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Sitting in the Oberlin Conservatory’s large rehearsal room listening to the musicians of the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra (NOYO) rehearse for the world premiere of Kari Watson’s Morning Music for Fish, their excitement in anticipation of the concert is palpable—and infectious. It’s a welcome sensation: the extraordinary variety and vibrancy of music-making in 2019 is undeniable, yet so is the constant hand-wringing that now seems to be a permanent feature of the classical music discourse. But if the futures of arts education and Western concert music are really as dire as they sometimes appear, why are the seventy northeastern Ohio high-schoolers in this room so psyched to be playing music nobody’s ever played before? The short answer: because of Arlene and Larry Dunn, whose most recent gift to NOYO has endowed its composer-in-residence program.
The NOYO Philharmonia Orchestra’s world premiere performance of Kari Watson’s Morning Music for Fish in Finney Chapel on March 31, 2019. (David Pope, conductor)
If you’re a jelly bean in thegreatglassjar that is New Music Social Media, it’s a near-certainty that you’ve encountered Arlene and Larry Dunn in the form of some virtual avatar or other. I first crossed their path as a graduate student around seven years ago; they must have seen my byline here on NewMusicBox and assumed that I was a bona fide member of the field (an extension of the benefit of the doubt that no student composer could forget). It’s safe to say Arlene and Larry are the biggest fans of contemporary music in the United States who are not personally in the business. To practitioners who inhabit our small world, that anyone not in it for themselves could be a fan can come as a mild surprise: it’s a difficult world to love sometimes, exasperating even when everyone is treating each other with civility (which they don’t, always). But Arlene and Larry are indefatigable advocates both for what new music is and—crucially—for what it should be.
Arlene and Larry Dunn are indefatigable advocates both for what new music is and—crucially—for what it should be.
The Dunns have found a vector for that advocacy in the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra, on whose board Larry has served. “For us, it is essential that the NOYO composer-in-residence program is specifically focused on commissioning work from a composer of underrepresented status: people of color, women, LGBTQ,” says Arlene. “The only way we are going to move towards racial and gender equity in the arts, or anywhere else, is by taking such concrete steps.” Showing young musicians that composers are not found exclusively in the ranks of the white male dead is a vital part of NOYO’s mission to provide exceptional musical education through a variety of performance opportunities for participants of all backgrounds in an inclusive community of learning and growth. When NOYO’s artistic staff puts a composition on a high school musician’s stand by a composer who looks like them, that’s not just a way to broaden their sonic horizons: it’s a way to demonstrate that anyone can be a composer, that everyone has an aesthetic position to take, and that those positions warrant respect.
Arlene and Larry Dunn. (Photo by Tina Tallon)
To that end, the Dunns decided to take action with a transformative gift to NOYO: a contribution to the organization’s 50th anniversary endowment campaign that will endow the position of composer-in-residence in perpetuity. Each season, NOYO solicits proposals from Oberlin Conservatory composition students—students, in particular, from underrepresented populations—to write a piece for NOYO’s advanced Philharmonia Orchestra to premiere on its March concert. The selected composers will now each be known as an Arlene and Larry Dunn Composer-In-Residence.
The Dunns’ transformative gift to NOYO will endow the position of composer-in-residence in perpetuity.
Why now? As it happens, 2019 doesn’t just mark NOYO’s 50th anniversary—it also marks Arlene and Larry’s. “It’s a delightful synchronicity that NOYO’s 50th anniversary and our 50th wedding anniversary are happening in the same year,” Arlene explains. “We were looking for opportunities to celebrate our 50th that benefit the community, and giving to the NOYO endowment campaign to secure the future of the composer-in-residence program was a perfect fit.” For NOYO’s part, the organization is readier now than ever for such a program. “[Former executive director] Mike Roest asked me to join the board in 2014 to help re-energize the organization after some lean years,” says Larry. “What NOYO has accomplished since then, under Mike’s leadership and the team that has succeeded him, is truly remarkable, in terms of number of participants and the growing breadth of program offerings.” And the position that NOYO has staked out with regard to new work is bold: in addition to the Dunn Composer-In-Residence Program, NOYO offers its high-school-age participants the opportunity to invent their own music in the Lab Group, a collaborative composing ensemble, and to hear their compositions played by Oberlin Conservatory musicians through a composition competition. “One of my ambitions as a board member was to encourage the organization to engage more with the music of right now, by commissioning and creating new works,” Larry recalls. “To see this come to fruition with the composer-in-residence program and the Lab Group is very gratifying.” Arlene concurs: “We’re proud to be supporting NOYO in two dimensions that deeply resonate with us: striving for social justice and equity in serving the community and sparking and unleashing young people’s creativity.”
But NOYO’s young musicians, who come to Oberlin from all over northern Ohio each week to rehearse, aren’t the only beneficiaries of the program. Oberlin Conservatory composition professor Jesse Jones can vouch for the residency’s value to his students, including current composer in residence Kari Watson and 2017-18 composer-in-residence Soomin Kim (retroactively included in the program):
I have witnessed first-hand the artistic and professional growth this incredible program has provided them; they are afforded the rare opportunity to workshop ideas and receive feedback on their works in progress; they build a professional working relationship with both the conductors and instrumentalists; they get to practice effective verbal communication with a large ensemble; they even gain first-hand teaching experience by mentoring budding composers within the ensemble. The Dunn residency is an indispensable part of our young composers’ education here at Oberlin, and I know Kari and Soomin both view it as a high point in their burgeoning musical careers.
Watson and Kim have approached the prospect of composing for NOYO’s Philharmonia Orchestra as an invitation to reflect on their own experiences as high school musicians and reacquaint themselves with the joy that youth music-making can bring. “When I went to rehearsals, it really reminded me of when I was young,” says Kim. “I used to play the piano when I was young, and my parents would come to every single little concert I had at school. [Attending NOYO rehearsals] just reminded me a lot of my family and how they used to support me, seeing the parents sitting at the lounge waiting for the kids.” Referring to the upcoming premiere of her Morning Music for Fish, Watson notes that “this piece was a very joyful thing to write. I started this year with aims to write a different dark piece, working slowly and not feeling that much excitement. This piece and the experience refueled my creative love for music making. Going to NOYO rehearsals made me so happy, and I haven’t felt as much joy surrounding music as I have there in so long.”
“The key to success for arts organizations is to make yourself essential to your community.”
The Arlene and Larry Dunn Composer-In-Residence Program is an initiative that weaves together the Dunns’ passions for contemporary music and social justice with NOYO’s mission of access and inclusion. “I’ve long thought that the key to success for arts organizations and other non-profits is to make yourself essential to your community,” says Larry. “And the best way to do that is to deliver something of value to their children, which is exactly what NOYO is doing.” In this case, the “something” is new music—and to the young musicians of the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra, its value is self-evident.
Early in 2016, one of my friends asked me to describe my career aspirations. Where do I see myself in five years, or in ten years?
I’ve always found this kind of question to be extremely difficult to answer. Careers and opportunities—especially in the world of classical music—can change so quickly, and sometimes quite arbitrarily. Often, planning and setting goals can seem like futile exercises. I’m always concerned that long-term planning will lead to disappointment, or will get in the way of larger opportunities.
So, in responding to my friend’s question, I kept my answer somewhat vague. “I want people to hear my orchestral music,” I said. “I want to write more of it, and I want opportunities for it to be heard!”
The past year has been extraordinary for me.
The past year has been extraordinary for me. Last November, I was attending rehearsals with the Yale Philharmonia as they prepared Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky for a December performance. The concert program only consisted of new works for orchestra written by composition students at the Yale School of Music. I learned so much throughout those rehearsals—not only from hearing my own piece, but from hearing my colleagues’ music as well. I didn’t imagine that Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky would have an interesting life beyond the December concert.
In February of 2017, I learned that I had been chosen to participate in the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings. Later in the spring, I received an invitation to attend the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. I now had opportunities to rethink sections of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky and make revisions.
At this point, Likely Pictures is a strong piece, and it’s also a practical piece. The musicians of both the American Composers Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra seemed to understand what it was about fairly quickly. After several revisions, the notation is very clear, and there are very few questions regarding my intentions. I have been present at every performance of my orchestral music; ideally, a conductor and an ensemble should be capable of assembling my music without my presence and input.
A conductor and an ensemble should be capable of assembling my music without my presence and input.
In the spring of 2017, I learned that I had won a commission from the New York Youth Symphony. This was extraordinary news—I was receiving my very first orchestra commission! In my application, I had submitted Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky as my work sample. In a significant way, Likely Pictures had made this new opportunity possible.
This past weekend, I heard the premiere of Daylights, my newest orchestral work. Commissioned as part of First Music, the New York Youth Symphony’s commission competition, Daylights literally opened the NYYS’s 2017-18 season. The work is a short, active concert opener. When I began composing it, I knew I wanted to create moments that capture the sensation of staring into a brilliant light. The word “daylights,” most often found as part of the expression “the living daylights,” is an archaic idiom referring to an individual’s eyes or consciousness. The title takes on many meanings—personal awareness and perception as well as the brilliant light of day.
Very often, my compositions come in pairs. I discover a sound or technique while writing one piece, and then I seek to improve upon it in a subsequent work. In a way, Daylights is an expansion of what I learned while composing Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky.
As I explained in a previous post, early drafts of Likely Pictures were extremely episodic, and my transitions between sections were less than graceful. My teacher, Christopher Theofanidis, encouraged me to revisit these sections and compose elegant transitions. Chris taught me to be thoughtful and deliberate when writing transitional material, and this new, increased awareness has impacted everything I have written over the course of the past year.
Similar to Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, Daylights opens with a very sparse, delicate texture. The violins sustain very high, fragile harmonics, and a solo flute sings out a melody. I add glockenspiel, a second flute, and—eventually—solo violin and a very rude bass drum. In the final measures of the work, the music returns to a thicker, more active version of the work’s introductory, chamber-like material before blossoming into a noisy, active conclusion. In both Likely Pictures and Daylights, I contrast moments of intimate chamber music with expansive orchestral passages.
When composing Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, I experimented with combining instruments to create percussive, staccato “hits.” It’s a defining characteristic of the piece, and I chose to incorporate this element into Daylights (although, in a less significant way). In this case, however, the “hits” are orchestrated differently, and I usually use something to lead into these staccato punches. For example, in one passage, a crescendoing snare roll and solo flute terminates with pizzicato strings and a choked suspended cymbal. This is an example of how I grow artistically: I find a musical element or effect that I like, and I experiment with it in different pieces and contexts. It then becomes something that I can keep in my “repertoire” of sounds and ideas.
I’m extremely grateful for opportunities to continue experimenting and developing.
Following the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings this past June, I learned that I had been awarded the Underwood Commission. Every year, one of the UNMR participants is selected to receive a commission for a future season. This is an extraordinary opportunity and privilege for me, and it will be my first commission from a professional orchestra. And, this opportunity is arriving at an interesting time for me, both artistically and professionally. I have learned so much about orchestral writing over the course of this past year. I’m a lot more confident in my ability to compose for orchestra, and I have so many ideas I want to hear realized. I also recognize that I still have so much to learn, and I’m extremely grateful for opportunities to continue experimenting and developing.
Daniel Schlosberg, Charles Peck, Peter Shin, Nina C. Young, Hilary Purrington, Andrew Hsu, and Saad Haddad talk through details in their pieces at a session with Minnesota Orchestra musicians during the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. (Photo by Mele Willis, courtesy Minnesota Orchestra.)
For a while, I’ve claimed that clarity is the most important aspect of my music. I want musicians to know what’s going on so they can musically react and interpret their part, and I never want an audience member to feel lost or perplexed. For me, a large part of growing and improving as a composer involves learning how to more effectively communicate with both performers and listeners.
There are two sides to this. Musically, I strive to create narratives that both performers and listeners can follow. On a more practical level, I carefully edit my scores and parts so that performers and conductors know what I’m looking for. As simplistic as it seems, I’ve learned to notate my music so that it will sound exactly the way I want it to.
The process of writing and revising has been transformative.
The process of writing and revising Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky for orchestra has been transformative for my writing. It’s my third orchestral piece, and it’s the only one I’ve been able to revise for subsequent performances. In its current form, the work is the product of important previous experiences and careful revisions.
I’ve been fortunate to attend schools that give composition students opportunities to hear orchestral works read and sometimes performed. In the summer preceding my second year at Juilliard, I began working on my second orchestral piece. I planned to apply to doctoral programs and, knowing that a reading at Juilliard would be my only chance to make a decent recording before application deadlines, I intended to compose something that could function well with very little rehearsal time. It needed to be simple and straightforward with the potential to sound polished by the end of a brief reading session.
This became Extraordinary Flora (2014). Composing a delicate, straightforward piece forced me to carefully consider how I presented and orchestrated my musical materials. If I had composed this piece earlier, it would have felt counterintuitive, as if I was wasting the ensemble’s potential. But, this experience taught me that writing for orchestra with a sense of restraint can actually be more effective. Carefully controlling the energy of a massive ensemble allowed me to harness and focus it for moments that really mattered.
I began thinking about my next orchestral piece, Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky (2016), early in the summer before my second year at the Yale School of Music. In a continuation of what I had discovered while writing Extraordinary Flora, I wanted to create delicate, chamber-like moments that would contrast with expansive, more “orchestral” sounds.
The opening texture of Likely Pictures was my first significant idea; before anything else, I knew how I wanted the beginning to sound. I imagined a dry, sparse introduction with solo pizzicato notes sounding from within the strings section. Then, I wanted a slow, simple melody (unison piano and vibraphone) to soar over the pointillistic activity. A low, indistinct rumbling noise (tremolo basses, very low piano, and rolled bass drum) would slowly emerge.
And then I had to figure out the rest of the piece. This is how I usually begin writing: I compose the opening, and then pause to consider what happens next. On a large sheet of paper, I create a timeline and draw out the trajectory of the piece, determining proportions and how important moments will occur. I continue to refer back to these initial, basic sketches, often changing my mind and adjusting my plan.
During the first phase of composing, I always write by hand, usually at a piano. I improvise and sing and play until I find what I’m looking for. I compose with paper and pencil until it feels counterproductive to do so—that is, when it becomes apparent that I’m notating, not composing. I then begin organizing my materials into notation software. For me, notation software allows for greater flexibility as I alter and rework. And, I like the idea that the final barline is always there, waiting for me to meet it at the end of the piece.
I think it’s important to experience the passage of time like an audience member might.
At a certain point, playback becomes valuable, and I know many composers who would disagree with me on this. But, I think it’s important to experience the passage of time like an audience member might. Playing through the music at the piano, or singing, or conducting, or just closing my eyes and imagining—these exercises force me to actively participate in the music, and this participation drastically alters my sense of time.
When school started in the fall of 2016, I had notated a nearly complete draft of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky. I brought what I had to my teacher, Christopher Theofanidis. In initial drafts, the piece was very episodic, and Chris advised me cover these seams and create smooth, elegant transitions between sections. This transformed the work’s continuity and overall cohesion.
We reworked individual sections as well. For example, I had initially imagined the solo pizzicato gestures of the opening section as coming from players within the section. Chris convinced me that the drama of seeing the individual players was important, especially as these subtle sounds recede. At a certain point, an audience member can’t quite hear the pizzicato notes, but he or she can see them. Visual cues can smooth over transitions, too.
Two months after the piece’s premiere with the Yale Philharmonia, I found out that I had been chosen to participate in the American Composers Orchestra’s Underwood New Music Readings. I took this opportunity to make some revisions, as I realized that my notation wasn’t always as clear as it could be.
The most significant and time-consuming change I made was to tie over sustained notes so that the pitch stops on a sixteenth note. Throughout the first section of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, I ask the first violins to crescendo through sustained tones. I noticed that many of the players seemed to back away before the completion of the note value, causing a sudden decrease of energy. Tying these notes over to sixteenth notes conveyed that I wanted the sound to persist and grow for the duration of the pitch. It’s not the most visually elegant notation, but I think it better conveyed my point, and I was happier with the ACO’s treatment of this gesture.
A passage from Hilary Purrington’s Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky showing how she notated sustained notes in a way that maintained energy for their entire duration.
I made other, far smaller adjustments. Yale’s music library had returned my parts, so I was able to consider the performers’ notes. Aside from small notational changes, deciding exactly what to revise was tricky. The Yale Philharmonia usually performs in Woolsey Hall, Yale’s largest performance venue. Visually, the hall is an ornate, dramatic space; acoustically, however, it’s not unlike an empty water tower. Although I was happy with the performance and the recording, the muddiness and other acoustic peculiarities made it difficult for me to decide what actually needed to change.
The Underwood New Music Readings took place in the DiMenna Center. Aside from clarifying some notation, I wanted to leave many elements of the piece untouched because I was curious as to how Likely Pictures would sound in a drier venue. The change in acoustics made an incredible difference; – staccato notes were actually staccato, for example. Each performance had its strengths, and I don’t think I could say that I substantially prefer one recording over the other.
One of the most valuable experiences was receiving direct feedback from the musicians.
One of the most valuable experiences of the Underwood New Music Readings was the opportunity to receive direct feedback from the musicians. As regular performers with the American Composers Orchestra, these musicians have seen and played an unbelievable variety of new works, and they are quick to catch on and understand a composer’s intentions. The instrumentalists gave the same advice to all the participating composers: Make an individual musician’s purpose clear. And, beyond this: Make it clear that the musician’s role is necessary and valuable. If a passage is particularly tricky, at least make it gratifying for the player.
Hilary Purrington receives feedback from Underwood mentor composers Derek Bermel and Trevor Weston (Photo by Jiayi Photography, courtesy American Composers Orchestra)./caption]
For me, generating material is the most straightforward part of composing. Using Western notation and occasional words to describe an abstract idea and a musician’s role within that is often a complex task. In November, I have the opportunity to workshop Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky yet again, this time with the Minnesota Orchestra as part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute. The skill of effective and efficient communication can only be sharpened by experience, and I’m very grateful for another opportunity to continue learning and improving my craft.
Sky Macklay has been receiving a great deal of attention for her string quartet Many Many Cadences which, as per its title, involves a relentless chain of cadences—some of which are completed and some of which listeners who are acculturated to the canon of Western classical music perceive as such by being able to infer the missing sonic links. This piece fetched Macklay a 2016 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and its premiere recording, by the Spektral Quartet, was nominated for a 2017 Grammy. In September, it will be performed by the Utrecht String Quartet during the Gaudeamus Muziekweek in Utrecht, where it’s in the running for the 2017 Gaudeamus Prize, and in November it will be performed by the Bozzini Quartet during the 2017 ISCM World New Music Days in Vancouver.
Macklay first came to my attention five years ago after receiving New Music USA funding for a quirky orchestral piece she wrote to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Lexington, Massachusetts called Dissolving Bands, a work which earned her the 2013 Leo Kaplan Award, the top honor in the Morton Gould Awards. When I read the then 24-year-old composer’s description of it as a musical rendering of the “tension, instability, and unpredictability of life in colonial America on the cusp of revolution,” I knew I needed to hear it. The music she wrote is sometimes reminiscent of the sound world of the maverick New England composer Charles Ives, but Macklay is a maverick in her own right as I kept discovering the more familiar I became with the rest of her compositional output.
She’s made it very easy to discover her music on her own website, which offers audio recordings—and sometimes video recordings and musical scores—for 17 different compositions which range from a wacky sound installation comprised of industrial fans channeling air into either large heavy duty garbage bags or air mattresses stuffed full of deconstructed harmonicas to a provocative chamber opera whose three characters are two spermatozoa and a uterus. As she acknowledged when we visited her New York City apartment just weeks before her move to Chicago, she usually comes up with a generative concept prior to creating a note of music:
Oftentimes it comes to me like a flash of inspiration. I then figure out the details of how that will work and can bring it to life. That’s the excitement of composing for me. I am a very conceptual composer. I like structuralist ideas that I can flesh out formally; that’s really how I work. It could be a combination of a sonic concept and a formal concept usually. Maybe sometimes also an extra-musical concept.
Macklay’s extra-musical concepts are often highly charged politically. In Lessina, Levlin, Levlite, Levora, a speaking violinist (whom she requires to be male) simultaneous bows various figurations while reciting a list of FDA-approved female contraceptive devices and drugs, pharmaceutical companies’ advertising slogans for them, side effects from taking them, and user reviews.
“I think that’s a really common and traumatic experience in a lot of women’s lives,” she explained. “So making that into music was a way to share that experience mostly with men who don’t understand that experience on a deep level.”
Another work, Sing Their Names for unaccompanied chorus, was created in response to the recent police killings of black people. Its text is simply a list of victims’ names.
“I saw a poster that had a list of just pictures and names of people who had been killed by police, and I thought that I could make a memorial out of it,” Macklay said. “I wanted to be abstract in that most of the time you can’t really understand the names in the piece, but maybe a few of them emerge in the end that you can hear. … The abstracted syllables of the people’s names is a metaphor for erasure and the lack of visibility of the humans involved, and then in the end it’s maybe a little more visible. I think of it as a sacred piece that is supposed to be a requiem-like meditation on the people’s lives.”
Sometimes, however, the concept is purely musical, as in her stunning violin and piano duo FastLowHighSlow, in which fast and slow music are presented simultaneously as are the extreme registers of both instruments. She got so excited by the idea of exploring every possible permutation of those two binaries that after the work’s initial performance she added an additional optional movement which presents every possibility at the same time, although to do so ultimately required a second violinist and a second pianist.
“It’s definitely not the most practical movement, which is why it’s optional,” she acknowledged.
But despite Macklay’s love for esoteric concepts (read on to find out why she subdivided an ensemble into two groups tuned approximately a quarter tone apart), it all stems from a desire to communicate visceral experiences that can engage listeners. She is particularly excited by introducing younger people to the rich resources of contemporary music, which she does through teaching at The Walden School as well as creating music for student ensembles.
“I love weird contemporary music and sharing it with the next generation,” she explained. “I think a lot of it is sharing my own personal perspective on it—just show how much a particular sound excites me and how beautiful I think it is. I think that’s sort of contagious, or at least let’s people perceive it as a beautiful thing, or something that some person thinks is a beautiful thing. I also think that exposure, experience, experiential education, and experiential pieces are really a great way to do outreach. … That’s something I think more composers should do: write music that has a participatory role for amateur musicians, or for just audience members.”
Sky Macklay in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Macklay’s NYC apartment
May 10, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: Thank you for including so much information about your music on your website, not just recordings but even scores for most of the pieces. It really helped me get to know your work and, because of that, there are so many details I want to talk about with you.
Sky Macklay: I like to share all the information and be transparent. Sometimes you can make great connections through that. So I like to put the scores up there, at least for the pieces that I’m done with. But sometimes I have a performance and I think I’ll probably make revisions, so I don’t put up the score. In November, I was part of the NEM Forum with Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne in Montreal, and I wrote a large ensemble piece for them called Microvariations. It uses a lot of the same ideas as Many Many Cadences, but with two groups tuned microtonally apart from each other. I wasn’t very satisfied with it compositionally. I thought I missed some opportunities to orchestrate in a way that made those microtonal harmonies more audible. It was not as vivid as I wanted. But somebody from the Society of Contemporary Music in Montreal heard it, and they’re going to do it again in Montreal. So now I have a chance to totally revise it and perfect it. That’s a really great opportunity. How I love to work the most is to have a performance, have a chance to perfect it, and then that’ll be the real final version.
FJO: So that’s why the score for Microvariations is not online. I really wanted to see that score. Since you said it draws on an idea from Many Many Cadences, I’d like to find out more about that. In both pieces it sounds like you’ve taken a bunch of brief, disjunct musical phrases and stitched them together by implying relationships between them that people immersed in listening to common practice tonality would perceive. In a very extensive interview that Brendon Howe did with you for VAN magazine last year, you said that you were annoyed because a lot of people were so focused on the fast succession of tonal cadences in the opening of Many Many Cadences that they missed what you think is the most significant aspect of that piece. Of course, a composer can’t ultimately control what listeners are going to think a piece is about, and you did call it Many Many Cadences, so people are going to focus on that.
SM: I don’t think that people in general misunderstood what it was about. I’m happy with how audiences received it. I think most people definitely took in the whole picture. I was just ranting about the way it was portrayed in “the media,” the publicity that that particular album got, how in so many reviews of the album the reviewers only described the beginning and didn’t describe the trajectory of the piece, what happens to that opening material. I definitely feel for the reviewers, because I know they are trying to keep their word count down so they just describe it real quick in a way that people would relate to.
FJO: Both Many Many Cadences and Microvariations wind up not sounding at all like pointillistic music because the missing links between the musical phrases are implied and we’re somehow able to perceive them.
SM: Our brain fills them in. I’m fascinated with perception and tapping into the habits that our brains have. But I don’t really think of them as disjunct moments in time. They are connected by their staccato attacks, and they’re connected by our brain by their proximity and the historical idea of cadences.
FJO: In terms of how Microvariations expands on this idea, it sounds like there are actual references to standard repertoire pieces in it, but I can’t identify any of them.
SM: The timpani is referencing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with all the rhythmic octaves, so there are definitely references, but not any direct quotes. If you took any common practice period piece and did a Schenkerian analysis of it and reduced it to its most foundational, tonal elements, that’s sort of what you would get. Like Many Many Cadences, it would just sound like those chords.
FJO: I’m curious about the way you used microtonality in Microvariations. By dividing the ensemble into two groups that are not in tune with each other, you’re playing around with the notion of absolute pitch not being absolute. Nowadays musicians are trained to play the A above middle C at 440 Hz, but it wasn’t always that way. Pitch was lower. In certain places it has even gone higher. But how does that play out in terms of what you’re doing?
SM: First of all, it creates clashes of approximately a quarter tone among them. Sometimes I have one person from the higher group and one person from the lower group playing in unison. It sounds like a de-tuned unison, and I think that’s a really great sound. I want to definitely take advantage of that more. But then, the way it coalesces in this piece is we have a motive in a pitch level, and then something in this other pitch level. It goes back and forth, and then when they come together, they sound so spicy together. It also uses a lot of chords that are in just intonation, spectral chords that I orchestrated thinking, “Okay, this group is about a quarter tone flatter, so members of this group could play the seventh partial of the harmonic series.” Of course there are lots of adjustments, but it’s finding the overlap where their pitch levels would be in tune in the harmonic series.
FJO: Classically trained musicians have a real resistance to being “out of tune.” How did you navigate that?
SM: In my experience in Montreal, the musicians were down for it. It definitely has a precedent. I had all of the winds tune their instruments down a quarter tone. The brass players had no problems with it. The clarinets and oboes maybe had the most trouble because their instruments are more affected by the extreme tuning. It’s definitely a little wonky with wind instruments. If you pull out the tube, not everything is perfectly in tune all along the instrument. It messes up the perfect adjustments that the players are used to making. I play oboe, so I’m aware of that. I embrace it and say, “If your timbre is a little wilder than usual, just go with it. Don’t worry about a super refined tone.” They definitely just went with it and adapted. I think the tendency was they would get a little higher as the piece went on. They would start creeping up to the strings, but I had the conductor remind them to relax and keep the pitch down. It was a conscious thing they had to keep thinking about, but then they did a great job.
FJO: But a lot of classical players dread that people are going to think they’re out of tune. How do you navigate that—being out of tune is actually being in tune for this piece?
SM: I try to make it a clear rhetorical reason in my music, something that’s obvious enough. The differently tuned pitches will play enough of a role that people listening to it will know this is obviously the way it’s supposed to be. In this day and age, so many people are doing microtonality, I think that attitude is definitely fading. Pretty much every musician that I work with is very open to alternative tunings.
FJO: But when you get a commission from the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic after your Gaudeamus and ISCM performances, you might encounter some resistance if you ask the players to veer outside 12-tone equal temperament.
SM: Well, I don’t really work with orchestras that much at this point in my life. I’m sure orchestras are generally more conservative than chamber music people who specialize in contemporary music.
FJO: The first piece of yours I ever heard, Dissolving Bands, is an orchestral piece and it is not microtonal. So was microtonality not part of your musical language at that point, or did you figure that it wouldn’t work in the context of writing for orchestra?
SM: I was definitely interested in microtonality at that point, but it didn’t seem important for what I was working with for that particular piece. I was trying to write a successful piece for orchestra that would fit with the Lexington Symphony. I don’t remember being held back by anything that came to mind, but I suppose with an orchestra, I’d definitely be more conservative with microtones.
Sky Macklay’s composing desk
FJO: As far as I can tell, Dissolving Bands is the earliest piece that you still put out there.
SM: Well, if you go back through my SoundCloud account, you can find some earlier pieces. But that one is my first mature piece.
FJO: So that’s Opus 1?
FJO: It’s interesting that you begin your catalog with that, especially since it received a lot of recognition; it got the top honors, the Leo Kaplan Award, in the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards competition. Of course that makes listeners curious to know what came before it, how you got to that point as a composer, but they can’t if you don’t want those earlier pieces to be done at this point.
SM: Oh, I would consider some of them maybe. There’s actually one piece before that that’s on my website—Döppelganger. It’s for two oboes and—
FJO: —and organ.
SM: I actually made the version for two oboes and organ in 2014, I think. But the original version, for two oboes and chamber ensemble, is from 2012 or 2011. Then I kept working with that idea in different instrumentations.
FJO: But only Döppelganger III, the one for two oboes and organ, is on your website. I was going to ask about one and two.
FJO: So that piece you’d still encourage people to play.
FJO: The Döppelganger pieces all involve oboe, so they’re very personal. You’re an oboist.
FJO: What came first, playing oboe or composing?
SM: Oboe came first. I always really loved music, and when I was a kid I was in choir. I started playing oboe when I was ten, and I was really into it. Then I started getting serious about piano at 12 and studied pretty seriously in my teens. I started composing when I was 17 or 18, not that early. One of my creative outlets before that was that my friends and I had sort of a movie-making collective called AnimeSpoof.com; we did spoofs of anime, but also other funny movies. I sometimes did music for that and then late in high school, I started writing songs. I became serious about composing my sophomore year of college and became a composition major. But I always kept playing oboe and was serious about that, too, and kept studying it through my master’s degree.
FJO: And you still play oboe.
FJO: So did you start out writing pieces for you to play yourself and then it gradually morphed into writing music for others?
SM: Well, my earliest pieces were songs for voice and piano, but they weren’t always for me. I remember in my first composition class that my first piece was for oboe and accessories. My next piece was for marimba and voice. Then I branched out writing for all kinds of instrumentations. My final project for that class was for trombone choir. That was a disastrous piece because it’s not very idiomatic for trombone. It was very high and contrapuntal, so it totally fell apart in the performance.
FJO: How many trombones?
SM: I think there were maybe ten parts, but I honestly don’t remember. That’s definitely in the trash bin.
FJO: But you went on to write a piece for multiple oboes called Inner Life of Song which I think is pretty incredible. There’s no date on the score or in your notes, so I don’t know when that piece happened.
SM: I think I wrote that in 2015.
FJO: I love how open-ended it is. It can be for any number of oboists, and it’s a graphic, indeterminate, conceptual score. It is instruction-based, rather than something with a lot of complex notation, so it seems like it could be put together relatively easily.
SM: Definitely. That’s the idea. It’s a communal experience. It’s very experiential. Of course an audience can listen to it, but it’s more about the experience of the performers and their listening because it’s a deep listening piece where I want them to really feel the collective multiphonics and get deep into the inner life of the sounds. It’s very approachable for students who’ve never played multiphonics before. They can just try them out, and if they mess up in the performance, or they don’t speak in the performance, it’s okay, because there are usually other people playing at the same time. I hope that wherever there’s a large group of oboists, like at a double reed festival or in studio class, they could play that piece. It’s my offering to groups of oboe players who want to have a collective experience playing multiphonics. There’s an International Double Reed Society Conference. And then there are also regional double reed days that a lot of universities have.
FJO: I imagine it’s much harder to put together a performance of one of the Döppelganger pieces. I studied the score for the third one, and it looks pretty hard. That’s not something that could be done by a pick-up group.
SM: That is a virtuosic piece for sure. But I personally like to play that piece a lot, so I’ve played it with my teacher from Memphis and with lots of different oboe friends. It’s a nice bonding experience with other oboists.
FJO: Most of your other pieces don’t really involve the oboe, so you don’t really perform in them. Even though you still play oboe, composing became your main activity. So when did that happen?
SM: I really started identifying as a composer in my sophomore year of college. I’ve definitely liked writing for myself, but I saw that as a small part of my work as a composer. I have written one more piece that’s oboe-centric called Sixty Degree Mirrors. I don’t have that on my website, but I’m going to be making a recording of it with Ghost Ensemble in June, so I’ll definitely put that up when I have the nice new recording.
FJO: What’s the story with that piece?
SM: It’s for flute, oboe, accordion, harp, bass, and viola. It’s called Sixty Degree Mirrors because that’s the angle of the mirrors in a kaleidoscope. All these little sound objects are played and repeated with slight variations. It’s a very fractured form. Imagine different things in mirrors. Then, at the end, a lot of it is based around multiphonic harmonies in the oboe and flute together.
FJO: Your titles frequently seem to reflect a core structural element in the music. It seems there’s often a really intense concept which generates the music, so I’m wondering what generates those concepts. Does a title come to you before the music or perhaps a concept that you flesh out sonically and then title?
SM: Maybe not exactly the title, but a little kernel of an idea. Oftentimes it comes to me like a flash of inspiration. I then figure out the details of how that will work and can bring it to life. That’s the excitement of composing for me. I am a very conceptual composer. I like structuralist ideas that I can flesh out formally; that’s really how I work. It could be a combination of a sonic concept and a formal concept. Maybe sometimes also an extra-musical concept.
FJO: When I was looking at your score for The Braid, I spotted something that really seemed like a musical parallel to the concept of braiding, which is the really detailed undulations of the dynamics. Each of the musicians start out playing super quiet, getting slightly louder but still quiet, then going back to being super quiet, but at different times. It’s like contrapuntal dynamic levels. It’s a very strange idea, but I imagine it came from having an idea about braiding and then trying to figure out how to make it work musically.
The score for Sky Macklay’s composition The Braid which shows her extensive use of subtle dynamic fluctuations.
SM: I have to give credit where credit is due and say that I got that idea from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet. She has little dynamic fluctuations and intertwining voices. I also wanted to use different timbres that can really blend together. It’s a piece for cello, percussion, and clarinet. I wanted to hear the beating between those instruments and play with the subtle threshold of being able to distinguish them as different instruments. I think I thought of the concept of the braid, but not the term braid, then I did it and I thought of the actual word for it.
FJO: I should have recognized the connection with Ruth Crawford Seeger, but I didn’t. Although, to get back to Dissolving Bands, at times it sounds quite reminiscent of Charles Ives.
SM: Definitely. It’s a very New England-y piece, because it was for the celebration of the town of Lexington, Massachusetts. So I definitely channeled some Ivesian ideas.
FJO: And in FastLowHighSlow, I feel like you’re channeling Elliott Carter.
SM: I wasn’t thinking of that at all, but I think that’s a perfectly valid connection to make. What do you see as the connection?
FJO: The superimposition of fast and slow music simultaneously, which is something Carter explored a lot in his string quartets.
FJO: Each of the movements is a different permutation of these fast/slow/high/low possibilities. So did the idea come first or did the music come first?
SM: I knew I was writing the piece for violin and piano, but definitely the concept came first, trying to have very obviously slow music cohabitate with very obviously fast music. I’m really into binaries and trying to explore extremes of musical axes like pitch and speed. So I thought I could have this boundary of duration: in two minutes, I’ll have as much fast music and slow music as possible within the bounds of these two instruments. Then I knew I would name it something like FastLowHighSlow because, like you said, that describes the concept and the whole persona of the piece.
FJO: Hearing music that’s simultaneously fast and slow is very disorienting.
SM: Well usually the fast dominates, I think. We hear that as the foreground because it’s very active. One of the reasons why I wanted to repeat the exact same material in the different movements is then I think it dawns on the audience that there’s this slow thing that was in the first movement but now it’s in the totally slow movement. They can trace that and have a deeper understanding of the form after hearing multiple movements.
FJO: And then you have an optional fifth movement that requires two violinists and two pianists.
SM: At the premier performance, my friend Susanna realized that there are these musical motives that are repeated, four musical things together in different permutations, but only with two instruments. And she said, “You could have all four of them together if you had two violinists and two pianists.” I totally agreed. That really makes sense formally to kick it to the logical extreme. It would also be very climactic and exciting to have four people for the last movement—piano four hands and two violinists. There actually has been a performance with the optional fifth movement at my concert at Spectrum in October. It was really awesome.
FJO: So are these two additional people hidden somewhere? How does that work?
SM: The second pianist, Mila [Henry], was turning pages for Jacob [Greenberg], so the page turner became the second pianist. And then Erica [Dicker] came up from the front row [and joined Josh Modney]. It probably wasn’t a surprise because it said their names in the program, but it could have been a total surprise.
FJO: Yeah, I think it would be better if it was a surprise. Maybe wait to give people a program after the concert’s over.
SM: I like that idea.
FJO: Or perhaps it could be done with pre-recorded tracks.
SM: I don’t think that would be as good. I think it would be kind of weird to add an electronic element. It’s better live.
FJO: It’s just harder to have two more people. Violin and piano duos are very common, but there aren’t a lot of ensembles made up of two violinists and two pianists.
SM: Yeah. It’s definitely not the most practical movement, which is why it’s optional. Maybe not with an established violin and piano duo who do a lot of recitals everywhere, but any time it’s possible with piano and violin friends it could happen.
FJO: So even if you weren’t consciously channeling Carter in FastLowHighSlow, you’ve also channeled Alice Coltrane in a piece you wrote for youth orchestra which you called—quite directly—Ode to Alice, and in White/Waves you very indirectly channeled Beyoncé.
FJO: When the electronic component first appears [in White/Waves] it sounds a lot like a theremin, but then all of a sudden there’s a giant full-range sound. I thought it was really cool, so I looked at the score to see how you notated it and you simply have this phrase “convolved Beyoncé sound” which is something I don’t completely understand and never would have associated with that sound.
SM: I’m actually glad that it’s not too obvious sonically, but the way I achieved many of those sounds in the electronics part is that I took a chord from “Pretty Hurts” by Beyoncé and used convolution to combine it with ocean wave sounds. The Beyoncé chord is the impulse response. It’s like hacking the impulse response reverb to harmonize the noisy sound through the tone-filled sound. Convolution is a reverb hack that you can do in a convolution reverb module like, for example, in Logic. The space designer is a convolution reverb, meaning that the reverb takes a replica of a space by using an impulse response—taking a loud sound in a space that can algorithmically be applied to the sound to make it sound like it’s in that space. For an impulse response, you usually use a really short one-sample loud sound, but you can use convolution in a different, more creative way by instead of using just a one-sample loud sound for the impulse response, you can use any sound for the impulse response, like a chord from Beyoncé. Or you could convolve Michael Jackson and bees. Anytime you take a noisy sound and mix it with a sonorous sound, it sort of imbues the noisy sound with the tone of the harmonious sound.
FJO: So you sampled a Beyoncé recording, but it’s almost the opposite of the way a sample is used in pop music. Those samples are usually about being audibly recognizable reference points, which is why rights need to be cleared in order to use them. But I can’t imagine that anyone would be able to hear that what you’ve done is based on a sample.
SM: I hope not. I hope Beyoncé doesn’t get mad. My justification for why it’s okay is hopefully that it’s not very noticeable. People can’t tell that it’s Beyoncé. It’s more like using her beautiful B-major chord as a harmonic tool.
FJO: But if you’re going to sample something and people can’t tell, then what’s the point of sampling it? Isn’t part of the point of sampling to reference something in order to make a commentary on it and turn it into something else?
SM: But I’m actually not referencing Beyoncé in this piece. It just happened that I wanted to use it sonically. I could have used a chord from many other possible places, which is why Beyoncé is not in the program notes or anything. It’s just a sound that I made that happened to come from that place. I don’t know if it’s that important that it is that chord in a way. I just was experimenting with different convolution ingredients and that one sounded great, so I went with it. I knew I wanted a big sonorous pop chord. That was the qualification that I was looking for and I found a good example of that in “Pretty Hurts,” so I tried it. It worked great and I went with it.
FJO: It’s funny because when I heard that chord it reminded me of the sounds that R. Luke DuBois got from collapsing the full pitch and timbral ranges of pop songs and distilling them into single chords in his piece Billboard. There as well, if you didn’t read his program notes, you’d probably have no idea where those chords came from even though they matter to him and also matter to the structure of his piece, which is derived from how long each No. 1 hit song stayed on the Billboard chart.
SM: I’m very into the catalogue and big data-style pieces that Luke is doing. I think that’s really fascinating. But in this case it is just all about the sound and I wasn’t trying to be referential at all.
FJO: Pop music seems utterly removed from your own sound world as a composer. Do you actively listen to Beyoncé or anyone else in pop music?
SM: I definitely love Beyoncé, and I’m really into that album. It’s part of my life for sure.
FJO: But in a way, your use of that chord is an aberration. It’s not your usual method of working. It’s less about the sound following from a concept. The sound is its own thing. You put it in as an ingredient, but there’s no larger metaphor for why it’s there.
FJO: But still, you’d never sit around playing the oboe or the piano and come up with something and think, “Oh, I want to turn this into a piece.”
SM: Usually not, although that’s somewhat what happened with Döppelganger. I was playing a really high G to A-flat trill. I found a cool fingering that made it really easy to do. But that was more of an outlier.
FJO: Now the only other thing that I have heard in your music thus far that’s anywhere close to the lushness of that full-range convolved Beyoncé sample is what you’ve done in your sound installations with all the harmonicas, which you first did at the Waseca Art Center in Minnesota and then at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.
SM: I consider Harmonibots and MEGA-ORGAN two different pieces. They have the same sonic and production concept, so they’re a part of the same series. The concept is I create inflatable sculptures and I then affix deconstructed harmonicas to holes in the sculpture. You take off the outside case and the inhale reeds and just leave the exhale reeds, so the comb channels the air through the reeds properly. I use heavy duty fans. I have a bunch of them in my room. I’m trying to get rid of them now, or find a place to store them. I’m very attached to them, but for logistical reasons, I think I have to get rid of them.
One of those heavy duty fans.
All you have to do is fill the sculpture with a lot of air pressure. Then the harmonicas will play all ten notes at the same time. Pitchwise it’s just three octaves of a major triad and then one extra tonic note on the top. I organize the harmonicas into different keys, basically. In Harmonibots there’s a big section of C harmonicas, a big section of G harmonicas, a big section of A, and then a dissonant corner where there is a mixture of B-flat, D, and E-flat harmonicas. Then I used a home automation system that I repurposed for the motion sensors. When people trigger them, basically then it turns on certain sections of the harmonibots. It’s a very simple machine. The air turns on. They fill up. They make a beautiful sonorous chord. Then, when there’s no motion, they deflate and make a sagging decrescendo. Because of the different tonal centers, you can create different harmonies by exciting different sections. So for Harmonibots, which I did in Minnesota, the sculptures were made of garbage bags and they were kind of tall. Part of the piece was watching them unfurl and grow upwards. I thought of them like a fungus or like an animal, but they’re very fragile.
For MEGA-ORGAN, I wanted to make it more interactive. I wanted to encourage people to change the articulation by physically laying on, squishing, and touching the bots—in MEGA-ORGAN, I call them the bellow beds because it’s drawing from this metaphor of the organ. People can play the beds like bellows. And the timbre really sounds like an organ, so that really connected well with the idea at Judson. At Judson Memorial Church, their organ doesn’t work anymore. This piece was up next to the shell of the organ, and I visually integrated the mega-organ into the space and see it as a sort of revitalization and re-sonification of their organ.
FJO: Since these pieces are installations, they have no precise beginning or end. People can stay there for as short or as long a time as they want. But I feel like it would have a lot more impact the longer you’re listening and the more details you hear, like the clashes of these different tonal centers overlapping. Did people spend a lot of time wandering around the sounds, or just pass by?
SM: I think it totally varied. Some people would just stay for a few minutes, but some people stayed for hours. The most audiophile nerdy people stayed for hours and hours; it was very self-selecting. The nice thing about an installation is you can make it however long you’re into it. And, of course, I agree that I think it’s more fun the longer you stay there.
Two of the sculptures in MEGA-ORGAN were like little tents that have a bunch of harmonicas inside. That was the most intense listening space, because if you put your head inside, they were blowing right at your ears. It was really loud in there, and it would be a really big D-major chord. Then, when you’d step out, all of a sudden you were able to hear the rest of the chords, so you could sort of just design your own tonal adventure in a way.
My original concept was I was going to precisely tune them in some way to make it more microtonal, but then once I stared working with them I realized that I didn’t need to do that. They’re so unstable that it wouldn’t really stick anyway; the tuning of mass-produced harmonicas is not very precise. Then I realized that because it’s not precise, it’s really complex and microtonal the way that I wanted it anyway, like, right out of the box. If you have 20 harmonicas in the same key, they’re not going to produce a perfectly in-tune triad. It’s a very detailed dis-chorus-y microtonal sound, which is perfect because then when you move your head around, you just hear totally different pitches popping out. That worked out really well without me changing the tuning of the harmonicas.
FJO: How many harmonicas do you need to build one of these installations?
SM: Well, Harmonibots had I think about 80, and MEGA-ORGAN has like 110.
FJO: Where’d you get the harmonicas?
SM: From Amazon.
FJO: Harmonicas are cheap, but once you start adding them up it can get pretty expensive.
SM: Yeah, it is definitely expensive. I had a commission from the International Alliance for Women in Music for Harmonibots, and I went over budget. And then for MEGA-ORGAN, I had a project grant from New Music USA, and I went over budget again. But it’s okay. It’s worth it to me.
FJO: You need to get rid of all the industrial fans because you’re about to move to Chicago, but are you keeping all the harmonicas? They’re smaller, but over a hundred is a lot and since you’ve deconstructed them you really can’t use them as harmonicas again. They could only be used in another incarnation of this series of installations.
A deconstructed harmonica affixed to an air mattress for Sky Macklay’s installation MEGA-ORGAN.
SM: Well, all the harmonicas that I used in Harmonibots, I used again in MEGA-ORGAN, and now I’m planning to save them and use them again for the next installation. I don’t know when that’ll be, but I do plan to do another one, so I’ll definitely repurpose them for the next installation. I don’t really want to think about that yet. Doing an installation is so much work, and it’s such a headache moving all the stuff everywhere. I just need a break from that for a while, but I’ll definitely do it in the future again.
FJO: Even though in these cases you don’t have to deal with the whole rehearsal process with musicians for really hard music, the amount of planning is massive and it’s laborious production work.
SM: To build the mega-organ I made the sculptures out of a composite bunch of air mattresses that need to be connected together, so I cut them apart and re-melted them together using a technique where you have two strips of tin foil and you put them around the two pieces of plastic and use an iron to melt them together. And then you only get a little bit of it melted together. You have to be very precise, so it’s a very long and laborious process. I became like a craftsperson melting these giant sculptures together. It’s really fun, but it’s something that I can’t and don’t want to do all the time.
FJO: And it’s another one of these things where you can’t completely know what it’s going to sound like until you’ve got them all there. It’s very different than hearing, say, a string quartet in your brain and then fleshing it out on paper. Instead these installations are very much in the spirit of Cageian experimental music. We’re going to set all these things up and then we’re going to find out what it sounds like.
SM: Well, before I did Harmonibots, I had the original idea and I just started making prototypes. So I sort of knew what it would sound like just from my experience making them in the past. But definitely—the whole composite piece, the space, and how people would play with it, was definitely going into the unknown.
FJO: We haven’t talked about pieces involving texts yet, but you’ve done a lot of very unusual things with text. When you have a text, it’s a lot easier for an audience to perceive the concept of the work because the words are something people can latch onto. Take something as abstract and yet as direct as your choral piece Sing Their Names. By just having the chorus sing just names of people who were killed, without any additional commentary, you’ve made a very powerful statement that’s also emotional without in any way being sentimental, which is very difficult to do especially when dealing with such a sensitive subject.
SM: I knew that I had to be very careful if I was going to write a piece relating to Black Lives Matter. I saw a poster that had a list of just pictures and names of people who had been killed by police, and I thought that I could make a memorial out of it. I know that a lot of other artists and composers are making music relating to Black Lives Matter, and so I saw this as a contribution to a genre that already exists and is growing. I wanted to be abstract in that most of the time you can’t really understand the names in the piece, but maybe a few of them emerge in the end that you can hear. Basically my musical material was octave leaps that go up chromatically and a melody in parallel fifths. The process of the piece is that slowly, over time, the micro-polyphonic octave leap-y part morphs into the parallel fifth chorale part. The reason I picked those musical materials is octave leaps are very energetic yet static. So I saw it as a metaphor for the pace of progress, basically, the kind of almost futile feeling whenever you hear of another person being killed by the police feels like the octave leaps—no progress, basically. Similarly the parallel fifth melody is static, but it’s a much calmer sound, maybe a bit of hope. The abstracted syllables of the people’s names are a metaphor for erasure and the lack of visibility of the humans involved, and then in the end it’s maybe a little more visible. Those are the ideas I was dealing with. I think of it as a sacred piece that is supposed to be a requiem-like meditation on the people’s lives.
FJO: I recently thought of your choral piece in the context of this huge controversy over the display at this year’s Whitney Biennial of Open Casket, Dana Schutz’s painting that was inspired by a photograph from the funeral of Emmett Till, a black man who was beaten to death and whose face was disfigured beyond recognition in the process.
SM: I haven’t gone to it, but I know about the controversy.
FJO: I find it troubling that many people believe Schutz had no right to make such a painting because she’s a white person and this is not her story to tell. I think we all should be outraged that this man was killed this way. This story belongs to everyone and everyone should pay attention to it. I think a lot of people don’t know who Emmett Till was, certainly younger people who weren’t around when he was brutally murdered in the 1950s. If this painting raises the public consciousness that this thing happened and that we should all be outraged about it, I think it’s making an important statement.
SM: I agree that we should all be outraged about it. I guess I’m inclined to listen to the people who are saying this is exploitive use of the black experience, because we should listen to black people if they say to white artists that that’s exploitive. When I started reading about this particular issue, I started self-reflecting and thinking, “Did I do that?” I hope not. I hope it’s a little less appropriative. Sorry, but I don’t really have a great answer to that.
FJO: But as artists, we have to be able to tell the stories of what’s going on in our society. I don’t think any one group of people owns that narrative. If anything, we need to embrace all of these narratives. I think both Schutz’s painting and your choral piece call attention to deep wrongs by abstracting them in ways which allows space for people to reflect and feel the weight of these tragedies.
SM: Of course. I totally get what you’re saying about everybody chiming in on important issues of our time. But I think the problem that activists have pinpointed with the painting is that maybe this artist is profiting as an artist from using this highly charged image in a way that’s yuckily commodified. I guess that’s one way it could be seen as appropriation.
FJO: But the artist made it a point to state that this painting is not for sale. I don’t mean to put you on the spot with this, but there could be parallel scenarios for your choral piece. Let’s say it gets done all over the place. You sell the sheet music and you also get performance royalties. Someone could turn around and say you’re profiting from this thing.
SM: I would say that I see this particular work in the context of other works in a similar genre that other artists are contributing to this body of music about Black Lives Matter. If I actually did profit off this piece, which I haven’t so far, I would donate the profits to Black Lives Matter.
FJO: To take this in another direction, it’s very clear that the text is very important even though for most of the time it’s not audible. In Fly’s Eyes, you created your own language, which raises some interesting issues vis-à-vis text setting. In both pieces, you’ve gone against the grain. For Singing Their Names, your music captures the spirit of the text by not making it clear. In Fly’s Eyes, the text setting is clear, but it’s complete gibberish. The music marries the text, but the text actually has no meaning.
SM: The way that I actually made the text is I made a mixture of Latin, English, and animal sounds to give voice to different animals. The meaning of the text didn’t really matter; it was more the emotive quality that a voice can give. Babies can portray a huge range of emotions with their voices; it’s not about the semantic detail.
FJO: With Glossolalia, you were working with a pre-existing text. But once again, it’s not really clear from the setting what the text is about. And, in a way, the setting is about it not being clear. Even the title, Glossolalia, means speaking in tongues, so it’s about obfuscation to some extent.
SM: With that piece, the poem itself is very surreal and abstract. It’s just sort of a list of words and a list of malapropisms. It makes sense as a glossolalia, but maybe not as a narrative.
FJO: With an opera, of course, there is a much greater expectation regarding narrative. You wrote an opera this past year and so you really had to foreground a text in a way that you had never done before. But the story you foregrounded in your opera Why We Bleed is a very peculiar one. There have been a lot of very overtly sexual operas in the last decade, but I don’t think there’s ever been one where the three singers are two spermatozoa and a uterus.
SM: The idea originally came from an article by an evolutionary biologist named Suzanne Sadedin called “How The Woman Got Her Period.” In that, she dramatizes the evolutionary reason why women menstruate—this concept of the zygote being an adversarial creature. The woman’s body has to vet and decide is this particular zygote is genetically a good investment. Considering all the risk and work that goes into pregnancy, is this particular zygote worth it? The way that Suzanne Sadedin wrote this article was extremely evocative and character-driven. So I thought wow, this is very dramatic. There’s a lot of deep possibility for symbolically dealing with reproductive rights’ issues, so I just decided to go with that story. My friend Emily Roller wrote the libretto, so she and I worked together on that.
FJO: So it was your idea but you chose not to write your own libretto, even though you’ve created your own texts for other pieces.
SM: With something like an opera, I would prefer to work with a librettist. I really like Emily’s work and value her ideas. I like to write a little bit, but I don’t think I want to write my own libretto. That’s a whole different craft.
FJO: The opera is relatively easy to put together—three singers and a piano—but I imagine if it had a full production, you’d want to maybe flesh it out more, orchestrate it and stage it. What would it look like on stage? How could you represent it?
SM: I definitely have plans for a fully-staged version of it. I’m not sure how much it’ll stay the same and how much it’ll change, but I am doing an opera with the University of Illinois Opera next year that will have a full sinfonietta and be more staged. The main costume/set piece is the uterus’ costume. Imagine a dress that’s so long that it flows across the whole stage and becomes this giant tapestry and curtain that engulfs the whole space. That’s how I’m imagining her costume will be, her costume and the entire curtain-y tapestry thing that creates the whole set.
FJO: So there’s going to be a staged production of Why We Bleed in Chicago next year?
SM: Well, I’m not exactly sure if I will define it as the same opera. It might be so different that it becomes a different piece. We might have another character. But I will be doing some opera that deals with the same themes in Urbana-Champaign.
FJO: Another piece you did, Lessina, Levlin, Levlite, Levora for speaking violinist, is also super provocative in terms of dealing with sexual politics. But for that you used a found text.
SM: I went through a process with the text first. I looked up all the FDA-approved devices and drugs for contraception. The first text was just saying the names of them. The second layer was adding advertising slogans for those particular devices and drugs. Then the third layer was adding the side effects, like at the end of the ad, you know, they have “heart attack, cramps, nipple discharge, high blood pressure“ in a quiet voice. For the fourth layer of text, I looked at reviews online of these devices and drugs, and added the users’ reports of their personal reactions and side effects. The whole piece was inspired by personal experience and my own struggle dealing with the medical, industrial, pharmaceutical complex and the way that that intersects with or intersected with my own body. I think that’s a really common and traumatic experience in a lot of women’s lives, so making that into music was a way to share that experience mostly with men who don’t understand that experience on a deep level.
FJO: I thought it was really interesting that it wasn’t a piece, say, for women’s chorus. It was a piece for a guy who’s playing the violin and sort of stating all of this at the same time. I imagine it’s pretty hard to do.
SM: Yeah. I think Josh [Modney] definitely rose to the challenge, and he likes doing it. The hard thing was nailing the text expression. The easy part was the violin part because the violin part’s very easy.
FJO: Do you want it to always be performed by a man? Is that the point?
SM: Yeah, that’s part of it.
FJO: You’ve pretty much written every piece we’ve been talking about in only a few years, which is a lot considering everything else you’ve been doing—completing your degree at Columbia, teaching at The Walden School, and now you’re in the midst of a move to Chicago.
SM: In the last five years I’ve pretty much written all those pieces. I do have a really busy life. I’m stressed a lot. I’m always behind on my deadlines. I’m always scrambling to get the next thing done. I have to just say no to some more things in the next few years and focus my time a little more intentionally on projects that I really love, that are really are good for my career and artistically satisfying.
FJO: We’ve been talking about pieces emanating from getting an idea and then fleshing it out musically, but sometimes I imagine what happens even before that is that somebody wants a piece and there’s a commission involved. We didn’t talk about Density Dancity, which I think is extraordinary—it’s nothing but chains of multiphonics. It’s a crazy, crazy piece. But I don’t imagine that you said, “Oh gee, I want to write a piece for tenor sax and piano.” I imagine that the player came to you and said, “Could you write me a piece?”
SM: Yeah, that’s what happened. Jim [Fusik] and Karl [Larson]’s duo commissioned me to write that piece and I was very happy about it. I play oboe with a lot of chained together multiphonics. I wanted to work out a similar thing with tenor sax. That happens a lot. I love collaborating with people. Each new opportunity that comes with a musical relationship is amazing. I think that’s weaved into the whole process of getting an idea and fleshing it out which is usually before, “Will you write a piece for me? Here’s the instrumentation.”
FJO: Sometimes saying yes to something maybe doesn’t get you a performance in Carnegie Hall, but it could lead to other things that might ultimately be more rewarding. For example, Ode to Alice, which is very different from most of your pieces, was written for a student group and perhaps because of that—correct me if I’m wrong—maybe you can’t do all the wild, crazy, extended techniques and microtones and things that you might want to do, but it allowed you to focus in another way. Based on the performance you have up online, the students who did it put tons of work into making it happen and, looking at the score, it is not at all basic music by any stretch of the imagination.
SM: I am very open to and excited about writing for student ensembles or amateur ensembles, because I think these are great opportunities for building community through contemporary music and just having great social experiences. This is why I love weird contemporary music and sharing it with the next generation. So with Ode to Alice, definitely I felt like this was a piece that’s my music. Maybe it’s a little technically easier than other pieces, but it’s not an easy piece. Totally, like you said, they puts lots of work into it. The students sometimes have these wild noisy solos and they really did a great job; they weren’t fazed by the extended techniques. I definitely thank their teacher, Dan Shaud, for being a great advocate of contemporary music. They’re going to play it in Niagara Falls next week. So it’s going to go to Canada.
FJO: I’d love to follow up on what you just said about liking weird contemporary music. I grew up in an environment where contemporary music was perceived of as this weird, off-putting thing, but I think there’s an attitude today that it’s not this weird, off-putting thing; it’s actually kind of cool and fascinating and actually more interesting than the stuff that isn’t weird. So how do you convey that enthusiasm to somebody who hasn’t heard it and doesn’t know what it is? How do you present yourself as a citizen of the world to turn people on to all these crazy ideas—like two sections of an ensemble being a quarter tone out of tune with each other, which is a pretty kooky idea?
SM: I think a lot of it is sharing my own personal perspective on it—just show how much a particular sound excites me and how beautiful I think it is. I think that’s sort of contagious, or at least let’s people perceive it as a beautiful thing, or something that some person thinks is a beautiful thing. I also think that exposure, experience, experiential education, and experiential pieces are really a great way to do outreach. I participated in a workshop version of this new piece Pan by Marcos Balter that has audience participation with tons of people, and that’s something I think more composers should do: write music that has a participatory role for amateur musicians or for just audience members. Doing Harmonibots and MEGA-ORGAN are really important parts of my outreach because people can engage with them on all kinds of different levels. They can be the nerdy audiophile who likes to hear the different tones for three hours, or they can be the person who likes to just fall onto the mattress and hear the sound change, and that will maybe hook them to try other pieces of mine or other composers. The ideal listener for me is just somebody who is willing to go there with me, to listen deeply, to try to follow my trajectory for the piece, and who is willing to be surprised or be actively listening and making predictions or making inferences. That’s all I ask.
On May 3, my opera, The System of Soothing, was presented at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase. In this final installment, I reflect on the experience and plan my next steps.
I’m sitting at a bar two days after my Frontiers performance. It’s a bar where the Frontiers composers spent many hours socializing and talking technique, plans, and projects. Now, I’m alone; most of my colleagues have left Fort Worth and I am waiting for the shuttle that will take me to the plane to begin my journey home.
As ESPN plays on the screen above me, I’m flipping through the small stack of business cards that I collected in the previous days. I’m also making a list of the names of people with whom I’ve been speaking, but who didn’t have a card handy—Frontiers panelists, general directors, librettists. In a motion that has been well practiced during the last week, I reach for the interior jacket pocket that holds my business cards. I’m pleased to find only one remaining.
This is why I came. I came to meet people, to make connections, and to begin relationships with creative partners who are looking to build projects from the ground up. In my hands are the spoils of my experience at Frontiers.
I’m heartbroken that it’s over, but by many accounts, my performance was a gigantic success. My singers—soprano Rachel Blaustein, tenor Brian Wallin, and baritone Alex DeSocio—were prepared, professional, flexible, and totally killed the performance both musically and dramatically. My music staff—conductor Stephen Dubberly, and pianist Matthew Stevens—dug into my score and found more than I had realized I had put into it.
The audience’s response to my music was overwhelmingly positive, I think. I actually don’t really remember the audience’s response as it got wrapped up with my choreography. (Don’t fall down the steps. Hug conductor. Shake pianist’s hand, then male singer’s. Kiss the soprano’s hand. Don’t knock over the stands or the microphones. Arms open wide to the audience and bow. Are my shoes tied? Yes they are! Drag it on as long as possible before the company bow…and we’re done!)
I scored points by describing the flexibility of the orchestration and casting options.
The next morning involved a discussion with six members of the Frontiers panel, a group of decision makers from across the country who had also selected the pieces that were presented in the showcase. I scored points by describing the flexibility of the orchestration and casting options, being told that the absence of “preciousness” in my work and presentation (defined as a reluctance to let go and let collaborators in) was evident. I felt the warmth of comments regarding my lyricism, the balance of my vocal and piano writing, and the creativity of weaving Poe’s poetry (what one panelist called “found material”) into the libretto and the multiplying effect it had on character development. A review in the local paper said about my opera (which takes place in an mental institution), “…needless to say, you wouldn’t want to be in this asylum – as either patient or caregiver.” I’ll take that as a positive.
Everyone involved in the 2017 Frontiers Showcase at Ft. Worth Opera.
The unseen impact
The day before my show, I went to a big-box grocery for a few items and gifts for my cast. And older woman waved me over to her to her checkout counter and we started talking, as strangers often do in this part of the country.
“Would you like to sign up for a rewards card?” No thanks, I live abroad.
“What brings you to Texas?” I’m here with the opera.
“What are you singing?” I’m a Frontiers composer.
This stops her in her tracks. “Isn’t that fabulous! What else have you done? I’m a choral singer, do you have any choral music?” I have quite a bit (handing over my card) if you wouldn’t mind giving this to your choir director.
She flips my card over in her hands and looks at me with wide eyes. “We HAVE done your music! It’s WONDERFUL!”
She looks a little star struck, and wants to shake my hand. I mumble a bit, but give in to the serendipity of the situation, accept her praise, and thank her profusely for her kind words. Leaving the store, I start laughing. This has NEVER happened to me in over a decade of writing and I’m a little unsure what to make of it. The basic reality sets in that when I send things out, either through my publisher, through my online and social media interactions, or through rare opportunities afforded by exposure like I experienced at Frontiers, I welcome the ripples of interactions they produce, and am grateful that something I have done has reached a complete stranger.
I was struck by this again the day after my showcase, when I went to Dallas to attend the New Works Forum at the Opera America Conference. Walking into the room, I immediately started recognizing faces I had only seen online – general directors, Pulitzer winners, singers, directors, librettists—a who’s who of leaders in the field. Everyone had their first names in large print on their ID badges, and I could see eyes darting towards my own as I walked around the room, trying to radiate maturity and positivity—or at least, not panic. Most moved on after glancing at my name badge, but a few stopped and came forward, saying that they had been at my show the previous night, or that they had seen my first essay on NewMusicBox two days before.
Hin und zurück (There and back again)
From the perspective of my relatively secure, European composer bubble, the amount of exposure I received between the announcement of, and participation in, Frontiers bordered on empowering and overwhelming, with a dash of terror for good measure. The response I received from audiences, colleagues, and the staff of Fort Worth Opera affirmed my Brand—“I am becoming a better opera composer”—for the foreseeable future. But no matter how well things turned out (or at least appeared to), it’s important for me not to believe my own “hype.” What I’m really left with, in the end, is an opportunity.
Just as important as understanding that opera is a collaborative art, opera is also a very slow burn.
In a previous incarnation of these essays, I mused that my goal would be coming home from Frontiers with more work than I could possibly handle. While this was a bit naïve, I do find myself with many avenues of communication on which I need to follow up, opera and non-opera projects that will keep me busy through the summer and fall. Just as important as understanding that opera is a collaborative art, opera is also a very slow burn. Projects develop over years, not months. The reality is that I put down roots during those two weeks in Texas, and every single one of them has the potential to develop into a new project. I just have to tend that garden. One win does not make a career, and a particular win does not necessarily mean I will be veering in the direction that win suggests. My immediate task is to kindle the relationships that I struck up, maximize the amount of time that I can spend on developing new projects, and be patient.
On May 3, my opera, The System of Soothing, was presented at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase. In these essays, I intend to chronicle my experience preparing for, and taking part in, this opportunity. For this installment, I recount the program’s rehearsal process and performance highlights.
On the plane, somewhere between Frankfurt, Germany and the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, I decided that I was going to crash the first rehearsal. It was explained to me that this was to be an initial, getting-to-know-you music rehearsal for only singers and music staff, but my excitement was such that I simply had to jump in to this experience as quickly as possible. Bleary-eyed, I asked my cab driver to drop me off in the 90-degree soup in front of the opera building at Texas Christian University. Unexpected as my presence was, dropped jaws and raised eyebrows quickly melted into warm greetings from the music and administrative staff who were collected to dig into my score.
In retrospect, perhaps jetlag and hubris played a role is this decision, but this initial greeting set the tone for the ten days that would follow. In that first rehearsal, any trepidation I had vanished in the face of the care and interest that the music staff—conductor Stephen Dubberly and pianist Matthew Stevens—had for my music.
The next day was “First Day of School,” as it is known in the opera world, and the composers and librettists assembled at McDavid Studio in downtown Fort Worth, which was to be both our rehearsal and performance space. Directly adjacent to the formidable and gorgeously designed Bass Performance Hall, McDavid is a sleek, multidimensional space, part of which had been transformed into a black box for Fort Worth Opera’s use.
Nervous, excited, and jetlagged out of my gourd (I had woken up at 4:30 a.m.) I was struck by a familiar serenity upon entering the theater. With lush, velvet black curtains hanging floor to ceiling, and rows of simple single chairs, this was the type of space in which I had worked for a decade as a musical theater director and conductor. What it lacked in acoustics (those hangs ate all the sound) it excelled at in terms of both intimacy and possibility. As for my new colleagues, we instantly got on like a house on fire. They brought a wealth of experience and a devotion to the art form, and for a week, we geeked out over performances we had attended, technique, our teachers, our “real jobs,” other projects we were starting, and what notation programs we used.
The excavation of artistic knowledge
The terror and exhilaration of having nothing to do in rehearsal is both a welcome and dreaded experience.
The terror and exhilaration of having nothing to do in rehearsal is both a welcome and dreaded experience. Once the double bar is printed, there is, theoretically, a point in time when a piece is handed over. My role in the process having come to a pause, I’m then overshadowed so that well-trained conductors, pianists, and singers may immerse themselves in the piece. In rehearsal, my dictum is “less talk, more music,” which puts the pressure on me to make sure that my score is impeccable. During the Frontiers rehearsal process (in which I was afforded more than four hours of rehearsal time—an embarrassment of riches for 20 minutes of music), I was able to allow the cast and music staff to explore the score, organically extending their interpretation throughout the process, and encouraging me to add dramaturgical and compositional nuance, when appropriate.
I’ve always been amazed how the rehearsal process produces in me a higher awareness of what I have written. To think that I know every motivation behind every note and gesture is, for me, conceit. I need another’s inquiries to drag out the nuggets of meaning and all the things I didn’t know I knew about the piece. The particulars of melodic gesture, harmonic choice, or rhythmic figure are made in private, worked out in the vacuum of the studio. While they are important to me as a composer, overt knowledge of these details, in my experience, does not necessarily inform the application or performance of the score.
Until it does. Case in point: at the end of the soprano aria, there is a section marked “suddenly cheery,” in contrast to previous sections. It wasn’t working, and I soon realized that it was because this marking had not made it to the soprano’s part. Further, I was able to connect this hopeful moment to a later arietta, in which she sings to her estranged father of her hope that he see the light, metaphorically, which presents blindness as another example of perception, the work’s general theme. Light bulbs went on across the rehearsal space and the impact on everyone’s performance was immediate.
The rehearsal for the reading of my opera The System of Soothing at the McDavid Studio.
The joy of live performance
Arriving at McDavid Studio on show day came on the heels of an outpouring of support from the Fort Worth Opera staff and my composer colleagues. (Side note: The administrative staff at Fort Worth Opera is a typical collection of dedicated administrators, all of whom—each wearing too many hats—collectively bust their cans to put up a good product and engage the community. Their encouragement and handling of our Frontiers composer clique contributed to a relaxed atmosphere that made the work process easy and productive.)
While composing is a lonely endeavor, collaboration is not.
In the months preceding Frontiers, I admit that I obsessed over the gravity of the opportunity. While the upside of this manifested itself in intense and detailed preparation, especially in how I talk about myself and my operas (detailed in the second essay of this series), the downside for me dragged into the success or failure of the showcase itself: whether anyone would come; whether anyone in attendance would be a decision maker in the field; and whether those decision makers would take an interest in my work. These thoughts exist in the bubble of the solitary artistic practitioner. But while composing is a lonely endeavor, collaboration is not. As the work with my cast and music staff progressed, my concern about the work’s impression dissipated. I became enveloped in the process of rehearsal, in the drawing out of character, in the communication between conductor, pianist, and singer that squeezed every drop of music out of my arias.
Some of the show is blurry in my memory (this is normal for me – thank God it was recorded), but most of it is crystal clear. Amanda Robie, who ably administered Frontiers, opted for a live, pre-showcase discussion of each work, in which my preparation and practice paid off. One by one, my cast nailed each aria, and when the cloudy penultimate chord of the last aria resolved to a ringing open fifth, I rose to hug my conductor, thank my pianist and cast, raise my hands to the audience, and bow in honor of the work we had done together.
Next week – the now, and ever present, “What’s next?”
On May 3rd, my opera, The System of Soothing, was presented at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase—a major step into the American new opera scene for an emerging composer. In these essays, I intend to chronicle my experience preparing for, and taking part in, this opportunity. For this installment, I consider how I prepared to present myself as an emerging opera composer, and how I fared putting those skills to work.
“I am becoming a better opera composer” is my brand, to borrow a word from the marketing world. When I was in non-profit administration, we would talk about this quite a bit. We were trying to distill our “soul”—what drove us, as an organization, to do what we did—and then make that into something recognizable to the public that we could, in turn, utilize at fundraising time. While not my favorite term, The Brand provides a compass, an overarching explanation as to why I make my decisions regarding my work and how I advance plans that will hopefully lead to collaboration. Just saying it—identifying The Brand—doesn’t necessarily translate into anybody buying what I am selling, but it does remind me of my true north.
Opera is an inherently collaborative endeavor.
Opera is an inherently collaborative endeavor. My understanding of the inner workings of the writing and production of opera, and the collaboration required to make it all happen is the bridge that connects The Brand (which is theoretical and internal), and the reputation I want to develop in the real world: the impression I make on those around me as work proceeds.
It’s a bit of a tall order to get that across with a few website tweaks and a new set of headshots, but embodying The Brand is my responsibility, as is communicating it to potential collaborators. I could easily represent myself as a safe choice, saying, in effect, “I’m not going to be a problem for you. I’m not one of those crazy egocentric composers who is going to make ridiculous demands and make you sorry you wanted to work with me.” I can assuage these preconceptions with a picture that pretty much sums me up: “I’m normal! I’m a nice guy! I’m wearing tweed, for God’s sake!” But safe is not safe when so few opportunities exist. What The Brand demands of me—and the reputation I wish to establish—is to present myself as an engaging collaborative professional with a clear artistic vision and a solid understanding of the art form, while also demonstrating the leadership skills necessary to bring it to life.
Love in an Elevator
Frontiers was my first foray into the American opera machine. I met other composers, singers, conductors, and general directors both at Fort Worth, and later at the Opera America convention, which ran concurrently in Dallas. Everybody talked, networked, and traded experiences and plans. I knew this was coming, so I quickly had to prepare for succinct conversations about myself, every aspect of my portfolio, and every opera in my portfolio.
In my admin days, the “brand” discussion was always followed by the obsessive for the perfect elevator speech—a pitch given in less than 30 seconds to someone with undivided attention. Mostly used when approaching new donors, the goal was getting a check or a pledge of future support. I actually followed quite a few marks into literal elevators, so the name wasn’t too misleading.
The same thinking applies when prepping myself to pitch completed, current, and dreamed-about opera projects. With these pitches, I throw things against the wall in hopes that either they will stick or result in a “positive rejection” (a pass on the project at hand, but an expressed interest in a potential future collaboration).
Who am I, anyway?
I have a diverse background. My writing and performing experience spans rock, pop, jazz, funk-fusion, liturgical music, pit bands, musical theater shows, opera, lonely coffee house singer-songwriter stints where the only thing I was serenading was the coffee, and a smattering of orchestra gigs. On top of that, my work history includes teaching, working with special needs communities, administration, executive leadership, grant writing and fundraising, and restaurant work. I even sold women’s clothes for a while. I don’t exactly embody the traditional compositional pedigree. To practice talking about my musical self, I had to be able to talk to everyone about my musical self—not just other musicians, and certainly not just general directors, conductors, and dramaturges.
The pitch is about 50 to 100 words that could be delivered verbally in 30 seconds.
I developed one pitch for non-professionals, completely devoid of jargon. It was liberating! Crafting an easily understandable, yet engaging personal pitch became much less threatening. It focuses on the “what” of what I do, and less so, the “why” or “what I’m trying to accomplish.” I extended that technique into my opera pitches. I initially thought that I simply needed to describe what happens in the course of a show and could leave out leitmotivs, dramaturgical nuance, or what the piece “means.” I started big, by reverse-engineering a “treatment”—a scene-by-scene narrative format, complete with descriptions of arias, plot devices, and even some general staging recommendations. One size smaller is the synopsis, which is more general, focusing on what happens act to act. The show could then be distilled into the pitch, about 50 to 100 words that could be delivered verbally in 30 seconds, answering the question, “Why should I be interested in this opera?” The hardest-hitting part of the pitch is the hook—the first sentence that should set up what piqued my interest, and why I wanted to write the damn opera in the first place.
The best laid plans…
In the months ahead of Frontiers, I wrote and rewrote my opera pitches, and practiced with colleagues and friends. The feedback quickly coalesced into a common critique: I had written myself out of my pitches. I was pitching interesting shows that in no way could be traced back to me as the creator. I had followed my own advice so meticulously that my pitches were “correct,” but completely impersonal. Also, I had somehow convinced myself that the show would be seen as more important than the work I had done to write the show. Two nail-biting weeks before I flew to Texas, I started from scratch, rewriting my pitches with myself, my skills as a composer, and what drew me to the subject as the hook. In doing so, I was now selling my craft and myself; in practice, I became The Brand, and The Brand became me.
The long view of a personal relationship is key to successful artistic collaboration.
In doing so, I averted a potentially fatal flaw in my presentation. This was made aware to me in my first meetings with conductors, singers and general directors. As I learned in my initial telephone outreach with American opera companies, the long view of a personal relationship is key to successful artistic collaboration. Leading with who I am, what I’m working on, and how (and why) I’m approaching my work is far more engaging, open and fulfilling.
Next week: Rehearsal and performance, or, “All the things I didn’t know I knew about my opera.”
Although she grew up in a very culturally diverse New York City neighborhood that has also long been a hotbed for artistic experimentation and rebellion, composer/violinist Jessie Montgomery most strongly identifies with European classical music.
“I write for traditional classical instruments, and I actually feel the most comfortable with them because it’s the closest thing that I have [musically],” Montgomery acknowledges when we visit her East Village apartment, which is actually the same place she lived with her parents as a child. “I feel very connected to European classical music because of the way I have learned how to play the violin. The actual physical resonance of the instrument speaks to that language beautifully, and I think that tradition is so rich.”
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Starting violin lessons when she was only four years old at the Third Street Music School (which, chalk it up to East Village rebellion, is actually on Eleventh Street), Montgomery wrote her first original compositions seven years later, her creative appetite whetted by her violin teacher at the school, Alice Kanack, who got her to improvise. She soon became totally immersed in the complex interplay of string quartets, playing in several ensembles as well as eventually writing for them, and received an undergraduate degree in violin performance from The Juilliard School. After her graduation, she performed for five years with the Providence String Quartet and then with the Catalyst Quartet. Since her late teens, she has been nurtured by The Sphinx Organization, a non-profit developer of young Black and Latino classical musicians, and she has been a two-time laureate in the annual Sphinx Competition. But she realizes that her deep involvement with this music is somewhat unusual.
“For me, it happened to work out because I studied violin in a school on the Lower East Side that had a really good teacher,” she suggests. “Neither of my parents were necessarily into classical music at all, though now they are. But it was by chance that this happened because there was something in place where I could go study and get really good at it. I think that should be the case for any kind of music or opportunity, whether it’s learning a classical instrument or learning to play rock guitar or gymnastics. If we increase the pool of what’s available by creating opportunities for young people of all backgrounds to have access to, let’s say, classical music, then the pool from a fundamental level is more diverse. If people are attracted to classical music, that’s great. But there’s no need to force somebody to like classical music. … There is this feeling that it remains in this elite world and that people need to be drawn to it and that that raises you up into this place of classical music. I think that’s a faulty idea when you’re dealing with people. I’m African-American, so I think about black people and black music. But I wonder if the jazz community is having the same conversation. That’s black music; it’s a traditional art form that has developed into this super sophisticated thing that hasn’t brought their people along with it as much as they would like. I think that has to do, again, with enough people having opportunities to grow in whatever areas they’re interested in.”
Jessie Montgomery’s violin and some instruments are always nearby.
While classical music has been Montgomery’s primary focus in life and the music with which she has the greatest affinity, she has never completely isolated herself from the many other kinds of musical activities that have been happening all around her.
“I happened to have come through it, playing a classical instrument and learning the repertoire, but I have always seen it as another reference point,” she elaborates. “My connection to that music has now became a part of this multifaceted language I’m drawing from. There’s European classical music, there’s jazz, there’s funk, there’s alternative rock, there’s African music—all these different kinds of music available to us now through recordings, etc., and also through just living in a place where there are a lot of different cultures just banging up against each other. … My dad ran a music studio so I was constantly surrounded by all different kinds of music. I would do drawings and my homework in the lobby while all these things were going on.”
The floor of Jessie Montgomery’s apartment is filled with piles of jazz and pop as well as classical LPs.
Montgomery sees this polyglot musical environment as a quintessentially American phenomenon and something that has long served as a creative fuel for American composers. “The tradition of classical music coming to America and then what American composers have done with the music is so interesting,” Montgomery says. “There is this tradition in America with classical music to try and find other ways to connect to it. … People are starting to see American music as its own thing, its own unique voice, in relation to classical music.”
But what sets Montgomery’s own music apart from so many of her antecedents as well as peers is how deeply immersed she has been for most of her life in the performance of works by other composers. That insider’s knowledge has given her more than just an ability to write really idiomatic music, especially for strings. It has also helped her to understand the mindset of classical interpreters and to offer them music that allows for greater spontaneity and a little less formality.
“I really like the idea of adding elements of improvisation and chance and making the performers engage a little differently with the piece,” she explains. “Having played so much standard repertoire in String Quartet Land, there’s such a rigidity. There’s this expectation that things should always be executed a certain way. There’s a real beauty in trying to find your sound and your own voice in the way you interpret a piece of music that has all these expectations on it, but then I like to throw this other element in where it’s like screw all that stuff you just worked out and change the performance from one night to another.”
Interpretative freedom is a hallmark of Montgomery’s 2013 string quartet Break Away, a work she created expressly for the PUBLIQuartet, which she had previously been a member of when the quartet first formed, since the group is equally adept at performing standard repertoire, newly commissioned works, and open-form improv. Ironically it was inspired by the group’s performances of the Five Movements for String Quartet by Anton Webern, a composer revered as the spiritual forefather of total serialism, a compositional approach that tends to eschew a great degree of performance variance. In another string quartet, Voodoo Dolls (2008), which is being performed by Fulcrum Point in Chicago on April 29, 2016 as part of a concert entitled Proclamation!: The Black Composer Speaks, the players tap on their instruments before launching into cascades of ostinatos. In Color from 2014, scored for the unlikely combination of tuba and string quartet, was commissioned by jazz tuba giant Bob Stewart with whom the PUBLIQuartet premiered it in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, though Montgomery claims that when “jazz language comes into play” it’s more a result of her “memory of what jazz sounds like” rather than its being overtly informed by a deep immersion in jazz performance practice.
Another defining attribute of Montgomery’s music is that narratives are woven through so many of her compositions, even though—with the exception of a new piece that was just premiered by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City—she has written exclusively for instruments and mainly for strings. This is clearly because her compositions initially grew directly out of her playing, but now they are evolving beyond it. She obtained a master’s in composition and film scoring from New York University and credits that experience with taking her out of her comfort zone of writing only for strings. During the 2011-2012 season, while she was the Van Lier Composer Fellow at the American Composers Orchestra, she composed a quartet for four wind instruments. The Albany Symphony will premiere her second full orchestral work in June, and a piece is also in the works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Most of these pieces contain some kind of programmatic element.
“The practice of writing for films forced me to use a wider instrumentation,” Montgomery remembers. “But when I applied to NYU, I hadn’t written anything for films. I think I got in basically on the premise that I was writing from this idea of image. And I’ve been continuing to write from that point of view. My mother is a theater artist and storyteller and a lot of her work is based in family history. I think I’m starting to take that on in terms of finding a narrative in each one of my pieces. Words are the easiest way to tell a story, for sure, but sound can conjure lots of memories. There’s this collective memory that can be aroused through sound, and I like trying to get at that somehow.”
One of the ways that Montgomery has transcended the trappings of the inherently abstract, non-representational medium of instrumental music is by infusing her pieces with audible ciphers such as references to materials with which most of her listeners would be familiar and which conjure very specific associations. In the string quartet Source Code (2013), she made overt references to the sound world of African-American spirituals. The Isaiah Fund for New Initiatives, the work’s commissioner, requested a piece that addressed what it means to be an American, so Montgomery’s response was to attempt to musically convey her parents’ participation in the Civil Rights movement. For Banner, a string quartet from 2014 which was commissioned to celebrate the 200th anniversary of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Montgomery weaved in references to many songs in addition to our national anthem to convey her own complex feelings.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a die-hard patriot,” she confesses. “We should celebrate, but also take note of struggles that have occurred in order for us all to be in this ‘land of the free’ which is the hard question in that song for me, as well as a lot of people. So that piece is all about songs. There are a lot of Civil Rights songs and also anthems from Puerto Rico and Mexico and a Cuban socialist song as well as ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Some were exactly quoted and some were just used as motivic devices. … Somebody asks you to write a piece based on whatever idea they would like you to write a piece on, and you sort of have to find a way to that place.”
Break Away, Source Code, and Banner are all included on Strum, the debut CD of Montgomery’s music which was released in October 2015 on Azica Records. In addition to these three string quartets and another from 2006 titled Strum, the disc contains a very energetic piece she composed for string orchestra in 2012 titled Starburst.
There’s also one track scored for violin alone, titled Rhapsody No. 1, which Montgomery plays herself.
“This is probably going to evolve as things go on, but I do consider myself primarily a violinist,” she admits. “That was my first love.”
A bit of advice from a text-based painting that is hanging in Jessie Montgomery’s apartment.
Most first rehearsals of a new piece for orchestra begin one of two ways. The conductor either spot checks various potentially tricky places in the score or attempts a full run-through until something goes awry, which makes everyone stop to focus on what made everyone stop. But guest conductor Steven Schick did not do either of these things back in November when he began rehearsing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Saad Haddad’s Kaman Fantasy (one of five pieces by emerging composers performed during the 2015 Milwaukee Symphony Composer’s Institute). Instead, Schick asked the string section to play a pitch that was halfway between E and Eb. It took a while for them to find the pitch, but once they did, he then asked them to begin to play the piece. Kaman Fantasy was like nothing else on that program; indeed, it was like few things ever performed by orchestras.
Even during this first somewhat tentative reading, a magical and extremely beautiful microtonally tinged tune emerged amid various melodic fragments chock full of swirling embellishments in the strings and winds. Although the sounds were clearly being made by members of a symphony orchestra reading from parts on their stands, what they played sounded uncannily like the orally transmitted large ensemble music of North Africa and the Middle East.
When we spoke to Haddad in New York City in early March, the 23-year-old composer reflected on the Arabic music ensembles that served as a model for Kaman Fantasy. “There are like 10 to 12 violins and they’re all playing the same line in a different way, with different embellishments and slightly different bowings—sometimes completely different bowings,” he explained. “There’s no [sheet] music at all involved; it’s all done by ear. I’ve never heard a string section sound like that in any tradition and, of course, not in the Western tradition … but I was trying to do that kind of thing in an orchestra piece. The problem with working with Western musicians; you want them to be not exact, but to do that you have to show them something exact on the page and then warn them—be careful, it’s not going to be exact, that’s how it should be. But once you get the musicians to be on board with that, then you can create something really unique and really special in an orchestral environment in which it’s usually really difficult to do anything outside the box.”
Born, raised, and compositionally trained in Southern California, Haddad had never previously written anything like that for an orchestra. But his incorporation of Arabic aesthetics into contemporary Western performance practices in this eleven-minute 2015 composition was something he had been pursuing on a smaller scale in his music since 2012. In fact, Kaman Fantasy began as a duo for violin and piano in which the violin simulates the sonorities of the traditional silk-stringed spiked fiddle common throughout the Islamic world (an instrument called kemençe in Turkey and called kamancheh in Iran and throughout the Caucasus). And, encouraged from being able to make such a synthesis work on an orchestral scale, it is something which has continued to inform his subsequent forays into composing for large ensembles: Manarah for two digitally processed antiphonal trumpets and orchestra, which the American Composers Orchestra will premiere at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on April 1, 2016; and Takht, which the New Julliard Ensemble will premiere at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on April 21. However, Haddad was quick to point out that he still thinks of himself as a beginner and even somewhat of an outsider when it comes to having a deep knowledge of Arabic musical traditions.
“I’m an American for sure,” he admitted. “I’ve never even gone to the Middle East … so I’m not going to pretend that I know everything there is. I have a lot to learn. The only thing I hope I can contribute is that I can really showcase the beauty of the culture and the beauty of the music. There’s a lot of stuff in it that’s really cool.”
While he is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Juilliard under the tutelage of John Corigliano, Haddad has yet to find a parallel mentor who can offer him a deeper knowledge of the arcana of maqam, the complex Arabic modal system. Most of his knowledge of this music has come from surfing websites and carefully studying YouTube videos of the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, whose 1975 funeral attracted more than four million mourners. Although his grandparents were huge fans of Kulthum and Farid el-Atrache, a popular singer-songwriter originally from Syria, Haddad never had any direct exposure to this music in his formative years.
“I never thought I was going to use this music until a few years ago,” he acknowledged. “When I was growing up, I was listening to a lot of Bee Gees and ‘80s music because my mom was really into that stuff. And then I listened to Mozart and Beethoven and all the big classical giants.”
Once he started creating his own music, he initially followed a path typical of many young American composers. He wrote a Michael Jackson-inspired composition scored for a post BoaC All Stars-type ensemble of soprano sax, electric guitar, keyboard, and drum-set, a few short orchestra pieces, and two lovely settings of poems by William Blake for unaccompanied chorus. He even dabbled in film music under the auspices of the John Williams Scoring Stage at USC, which instilled in him a deft command of musical narrative that would later inform other kinds of collaboratively created work, such as his Nekavim, a very effective dance score for two percussionists and live electronics created for choreography by Sean Howe. But an epiphany while he was back at home over the summer only a few years ago is ultimately what led to his current compositional direction. It began with something completely mundane: his mother asking him to transfer his family’s home movies off of aging videocassettes. As he explained:
We had like 200 twenty-year-old home videos and you can’t burn them like CDs; you have to watch the whole thing. So I’m sitting there watching … and see all my older relatives twenty years younger and I started getting really connected to it. So I thought, “Why don’t I write a piece using this material?” I went in with ProTools and tried to take the snippets that I liked. I had no idea what I would do with them; I was just making a catalog of interesting sounds from my childhood. And then I thought, “If I’m going to use my family as an influence, I ought to use their music, too.”
The resultant piece, Mai for string quartet and live electronics (2013), would serve as a blueprint for everything he has composed since then.
The microtones and all the embellishments that are really typical with Arabic music are really easy to get with a string quartet, especially when you’re working with them. So I worked with the Argus Quartet on this and we played it a few times at USC. Then it won a BMI Award the next year, and it was kind of a confirmation for me. So I started to explore this even more.
But Haddad is not at all dogmatic in his transfer of Arabic music theory to pieces that are designed to be interpreted by musicians trained in Western classical music and performed for its usual audiences. For example, while the microtonal gradations that occur in traditional Arabic music are extremely subtle, Haddad is content with limiting himself to quartertones.
Splitting the scale into 24 notes is the easiest way to think about it without going into it so in-depth. If you’re asking a bunch of players to do it, you have to tell them to play this quartertone, because if they’re all playing different shades of it, it doesn’t sound like what you want. It sounds like a cluster or it sounds like it’s wrong. How do you make it sound like it belongs? That kind of approximation, I think, does a big thing for it; you still have the feeling that it belongs to the maqam when you’re using quartertones. … There are certain things you can do that make it easier for an orchestra. Have the microtones in first or second position in each of the strings. Have them a little lower so you can really hear them; if they’re really high up, sometimes it sounds like a wrong note. “How do I make it idiomatic for the orchestra?” is something I’m always thinking.
The way that Saad Haddad has forged a balance between being practical and a desire to take risks is almost as seamless as his balancing of Western classical and Middle Eastern musical traditions. It is particularly surprising considering that he has come to such realizations while still a student. But even here, Haddad balances a duality: a desire to always be a student but never to be held back by thinking like one.
It’s only in name that I feel like I’m a student right now. No matter how old you are, you’re always learning things. You’re always going to be a student. But I’ve never said, “I’m a student, so I need to act like a student.” The more that you think you’re a student, you’re going to be writing “student music.” You need to think outside that kind of shell and say, “What do I want to do?” and don’t worry about anything else.
A conversation in Shaw’s studio apartment in New York City
February 9, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
When Caroline Shaw’s Partita for Eight Voices won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, a great deal was made of the fact that she was—at age 30—the award’s youngest-ever recipient (beating out the previously held record of Charles Wuorinen, who was 31 at the time he received the award in 1970) and was just at the start of her musical career. (Never previously studying composition formally, she had only enrolled in Princeton’s doctoral program in composition in 2010.) The fact of Shaw’s newcomer status to the scene seemed to be even more pronounced by her reluctance to embrace the word composer, identifying instead as a musician.
For many younger musicians the word composer has connotations that are antithetical to the collaborative nature of a lot of today’s music making. But Shaw’s reticence to embrace the word has a different motivation. Equally active as a singer (in Roomful of Teeth) and a violinist (in ACME), Shaw was more concerned about accurately describing her musical life, which has many parts and is a delicate balance. Now two years later, when we met up with her in her tiny studio apartment a few blocks away from Times Square, she is more comfortable with the word composer though she still believes that musician is a more appropriately inclusive moniker.
Yeah, I am a composer. I’m also a lot of other things, a lot of other nouns. So I feel like if there was going to be one noun that was used, it doesn’t seem like the right one. It’s just a matter of taxonomy, the way things are categorized. It wasn’t necessarily a reaction to not wanting to relinquish the control, because—come on—we’re all a little bit obsessive. Musician just encapsulates what I am a little better, I think.
Nevertheless, Shaw’s compositions are central to her musical identity and, in recent years, she has been venturing far beyond works that she has created for her own performance. Her vocal and string playing background has undoubtedly resulted in her ability to create highly idiomatic and particularly effective music for voices (such as her Its Motion Keeps created for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) and string quartets (including Entr’acte, which the Calidore Quartet has been touring this season). But equally fascinating are her solo piano piece Gustave Le Gray, which takes as its departure point one of the Chopin mazurkas, and a percussion quartet scored for flower pots called Taxidermy (written for So Percussion) which evokes the sound world of Javanese gamelan. Later this month, the Cincinnati Symphony will premiere Shaw’s Lo, her first composition for orchestra.
Still, the level of specificity and fixedness that are de rigeur when working with orchestral musicians is somewhat antithetical to Shaw’s personal compositional aesthetic.
It was the most foreign thing I’d ever done. Everything has to be in the score. … There’s something about this concept of baking versus cooking on the stove. If you write a piece where you have to notate everything and you give it away and you can’t touch it anymore, it’s like baking. You hope you followed the recipe exactly, and the chemistry’s exactly right. Then you can’t touch it anymore. But I do like the idea of following a recipe from some great chef that you like, David Chang or Julia Child, but you also can make it a little bit more like what you want. You change the sauce a little bit; you sort of trust the ingredients. … It’s why I guess I gravitate to smaller groups and people who don’t want you to have everything on every note. … When I have the choice to put information in a score or not, there’s always a careful thought about whether it’s necessary. If I didn’t put this here, would it give a sense of freedom to the performer to do something informed by the rest of the music? And is there enough other information there to give them a context to make a decision that they feel excited about?
Shaw found a way around the requisite notational strictness of writing for the orchestra by writing herself into the piece and creating a part for herself that is more open-ended, more like stove-top cooking than baking.
The solo part is just vaguely written out, only the parts that they really need. A lot of it is left open. And some parts I’m actually going to play with the first violins the way you would with a Mozart concerto where you have the option of playing the tutti parts. You know, I didn’t think that I would ever write for orchestra. But I’m glad to have had the opportunity. … I do think that there’s a changing relationship between composers and performers now. People are really giving a little bit more trust to each other than in the past. And I like that.
It was great to have an opportunity to talk about a broad range of topics with Caroline Shaw—performance practice, sashimi, painting. Shaw is remarkably unselfconscious, extremely enthusiastic, and bursting with ideas. It is indeed a great thing for the contemporary music scene that she has become a significant part of it.
Frank J. Oteri: There are already several really good interviews with you out there which invariably start by asking you about Partita and the Pulitzer. So I don’t want to do that. But you’ve done lots of other fabulous stuff, too. Partita’s wonderful and we’re eventually going to go there, we have to, but I thought it might be more interesting to begin by talking about your solo piano piece Gustave Le Gray. I’m curious about how and why you decided to construct a piece around music by Chopin and how much of his music is actually in your piece.
Caroline Shaw: It actually started out as my Princeton Generals project. At Princeton, there’s this assignment to write a piece responding to another composer, another piece, something that’s really different from what you do. It often ends up being very similar to what you do. We sort of find simpatico elements. There’s something about the way that Chopin changed harmony chromatically, something that Dmitri Tymoczko has talked about. In my work, I found that I’m using a lot of standard I-IV-V, really Baroque, chord progressions, just blocks chords. So I wanted to create a piece that nested around this little Chopin mazurka. It’s the A-minor Mazurka. It starts out almost like “Chopsticks,” and then this perfect, beautiful melody spins out on top of it. I wrote something that starts that way and just creates a little encasing for the piece. You can actually perform the whole Chopin inside of it, or you can perform the piece separately if you want. There are two options. There’s a little seam where you can either seamlessly go back into my piece, or you can open it into the Chopin and close it off from the rest of the piece.
FJO: You’ve predicted my next question. The performance of it by Amy Yang that’s streaming on your website and the performance of it by the Italian pianist Enrico Maria Polimanti that he posted to YouTube are totally different from each other. Polimanti’s version had the whole Chopin.
CS: Yeah, I created a couple little hinges so you can do either one. I would like to do that with other pieces, too, where you write something that just kind of sets you up in this way—21st-century ears, or something like that. You hear it in this different context, then you come out of the piece rather than with applause, with something else. Maybe it’s irreverent to the older piece, but I find it’s actually kind of like having a really nice conversation with a friend.
FJO: In a way, it’s like having a single abstract painting in a room with a bunch of old portraits or vice versa, having one painting that totally doesn’t belong with the others. It results in a really weird space that makes you look at the old work differently and the new work differently, because they’re in a dialogue with each other that they never otherwise would have been. I guess most classical music concerts are like that. If you hear a new piece, it’s surrounded by all these much older and more familiar standard repertoire pieces, and then people are scratching their heads with the new piece thinking, “Why doesn’t it sound like the other ones?“
CS: Often I think it’s hard to find things that speak to each other properly if they weren’t intended to be that way. But sometimes programming can be very thoughtful. There are some projects recently—Michael Mizrahi, David Kaplan, and Timo Andres either commission or write works that are responding to others. David Kaplan has a project where he commissioned, like, ten new pieces responding to Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. Everyone’s responding to a different movement of it. It’s cool, because then you can program something with new things and old things. They’re intentionally relating to each other, rather than just this sense of “oh, that was odd.” But I also like the juxtaposition of totally random things right next to each other. It’s the whole shuffle idea on your iPod where you have Mozart, the Cranberries, and Pavement right next to each other.
FJO: Is that what’s on your iPod?
CS: No, those are just things that I happened to have read about in the last 24 hours. Pavement, Cranberries, and Mozart. I don’t listen to Pavement, but I have a friend who does.
FJO: Slanted and Enchanted is a wonderful record.
CS: Oh yeah?
FJO: Anyway, you also mentioned Timo Andres, who did this re-composition of Mozart’s incomplete Coronation Concerto in which the stuff he used to fill in for the missing left hand of the solo piano part doesn’t really sound like Mozart. There’s also Night Scenes from the Ospidale, the project that Robert Honstein did with the Sebastians using Vivaldi.
CS: I played in the premiere of that. Yeah, it’s really beautiful.
FJO: This all feels very much part of our zeitgeist, a real manifestation of postmodernism, like those mashups of Jane Austen novels that have additional characters added in.
CS: It’s like classical music fan fiction, revisiting this older music that a lot of us really love, I think, very sincerely. It’s not in a kitschy or ironic way, like “I’m going to deconstruct this little thing, because isn’t that silly and old so let’s undermine these systems,” at least not in my case or in some of my friends’ cases. These are things that I grew up with and really love, they’re part of—people say my musical DNA. I think that’s a kind of bullshit concept—something that I came from.
FJO: You were talking about the difference between your harmonic palette and Chopin’s harmonic palette just now, the I-IV-V versus leaning into passing chords, almost like jazz substitutions. In your program note for Gustave Le Gray, you described your own music as being like sashimi, whereas Chopin was more like prosciutto and mint.
CS: Oh, my god, that’s a great combination!
FJO: Sashimi is all about the taste of a piece of fish; it’s total immersion in one flavor. Prosciutto and mint are each immersive, but combining them creates yet another experience.
FJO: You wrote this piece to get outside of yourself and what you normally do. As a result of doing this piece, have there been more ingredients than just the piece of sashimi in the other pieces you’ve written since then?
CS: I think so. I don’t know if it’s because of this piece, but I did want to try different combinations of harmonies that I’m not naturally attracted to. I like jazz chords with substitutions and slightly meandering things with irregular chord permutations, but there is something beautiful about sashimi. That’s how I often describe the beginning of Passacaglia. I just want to hear one chord, but not in a driving, ‘70s or ‘80s traditionally minimalist way. So not experiencing this one thing in time repeated and repeated, but just singularly. Like one instance. Like a painting, but music is a time-based art, so you kind of have to negotiate this with minimalist tendencies. I don’t know. Are there things that I now do after that that I didn’t before? Definitely. I’ve been trying to push myself a little bit more.
FJO: The title Gustave Le Gray is a bit of a curve ball. “Prosciutto and Mint” would have perhaps been a less cryptic title or maybe “Prosciutto Mint Sashimi.”
CS: That would be delicious! Gustave Le Gray was a pioneer photographer in France in the mid-19th century, around the same time that Chopin was the thing in Paris. He was famous for developing a technique to represent clouds in a photograph. It’s kind of a simple idea. But there was something about thinking about creating an image that’s a still image and watching it slowly develop that seemed appropriate for a title.
FJO: Well it’s funny, when I started thinking about the title I started wondering if perhaps they knew each other, but I couldn’t find any evidence that they did.
CS: I don’t think they knew each other. Maybe they did. I don’t think that their arts work in the same way—music is so different from photography—but what if you thought about some element of them as overlapping?
FJO: Well, what I thought was that the title was a really subtle way of telling people that what you did compositionally was somehow a sonic photograph of that Chopin mazurka. It’s not the actual Chopin piece but rather a new piece created based on it, just like a photograph of an object is a new object based on that original object.
CS: Yeah! I should probably mention there’s another piece that I wrote, a string quartet called Punctum, which is maybe the origin of my starting to think about the photographic moment and its relationship to music. There’s a Roland Barthes book called Camera Lucida which is a meditation on photography, memory, and nostalgia. He describes these two concepts—the punctum and the studium. The studium is sort of like what the photograph’s about, like a photograph of three people sitting around the table, playing cards, and looking at each other. And you can see a mom, a husband, and a child. So that’s what the photograph is about. But the punctum in that photograph is maybe the man’s tie which is a particular color that’s just really striking, or the way that the little boy is looking off to the side. That’s the moment that actually grabs you and that you remember. I don’t know if that’s related to Gustave Le Gray, but it’s really related to this idea of capturing a moment and trying to identify a slice in time either of music or of a scene.
FJO: Ha, that’s another curveball title, when I heard that title I thought—
CS: Punctum, contrapunctum?
FJO: No, I thought Punkdom, as in The Kingdom of Punk, Sid Vicious in one corner and Joey Ramone somewhere else.
CS: You’re so punk! You’re way more punk than I am.
FJO: Well, I think your piece Taxidermy has a somewhat punk title.
CS: Oh yeah?
FJO: It’s a macabre word. You’ve written that you like the word because it’s somewhat creepy. I think it’s a fabulous and somewhat punkish word to use as a title. But at the same time it seems a bit weird to me that you chose the word for—of all things—a piece for So Percussion.
CS: Well, it’s going back to the idea of the sashimi. You present; you put this here. It’s going to fall down. Presenting one thing—here, this is all we have. It’s not decorated. And I’m going to present it to you again. Like, here’s another piece of perfect salmon. It begins with them playing just these little flower pots. There are no pitch indications, so it’s not about the chord or the harmony. It’s just about one sound versus another sound, a very simple binary. Then other things happen in the piece, and eventually it becomes these two chords that happen. It’s almost like you just have this deer in the headlights look. Like this is all I’m giving you. There’s something awkward about it, something a little bit naked, something macabre, as you said—creepy, funny, quirky, but kind of also grand. You think taxidermy and you think about a giant moose or tiger looking at you that was once this grand creature but now it’s just frozen in time. You’re experiencing it a hundred years later.
Also it came from this idea of the awkward moment. Let’s say you’re on a date with someone and you say, “I’m really into taxidermy.” There’s a pause. It’s awkward.
FJO: That didn’t happen to you, did it?
CS: No, it didn’t.
FJO: And had it happened to you, you wouldn’t have been the one who was into taxidermy?
CS: No, no, no. But one day I’m going to write a great little short story about some meeting of two people. But how do you create that awkward pause in music?
FJO: When I heard that title, I immediately thought the word taxidermy seemed like a really potent critique of classical music. Because in a way, that’s what classical music is: all this focus on things from over a hundred years ago that were once such a big deal in the culture they were created in—grand, like that moose. But now in the 21st century—
CS: —it’s here placed beautifully in the dining room, and we’re eating a lovely meal next to this ancient grand moose. I think you make an excellent point about what older classical music is. Classical music is a broad term that means many things, but to many who are not in that classical music world, it means a particular thing which is a particularly 17th, 18th, and 19th century version of music. And there’s a comfort level in experiencing that music in museum-like situations which I’m actually not critiquing. I love museums. I love concerts where I sit and listen very carefully to something that was beautifully constructed a long time ago. I love that experience. But I think that sometimes there’s not a real awareness and consciousness of what that is and what it means for new music now and what the possibilities are for thinking about older music and thinking about newer music.
FJO: But of all the pieces you could have called Taxidermy, you gave the name to something you wrote for the one kind of ensemble that could never be accused of being musical taxidermists. Percussionists pretty much exclusively perform new music, especially the So guys who either write or commission almost everything they play.
CS: I was wondering why you thought percussion was an odd choice. Okay, yeah.
FJO: I could see a string quartet being called Taxidermy, maybe something for violin and piano, or, probably most appropriate, an orchestra piece.
CS: I understand your point. I think there might be something more antagonistic than I intend if I called a string quartet Taxidermy. I’m very conscious of the string quartet as this incredibly old form, but I also really, really love it. So I don’t want to poke anyone’s rib. I’m going to stop now.
FJO: Well, before we do, the reason I wanted to bring up those two pieces of yours that we’ve been talking about before anything else is in some way to address what a lot of other people have been saying and writing about you: You’re a new kind of person in our world. You don’t think of yourself as composer. You prefer to be called a musician. Since you’re a singer and play stringed instruments, you write very idiomatically for voices and strings. While your vocal pieces are really well suited to voices and your string works take full advantage of your insider performer knowledge of what these instruments are capable of, Gustave Le Gray is very pianistic even though you’re not out there publicly as a pianist. And Taxidermy is also totally idiomatic even though you are not a percussionist. While it’s true that much of your music has grown out of your relationship to music as a performer, those two pieces clearly didn’t. They came out of something else.
CS: Right. I can relate to the string and the vocal sound very naturally. But I don’t play the piano. I used to play piano, and I can play some percussion, but I wanted to create something that is outside of my natural, physical, musical world. In both cases, they were written for particular people that I knew and so it comes out of their sensibilities. There’s something about So Percussion, their attitude and their quirky, careful relationship to what they do, and their willingness to just play flower pots very gently. The piano piece Gustave Le Gray is written for Amy Yang—who is a pianist far better than I could ever dream to be—and for her particular relationship with the repertoire that she loves, the instrument, and with her older teachers which include Claude Frank. Whether or not it comes from a different place, I don’t know. I’m still kind of figuring out what the music is that I like to write. I guess we all are all the time. Every chance you get is a chance to discover something new about yourself, and writing for something that is less familiar to you is a great way to—as Steve Mackey has said—put your brain into a different shape for the day. So I guess that’s what those pieces did.
FJO: Well, to be a bit of a provocateur here and to get back to this whole notion of taxidermy, in a way, when you’re writing a piece down you’re sort of taxidermizing it to some extent. If you create music that’s for your own performance, you can still play around with it since—after all—it’s yours. Sure, when you write a piece for another ensemble, you have to let it go, but the whole relationship between composers and performers of score-based music is predicated on respecting what is put down on the page since the way the composer is present in the music—even if he or she is not actually participating in the performance of it—is through those written instructions. So in a sense, you have to somehow taxidermize yourself when you write a piece for others.
CS: Oh, that’s an interesting point. I would like to think that one doesn’t preserve themselves strictly in this text form when writing a score. So far I’ve always been able to work pretty closely with the people who perform it. There are many important things when writing music. You know, create a score that represents accurately what you would like, whether it’s different parameters that are easy to represent like pitch, duration, some things about timbre—but timbre is a really impossible one to actually represent. Phrasing sensibility is also impossible to represent. Humor is really hard. You can give little hints of it, but to give someone a sense of your own relationship to this music and your own humor and attitude and how they should approach it is so difficult. And I don’t want that to ever be frozen in time. When I was playing early music, whether it was Corelli, Mozart, or Beethoven, biographies of these composers were important. Did they exactly want this, or is it open? Was it a culture of “you can improvise on this note” or “this is exactly what you should do”?
Caroline Shaw at home.
FJO: I see you’ve got a Baroque violin behind you on the wall.
CS: With a broken string. I perform mostly with Roomful of Teeth now and a little bit with ACME. I haven’t done a gig on Baroque now in a year and a half. I miss it a lot. I love that exploration of a time when there was less information on the page. We actually just did a concert a couple nights ago with Roomful of Teeth and ACME, and I did some arrangements of Purcell. There were no dynamics or tempo indication in the score, so I left it like that. And it was a really great experience of working closely with these two groups. We all know each other’s sensibilities and trust each other to see what comes out of that organic performance practice. What do you do with four whole notes? How can you shape that when the information isn’t strictly given? When I have the choice to put information in a score or not, there’s always a careful thought about whether it’s necessary. If I didn’t put this here, would it give a sense of freedom to the performer to do something informed by the rest of the music? And is there enough other information there to give them a context to make a decision that they feel excited about?
FJO: You’ve hit on something that I think is really a key issue in contemporary music. In the 20th century, a lot of composers felt the need to put articulations on every note in a score, to offer precise instructions about every dynamic level, an exact metronomically determined tempo indication, and so on. But what would have happen if those scores had fewer details? Is Purcell’s music any less worthwhile because those details are missing? On some levels, the malleability of performance and the possibility of variable interpretations are what make a piece of music feel alive and not like a piece of taxidermy.
CS: I agree with all of those things. At the same time, I think it’s a very beautiful artistic gesture to indicate all of those things, like the quality of the accent or a mezzo-forte dynamic. Everything on every note is an incredible human creation. That’s an awesome thing. It’s not the way that I work or that some of the music that I’ve previously played works, so I’m happy to maybe live in that world a little bit more. But I do think that there’s a changing relationship between composers and performers now. People are really giving a little bit more trust to each other than in the past. And I like that.
Shaw’s pet fish
FJO: I don’t want to sound like I’m only ragging on composers here for over-notating. I think the other part of this phenomenon is that performers came to expect it. I once “under-notated” something and it drove the person playing it crazy. I kept getting phone calls: “What do you want here? How do you want this phrased?” My answer was, “How do you want to do it?” and the player was flummoxed by this.
CS: We haven’t talked about that. Yeah, that’s a terrible bristling reaction.
FJO: This sort of thing is particularly an issue in the orchestral realm where there is usually only time for two rehearsals and the clock is always ticking so anything that’s not precise on the page is perceived as an irresponsible waste of their time. I don’t know what your experience has been working with orchestras or if you’ve had an orchestra piece performed yet.
CS: I just did one! I’ve only done one, and it’s being done in March. And I wrote myself into the piece so I could be there on stage, because I didn’t want to be far away. I just felt weird about it. It was the most foreign thing I’d ever done. Everything has to be in the score. But, at the same time, I know a little bit about what the players’ repertoire is. It’s an orchestra that plays a lot of grand, old repertoire. And they have a beautiful conductor who is French and who specializes in Mozart, so I wrote with that kind of thinking.
There’s something about this concept of baking versus cooking on the stove. If you write a piece where you have to notate everything and you give it away and you can’t touch it anymore, it’s like baking. You hope you followed the recipe exactly, and the chemistry’s exactly right. Then you can’t touch it anymore. But I do like the idea of following a recipe from some great chef that you like, David Chang or Julia Child, but you also can make it a little bit more like what you want. You change the sauce a little bit; you sort of trust the ingredients.
There are so many things to talk about with this. The different kinds of reactions that players give to a composer depending on how much information they’re given goes so deep into what musical community is, who we’re writing for, who’s playing it, who’s listening to it, what the size and the history of the institution is behind the music, how it’s funded, and what the venue is. All these things have such an effect on the way the music is written, even though we like to think that that’s not the case. The idea of writing for a standard ensemble that executes it in this robotic way—I hate it; it’s not the kind of world that I want to live in. It’s why I guess I gravitate to smaller groups and people who don’t want you to have everything on every note. You know, they won’t bristle at that. I have had that one time. It was my first year as a student at Princeton. Well, it wasn’t a bristle-y reaction. It was like, “Well, I could really use more dynamics here.” But I could sense that I lost all trust; the player just didn’t trust me to have done my job and thought I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was hard. So I gave a few more dynamics, but then I said, “You should think of the way that you approach Mozart versus Haydn versus Beethoven. It’s not all the same. It’s slightly different, but there is a general sensibility that you come to that with. It’s how you play four eighth notes in a row; you wouldn’t play them robotically. You would create some kind of shape.” But a quartet has that time, an orchestra does not.
FJO: So where and when is this orchestra piece happening?
CS: March, in Cincinnati.
FJO: Fantastic. How long is the piece?
CS: It’s 17 minutes or so.
FJO: You said you wrote yourself into it, so is it a concerto?
CS: I don’t call it a concerto. It’s a piece for a lot of players, and I’m going to play the violin.
FJO: But are you in the violin section or are you actually a soloist?
CS: Soloist. But actually the solo part is just vaguely written out, only the parts that they really need. A lot of it is left open. And some parts I’m actually going to play with the first violins the way you would with a Mozart concerto where you have the option of playing the tutti parts. You know, I didn’t think that I would ever write for orchestra. But I’m glad to have had the opportunity.
FJO: Well, this gets into this whole musician versus composer thing. I wonder if not wanting to have obsessive control over the music you write is part of what made you reticent to use the word composer to describe yourself, even though you are in fact a composer.
CS: Yeah, I am a composer. I’m also a lot of other things, a lot of other nouns. So I feel like if there was going to be one noun that was used, it doesn’t seem like the right one. It’s just a matter of taxonomy, the way things are categorized. It wasn’t necessarily a reaction to not wanting to relinquish the control, because—come on—we’re all a little bit obsessive. Musician just encapsulates what I am a little better I think.
FJO: I find it weird that people don’t realize that composer is a subset of musician.
CS: Just like there’s a terrible thing that reviews sometimes do: “the musicians and the singers did a great job.” I’m like, oh my god, guys! Basic concepts of classification here.
FJO: But the thing about the word composer that I love is that, unlike artist or writer, it means someone who puts things together. So it really isn’t some super powerful creator who is making something from nothing. The only other field where this word gets used is in perfumery; the people who put different chemicals or essences together to create scents are also called composers.
FJO: The music you’ve created for groups that you’re also involved with as a performer—like Partita for Roomful of Teeth—really has been composed in the “put together” sense. The different movements were actually first performed at different times and in different places over the course of a few years and you kept revising it. Many pieces evolve this way, but until the Pulitzer changed their rules a few years back to allow a first recording of a piece from a calendar year to qualify and not just a first live performance, pieces made this way got overlooked. Of course, if you’re gigging and workshopping a piece, there is no one set premiere. Although it blows my mind that even after you won the Pulitzer for it, you’ve still been tinkering with it. So you don’t think of it as a fixed document even now.
CS: I don’t. Most things haven’t been tinkered with, but I did add a whole section to Courante and kind of remixed it. We took that out it recently. It’s just too long. And we change the vowels on things a lot. We felt like that “aaah” last time was feeling a little bit abrasive. It didn’t have the right effect with the audience because they heard it as something aggressive, so let’s make that “aaah” something a little bit brighter and happier and you change the mouth shape just a little bit, and it changes the effect. And we changed the quality of the breaths in Courante. All of the time we’re changing it. And once in a while, we’ll have a sub who comes in and brings in a new idea. So I don’t like to think of it as a fixed document, but there’s definitely a lot of information there that is set. That is a recipe that one can follow, but still cook on a stove. You can still add some pepper, you know.
FJO: So it’s not baked.
CS: Not baked. I can’t say I’m baking it so hard.
FJO: It’s interesting that you said we and not I.
CS: Yes, Roomful of Teeth.
FJO: So even though it’s your music, you feel like the piece belongs to the whole group on some level, the whole group molds it to some extent so in some ways it’s less authorial, less a strict baking recipe where you absolutely must put in those two cups of sugar or it isn’t your cake.
CS: Well, you know, if it needs two cups of sugar, and you’ve put in like one cup of flour, I’ll correct it. I think people definitely look to me to give some suggestion. But as much as I possibly can—and this is true with other stuff I’ve done with the group—I really want to empower people. I would love for them to have suggestions. Unless it’s a terrible idea, I’d love to try it in a performance. If you can create some kind of sensibility among each other that encourages people to come up with ideas and feel empowered to articulate them, that’s what I would like to create.
FJO: Now this can happen very organically and very fluidly if you’re part of a group, or if they’re friends, or if you’ve worked with them. But if you write a piece of music on a page, and it’s out there in the world and somebody obtains a copy of the score in, say, Zagreb or Shanghai, they’re not necessarily going to be able to say, “Hey Caroline, what do you think of blah-blah-blah?” So it’s going to become more like baking than like cooking on the stove.
CS: Yes, that’s true. Then the relationship to the performer is very different.
FJO: And that’s starting to happen with your music now more and more, I would imagine.
CS: Yeah. Then you realize you’ve created something that is just out in the world without you, without the little quirks of your sense of humor and your attitude. Maybe somebody’s watched an interview to get a sense of who you are as a composer and as a person, but if they haven’t and they just ordered the score, they just have this thing. They want to play it. Hopefully you’ve given them something to dig into and to be engaged with and that they will want to shape in their own way. There’s nothing more you can do. You put it in the oven.
But at the same, I think about what you guys do at NewMusicBox. It is this really incredible archive of getting to know a composer. So if you are in Zagreb, and you order a piano piece from someone, you can Google them. It’s not like 20 years ago when you just couldn’t; you just didn’t know anything about anyone. Now you can watch a video. You can get a sense of who they are. You can have a little sense of the biography of someone developing over time. I like to think that that’s what the world is going to look like in 20 years. Getting music, but also being informed by the way that that person’s other music was performed and the way they think about music.
FJO: With the orchestra piece, which affords the least amount of personal interaction with the musicians since there’s so little time to prepare for it, you still wrote yourself into the piece. You didn’t want to let go that much; you wanted to have that interrelationship with these players. I’m thinking also of Its Motion Keeps, your piece for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. You wrote yourself into that as well. I’m curious about how that all evolved and played out. It wasn’t a group that you had regularly been a part of, but I think they really served what you did extremely well.
CS: Yeah, they were amazing. I still did get to work with them, so it changed certain things that were a little ambiguous in the score. There’s a little thing that goes nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, which I can’t really say in the score, but it takes two seconds to describe it. And then you have it. They did an amazing job. I did write myself into that piece, too, because I’m still at the beginning of this writing music for other people. I don’t know what the future will look like. For now I like being there with them. But it’s been done without me playing viola since then.
FJO: So is the viola part optional, or did they bring in someone else to play it?
CS: They just brought in another violist.
FJO: With the Cincinnati Symphony piece, you said a lot of the solo part isn’t written out. What happens if someone else wanted to do it, say, two years from now with the LA Philharmonic?
CS: I just assume that no one’s going to want to do it.
FJO: You don’t want to think that.
CS: I could feasibly write out a part for someone to play. But actually, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus is a great example of that. There’s something written out. Originally it was pretty loose, and I made it up, and still whenever I play it, there’s a whole section that I basically improvise within a certain structure. Some nights I like to build it up here. And then the next night, I just actually take myself out mostly for five bars. But there is a part that’s written out, and if they hire a violist to play it, they can play that. It’s fine.
FJO: So is whomever they hire to play the viola part expected to improvise as well?
CS: [The score] says, “Play this as if improvised.” They could either play exactly what’s on the page or—depending on the person’s background and personality and the way they like to engage with music—they can loosen it up rhythmically. Let’s say they were preparing to play the piece and they saw a YouTube video and said, “Whoa, none of that is the same. There’s a little more freedom here.” So maybe they take a little bit. If they called me and said, “Hey, I’m playing that piece.” I’d say, “Yeah, that whole section in the middle, you can kind of do what you want. This is the basic idea. Don’t play too much. Let them play here; do something that’s tasteful.” And then you don’t know what they’re going to do.
FJO: So how connected are you with performers when they play your music? I know that the Calidor String Quartet just played your Entr’acte at Juilliard. Did you work with them at all?
CS: Well, the cellist in the quartet was a cellist that I played a Mozart quartet with my first year in grad school. We’re good friends, so they sent me a recording before they performed it at the Phillips Collection in D.C. For the most part it was the ideal match, and I was sort of involved. But the quartet has actually been performed by other people and I haven’t been involved and I have no idea how it went. It was written to be a quartet played not necessarily by a new music specialist group, but a group that is used to playing Mozart and Beethoven. I like the piece a lot and I feel good about that quartet being a kind of calling card as a way into my music.
FJO: I imagine that’s starting to happen more and more now, the music is slipping away from your ability to shepherd it, which is a good thing but also requires letting go.
CS: Ultimately, it’s a great thing. We have a very short time on this earth. Music is music. It should be out there in the world. People should be excited about playing it. And there shouldn’t be a sense of weird control freakiness that I probably could have. So I’m very happy that it’s going out in the world. Whether or not it’s a problem that I’m not involved, it’s probably better. At a certain point, you can tinker with your recipe to death. I used to paint. You can paint something and just keep on doing it. Then ultimately, if it’s a little bit brown and kind of smudgy, you can’t really work with that anymore. So it’s better to let it be what it is, let it go off, and trust people.
FJO: Well, part of why letting go is hard is the difficulty involved with transmitting new techniques. You were talking about the breathing in Partita and then the Brooklyn Youth Chorus making certain sounds. It reminds me of all the extensive prep work that goes into a performance of a Meredith Monk piece. There’s no adequate notation for a lot of that stuff. So what do you do to get it done by other groups? Several published Meredith Monk scores are accompanied by audio recordings to give interpreters a clearer sense of how to make certain sounds. But even with recording, you don’t necessarily get some of the nuances of how those sounds are made. Her own ensemble workshops her music rigorously. In some ways, your music has gone down that same path—certainly it has with Partita.
CS: Yeah, a little bit. I’ve never actually met Meredith Monk. I saw her one time and I got so nervous, I had to turn around. She’s just an amazing musician. But the thing about her work is that it’s not just about the sound. You could get a recording and imitate the sound. There’s something theatrical about it. It’s like a playwright writing more than words. You give a stage direction and there’s a sensibility to it that is connected to the narrative and the character and what they’re trying to say. I think that is really hard to notate in music. Again, it’s this concept of attitude and humor and the subtleties of that. I think my music is probably much more notated than Meredith Monk’s is. I’m still kind of an obsessive engineer about it. This is where everything goes. But then there are these little, almost theatrical subtleties that have to be passed down orally.
FJO: As you said earlier, notation does some things very well but others not as well. No matter how obsessively you write something down, there’s only so much you can do. We have all these added advantages over, say, Purcell. We’ve increased the kinds of details we can notate. There were no metronome markings back then, for example. And nowadays, as you said, someone can watch a YouTube video of a performance and maybe get something really precise if there’s good camera work to get the shape of someone’s mouth. When Molly talked to Joan La Barbara for NewMusicBox, she also recorded a whole lesson with Joan La Barbara which captured very detailed things about how she produces some of her sounds. So you don’t have to meet Joan La Barbara to learn how to do her stuff anymore.
CS: That’s amazing.
FJO: So when somebody gets, say, a score of Partita, do they get other things with it? What materials do you give somebody to ensure that it’s going to be as close to the recipe as is appropriate without being too controlling, but also have it be what you want it to be?
CS: There’s something that I wrote at the bottom of the first page of the score. I don’t remember the words exactly, but basically it was that no one document should be prescriptive. Be free and live life fully. That’s what I wanted that piece to go out with. The recording is very helpful and the score is very helpful, but ultimately do it the way you would like to do it. The piece was just done last week by Camerata Nova in Winnipeg. It was the first time [another group performed it]. I went out there to work with them, but ultimately they still did things their own way. Tempos were a little bit different. Pauses were a little bit different. The sound of the breath was different. Because every person—every instrument—is different. It’s not like a standardized clarinet, which everyone plays a little differently but the instrument itself is more or less the same. All eight instruments of the eight singers are different.
FJO: This is why I think most listeners really identify with singers more than they do with instrumentalists and why, certainly in pop music, a singer’s performance of a particular song has such a stamp of auteurship on it to the point that we call someone’s version of a song a cover. But we don’t call it a cover when a group performs a Mozart string quartet that tons of other folks have played.
CS: It’s fascinating to hear other versions of a similar thing. I love covers. I mean, that’s another thing. I love YouTube covers of people just doing pop songs. I love this song so much; I just want to sing it myself with my guitar for you. And then it’s a slightly different version.
FJO: You’ve done what are essentially covers of some really classic American folk tunes, like “I’ll Fly Away.”
CS: Sort of. That is part of a set of four songs. It was a slight subversive dig at the commercial country music industry. It’s like: please, everyone stop making this glitzy. Just strip everything away. So I wanted to do my cover of it.
Going back to Mozart string quartets, you’re just doing this cover of this thing that somebody else’s band did a long time ago. But I love that there are slight differences. That works if it’s a musical community that enjoys hearing a mix of new things and old things. At a certain point, there’s not enough time in the day to hear all the older things and older new things and newish old things again and again and then also hear more new things. So how do we find a balance between enjoying different versions of stuff, but also embracing things that are entirely new? It’s hard. I think about this a lot, because I would love for there to be more repeat performances of new music. It’s such a shame, whether it’s orchestral or chamber music or electronic pieces, there’s one instance where it’s premiered and then there are very few instances that are shared communal experiences of that piece being done again, either by the same person slightly differently or by another group.
FJO: One way we can hear pieces again and again is through recordings, either hearing a physical CD or LP, hearing it on the radio, or now—more and more—hearing it online. And of course, it was through a commercially released recording of your piece that you won the Pulitzer.
FJO: Thankfully you have SoundCloud embeds of several of your other pieces on your website, since nothing else is out on CD yet. Is there anything else in the works?
CS: There’s a cello and percussion duo, New Morse Code, that has a Kickstarter campaign. [Ed. note: They plan to record Shaw’s piece for them, Boris Kerner.] They’re really great advocates for new music. But that’s the only one I know of that’s going to be officially recorded.
FJO: Having multiple opportunities to hear a piece of music live is probably something that you’ll be addressing in your role as composer-in-residence for Music on Main, since I know that the artistic director, David Pay, is very interested in experimenting with performance modalities and how people hear stuff.
CS: David is definitely interested in how people hear new music and how they have conversations about it, whether it’s before the performance or after. I think the idea of the composer salon, having people just be able to talk about their work and ask questions, is great. There’s a chamber series in Manchester, Massachusetts, run by a couple of friends of mine from school. Every summer they’ve done a new work. They play it at the beginning of the concert, and they play it again at the end. So you hear it twice at the same concert, which I wish was done more often, especially if it’s not a very long piece. That’s something I’ll talk about with David.
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Mar 1, 2015
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