great deal of time and trust.

I’d like to take the opportunity here on NewMusicBox to talk about the genesis of Cipher and another work that is based on this kind of open process—Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire”—and the profound impact both of these works have had on my relationship to creativity as a classically trained violinist. Both of these artists have turned away from the hierarchical paradigm of classical music, where the composer works in isolation on a piece before handing the final product to one or more interchangeable performers, in favor of a holistic approach that allows for creativity and learning from both sides of the composer/performer relationship.

Kate originally wrote Cipher for the two of us over an extended period of workshop in 2011. We premiered it in December of that year, and then started to perform it extensively in 2012 after a significant revision. The workshop process started at the very first stages of material generation. These early sessions drew on Kate’s sketches, initial ideas about how to share roles and subvert the traditional hierarchy of soprano with accompaniment (in part, building on ideas from Kate’s soprano and flute duo with Erin Lesser, Only The Words Themselves Mean What They Say), our burgeoning interest in Just Intonation (JI), Renaissance choral tuning exercises, and more. Our workshops were about posing questions and musical puzzles and seeing what we could do with them. For instance, is there a precise JI alternate tuning of the violin that can yield both a complex, “colored” unison across all four strings as well as pure intervals? How palpable are psycho-acoustic difference tones between soprano and violin, and how precisely can they be controlled? Can the instrument be readjusted to standard tuning in the middle of a piece without a pause in the action? (Through a team effort, yes!) Can novel sonorities on the violin be conjured if both performers play the instrument simultaneously? Historically, there is a great deal of overlap between the performance practice of violin and voice (the violin’s vocal qualities are widely celebrated, as in Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise), however the extended techniques of each diverge from one another dramatically. The long workshop process of Cipher allowed us to discover an extended soundworld with fields of sameness and difference, enabling the material in Cipher to morph into myriad extremes and then realign in uncanny unison.

Kate Soper and Josh Modney performing on a violin with four-hands

Kate Soper and Josh Modney navigating a passage for “violin four-hands” (Photo by Spencer McCormick, courtesy New Music USA)

A key element in all of this musical experimentation is trust. Trust encourages adventurous musical choices while laying groundwork for the performance practice of the final work. Every great chamber musician knows the critical importance of trust. For a great performance to happen, the musicians must inhabit a higher plane, a communal version of Robert Pirsig’s “high country of the mind,” interdependent and tethered together in Alpine-style ascent. An open creative process rooted in long-term collaboration allows that bond of trust to be forged right from the beginning, reinforcing every step of the piece’s development from premiere to revision, reinterpretation, touring, memorization, and recording.

A high level of trust opened up the potential for Kate and me to develop the technique for “violin 4-hands,” which involves a sharing of the extremely personal space of the violin’s physical surface and immediate aura. That trust eventually led to the refinement of a performance practice that is as much an integral part of the piece as the notes on the page, and ultimately, I think, bridges a gap that has been artificially opened in our musical culture. The gap between the paradigm of contemporary music composition and performance, which allows for experimentation but too often stops dead after the premiere, and of classical music, which demands refinement and deep engagement with individual works but all too easily falls into entrenched ways of thinking, at the expense of novel and creative approaches.

In classical music practice, the extremely high standards of refinement allow virtuosity to coalesce into a conduit for the expression of the spirit. I think that an important reason many listeners prefer classical music over contemporary music is that a great deal of energy has been put in over a great deal of time such that classical performers are able to transcend the technical demands of the music and communicate with audiences from the “high country.” A desire to bridge the gap and bring this level of refinement and detail to the creative space of a contemporary work is one of the things that drove the process behind Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire” for violin and prepared piano.

Eric wrote “the children of fire…” for the two of us over the course of several months in early 2012. We met weekly, experimenting with sounds and, as the material began to solidify, learned the piece in chunks, building it up gradually from week to week. It was extremely rewarding to learn the piece in small sections in this super detailed and developmental way. By the time the week of the premiere arrived, each section of the piece felt innately familiar.

A recurring feature in Eric’s music is the idea of “translation”—that is, translating a sound that is idiomatic to one instrument into the language of another instrument, and then fusing the two sounds together. Blending the timbres of the modern violin and the modern piano is a particularly challenging task. Much of the famous repertoire for violin and piano duo was written for very different instruments – softer and warmer, built for intimate spaces, the characters of different keys brought to life by the piano’s meantone tuning, a system to which the violinist can easily adapt.

The situation these days is much different. The equipment of violins and pianos has been adapted for projection over an orchestra, such that it is difficult for the percussive attack of the piano and the tenacious sustain of the violin to blend. And the tuning system of equal temperament is a challenging fit for the violin. (For an informative and entertaining read on this, check out How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony: And Why You Should Care, by Ross W. Duffin.)

All of this is to say that the timbre of the instruments (i.e., the instrumental technology) that forms the basis of a piece matters. A lot. The fresh ways that Eric has written for the peculiarities of the modern violin and the modern piano are a big part of what makes “the children of fire…” such a special and extraordinary piece. In “the children of fire…”, there are many instances where Eric uses the idea of translation to bring the instruments together. The piece begins with a sustained noise wall produced by overdriving the top string of the violin. Far from a generic scratch tone, it is a sound so complex and layered that it gives a sense of “everythingness,” a singularity from which the material for the rest of the piece is generated. This functions both metaphorically in the structure of the piece and as a practical generator of material – Eric made a spectral analysis of the sound and used that to find chords on the piano that would blend seamlessly.

Another example of translation sources a sound so idiomatic to the violin that it has become cliché: descending left hand pizzicato a la Paganini. It’s a sound associated with a certain brand of corny violinistic showmanship that Eric beautifully repurposes by combining it with a unison pizzicato gesture inside the piano (an evolution of the “pizz fail” section of Eric’s earlier work for Wet Ink, katachi).

Eric Wubbels: katachi – “pizz fail” section (as performed by Wet Ink Ensemble on Relay, Carrier Records)

There is a passage at the heart of “the children of fire…” that is effectively a double translation, reconciling the violin’s inability to play sustained chords with the piano’s inability to play in Just Intonation. It employs difference tones, which I learned how to precisely control on the violin through the process of collaboration with Eric. Difference tones are a psycho-acoustic phenomenon. When we hear two or more pitches simultaneously, our brains fill in the fundamental of those pitches. When the pitches are tuned in a manner that corresponds exactly to ratios of the harmonic series, we perceive the fundamental strongly. If you play a series of intervals formed from different strata of the harmonic series, a ghostly psycho-acoustic “bassline” emerges. In “the children of fire…”, Eric realizes this virtual bassline on the piano. It is a passage of striking beauty that solves the problem of violin/piano blend without using any extended techniques. The violin reinforces the upper partials inherent to the piano pitches, while the piano undergirds the fundamental that is psycho-acoustically implied by the violin dyads. The instruments blend perfectly, a meta-instrument, and akin to the far ranging terrain of Cipher, the possibility is opened up for the players to shape sounds that are starkly differentiated and then return to a place of absolute unity.

Eric Wubbels: the children of fire come looking for fire [excerpt] (performed by Josh Modney and Eric Wubbels on Engage, New Focus Recordings)

Making music this way, from the ground up, is incredibly rewarding and empowering, especially from the perspective of the relative confines of classical performance training. Being a participant and partner from the early stages of the development of a work, with generous collaborators who are willing to share their creative agency, has been liberating for me and has fundamentally changed my relationship to music. It has allowed me to connect the dots and see the potential for my own mobility along a continuum that ranges from interpretation, through collaboration and creative partnership, to being the primary creator myself as an improviser/composer. And, in the case of these duos by Kate and Eric, we have found a path that has no end date, and grows richer with each performance.

Aside from the great musical and spiritual rewards of such a process, it is also—perhaps counterintuitively—an incredibly efficient way to bring a new piece from the early stages of composition to the ultra-refined performance standard that is expected of classical music. Again, it has to do with an innate familiarity with each timbre and gesture (built on the process of elimination that happens when honing a sound in workshop, habitualizing your brain to the details of production, “not this, or this, but THIS”), and with the trust that is forged between collaborators which can then be brought onto the concert stage. Classical music performance, while fraught with its own challenges, benefits from pre-established practices cultivated over centuries and the framework of the common practice period. As new music performers, we must create our own performance practice before we may hope to transcend technical execution and strive toward that high country where the real, sustained ecstatic communication between performers and listeners can take place.

 

Summer Residency Snapshots: Where Trust Meets Productivity

In the past three articles, I’ve tried to describe some of the work being done at Avaloch. In characterizing a few interesting collaborations, I also wanted to peer at how musical partners accomplish their goals. For each, geographic repose, concentrated time together, the ability but not the pressure to share content, and a community of hard-working and supportive people were elements of dynamic and sustainable collaboration.

Up to this point, I’ve ignored my own forays at Avaloch. I play in a cello/percussion duo called New Morse Code with Hannah Collins, and since 2015, we have been co-directors at Avaloch’s New Music Institute. Before then, we attended Avaloch as a duo, and individually as part of other projects. In my experiences with Hannah in Avaloch’s unusual residency setting, I’ve discovered that ease of collaboration allows for high degrees of productivity in a compressed period of time . As a percussionist, being able to leave instruments set up is immensely productive, and having your collaborators close at hand allows brainstorming, workshopping, rehearsing, and practicing to flow naturally.

Perhaps more importantly, New Morse Code’s work at Avaloch illustrates how friendship can be a vital collaborative tool, that developing trust over a long period of time generates more interesting, sustainable work. For Robert Honstein, the immediacy and concentration created by sharing a residency with performers led to astonishing productivity. For Christopher Stark, a long-term collaboration was focused and altered at Avaloch, and physical place had an enormous impact on his work’s themes and content.

Robert Honstein: Down, Down Baby

Boston-based Robert Honstein has been to Avaloch twice. In 2015 he worked with Ashley Bathgate on her Bach Unwound project, and in 2016 Robert workshopped his Grand Tour with pianist Karl Larson while finding complementary pairings for the work for a touring program. Each time, Robert also worked with Hannah and I on a new piece, tentatively titled Down, Down Baby. In 2015, Robert and New Morse Code created a framework for the piece, brainstorming the work’s unusual setup and creating a notational system that was clear and easy to read. This summer, Robert’s goals lay in “refining the notation/sounds, investigating what works and doesn’t work, and discovering ways to interpret and perform the piece.”

In Down, Down Baby, the cello is laid flat on a table. Hannah and I sit on opposite sides of the table, each with six desk bells, a woodblock, and a foot pedal attached to a dull plastic sound (we eventually settled on two Sterilite trash cans). Robert’s idea was that from these positions, we could create four quadrants of theatricalized motion on the body and rib of the cello, tapping and flicking with fingers, knuckles, fists, or nails. The cello’s strings (prepared with poster tack to create a dull, gong-like sound) are plucked by both players, and with our complement of desk bells, we create composite melodies in a variety of textures from imitative (the opening of the first movement, “Follow the Leader”) to hocketing (tentatively titled “Paddy”) to sliding melody and dry accompaniment (“Strange Dance”).

Honstein's Down, Down Baby

Honstein's Down, Down Baby

Both Hannah and I were in new territory. Robert’s notation was fairly simple for a percussionist to read, but for Hannah, less accustomed to “non pitched” percussion and less comfortable with a musical situation where both her hands are doing the same task, learning was slow at first. At the same time, my terrific incompetence as a singer (even a “pitch matcher”!) and inexperience as a string plucker was embarrassing. Fortunately, Robert considers his role as a composer to be an equal partnership with his performer collaborators. He prefers to work through “back and forth, trial and error, conversation, being in the same room together,” with his ideal flow being reached within what he calls a “real-time feedback loop of ||: idea->experiment->revise :||.” For someone who values such immediacy, a residency with immediate access to performers is an ideal fit, and Robert notes that the possibility for “real-time exploration” at Avaloch pushed him to try ideas he never would have otherwise.

Hannah and I prepared of the movements of Down, Down Baby before Robert arrived at Avaloch, and learned others while he was at the Farm. Each day, we would rehearse with Robert in the room, asking questions and offering alternatives as they accumulated. Because of Robert’s accessibility, we were able to make plentiful small changes, mostly focused on the piece’s orchestration as it relates to idiomatic execution and visual clarity. For example, in “Simon,” I discovered that exchanging some material between my right and left hands allowed me more time to prepare to pluck the cello’s strings. Robert’s ability to quickly check whether my desires would destroy his visual mirroring allowed us to revise quickly and easily without damaging the movement’s choreography. In “Singing Lesson,” Robert asked both Hannah and I to whistle while playing a melody between our desk bells. We found that it was easier and more theatrically effective to sing while we were playing the bells, and the resulting texture more clearly illuminated the rhythmic play between us. “Strange Dance” includes the longest passage in the piece where Hannah and I are doing different actions. She plucks and slides along the prepared strings of the cello while I tap an accompaniment on the body and rib of the cello. Most of Robert’s fingerings worked perfectly—for a pianist. Quickly altering some fingerings towards typically strong fingers for percussionists was simple and didn’t disturb what Robert had in mind sonically or visually.

A work like Down, Down Baby is also difficult to visualize. While Robert had built a sample library and was working with a cello of his own at home, hearing—and more importantly, seeing—Down, Down Baby in action was especially valuable. After hearing a few of the movements, Robert adjusted some of the sounds in the piece, replacing a fist on cello body (soft sounding, dangerous to the instrument) with a fist on the side of the table on which the cello sits. (This process of revision is not rare! In fact, in 2015, New Morse Code worked at Avaloch with Matthew Barnson on his Ars Moriendi, a Britten-inspired take on graffiti in Bushwick, Brooklyn.)

Of course, these are not large changes. But, our ability to make them quickly was essential. In fact, Robert preferred to make revisions while we rehearsed other material, remaining in the room with us in case he had further questions. As I mentioned above, each of these interactions was presaged on the idea that New Morse Code and Robert were partners in the piece, that Robert wanted the material to be malleable and flexible—from the form of the piece (was it too long?), to the sounds involved (are they differentiable), to the techniques used (are they easily repeatable?). In the score created before our work this summer, there were notes for further discussion: “Let’s experiment with the singing in the ‘Lullabies’ and ‘Singing Lesson’ movements and figure out who does what and when.” “We’ll decide later whether you each hum or if it’s better to have only one person hum along.” Even the title was a point of discussion, leading to a shower of criticism, and a barrage of new, far less productive ideas. Eventually, Robert decided the title should convey playfulness and whimsy and that the choreography in the piece is reminiscent of a clapping game, and so he thought of Down, Down, Baby. I’m sure he also decided never to ask for help with titles again!

While our focused work with Robert at Avaloch was extremely productive, taking part in a dynamic community was also essential. In fact, Robert was the nexus for much informal work, from performances of a new piano/marimba arrangement of his Patter, to workshopping new ideas with Hannah and myself, to brainstorming collaborations with other members of the Avaloch community. For him, Avaloch’s blend of a festival’s social events, a residency’s focus, and a rehearsal’s goal-oriented approach was an ideal balance.

Christopher Stark: Marinating in Place

Christopher Stark is professor of composition at Washington University in St. Louis. We met while both teaching at Cornell University, and in 2014 New Morse Code and Christopher were awarded a Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program Grant to develop a large-scale piece for cello, percussion, and live electronics. As a native of western Montana who has incorporated the expansive energy of the mountain landscape of his childhood into his own musical language, Christopher initially wanted to write a piece about how physical landscapes inspire musical personalities. We spent a year developing the piece together, gathering field-recordings in upstate New York, New Hampshire, and Montana. New Morse Code performed excerpts of The Language of Landscapes the Geneva Music Festival and in Bryant Park before premiering the complete work last November at Washington University in St. Louis.

After having performed the first “scene” of the piece several times, Christopher came to Avaloch in 2015 with an eye towards revising it and developing additional material. As has every group I’ve discussed thus far, the lack of pressure to leave with a final product left us the room to be very productive. We saw The Language of Landscapes’ existing content become more idiomatic while the concept driving Christopher’s new material became more piquant, changing from an musical Grand Tour to a series of interactions between “natural” and “artificial” sounds and structures.

Christopher Stark

Christopher Stark gathering sounds for The Language of Landscapes

As we saw with Down, Down, Baby, focused workshopping time allowed New Morse Code and Christopher to make effective and idiomatic changes to The Language of Landscapes. In the piece’s first scene, the cello plays harmonics on the cello accompanied by digitally processed canons, moving at 25%, 50%, 66%, 75% of her original speed. In the scene’s original configuration, I mirrored these canons on the marimba, but we found that the marimba’s fixed tuning couldn’t match the cello’s ability for just intonation, and that most marimba’s top octaves are sufficiently out of tune to render “pitchiness” a non-essential character. Additionally, the rhythmic precision needed to play in exact canon with Hannah while remaining with a strict tape part made long horizontal phrases more difficult to create. At Avaloch, we experimented with me blowing into glass bottles of different sizes, tuned to the pitches in the piece. Eventually, we settled on five bottles, tuned relatively “out of tune” with the cello’s pitch collection and processed with significant reverb, creating an additional musical layer that emphasizes horizontal expansiveness rather than rhythmic precision.

More importantly, our time at Avaloch was also the crucible for a change in narrative direction in The Language of Landscapes that moved it towards a more pointed environmental critique. When we began working together, Christopher’s goal was to explore how physical landscapes can shape our musical personalities. The goal was to trace a musical journey from my desert southwest home, through the deciduous hills of upstate New York (Hannah’s home), finally reaching towards the endless sky of Christopher’s northern Rockies. Instead, inspired by both the sonic beauty around Avaloch and the plentiful waste around us, the three of us scavenged in thrift stores and lumber yards in search of what Christopher calls “sonic representations of human wastefulness,” leading to an instrumentarium of styrofoam bowls, cardboard boxes, and plastic grocery bags. The Language of Landscapes’ second scene combines recordings of wind moving through trees with our manipulation of this junk: Hannah gradually slips a Starbucks’ coffee sleeve between the strings of her cello while I bow, scrape, rustle, and rattle the heavily amplified junk objects. Within each 30-second window—set apart by an abrupt crumpling of plastic water bottles—our sounds quickly become indistinguishable from the wind, a poignant comment.

The final form of The Language of Landscapes was also inspired by places near Avaloch. When New Morse Code had the opportunity to present an engagement activity at the nearby Penacook Community Center, we brought Christopher with us: while Hannah and I led a gym full of school children in brainstorming, making, and performing nature sounds, Christopher processed them electronically, inspiring him to make process-based manipulation of recorded water and wind sounds the focus of The Language of Landscapes’ fourth scene, where a recording of water is gradually bit-crushed (a.k.a. played back at increasingly lower sample rate) to create an extremely distorted but highly rhythmic sound. Each repetition of this clip becomes shorter, and is set in increasingly quick canon between Hannah’s distorted cello and my assemblage of non-recyclable waste.

The changes to The Language of Landscapes that we made over two years have convinced me that long-term relationships can generate interesting, poignant art. Christopher’s patient interest in developing personal relationships and incorporating these into his work were notable. At the same time, Christopher’s work was inspired and aided by a scenic locale. For him, “being inspired is essential to making great art, and great spaces are so inspiring.” Avaloch’s “peaceful and beautiful” setting allowed him to develop his own music while enhancing his relationships with other Avaloch community members. This year, Christopher came to Avaloch to work with HereNowHear, a piano duo of frequent collaborators Ryan MacEvoy McCullough and Andrew Zhou, on a companion piece to Stockhausen’s Mantra. Christopher used Avaloch’s less pressured environment to “listen to the performers talk about the experience of performing Mantra,” experiment with electronic sounds around the piano, and to “get a sense of what might be able to accompany that massive work on a program.”   In the true spirit of Avaloch collaboration, HereNowHear, New Morse Code, and Christopher put on a concert together with The Language of Landscapes in Bennington’s Park McCullough House.

The Language of Landscapes

View from percussion set up of Christopher Stark’s The Language of Landscapes, taken at Historic Park McCullough House in Bennington, VT


Both of these experiences highlight the potential for cross-pollination at musical residencies. For New Morse Code, cross-pollination is the most exciting feature of our time at Avaloch. In 2015, Alex Weiser and Emily Cooley of Kettle Corn New Music came to Avaloch to work with HOCKET. Hannah and I took the opportunity to nail down the details of a future New Morse Code Kettle Corn Concert and make some popcorn. Paul Kerekes came to Avaloch with Invisible Anatomy and stayed on to workshop new material for Unblinking Eye, a forthcoming theatrical show. Andy Akiho organized the entire Avaloch community into a performance of his works while brainstorming future work with New Morse Code. Triplepoint Trio developed a show with Chartreuse. The list goes on and on.

Sometimes the ideas at residencies like Avaloch come to fruition, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they bear immediate results, and sometimes they steep, simmer, then boil. It goes without saying that the range of collaborative structures is as varied as the people who create them, and that people in every discipline create fantastic art together every day. What I value about these residencies is that the focus is on process. With less pressure to produce concrete results, composers and performers tend to create with more verve. Away from their normal habitats and surrounded by natural beauty, they discover a sense of community.

Sounds Heard: Heather Schmidt—Icicles of Fire

One of the benefits of my association with the International Association of Music Information Centres all these years has been being able to find out about all of the exciting new music that is being created in the other countries that are part of this network. As part of the work these organizations do on behalf of the music of their respective countries, many have issued significant recordings over the years. I’m always excited when I receive one of the “Zoom In” compilations from the Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre, the latest sampler from the Contemporary Music Centre in Ireland, or the annual chronicle of the Warsaw Autumn produced by POLMIC. A few music information centers have even maintained their own recording labels over the years. One of my favorites of these labels—NM Classics (a joint effort by Radio Netherlands and the Music Centre The Netherlands, which ceased operations in December 2012)—is sadly no more, and Phono Suecia (run from the Swedish Music Information Centre) has seriously curtailed its operations. But there are several other members in the IAMIC network that thankfully are still very actively releasing new music such as the Slovenian Music Information Centre and the Deutsche Musikrat, which curates the indispensable Edition Zeitgenössische Musik released on the Wergo label. Closer to home is Centrediscs, the label of the Canadian Music Centre, which has put out a treasure trove of music by Canadian composers spanning over a century and has long been the best source for learning about Canadian music. The only labels that are remotely parallel to Centrediscs here in the United States are New World Records and innova, the label of the American Composers Forum, but the broad reach of Centrediscs within Canada makes it stand apart. They also have very few competitors. CBC Records, the label of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, has reduced its once staunch commitment to the music of Canadian composers to virtually nil, although Naxos’s Canadian Classics imprint has released some fascinating music since its launch in 2011.

Although all of these recordings eventually find their way into my various CD players, I rarely get a chance to jot down my thoughts about them here since the repertoire they cover extends beyond the borders of the United States. However, since our neighbors to the north frequently relocate here and vice versa, and the Canadian Music Centre considers any composer born or currently residing in their country to be Canadian, just as we acknowledge any composer born or currently residing in the United States to be one of ours, there is some overlap. Such is the case with Canadian-born composer/pianist Heather Schmidt, whose music I first became acquainted with when she was living in New York City. She had recently completed her doctorate at Indiana University and was the youngest person to have received that degree from them at that point. Nowadays she divides her time between Toronto and Los Angeles. Her impressive 1998 Cello Concerto appears on a wonderful disc of contemporary Canadian works for cello and orchestra featuring cellist Shauna Rolston that was issued by the CBC in 2001, back when they were still making significant contributions to recording Canadian music. And I was later particularly smitten by a short solo piano piece called Twelve for Ten that she composed and performed as part of a collection of new fugues in homage to our Northern neighbor’s most famous classical musician, Glenn Gould; Schmidt’s piece is even based on a distillation of his name into musical pitches: G E G D!

Earlier this year Centrediscs issued the very first CD devoted exclusively to Schmidt’s own music. (There are several discs devoted to her piano performances of a variety of repertoire.) After having heard the aforementioned large scale cello work for Shauna Rolston and the solo piano piece she performed herself, it was thrilling to hear a disc of duos featuring Rolston and the composer herself at the piano. All in all there are three compositions on the new disc, presented in reverse chronological order, which were composed over the course of the last decade.

The most recent of the pieces, Synchronicity (2007), is in two relatively short movements, the first of which is approximately half the length of the latter. In the first dreamlike movement, a repeated cello pattern accompanies a piano melody—something of a role reversal from most cello-piano duo repertoire. The second movement is more visceral, with fierce piano thumps in the lower register that eventually give way to a melodic line that gets trades between the cello and piano and is sometimes shared by them. In its modal monody it is somewhat reminiscent of the East Asian inspired chamber music of Lou Harrison.


After the extroverted freneticism of the closing measures of Synchronicity, the more introverted single-movement Fantasy (2006) comes across as an oasis of serenity. The piece’s quiet, almost spare texture does, however, belie an undercurrent that sounds somewhat more menacing, perhaps because of Schmidt’s focus on the lower registers of both instruments. Even when they occasionally soar into their upper registers, those passages sound like they are immerging from a deep abyss.

Icicles of Fire (2003)—the last piece on the disc and also the earliest of the three—is another diptych. Again, the first movement is somewhat ethereal and meditative whereas the second movement is bristling with tensions. In Schmidt’s notes, she describes imagining icicles with little flames burning inside them as she was composing it. She explains the music in the latter movement as “the smaller flames giv[ing] way to a full blown blaze”; the musical realization of this gives both musicians an opportunity to display their virtuosity.

Aside from its inherent interest due to the broad range of music that Schmidt has fashioned out of one of the more traditional chamber music duo configurations, this new Centrediscs recording of her music is a wonderful documentation of an ongoing collaboration between a composer and an interpreter. Relationships like this are so necessary for both sides of the music-making equation but are all too rare. Too frequently a performer will commission a composer just once or a composer will choose to write a sole work for a certain instrumental combination, but it is in the ongoing working through of materials that a real surety of purpose ultimately develops. Now if only every country in the world had organizations that documented their music as devotedly as the Canadian Music Centre continues to do through these recordings. I’m just happy that some of those Canadian composers have decided to spend their time in “the lower 48” and still get the same treatment!