Tag: composer-performer relations

Judith Lang Zaimont: The Music She Has to Write

Judith Lang Zaimont at home via Zoom

Judith Lang Zaimont has been active as a pianist since she was five. She performed on national television at the age of 11 and began her studies at Juilliard at age 12. But despite her deep love for music from the very beginning, she realized early on that she hated practicing, playing the exact same thing again and again. One day, while sight-reading through some music by Chopin, she had an epiphany. The constant variations in his music meant he also hated playing the same thing again and again. And it suddenly dawned on her that her constant desire to play something new meant that she was a composer.

That endless search for something new still fuels Zaimont’s creativity many decades later. She is defiantly unwilling to be typecast for creating music in a particular style, which makes her music always a welcome surprise. But it has also proved challenging for her in terms of typical opportunities for composers.

“I have very particular ideas or thoughts about commissions,” she explained when we chatted over Zoom in early February. “They open doors. But they always come as a result of knowing past music by the person. And if you are not a one-groove individual artistically, if you have many parts to yourself, then you could open a door you’ve never opened before in a new piece. … We suffer a little bit, if you’ve been at this for a while, from being branded thus or such. And artists are not their brand. If you relax into that groove, beware.”

For Zaimont, composing music is always a work in progress, an ongoing journey of discovery and reinventing oneself. It has also made her very critical of her own work over the years which has led her to take works she no longer thinks are worthy out of circulation.

“The world doesn’t need those pieces,” she exclaimed. “I’m constantly going back and making sure that what I put forward is the best that I can do under the circumstances.”

Thankfully, however, there are quite a few pieces that she does still acknowledge and many performers acknowledge them, too. While so many composers are lucky if a piece they’ve written gets a performance and a recording, several of Zaimont’s works have been recorded multiple times which is, after all, how music becomes repertoire. And that is her goal since her music is deeply informed and inspired by the canon of classical music repertoire. Among the pillars in her catalog are six symphonies, two piano trios, a hefty piano sonata, and two string quartets—at least that she still acknowledges (believing that she only fully grasped the string quartet medium in her 60s). She has also composed a formidable Judaic sacred service, perhaps her most significant choral work although it has yet to be recorded in its entirety.

Yet despite Zaimont’s deep immersion in European musical traditions, her music is very much American. She has composed several rags and the rhythms and harmonies of jazz and various American popular music genres have seeped into her own compositional language, so much so that they’re not influences per se, but rather additional vocabulary that she has mastered and incorporated into her own ever-evolving sound world.

Early on in her career, Zaimont was also a major champion of other female composers, both contemporaries and women from earlier times, editing an important series of volumes of critical studies of their music.

“Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music,” she remembered. “Did it stop me? No. I knew I was born to write music. Didn’t matter to me. … But I saw there was a whole cohort of women who were writing music. I started to learn the history of music that had been written in times past by women. … These people were not in the history books. They were not there. Generations of the present moment weren’t knowing about them. The world needs to know about what they have accomplished and appreciate it. I got letters from some of the standing composers whom we profiled in the critical appraisals sections of the books to thank me for finally having been able to engender these really critical articles dealing with the stuff of their music. Not who they were as a person. Whether they were married or had children, how old they were. That they were women in a man’s world. None of that. Deal with their music. That’s why I did that. I set my own creative work aside to do this because somebody needed to step up and do it. … I’m very grateful to the music that these people wrote, that it is now in the world.”

But don’t call Zaimont, as she described it, an “adjective” composer.

“The thing I don’t like is being a column B composer. I don’t want to wait until you get adjective before the world composer. Before you think Judith Lang Zaimont. Think of me right up there. I sit at Chopin’s—just behind Chopin, I can’t sit at his shoulder. I sit back there a ways. But I’m on the stage.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Judith Lang Zaimont – The Music She Has To Write
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Judith Lang Zaimont
February 2, 2021—4:00pm EST via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between Maricopa AZ and New York NY
Produced and recorded by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Lucy Dhegrae: The Art and Science Behind the Voice

A woman with pink hair sitting and her reflection in the mirror.

In most of the world’s musical genres, the distinction between creating something anew and interpreting something that already exists is somewhat blurry. And in many folk traditions, there is a further blur between performers and audiences—in some societies, making music is just part of living and it is participatory and often non-hierarchical. Yet in Western classical music, there is a very precise delineation between the roles of composers, interpreters, and the audience and, for better or worse, this is a paradigm that most practitioners of new music have inherited. But just as distinctions between genres continue to erode in the second decade of our new millennium, there has also been a shift in our perception of what the particular roles could be for making music now and in the future.

“The best composers know what it’s like to be a performer and the best performers know how to improvise,” says vocalist Lucy Dhegrae, who is the founder and director of Resonant Bodies, a three-day festival of contemporary vocal music that takes place annually in New York City and which has now had iterations in Chicago as well as in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. “Maybe those delineations were important for the time and maybe they’re helpful for some people, but now what I see in myself and Resonant Bodies artists and people I work with all over the place is that we just don’t care about all of those delineations anymore. … At what point did we start to structure it this way and start to exclude people, except that we were trying I guess to exclude people for financial reasons somehow? It’s not all necessarily nefarious, but it can have this exclusive idea to it.”

As far as exclusivity goes, calling Dhegrae the “director” of Resonant Bodies is somewhat misleading, because although she carefully curates the vocalists who perform on each of the concerts, she gives each of them full reign in determining what music they present to an audience.

“What I love in an experience with people is to know what they’re passionate about,” she gushes with contagious enthusiasm in a conversation at her Manhattan apartment only an hour after she flew in from St. Louis. “I would never dream of telling a singer, ‘Hey, you should do this specific piece. I want to hear you do that piece.’ Because you’re only going to get the second best thing from a singer that way, I think. But if you ask a singer, ‘What do you love to sing? What lights you up? Right now?’ Because it has to align with their life moment. Then things feel urgent. I want to hear your urgent music.”

Urgency is an important ingredient not only for Resonant Bodies, but all of the music that Dhegrae performs as a vocalist herself, whether it’s a something by singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, high modernist composer Jason Eckardt, or composer-performer Gabrielle Herbst, whom she sang alongside for the premiere of Herbst’s dreamy opera Bodiless. Urgency is also what fuels her life’s mission: to be empowered as a singer and to empower other singers which, aside from a desire to make musical experiences fairer (“in Resonant Bodies we … always talk about being treated as singers versus musicians versus artists”), yields better performances, as she points out:

It’s really beautiful when you have that melding, where you’re coming halfway, and we see a really special part of the performer and a really special part of the composer. That to me is the best part of creating a new piece.

Curiously, in her childhood, long before she ever considered singing as a profession, Dhegrae wrote music and even won a contest for it. But she quickly got turned off when a teacher attempted to make her do a rudimentary composition exercise instead of trying to nurture her creative impulses. Perhaps an even more significant background for Dhegrae, however, was her pursuit of a pre-med degree simultaneously with studying singing as an undergrad. Though she ultimately did not become a laryngologist, which is the career path she wanted to pursue at the time, her deep study of the acoustic, physical, and medical science of the voice informs her approach to making music to this day.

“There’s one particular nerve that people talk about for the voice, the recurrent laryngeal nerve,” Dhegrae explains, “which starts in your brain, goes down, wraps through your heart, and then goes into your vocal chords. So literally your voice has to go through your heart first before it comes out. It has to come from your brain, through your heart, and then come out of your mouth. … I think that’s really an important metaphor, because your heart is naturally a part of how you sing. And we can’t deny that. That is a physical reality. So it’s not a metaphor anymore!”

Frank. J. Oteri in conversation with Lucy Dhegrae in her Manhattan apartment
August 19, 2019, 2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Jeffrey Mumford: Creating a Different World

A photo of a man with a white beard against a brick wall

“I like to think that people could walk into one of my pieces, like you can walk into a painting or a video installation,” says Jeffrey Mumford, a composer who started off pursuing a career in the visual arts before music completely took over his imagination.

“I fully thought I was going to be an artist,” he explained during an hour we spent with him when he was visiting New York City for a performance last month. “I did lots of work in high school and I went to college as an art major. Then I got one of my paintings sabotaged. … I was working on it and then one day, there was white paint splattered all over it. Someone obviously didn’t like it. So I kind of ran to the music department for solace, because I was always interested in music anyway. … I came to realize that that was the best way I could express myself.”

Expression and, in particular, expressing himself his way, are paramount to Mumford, who has always rejected such binary polarities as atonality vs. tonality, Uptown vs. Downtown, or gnarly vs. lush. And he is particularly opposed to the belief that someone’s race, gender, or any other social categorization could or should determine the kind of music that person creates. According to him, “Being a black composer is itself a very subversive act because you offend both sides. You offend these people who in the white community think that you’re encroaching on their turf and you offend people within your own community, unfortunately, who think that you’re writing white people’s music. I think I write my music. I write what I hear. I have many influences. … There’s no one such thing as black music. … If you’re a black composer, anything you write will be black music.”

In Mumford’s lexicon, Elliott Carter, with whom he studied for three years, “is a Romantic composer.” Yet at the same time, growing up “hearing Sarah Vaughan singing made a big impression” on him. Mumford’s eclecticism and refusal to be typecast might explain why his music was presented on one of the earliest Bang on a Can marathons.

Part of Mumford’s strong desire not be beholden to any particularly stylistic silo is that he wants “to create a different world” through his music. A through line, however, that connects a lot of his creative work is its evocation of clouds, which has fascinated him since his youth:

I used to look out the window in the summer time. There were thunderstorms all over the place in D.C., and the sky would turn purple and green. And you’d see these masses of clouds splitting off and recombining. That was so inspiring to me. Then still thinking I was going to be a painter, I just wanted to grab them, bring them into my room, and play with them. But those images have never left. So musically I want to recreate this sense that you can create an environment that you can live in among these clouds.

Certainly the beautiful aphoristic titles of Mumford’s compositions—e.g. her eastern light amid a cavernous dusk or of fields unfolding…echoing depths of resonant light—evoke cloud imagery as well as poetry, and in so doing perhaps encourage a different kind of listening approach than if he simply gave his compositions the generic names based on instrumentation that so many other composers do, e.g. for the two examples cited above: Wind Quintet No. 1 and Cello Concerto.

But in addition to all of this ethereal inspiration, Mumford is also deeply rooted in humanism and wants his music to be a galvanizing force for making the world a better place and for people to think beyond simple answers. He was particularly passionate when he recounted the story of the Cleveland Orchestra premiere of the comfort of his voice, a work he wrote in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

An usher who’d been there for a long time came up to me and said, “Thank you for your piece. It wasn’t ‘We Shall Overcome’ again. It was much more complex because the man was so much more complex.” … With all due respect to “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and the numerous other anthems that inspire our community, I wanted to write a piece that asked harder questions. Does that make sense?  Then this usher came up to me and said thank you. “This piece for me meant a lot, to hear that you took a different approach than a lot of composers have taken when given this opportunity to do that.”

Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Jeffrey Mumford at the home of Bärli Nugent in New York, NY
May 22, 2019—11:00 a.m.
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Never Say That’s Not Possible

In 2009, as the newest member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, I was invited to perform my first solo show in New York City. I was excited, yet terrified of the daunting task in front of me: programming a solo bassoon concert. In a raw space. With no piano. AHHHHHHHH!

ICE had commissioned a new bassoon and electronics piece (by rising Mexican star Edgar Guzman) in my honor; but, beyond that, how could a person even begin to find such repertoire? Yes, there was the Luciano Berio Sequenza XII, the seemingly endless 18-minute solo marathon (for both bassoonist and audience) commissioned by the bassoon wizard Pascal Gallois. And yes, there were the Brazilian composer Francisco Mignone’s Waltzes(cute, overplayed solo ditties) and, of course, the intoxicating and sinewy lines of Olga Neuwirth’s Torsion. But beyond these, what new, interesting, exciting solo bassoon pieces existed?!

Very few, I discovered. Instead of stomping my feet in frustration or shrugging my shoulders in weary acceptance, I asked, “What can I do to change this?” Thus began a lifelong quest, in step (both artistically and practically) with my new position at ICE, to forge new relationships with composers in order to develop a new body of repertoire for the instrument, and in so doing, empower other musicians to do the same.

We’ve premiered more than 800 new works.

This spirit of adventure has always been at the heart of ICE’s mission to commission new music. Since our founding in 2001, we’ve premiered more than 800 new works. The beauty of our collective is that all 36 of us have incredibly unique and creative points of view, and each new project becomes imbued with those varied and diverse ideas. Deep collaborations, both among ourselves and with composers, ensure that these stories are told using a shared language we build and evolve together.

In an attempt to codify these methods of collaboration, we began ICELab in 2010. Through an online submission process, we chose six emerging composers each year from wildly diverse backgrounds—geographically, educationally, artistically—and gave them the space, time, and resources to experiment with performers before a piece was fully baked. We were inspired by theater and dance companies run by our peer groups (like The Troupe) and mentors (like The Wooster Group), and their spirit of radical collaboration in all parts of the process, from conception through performance. This kind of project, in ICE-land, had previously been impossible, as there was no method in place to fund this sort of musical experimentation. So, with crucial support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we embarked on this adventure.

The results were overwhelmingly, outrageously exciting! Through the application process, we were introduced to composers outside our network and with whom we began long-term collaborative relationships. To name just a few ICELab “graduates” who have continued their trajectories into major, industry-shaking careers: Tyshawn Sorey, Carla Kihlstedt, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Suzanne Farrin, Zosha Di Castri, Marcos Balter, Du Yun (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Angel’s Bone had its earliest premiere in the “lab”).

We turned ICElab from a noun into a verb.

In 2014, we turned ICElab from a noun into a verb, sun-setting the initiative as a standalone program and making it the DNA of how ICE works on every new piece. Every new work we make is now “labbed,” supported (through myriad, intentional fundraising efforts) from conception to performance. This allows us to have a period of time for each project in which composers and performers can experiment, play, record, and have the freedom to learn from one another. Because of this deeply collaborative process, pieces aren’t just written for the instruments involved; they’re written for the very specific, creative, and virtuosic members in our ranks.

My own ideas about how to create new work were developing alongside ICE’s commissioning process. By working with composers so closely within ICELab, I was able to see and understand how I was directly responsible for certain impulses and directions in projects—not only within the sonic world of the bassoon, but in the overall shaping of a work. It was thrilling!

The thrill and the risks both felt amplified when working alone. Commissioning solo pieces means lots of intense one-on-one collaboration, and true collaboration, I found, is hard and SCARY; it requires all parties to be extremely vulnerable and open. After the agony of programming my solo show in 2008, I began in earnest to commission the works that would make up my first album, 100 names, released in 2013. On speaking a hundred names (for bassoon and live electronics)—the piece by Nathan Davis after which I named my album—was my first such journey. Nathan works in a fascinating way. He gets his hands on an instrument and starts learning it; he’s deeply interested in the sounds that will come out in the hands of a beginner. On the bassoon, that happens to be multiphonics. ANY multiphonic. Fun fact: on a bassoon, it’s way easier to produce a multiphonic than it is to produce a single beautiful tone. So easy, in fact, that Nathan composed an entire section devoted to a gorgeous, deafening cacophony of many-layered bassoon multiphonics, serving as the climax of the piece that we jokingly refer to as DEVASTATION.

Never say “that’s not possible” or even “no” without really trying (and failing) myriad times.

When working with a composer, it’s so easy to claim authority on your instrument and dictate the limitations and technical boundaries that the composer has to work within. Nathan asked me to try some things that I was convinced I could not do, those that I said were IMPOSSIBLE on the bassoon. It’s easy to respond this way—immediately saying NO—out of the fear of looking stupid or untalented, because everyone else has told you it’s impossible, or because you’ve never been able to do it. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s to never say “that’s not possible” or even “no,” without really, really being open to trying (and failing) myriad times. Because of Nathan, his patient insistence, and our trust in one another as collaborators, I often wail out in performance on an “impossible” high A-flat; teeth on the reed, hips thrust out, goddess above treble clef.

The exhilarating feeling of performing new works, created collaboratively, is magnified a thousand-fold when a piece develops a life of its own. I’m especially thrilled to welcome into the world Metafagote (the title track of my second album), an epic, 18-minute work (eat your heart out, Mr. Berio!) by Felipe Lara for solo bassoon and six pre-recorded bassoons and contrabassoons, or for a live choir of seven bassoons.

Not only have I performed both versions of the piece, but several other players have already taken it on. One particularly ambitious and talented young bassoonist, Clifton Guidry at Peabody, is performing it on his senior recital next weekend, and allowing me the immense pleasure of playing in his back-up band. This is SO brave! It is a risk to interpret someone else’s work, and I applaud Clifton and his willingness to be so open and so vulnerable and jump off this musical cliff with me and Felipe and his other collaborators.

Exploration and collaboration are inherently risky…

Exploration and collaboration are inherently risky, but the rewards are so clear. Not only can a deeply personal piece turn into a powerful universal experience, one that can be interpreted by any willing explorer, the process itself becomes a mighty teacher. I’ve become a much better musician thanks to my musical deep dives, within the ICE collective and beyond.

My great hope is that we continue to inspire one another, performing and commissioning new works together, so the next generation’s young artists, faced with programming their first big show, will be overwhelmed by a beautiful, varied, unique, and multi-faceted new repertoire, overflowing with the diverse voices of a movement fed up with waiting for someone else to do it for them.

Jazz and Classical—Musical, Cultural, Listening Differences

Early next year a CD will be released featuring my compositions on Nonesuch Records. I’m very excited about the recording, which features Joshua Redman, one of today’s greatest working jazz musicians, as well as Brooklyn Rider, one of today’s most brilliant classical string quartets. (The equally brilliant jazz bassist Scott Colley and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi round out the ensemble.) This project marks a high-water mark in my work of genre blending, and offers an occasion to reflect on the differences and similarities between these two ways of making music. I’ve had sustained and rich experiences in both musical styles over the years, so I’ve had a chance to observe some general attributes of musicians who have been trained in each genre, and compare and contrast the two. For me the differences can be boiled down to a difference in musical culture.

The more of the rules you know, the deeper your understanding of them, the more you have the impression of belonging to the tribe.

Musical culture is something that is acquired gradually over a long period of study and practice within a given genre. It comes along with a set of dos and don’ts that become quite deep-seated. The more of the rules you know, the deeper your understanding of them, the more you have the impression of belonging to the tribe. Fractures and variations on these rules can occur at the level of the sub-genre. If jazz musicians think fundamentally differently than classical musicians, it must be said that “fusion” jazz musicians think quite differently than “straight-ahead” or “avant-garde” jazz musicians. The same goes for classical—world-class Mozart interpreters can stumble when tackling, say, Ravel. And the gulf between new music interpreters and more mainstream interpreters of the classical repertoire can seem vast.

It’s an obvious metaphor for political division—and I do think that stylistic preferences in music are a kind of politics played out in the abstract. People align themselves with one or another musical culture, and, though they may spend hours rationalizing their preferences, the basis for such adherence involves something much more primal. For someone who is into swing, something that doesn’t swing according to their definition can offend their sensibilities in a way that totally and completely bypasses the intellect.

Violinist bowing on a violin in standard classical music playing position (under the chin)

So the problem of merging musicians from two genres that seem far apart is in fact a diplomatic challenge, not that different from the problem of merging sensibilities within any group.  It starts with a really clear, non-judgmental understanding of the differences, both musical and psychological. Here are six areas in which classical and jazz musicians vividly differ:

1. Rhythm. There is no more marked area of difference between classically trained players and players trained in jazz than the domain of rhythm. Jazz musicians prioritize above all else a kind of steadiness of pulse, a consistency of rhythmic placement. They worship at the shrine of the eighth note, the sixteenth note. You can call this an orientation toward groove, or a metronomic approach—though, even if it begins from a principle of total evenness, it ultimately transcends the metronomic and goes to the realm of feel, that is to say each person’s own individualized approach to this evenness, to subdivision.

Very few classical musicians I’ve worked with have even heard of this idea of feel, and even the ones with good rhythm don’t obsess over it to the point that jazz musicians need to in order to obtain an expected level of competence. So to a jazz musician, the classical musician’s sense of rhythm can seem bafflingly substandard.

But in fact this needs to be understood in a completely different way. Classical musicians simply look at rhythm differently. They see it as an expressive element. By stretching the pulse one way or the other, they can support the longer musical line, which to them is of highest importance. The irony here is that jazz musicians’ use of rhythm is in a way LESS expressive than that of classical musicians. That expression is re-injected on the subtle level of feel—and indeed the best jazz soloists do make expressive use of time, by laying back against the beat or floating over it, but these effects work precisely because they create tension against an underlying pulse that is unchanging. Actual tempo fluctuation is strictly to be avoided. This is why, while it may be very difficult to get classical players to groove, it’s equally challenging to get jazz players to effect a convincing rubato.

2. Dynamics. When shading a phrase, when injecting drama into their performances, classical musicians obviously make frequent recourse to dynamics. Jazz musicians, uh, not so much! I remember in one of our rehearsals that Colin Jacobsen asked Josh Redman what dynamic he was playing at a certain passage. Josh grinned sheepishly and said, “Jazz musicians don’t really use dynamics.”  He wasn’t far from the truth—many jazz players, especially horn players, play at a fairly static volume. There certainly isn’t any established tradition of crescendo and diminuendo, outside the world of big band.

The overall dynamic of jazz is much louder than that of classical music, at least at the chamber music level. This is probably because of the prominence of the drum set in jazz, which is extremely loud compared to any chamber instrument (and has gotten considerably louder with the advent of rock music) and tends to play at a fairly consistent volume. To compete with this, other jazz musicians have gotten accustomed to playing at louder volumes, as well as becoming habituated to electronic amplification. Jazz saxophonists play at or above the volume of a classical trumpet, so when they suddenly have to play with a string quartet, they have to play around 1/8 their normal volume to blend!

3. Tone and Intonation. Jazz musicians can be obsessive about their sound and their tone quality, but overall I would say it’s less a priority than it is in the classical world. Sometimes jazz musicians also go for bigger rather than better in this regard, for the above-stated reasons.

In this category perhaps should be included things like vibrato. For a string player, vibrato is at the core of their playing, and vibrato practice is an important part of their musical development. Jazz musicians practice vibrato much less, and consequently have much less control, far less variety of speed and amplitude. It’s simply not as much used as an expressive element.

Intonation is much less of a concern in the jazz world than in the classical world. There’s the tradition of classical musicians tuning before the concert begins; many jazz musicians just hope to be in tune by the end.

In fact, I see intonation as a kind of inverse of rhythm. For classical musicians it’s a subject of years of true obsession, and like rhythm in jazz, classical musicians view intonation as a grid. You could think of jazz musicians, conversely, as having a more expressive approach to intonation. It’s not necessarily even conscious, but with saxophone players in particular a kind of idiosyncratic intonation can become an identifiable feature. I’ve seen classical musicians listen to Coltrane from his quartet period, for example, and actually burst out laughing at the intonation. But as any Coltrane aficionado with some technical understanding would agree, that sharp, almost pinched quality in the high register is an integral part of the surging angst of the Coltrane sound.

4. The Page. No discussion of the differences between jazz and classical musicians would be complete without touching on their respective approaches to the written page. Nothing tells you more about the brain structure of a musician than watching them try to negotiate written music.

Classical musicians tend to automatically inject expression into music they read. They understand well that written music is meant to be interpreted, and tend to be comfortable doing just that. I’m often amazed at how a classically trained musician can bring a page of written music so vividly to life, often without even understanding it! Their instincts in this regard tend to be highly developed.

Jazz musicians, by contrast, who are not as accustomed to reading, treat the enterprise with trepidation, and they can be really uptight about just getting the right notes. With fear and anxiety as their jumping off points, their interpretations of written music can be astonishingly leaden, played with all the joy and verve of a high school student who’s just been sent to detention.

This has to do with the relationship between theory and practice. For the jazz musician, theory and practice are inseparable—to be a successful improviser means to have integrated the two, there can be no other way. As such it’s very difficult to play anything without understanding its theoretical meaning.

On the other hand, you can be an entirely competent classical musician—I’ve seen this on many occasions—without having the slightest idea what is motivating the music you’re playing from a theoretical perspective.

This divorce of the theoretical from the practical does have the benefit of encouraging a more literary, imagistic, extra-musical approach, which can be a good thing—since after all, music really does have emotive, personal, narrative, and ultimately cultural meaning, beyond notes and rhythms, and that meaning is arguably even the most important of music’s qualities. But it also raises issues of legitimacy—anyone can give any interpretation to a piece of music, and since this is a very subjective quality, it’s harder to assess.

5. Improvisation. If classical musicians excel at rendering a written passage in musical fashion, their stumbling block tends to be improvisation. In the inverse situation to jazz musicians reading, classical musicians tend to be uncomfortable when asked to improvise. And they should be, because to improvise really well takes a lot more work than is generally understood.

In the inverse situation to jazz musicians reading, classical musicians tend to be uncomfortable when asked to improvise.

Improvisation is not merely a set of rules or precepts, or even a feeling of freedom—it is, again, a specific culture. It’s like a language. If I asked you to speak Chinese, you might try to do so with passion and vigor, but that wouldn’t really get you anywhere unless you studied it seriously for quite a while. In fact, it would take years to learn to speak it, and depending at what age you did so, you might never sound credibly like a native.

In jazz, performance and composition are organically intertwined. It’s the soloist’s voice that makes the music unique, whereas in classical music a good piece played by a less-than-stellar musician can lead to at least an intellectually interesting, if not aesthetically satisfying result, much more often than a less-than-stellar piece played by a great musician can. Technical flaws recede because, after all, the performer is simply the medium through which the composer imparts the musical message. It’s like listening to music on a great home stereo vs. cheap computer speakers—the difference may be glaring to the sensitized few, but for the most part the music comes through.

6. Shared References. The other thing that’s palpably different between jazz and classical musicians has to do with specific musical references. What did you play 1000 times in high school to the point that you now roll your eyes every time you hear it—Beethoven’s 1st Symphony or “Blue Bossa”? Those shared references, even as we may mock them, form a cultural substrate that actually plays a surprisingly big role in how we interact on a day-to-day basis.

Side view of a saxophone

Differences in Listening

If practicing these two genres entails basic differences, there is also a fundamentally different way of listening to them.

Since my early training was in jazz, for me listening to jazz is easier—and takes less mental strength—than listening to classical music. Listening to classical music, as so many introduction courses tell us, requires a basic understanding of form and sub-genre. Form—sonata and rondo, minuet and scherzo, and so forth—needs to be understood before the music can be properly ingested. Key relations also play an important role, so knowing exactly which pitches are being played is helpful in following the compositional narrative.

In jazz, by contrast, forms are based on the chaconne-like repetition of a series of chords, over which improvisations are played. The improvisations create the variation, and so in some sense the music is not travelling; it always comes back, again and again, to the same place.

I’ve noticed that the underlying repetitive structure of jazz can be really difficult to hear for people who are not initiated into its language. Traditional jazz, which is based on 12- or 32-bar forms and archetypal harmonic sequences, is something that the seasoned jazz musician, by dint of working in these forms over and over again, comes to hear intuitively. I can be at a jazz club listening to a group play standards, and I can be conversing with someone while simultaneously knowing exactly where I am in the form of whatever tune is being played. This process of listening becomes very natural, and then it becomes the basis of the assessment of how the soloist is playing. How is the soloist’s sound? How are the ideas—are they original, are they spontaneous? What is the level of interaction between soloist and rhythm section?

Even with new jazz composition, this formal repetition most often remains. The forms may be exotic, but they’re almost guaranteed to repeat at some point, to form a basis for improvisation.

Even the idea of repetition is different in classical music and jazz. Whereas in classical music a repetition tends to be strict, in jazz even a repeated melody is constantly varied both in the melody and the accompaniment. Thus jazz is both more repetitive and more flexible in its means (although this strictness of repetition in classical music has been challenged of late by early music specialists).

This compendium of differences between the cultures of jazz and classical musicians is a source of ever-increasing fascination to me. I used to feel frustrated when a violinist couldn’t play a groove, or when a jazz pianist froze up in front of a written passage. But really these are just manifestations of differences in brain structure, differences in training, and ultimately differences in culture. When you incorporate people with such differences into your music in an adroit way, you can—instead of losing something—augment your resources to create an art that’s tremendously multifaceted and rich, that celebrates and even thrives on difference.

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.

Composers, Performers, and Consent

Jessica Aszodi

Singer Jessica Aszodi
Photo by Yonatan Aljadeff

A few months ago, I was talking with composer Bethany Younge after a concert.  The conversation turned to our shared frustration with the idea, famously expressed by Stravinsky in reference to his Octet, that a score is an objective musical text, something to be executed rather than interpreted.  But we soon discovered that we were frustrated for different reasons.  I have trouble with the Stravinskian model because I see music as a kind of social interaction, and it’s important to me that a collaboration be a meeting of minds.  Bethany, on the other hand, objects to the structural power imbalance that it creates between composers and performers.

A few weeks later, I had a similar conversation with singer Jessica Aszodi. During one recording session, she told me, a composer pushed her to repeat a particular sound four times, despite her warning that she could only safely do it once.  As a result, she lost her voice.  Here the danger of the Stravinskian model is very concrete:  the composer’s insistence that she follow the score as written physically harmed her, and temporarily took away her primary source of income.  And there’s another power dynamic at work here, too.  New music vocalists, as Jess pointed out, are predominantly women—and the composers who have told her things like “I don’t care how it’s done, I just want you to do it” have all been men.  She also told me that she often receives scores from male composers that are written for a “generic soprano” rather than for her particular voice and personality—often based on archetypal female roles, with markings like “angelic.”

These conversations inspired me to revisit an article by another singer, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett.  She shares Jess’s and Bethany’s concerns about a new music culture that restricts performers’ choices, but her focus is on pieces that set up impossible tasks and ask the singer to fail in front of the audience.  The goal, she says wryly, seems to be “a silent, shaking performer in the corner of the room.”  Echoing Jess’s comments about female archetypes, she also criticizes many composers’ preference for breathy, delicate, informal, straight-tone singing, which she describes as “infantilized” and as “polic[ing] the voice.”

If you’re a composer who cares about both collaborative relationships and social justice, it’s easy to treat conversations like these as prescriptions about how to write.  I imagine that’s especially true for men who are trying to be good feminist allies, but even composers of other genders can’t ignore these issues—and in fact, Amanda clarified in a follow-up conversation that women have put her in compromising positions, too.  Contemporary activist writing sometimes makes it sound as though doing the right thing is as simple as following a bulleted list.  A site like Everyday Feminism is full of articles with titles like “3 Ways White Cis Gay Men Can Do Better for the LGBTQIA+ Movement.”  So why not “5 Ways Composers Can Avoid Limiting Performers’ Agency”?

But of course it’s not that simple.  Ethics is always slippery and messy and complicated, and there’s no more consensus among musician than there is among, say, queer people.  As Edward Said wrote in Orientalism, “it is a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human.”  Case in point:  only a week after I first read Amanda’s article, I ran across an interview with new music soprano Ariadne Greif.  She has no problem playing the role of vocalist in distress:  when she talks about ripping duct tape off her body in Georg Friedrich Haas’s Atthis, or running out of breath and winding up “ill and tearing up and shaking” in the final movement of Georges Apherghis’s Récitations, she emphasizes the power and intensity of the experience, both for her and for the audience.  “I’m in the Marina Abramović school,” she says.

And what about that delicate, straight-tone vocal style?  Amanda may see it as a “sexy baby voice,” but there are other ways of framing it, and not all female singers find it restrictive or inexpressive.  I’ve written pieces in which I sing that way myself, partially as a way of exploring the aesthetics of emotional repression, and partially, under the influence of Robert Ashley, as a way of getting singing closer to speech.  I also recently wrote a song cycle for Julia Holter, who’s been performing in that style for years.  During one rehearsal she jokingly started singing my music in a traditional operatic fashion—loud and resonant and with a rich vibrato—and it sounded absurd.  That kind of delivery doesn’t suit either her quietly intense stage presence or my oblique, pop-oriented piece.

The Stravinskian model has its fans, too.  A few years ago I wrote a piece for a reading session with JACK Quartet, and when I emailed their cellist, Kevin McFarland, to ask what he thought of some ideas I was tossing around, he responded that the group didn’t want me to feel the need to compromise, because they were “in the business of helping composers accomplish their visions.”  Personally, I don’t think that writing for a performer’s particular taste is a compromise.  But if the group wants to faithfully execute people’s ideas without interfering, can we really say that composers who take them up on it are unjustly exerting power over them?

Bethany Younge in performance

Bethany Younge in performance

The missing piece of the puzzle, I think, is consent.  The problem isn’t the idea of performers as objective executors;  it’s composers putting them in that role without asking.  The problem isn’t taking risks with vocal technique;  it’s composers who insist on going forward even when the singer has said no.  The problem isn’t asking musicians to experience distress on stage or to sing in a breathy straight-tone style;  it’s forgetting that your vision is being realized by an actual human being with desires and preferences and opinions.

When I brought the language of consent into the conversation, it turned out that everyone agreed with me, and many of them had already been thinking in those terms.  Despite Bethany’s fear that performers might feel pressured to take on the Stravinskian model, she acknowledged that some people might genuinely prefer to have a clearly defined task in front of them, and that they have a right to make that choice.  Jess made it clear that she’s in favor of pushing the limits of vocal technique, as long as the composer acknowledges the sovereignty of the singer’s body.  And Amanda explained that she has no objection to those who actually want to sing in a quiet, informal style or perform failure on stage.  When composers ask her to sing delicately, it grates partially because that’s not who she is—especially when they refer to it as a “natural” sound, since for her, what feels natural is “being big and loud and crazy.”  She did reiterate that she feels manipulated and controlled by pieces that make her fail, but with the caveat:  “that’s my sensibility as a performer.”

And yet recognizing the diversity of performers’ attitudes doesn’t eliminate the power dynamic inherent in the very act of writing music for someone.  There can be complicating factors—for example, if the performer is much more famous than the composer—but you can’t get around the fact that when you write for someone, you’re taking control of their body for a period of time.  If we want our collaborations to be satisfying for everyone involved, we need to come up with ways of working together that explicitly address two related questions:  what is each of us willing to do, and what does each of us want to do?

Kevin, who I first met when he was playing cello in a group called Ensemble de Sade, told me that he frames the issue using the conceptual categories of BDSM—the composer as dominant and the performer as submissive.  “I kind of love the idea of being willfully compromised for art,” he said.  Particularly when he plays the kind of highly complex, meticulously notated music that JACK Quartet specializes in, he feels like he’s not so much interpreting the piece as being “controlled remotely,” or treated like a puppet.  He’s consented to play that role, of course.  But even when you’re writing for musicians who prefer more give-and-take in their collaborations, the ethics of kink culture still provide a good model for talking about consent in a situation where one person is necessarily taking some degree of control.  If we made a habit of negotiating our collaborations in advance—discussing what all parties hope to get out of the experience, making note of safety risks, and establishing a set of ground rules—there wouldn’t be so many frustrated performers out there.

So what does this look like in practice?  Over the last few years I’ve been gradually shifting away from writing pieces in order to explore my own obsessions—bad taste, polystylism, gender, memory, sound logos, the American landscape—and toward designing experiences for the particular people I’m working with.  That’s never been more true than when I wrote The Man Who Hated Everything for wild Up this past summer.  Early on I called their conductor, Christopher Rountree, and asked him a long string of questions about the group’s artistic personality and values.  How would he describe their sound in general?  What fuels their desire to work with living composers?  Do they feel a strong sense of L.A. identity?  Chris also gave me detailed information about every musician on the concert—which instruments they particularly like playing, who’s an improviser and who isn’t, who plays in rock bands, who’s more focused on New Complexity repertoire, whose playing is more lyrical and whose is more brutalist.

By the end of the conversation I had an idea of what I was going to write:  a tribute to Frank Zappa.  It fit with everything Chris had told me about the group:  their diverse backgrounds, their “janky and noisy” sound, their love of music that’s hard to play (“we kind of like punishing people”), their habit of programming noise music and pop covers side by side.  It also gave me an opportunity to include improvisatory passages with open-ended textual instructions—a deliberate ceding of control that challenged me to let go and trust other people’s musical judgment.  Later I decided to have the players sing in the final section, and I had questions for Chris about that too.  Who has a good falsetto?  Who would be up for yelling?  Who would enjoy doing a cheesy lounge singer voice?  He checked in with everyone in the group before answering.

The result was one of the most satisfying collaborative experiences I’ve had.  Knowing that I was writing for specific people made all those hours sitting at my desk feel less lonely, and the musicians were enthusiastic about playing something tailored so precisely to their interests.  I was still taking control of their bodies for a while, but our pre-negotiation meant that I was doing so in ways that they enjoyed.  And my decision to give up my composerly power in certain passages meant that the piece really was a product of their sensibilities as well as mine.

It’s important to note that emphasizing consent doesn’t always lead to wonderful collaborations.  In fact, sometimes it means that collaborations don’t happen at all.  I was recently approached by a singer who was interested in working with me, but when I listened to her recordings, I noticed that she had the kind of formal “classical” sound that I have a hard time writing for.  So I asked if she was up for doing something more speech-like, making it clear that I didn’t want to impose anything on her.  And it turned out that she wasn’t!  It made me wonder if composers sometimes write things without checking in first because they don’t want to risk being turned down.  But I also think that not working together is much better, in the long run, than working together in a way that makes your collaborator feel frustrated, trapped, or manipulated.  Unless, of course, that’s exactly what they’re looking for.

Alex Temple

A sound can evoke a time, a place, a cultural moment, or a way of looking at the world. Alex Temple writes music that distorts and combines iconic sounds to create new meanings, often in service of surreal, cryptic, or fantastical stories. In addition to performing her own works for voice and electronics at venues such as Roulette and Constellation Chicago, she has also collaborated with performers and ensembles such as Mellissa Hughes, Julia Holter, Cadillac Moon Ensemble, wild Up, Spektral Quartet, and the American Composers Orchestra. Temple earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 2005 and her master’s from the University of Michigan in 2007; she’s currently working on a doctorate at Northwestern University and writing a podcast-opera about TV production company closing logos and the end of the world.

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.

Composing and Responsibility

“May we always be in perfect pitch harmony, for no person or spirit is ever always in unison, and a duo or ensemble can be comprised of anyone or contain anything, and that is the permanent fact of great society”—Adam James Johnson (text from Royal Democracy)

There’s a lot of debate among composer types about whether you should write music for an audience or to please yourself. While I usually pride myself on being able to see both sides of an argument, I actually disagree with both camps. An audience is not a monolith and “hits”, as it were, cannot be manufactured a priori despite the claims of Phil Spector and other star makers over the years. Also, there seems to be some kind of audience for just about anything, so no matter how arcane the endeavor, it will appeal to somebody. And in the era of non-geographically based markets, there are usually enough somebodies around the world to make it even economically viable. As for pleasing oneself being the reason behind one’s composing, that seems horribly solipsistic. Why should anyone else care about something that is so personal? But, perhaps more significantly, why limit yourself to what pleases you? In my experience, it is often the things that displease me initially that lead to something really interesting. Perhaps then, what would be more viable way for a composer to think out his or her musical creations than either of these limiting binaries (although it’s somehow a combination of them) is to always be mindful that what you eventually put forward into the world should be something you feel strongly enough about to want to share with others. It’s about taking responsibility for what you put on the page and what people will eventually be interacting with as players and listeners.

I was reminded of this last week when I observed the final session of the first American Composers Orchestra/Mannes Summer High School Composers Intensive. This new summer program is designed for high school student musicians who have yet to compose a piece of music. In introducing the seven participants, ACO Education Director Kevin James said that while these young musicians might have had original melodies floating around in their heads before taking part in the intensive, and some undoubtedly could have even played what they were hearing, this was their first encounter with “the accountability of creating a score” for performance by other people.


Kevin James and the [kāj] ensemble work through the details of one of the scores. (All photos by FJO.)

Over the course of the summer program, the students attended four in-depth workshops during which they learned about music notation standards and orchestration techniques. The culminating event, which is what I attended, was a reading by a professional ensemble of the music they created through these workshops. (The six musicians—Martha Cargo, flute; Eileen Mack, clarinet; Sarah Bernstein, violin; Lev Zhurbin, viola; Tomas Ulrich, cello; John Ferrari, percussion—were all members of James’s own [kāj] ensemble who, according to the program were “performing as guests of the American Composers Orchestra.”) James conducted and also joined the musicians on trombone in one of the pieces. Each of the students were allotted a total of 15 minutes, during which the musicians rehearsed and ran through their pieces. Some students created works for additional instruments which were played by their peers who augmented the ensemble; but the students were not allowed to participate as players in their own pieces and had to remain in the audience while they were being performed. The reason for that was to re-enforce pristine and diligent notation practices—again, to ensure that composers were fully responsible in the preparation of their materials and were held accountable for them.

The first piece, Silhouette by Ralph Mendoza, reminded me somewhat of Satyagraha-era Philip Glass in its cascades of interlocking arpeggiated chords. The composer actually cited a much earlier example—the moonlight sonata of Beethoven—as the source of his inspiration, but since Mendoza is a guitarist, it is easy to see how he could conceptualize arpeggios as the basis for a composition independently of either Beethoven or Glass. Toward the end of the next piece, Etude by McKinny Danger-James (who is Kevin James’s daughter), a germ motive grows in intensity, at first played by one instrument and ultimately played by everyone, completely taking over the piece. I thought it was a very exciting way to end a piece. Danger-James, is a singer so an infectious melodic fragment, as with Mendoza’s guitar-friendly arpeggiations, makes sense as a viable means for generating a composition, even one with no singers.

Valeria Olaya-Flores’s piece, Tiny Sun, called for improvisatory passages but the way she notated it resulted in much of her 15 minutes with the musicians being eaten up with questions from them. That said, once they were able to run through her score, I was fascinated by the somewhat off-kilter interaction of the instruments which called to mind Christian Wolff’s Piano Trio, so she’s definitely on to something. The parts for Celine Garcia’s Idea were also not completely clear to the musicians, but the composer acknowledged that this was due to problems she was having with her Sibelius notation software, particularly in the percussion part, although once it got going I was almost knocked out of my seat by the intensity of the snare drum pattern and a sudden thwack on the bass drum that seemed to come out of nowhere, as do so many of the most interesting sounds. How the musicians interacted with those two scores proved to be a valuable lesson for everyone in how to balance ambitious expectations with ensuring a satisfactory outcome. It’s a lesson that transcends musical composition and strikes to the heart of human communication.

Jonah Murphy’s Microsuite required the largest instrumentation of any of the pieces on the program, so students joined the ensemble to fill in additional parts for piano, saxophone, and a second percussionist. In Murphy’s score there was a part for trombone as well, but Kevin James decided that it was more important for him to remain conducting everyone in this somewhat complex piece. Perhaps more than in any of the other pieces I heard that afternoon, there was a keen sense of orchestrational color at play—phrases would be passed from one instrument to another, changing in nuance as a result of being stated in a different timbre. Passeggiando by Philip Zwick-Brunner was perhaps the most grounded of the pieces in the sound world of the so-called standard classical music repertoire. Overall it had a very 19th century European feel, albeit with a few 21st century quirks—I doubt anyone in the Romantic era would have featured such a prominent triangle part, a part which seemed even more insistent than the one in Brahms’s 4th symphony (the one that 19th century music critic Eduard Hanslick insultingly nicknamed “the triangle symphony”).

But the biggest surprise of the day came at the very end, Adam James Johnson’s Royal Democracy, which also required significant participation from the students in addition to the ensemble. At the beginning, three of the students recite a spoken text written by Johnson (which I quoted at the onset of this essay) against a backdrop of strings. Then various combinations of instruments interact with one another creating an almost Ivesian sonic panorama. For this, Kevin James finally did pick up his trombone, leaving the ensemble without a conductor. But it somehow all held together. For all its seeming freedom, Royal Democracy was about understanding what it means for people to play music together. And that was the clearest lesson of all about responsibility.


At the end of the performance of the last piece, all seven participants in the High School Composers Intensive took a collective bow with the conductor (Pictured L to R: Danger-James, Olaya-Flores, Garcia, Murphy, James, Zwick-Brunner, Johnson, and Mendoza). After all, that’s one of the rewards of being a composer!

When Good Performances Happen

SOLI Chamber Ensemble rehearsing at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX.

SOLI Chamber Ensemble rehearsing at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX.

It has been great to read all of the comments on last week’s post about bad performances—I’m glad to see both composers and performers sharing their thoughts. In the interest of addressing both sides of this coin—or maybe that greener grass over there—I’m also interested in unpacking aspects of good performances. Yes, they do happen!

What about performances that turn out better than expected? A couple of commenters from last week shared stories of student groups giving performances of compositions that were surprisingly good because there was plenty of time to practice and fully absorb the music. What about performances that end up coming across differently than the composer expected, but that still work? Again, it does happen. One time, a performer I met only hours before a performance took a semi-improvisatory section of a piece in a direction that I had never considered. While for me it wasn’t necessarily the definitive version of the piece, it worked incredibly well! He made that work his own. When a musician spends enough time with, and thinks deeply enough about, a composition to drive it successfully off-road, you know you’ve found a good colleague. Similarly, on more than one occasion I have heard pieces greatly improved by performers who suggest small changes—a more dramatic shift of dynamics here, speeding that phrase up a bit there—which they think of during rehearsal. While I don’t always agree with suggestions for changes, I am always glad to listen to the ideas and try things out. Being flexible is part of being a good collaborator. Isn’t that what the composer/performer relationship is about?

While the “us vs. them” dichotomy between composers and performers is apparently alive and well, it seems highly unproductive. The last time I checked, we are all musicians. Maybe we are approaching the language of music from different standpoints, but we are all in the same field. I may not be a performer, but when I’m working with a musician or ensemble, I enter into that relationship with the expectation that we are all striving to reach the same goal. It doesn’t always work out, but even if it doesn’t, the world keeps turning. Both good performances and bad performances are a two-way street—it’s up to both composer and performer to work together to determine how things are going to shake out.

What performances of yours (either of works you’ve composed or pieces you have performed) have been really successful? Was there any part of the process that surprised you in a positive way? What does a successful performance really mean, anyway? How about those of you in the audience? What makes a performance successful in your eyes and ears?