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Bryce Dessner is the first person we have ever featured on NewMusicBox who glowingly talked about both Paul Simon and Helmut Lachenmann. Like many of the most inventive creative musical minds of the early 21st century, Dessner does not compartmentalize music into different genres. However, it is clear that he has learned different lessons from his immersion into different kinds of music-making and that these lessons have made him a stronger musician, whether he is writing songs and playing lead guitar in the indie rock band The National, co-scoring the soundtrack for the motion picture The Revenant, or composing a double piano concerto for the Labeque sisters.
“I find scores to be a very advanced form of technology,” he opined during our hour-long conversation with him at the Archives of the New York Philharmonic immediately after a rehearsal for his composition Wires (for which he joined the orchestra on electric guitar for three consecutive nights in between their performances of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius). “With digital music, or sequence music, whether it be using Pro Tools or GarageBand or Ableton, or whatever, everything is based on patterns and loops,” he elaborated. “With a score, you see very clearly how to defy that. You can write across the bar and the sense of form is much more fluid and asymmetrical. In that way, in fact, I use score a lot in the band to create some of those details. We’ll write a song that’s basically doing the same thing for four minutes, but then I’ll look at it in a score and I’ll create patterns and motion in it that maybe would have been hard to see if I was just playing an Ableton loop or something.”
But scores can also impose limitations, as he then acknowledged. “Right now I’m in a season of needing to liberate myself from … that kind of isolation of looking at music and manuscript, and to be closer to instruments and to this idea of sound and the physical relationship of when I’m hearing notes played, I’m also feeling the bodies playing them. This physicality of music obviously translates the most when I’m on stage with my instrument. … So the balance of those things, maybe to capture that kind of lightning or that physical energy and then put it into a composition, has been something that’s really evaded me but has also excited me at times.”
Bryce Dessner has never been content to rest on his laurels. He’s always eager to explore something different. When he was asked by Sō Percussion to create a companion piece for David Lang’s The So-Called Laws of Nature, he wound up creating a new instrument for the members of that quartet to perform his visceral Music for Wood and Strings. Similarly, The National’s song “Lemonworld,” from their breakthrough album High Violet, was a by-product of Dessner messing around in the studio and tuning his guitar “all the way down until the strings were almost flub.” While he was composing Wires, the piece he performed with the New York Phil, he literally wrote himself “emails every day with large caps saying, ‘NOT ALLOWED TO DO THIS’” in order to try to “break old habits.”
“Part of why I’m drawn to doing this is because I’m still learning,” he explained. “I’m trying to be humble about my art and to be open to trying new things and also to say, ‘I don’t think I know.’ I’m dialing in deeper to what my true voice is and not being scared to try things.”
Dessner’s fearlessness about taking risks coupled with his openness to and fluency in so many different kinds of music have made him an ideal ambassador, not just between musicians from different backgrounds, but also with audiences. This has made him an ideal music curator, a role he has had at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival in 2010, at the Cincinnati’s MusicNOW Festival, which he founded, since its inception in 2006, and most recently at a NY Phil Nightcap concert last month. Ultimately, the experiences that Bryce Dessner has acquired and now shares as a musician are valuable life lessons that can be applied to all human interactions.
“I’m happy to be a kind of diplomat if people need me to be,” he said. “I find when you come into a room with judgment towards someone who is different from you …, you automatically cancel out all kinds of exciting possibilities that can happen.”
I learned more about electric guitar from Steve Reich than I did from Jimmy Page.
We kept failing in trying to write a Nirvana-sounding song, so I just decided to just tune that guitar all the way down until the strings were almost flub.
In Europe we’re all just a bunch of Americans.
I love hearing the personality of a player and what they bring to it.
I do love American string band music, American folk music, even some early country stuff.
The 21st century is less about ideology, at least in music.
More and more I see people leaving cities, giving up living condensed in a pressured environment where you have crazy stress trying to pay your rent and nowhere to rehearse.
[Ed. Note: Some of the unusual melodies and harmonies on the indie rock band Dollshot’s latest album Lalande, two singles from which were just released today on Bandcamp and Spotify, were inspired by an unusual source—the theories of early 20th century avant-garde classical composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky, a Russian émigré in Paris who was a pioneer of microtonal music. Probing deeper, it turns out that Dollshot’s co-leaders, vocalist Rosie K and saxophonist Noah K, are immersed in a very wide range of musical styles. Noah fronts a jazz quartet that has recorded two discs on hatOLOGY and participated in last year’s New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Edward T. Cone Composer Institute at Princeton University. Rosie has composed original works for chamber ensembles and electronics and has also recorded a re-imagining of Benjamin Britten’s Songs from the Chinese with electric guitarist Marco Cappelli. We asked Rosie and Noah to write about how they became interested in Wyschnegradsky, why they translated his 1932 Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony, and what the implications of Wyschnegradsky’s ideas are for music being created today in all genres.—FJO]
In 1932, Ivan Wyschnegradsky wrote a short yet profound book introducing twelve new tones into the language of classical harmony. Historically excluded from the edifice of harmony constructed around 12-tone equal temperament, these tones from outside the system open new expressive possibilities and expose hidden beauty. The Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony rewrites the past for the future and pulls back the curtain on the realm of ultrachromatic music.
The Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony rewrites the past for the future.
The Manual traces the history of Western harmony and systematically injects quarter tones into each stage of its development. Beginning with Baroque-like usages of quarter tones as ornaments and embellishments, it then introduces quarter-tone non-harmonic tones and altered triads, suggesting the harmonic practice of the Classical period. The treatment of quarter tones then extends from simple diatonic progressions to modulations in new quarter-tone keys, then on to quarter-tone chromatic harmony. Part Two introduces artificial quarter-tone scales, followed by quarter-tone atonality and poly-tonality. Wyschnegradsky weaves quarter tones into the fabric of our common musical syntax, showing us how they can enrich—and supersede—our grammar.
Though a return to the strictures of classical harmonic theory may seem opposed to contemporary practice, the operative concept of the tradition of harmonic development is progress, and it is this progressive spirit which animates the Manual. Mapping new harmonies over the old ones offers a comprehensive methodology for the use of quarter tones that composers can choose to follow or reject completely. Wyschnegradsky frees us from circling back over well-trodden territory. The circle is transfigured as harmony steps forward.
Shortly after completing the Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony, Wyschnegradsky wrote the first edition of his 24 Preludes, Op. 22 in 1934, which would turn out to be a lifelong project and a landmark within his oeuvre. The preludes show a mastery of styles including Romanticism, jazz, and atonality, and they elaborate and exemplify many of the ideas discussed in the Manual beyond the text’s examples. The preludes are based on a quasi-diatonic scale, the chromatic scale diatonicized to 13 tones. In this scale (pictured below), Wyschnegradsky found structural analogies to the major scale; its two heptachords, which include a series of semitone intervals followed by a quarter-tone interval are analogous to the two tetrachords made up of whole tones followed by a semitone that constitute a diatonic major scale (C-D-E-F & G-A-B-C).
Wyschnegradsky’s “chromatic scale diatonicized to 13 tones”
In addition, the chromatic scale diatonicized to 13 tones unifies 13 descending major fourths—a perfect fourth plus a quarter tone—in the space of an octave, beginning from a major fourth above the tonic, F quarter-high, and descending through the cycle of major fourths to B quarter-high. This is analogous to the unification of seven descending perfect fourths in the major scale beginning from a fourth above the tonic, F, and descending through the cycle of perfect fourths to B. This latter feature allows for a scheme of modulations based on the ascending major fourth resolution, as opposed to the ascending perfect fourth (or descending perfect fifth) relationship intrinsic to previous tonal music.
Late in his life, Wyschnegradsky returned to the preludes and dramatically revised them, saturating his original “diatonic” pieces in 24-note ultrachromaticism. This revision coincided with the publication of his article “Ultrachromaticism and Non-Octavian Spaces” (1972) in La Revue Musicale, a new English edition of which will be published by Underwolf Editions in the next year. The 24 Preludes—a highly original work that offers a bold vision of the expansion of harmony—illustrates the depth and utility of the ideas introduced in the Manual.
Yet since its publication 75 years ago, the Manual has passed the years in relative obscurity. There are few records of the book, and the only English translation is long out of print and unavailable. We were both living in Princeton, writing music and developing techniques for playing and singing microtones, when we came across a mention of the Manual in the library. We began a correspondence with Martine Joste of the Association Wyschnegradsky in Paris, who sent us a copy of the book in its original French. We were immediately captivated by its ideas, and the project of translating and publishing a new edition began. In addition to the text, the Underwolf edition includes an audio companion rendering Wyschnegradsky’s musical examples, realized by composer and theorist Christopher Douthitt.
Since its publication 75 years ago, the Manual has passed the years in relative obscurity.
The book went with us everywhere as we prepared the translation, working in coffee shops in Los Angeles, New York, and Montreal, where we traveled to meet Wyschnegradsky’s disciple Bruce Mather. Martine had introduced us to Bruce through a letter. A great composer in his own right, Bruce taught the Manual during his tenure at McGill University. He and his wife, Pierrette LePage, an accomplished pianist and teacher, live between Montreal and France, where they present concerts and perform contemporary microtonal works. Bruce and Pierrette’s living room is taken up almost entirely by two baby grand pianos tuned a quarter tone apart, positioned so that the players face one another. Together, the pianos function like the combined moving parts of a single, profoundly expressive instrument. The musical lines divided between the keyboards crystallize into the most intensely nuanced passages, and the resonance of the quarter tones is strikingly vivid.
Bruce Mather with the Carrillo 96-tone piano
While we were visiting Bruce, he took us to the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal so that we could hear the sixteenth-tone “Carrillo piano” that had been specially built for him by the German piano maker Sauter. The piano appears to be an ordinary upright piano, but it has an extended 97-note keyboard whose entire range encompasses one octave, C1 (middle C) to C2. The question of whether one can hear sixteenth tones was decidedly answered for us when Bruce sat down and demonstrated a “glissando” by playing a passage of ultra-ultrachromatic notes. Each sixteenth tone illuminates a distinct, reverberant sound-space. The instrument’s most poignant feature is the surreal and uncanny quality of the resonance warping between such precisely and closely tuned strings. Bruce played some of his piece Etude VII A, in which tonal and quartertonal sonorities bleed into one another, stretched apart by sixteenth tone alterations. The harmonics collide to create a sound akin to a piano being played underwater, the sound waves bent and distorted by the thickness of the substance through which they travel. Bruce organizes a concert each winter in Montreal featuring works written for his special piano.
Hearing the sixteenth-tone piano piqued our interest in its inventor, Julián Carrillo. A contemporary of Wyschnegradsky, Carrillo was an indigenous Mexican composer active in the early 20th century, who traveled from his home in Mexico City to Leipzig to learn what he referred to as the “glorious German music tradition.” After writing music that sounds a lot like Brahms and Wagner, including an impressive opera Matilde o México (1910), Carrillo devoted himself, starting in the 1920s, to composing with microtones. In an artful narrative, Carrillo often recounted how he discovered the existence of microtones in 1895 during an experiment in which he used a razor’s edge to stop the G string on a violin in increments until he reached the note A. Within the whole step G to A he found sixteen discreet sounds. His microtonal system, which he called Sonido 13 (the thirteenth sound), communed with the mysteries beyond 12-note equal temperament. Carrillo had lofty ambitions for Sonido 13, prophesying that “[t]he thirteenth sound will tune the world.” In 1926 he moved to New York where his Sonata casi fantasía was heard by Stokowski, who then commissioned a work for the Philadelphia Orchestra from him. Carrillo reworked the Sonata into his 1927 Concertino in which, in a brilliant stroke of practical ingenuity, he had a chamber ensemble playing microtones against the “normally” tuned orchestra. The composite result was an eminently playable microtonal orchestral piece. Like Wyschnegradsky, Carrillo mastered the history of his art and the dominant style of his time before plunging, out of an inner necessity, headlong into the deep waters of microtonality. And like Wyschnegradsky, he remains an underheard innovator of 20th-century music.
Noah in the recording studio for Lalande.
The mysterious immediacy of microtones is what initially attracted us to writing and playing ultrachromatic music. Over the past few years, we formed our language of microtones through free improvisation. We experimented with dissonance and sinuous melodic lines, finding beauty in the chilling nearness of tones. When we began writing a new album, Lalande, for our band Dollshot, we envisioned songs composed from the poetics of these new pitches, using quarter tones explicitly to illustrate lyrics and lyricism. They give the music more specificity, more color and conflict.
Lalande is about the tension between selves within the self, mirrored by tones between the tones.
In “Swan Gone,” quarter tones, first introduced in a grinding bassline, finally infect a dreamlike vocal line singing madness from beyond the threshold. In “She” (a setting of a text by Geoffrey Chaucer), quarter tones dramatize psychological friction, the ecstasy and the bitter frustration of a young woman praying to the goddess Diana to protect her from the yoke of marriage and motherhood. Lalande is about the tension between selves within the self, mirrored by tones between the tones. Though the music of Lalande is worlds apart from Wyschnegradsky’s, its source is the same mystical fascination with the expressive power of microtones from which he drew his inspiration.
The democratization of sound as music, the dissolution of genre, and our engagement with machines for creating and producing new music were once escapes from the confines of tradition.
Now, more than seventy-five years after the initial publication of the Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony, new tones are still all too often treated as belonging to a shadow world, lurking behind a pleasing, preferred reality. Inherited aesthetics still reign, circumscribing the attributes of creative work and imposing criteria for its judgment. The popular acceptance of new tonalities lags behind the revolutions of the last century. The democratization of sound as music, the dissolution of genre, and our engagement with machines for creating and producing new music were once escapes from the confines of tradition. Ultrachromaticism—in which all possible tones are treated as real tones–lies in waiting. How many times do we walk by the door and not open it? The Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony is the key. The moment has arrived to unleash a flood of radical new expression.
Rosie in the recording studio for Lalande.
Over his lifetime, Wyschnegradsky used many different divisions of the octave in his music. The use of quarter tones and equal temperament is one decidedly pragmatic way forward. Quarter tones are easy to play on most instruments and double the resolution of the pitch spectrum, as if we were suddenly seeing an image with much greater clarity. Hidden details that were always there but whose visage and meaning eluded us are brought into relief. Ways of seeing, perhaps, can point towards ways of hearing. The enhanced equal-tempered octave reorients our musical thinking, leading to new perspectives in the treatment of consonance and dissonance, voice leading, and modulation. These potentialities are explored in the Manual. The 24-note equal-tempered octave is not an end, but a beginning. A vista where the ultrachromatic landscape becomes visible, unfolding before us. The Manual does not prescribe, it beckons.
The 24-note equal-tempered octave is not an end, but a beginning.
There is hardly a more abstract investigation of possibility than in writing music. The most unnatural yet naturally expressive realities of sound and form are imagined, then heard. To hear beyond what history and culture dictate is visionary. The expansion of our musical language must draw from within.
Rosie K is a composer and vocalist from Virginia. She co-leads the band Dollshot, whose second album Lalande will be out in 2018. Recent recordings include an EP reimagining Benjamin Britten’s Songs from the Chinese with electric guitarist Marco Cappelli, and a collaboration with sound artists Desmond Knight. She has performed and recorded with Rinde Eckert, Federico Ughi, Quinn Collins, Caroline Park, Jeff Snyder, Christopher Douthitt, Marco Kappelli, Kevin McFarland, and Sarah Bernstein, among others. As composer, she writes predominantly for small ensembles and electronics. Read more »
Noah K is a composer and saxophonist from Topanga, CA who blends the dark energy of free jazz with Romantic lyricism in new realms of tonality. His music has been performed by the New Jersey Symphony, Orchestra 2001, JACK quartet, PRISM quartet, So Percussion, and the American Modern Ensemble, among others. He co-leads the indie pop band Dollshot and is currently collaborating with screenwriter Hampton Fancher (Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049) on Salvation, an opera trilogy. As an improviser, Noah has performed and/or recorded with Joe Morris, Anthony Coleman, David Tronzo, Peter Erskine, Alan Pasqua, Rinde Eckert, Mat Maneri and Joe Maneri, among others. The Noah Kaplan Quartet has recorded two albums for HatHut Records, Descendants (2011) and Cluster Swerve (2017).Read more »
A conversation at her home in Brooklyn, New York
February 17, 2016—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Missy Mazzoli first appeared in NewMusicBox ten years ago when she kept a daily blog for us about her experiences as a participant in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. That week-long orchestra boot camp offers emerging composers intensive workshops with musicians and a performance of their music on a subscription series concert entitled Future Classics which is also broadcast live. The piece of Mazzoli’s that was featured was These Worlds In Us, which was also her very first piece for orchestra. In the opening salvo for that NewMusicBox blog series, she expressed concern about how her music, which is “based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability,” would “translate to an orchestra.”
As it turned out, These Worlds In Us was a huge success and has continued to be performed by orchestras across the United States as well as in Europe. (It will be performed this month in Akron, Ohio.) And, over the past decade, she has also written additional orchestra pieces that have been performed by the Detroit Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Albany Symphony. When we spoke with her in her Greenpoint apartment, she had just returned from a Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic which culminated in a performance of her Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres).
“I still feel like I’m asking the same questions,” she said, “and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting and I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons.”
But writing for orchestra forms only a small part of her compositional output. There’s a brand new solo piano piece of hers on Michael Mizrahi’s forthcoming CD (which will be released on March 26) and an older solo piano piece on Lisa Moore’s new disc. A few weeks before heading to Colorado, she was in Brazil for a whole concert devoted to her chamber music. She fronts Victoire, something of a cross between an indie rock band and a chamber ensemble, which is about to record its sophomore album. Plus her latest opera, Breaking the Waves, based on the Lars von Trier film, will be staged by Opera Philadelphia next season.
“I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever,” Mazzoli acknowledged during our talk. “So it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about.” And though she is clearly excited about a very wide range of musical activities, they share a common core. “The thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances.”
The thing that we have been most excited about, however, is that a piece of her choral music, Vesper Sparrow has been chosen to be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea. Mazzoli’s piece will be presented alongside works by composers from Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, on a March 28 program featuring the Ansan City Choir conducted Shin-Hwa Park. Vesper Sparrow originally appeared on Roomful of Teeth’s 2015 disc Render, a recording that received a New Music USA project grant, which led to the composition’s submission in the ISCM’s call for scores for the 2016 WMD.
“When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group,” Mazzoli claimed. “But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.”
Frank J. Oteri: The main impetus for our talk right now is that your choral piece Vesper Sparrow will be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea, at the end of March. But you have a lot of other stuff going on as well. You just came back from a weeklong Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic, which culminated in a performance of your Sinfonia, and only a few weeks before that you were in Brazil performing a concert of your chamber music. I read in The New York Times this week that Opera Philadelphia will be staging your new opera Breaking the Waves next season, and Michael Mizrahi’s latest solo piano CD, which is being released in a couple of weeks, includes a piece of yours.
Missy Mazzoli: Lisa Moore also has a piece of my mine on her new album.
FJO: Really? Another piano piece?
FJO: Wow, so there’s some considerable activity with your solo piano music as well as your choral music, your chamber music, your orchestral music, plus opera. You’re writing many kinds of things and you’re getting pulled in many different directions. Is there any kind of music you would not want to write?
MM: I really can’t think of it. But, you know, so many of my opportunities are not necessarily my choice. I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever, so it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about. But it’s hard to imagine something that would come my way that I wouldn’t be excited about.
FJO: You haven’t written a band piece yet, as far as I know.
MM: No. And I’m not terribly excited about it, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t do it. I think, under the right circumstances, it could be really fun.
FJO: Or a solo organ piece?
MM: Again, you kind of need someone; it’s hard to just write a solo organ piece and just throw it out into the universe. I really would want someone to come to me and say, “I’m going to perform this 20 times, and I’m really excited.” So we’ll see.
FJO: Or a sound installation?
MM: I would love to do a sound installation. I could do one in my living room; it would be awesome, but it would be only for me. So I’m definitely open to that, too. It’s hard, though, writing all these operas lately. I’m working on one for Opera Philadelphia; it’s co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects. And I’m working on another one that will be announced really soon. I’m also dealing with performances of my first opera, Song from the Uproar. Opera can take over your life. So I feel like while all this other stuff is happening, really when I sit down to write, the operas are my focus. That’s been an interesting shift. Usually I’m working on ten different things at the same time, but for the last couple of years, it’s been like this one massive piece.
FJO: The first piece of yours I ever heard was an orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, soon after we first met, which was ten years ago. Then the piece was chosen for the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, which is a really extraordinary program. You wrote a series of blog posts for NewMusicBox about your experiences at the Institute that year. I decided to reread them all last week, and I came across a fascinating couple of sentences from your very first post.
MM: I’m afraid.
FJO: You shouldn’t be; they’re great. They were about your concerns about the experience right before the Institute got under way, and they are extremely heartfelt. The sentences are: “My music is based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability. How does this translate to an orchestra?” Now, ten years later, your music has been performed by lots of orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony and, most recently, in Boulder. So I wonder what you think about those sentences. Vulnerability is discouraged because of how the rehearsal process works. And, at this point, how do you deal with an orchestra’s inherent lack of intimacy?
MM: Well, I still feel like I’m asking the same questions and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting. I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons. You’re dealing with this mass of people—you very rarely get to have individual interactions with the players. You’re flown somewhere and you have two or three rehearsals and then it’s the performances. It’s not set up to have one-on-one pow-wows with your performers, which is what I’m used to.
So this experience I just had last weekend in Boulder was really interesting. They premiered the new version of this piece that I originally wrote for the LA Philharmonic called Sinfonia for Orbiting Spheres. I put harmonicas in the orchestra and also melodicas, the piano that you blow into—I have some around here—and there’s a lot of strange percussion. I really wanted it to feel like this intimate, enveloping experience. The harmonica sounds so vulnerable and so human because these players are not professional harmonica players. They’re professional horn players and clarinetists and they’re just using the length of their breath to play these really simple, almost toy-like instruments. It was so great, but it was a risk for me. I didn’t know how that was going to work in an orchestral context. And I was so happy because I think that it made the experience more intimate for everybody.
FJO: Fascinating. Some orchestras might not be willing to do it. Some players feel very firmly that they should only be required to play the instrument that they’ve spent their lives studying and perfecting making the best possible sound with.
MM: Right, and I respect that. That’s valid. My goal is not to make people look bad. I was really grateful that the Boulder Phil musicians were open to the idea. They might not have liked it—I’m not sure—but they were really great and they wanted to make the piece work. So much thought went into me even writing for harmonica in an orchestra setting. It was not just a whim; it was very considered. There’s this very serious emotional intent that I have. So my strategy with working with the orchestra was to try to get them to understand what I was going for. It’s sort of a music of the spheres feeling, and it was this idea of enveloping the audience in this ether, while all these loops of little melodic fragments were swirling around them. Harmonicas are really like the ether in which everything exists. So once they understood that, I think that they were at least willing to give it a shot.
FJO: An important component of the performance in Boulder was that you were in residence there for a week, so instead of just showing up for a couple of rehearsals and the concert, you had a greater opportunity to connect with the players, so that must have helped that process. I was curious how that experience was different from other experiences you’ve had with orchestras over the years.
MM: In Boulder I did a lot to connect to the audience, but unfortunately I didn’t have so much time to connect with the players, even in a residency situation. I think it’s hard to create that time and space, but I think it’s something worth working towards for all orchestras—to try to create a deeper connection between the composers and the performers. I’ve talked to a lot of my composer friends about this very thing. But it did make a big difference for me, just being in Boulder for a week. I taught for a day at Colorado University. And I performed a concert of my own works at this art space called The Dairy in downtown Boulder. I met with their board. I went to luncheons. I did a stargazing hike where they played my music as people were looking at the stars, because the piece is about the planets in orbit. That was amazing, and it allowed me to have conversations with people about a bunch of different things, and allowed them to have a bunch of different ways to access my music and the work.
FJO: To talk a little bit more about your first orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, one of the things that struck me about it at the time and every time I’ve listened to it or have thought about it since then, is how ravishingly beautiful it is. Certainly not everything you’ve written is so decidedly and so intentionally pretty, but beauty has definitely been part of your compositional arsenal. It seems to be a conscious aesthetic decision for you, so I thought it would be interesting to talk about that as well as what your view of beauty is.
MM: What does it mean to be beautiful? How much time do we have? I think that what you’re saying is that there’s a lyricism, or that there are elements of that piece and pieces that I’ve written in the last ten years that are sort of conventionally beautiful in a way that most people would say, “Oh, that’s pretty” or “That’s a melody I can hum.” I think that a lot of noise music is beautiful and that it’s pleasing, but I know what you’re saying. There’s a lyricism, and there are these melodies that float around the listener in a way that I think could be described as beautiful. That’s something that has been a part of my language from the very beginning. My goal is to try to draw the listener in with something that is familiar, even just a tiny bit, whether it’s a little repeated melodic fragment or the sound of the harmonica, which is a sound that everybody knows. Most people have picked up a harmonica and have blown into it. We know that sound. So I try to draw people in with something that they can latch onto, but then twist it and present it in a different way, present the melody with a strange chord underneath. Or have the harmonicas be this insistent repeating drone that becomes unsettling. The piece I just wrote for the Boulder Phil becomes very dark at the end. All of a sudden, the harmonica feels like this lone person lost in space instead of this warm familiar sound. So I don’t know. These Worlds In Us was the first orchestra piece that I’d ever written, and it was really daunting. I remember really losing my mind trying to write that piece. And I remember having this thought: I can write a melody. When all else fails, I know I can do that. So I’m just going to do that and not worry about what comes next. And that’s where the theme for the piece came from.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you want to give the audience something to latch onto, because another constant through line in your music is that there’s always a narrative arc behind it, whether it’s inspired by literature or by personal experience. In the case of These Worlds In Us, it was both: a wonderful poem, which is where the title came from, but also you thinking about your father and his experience being a Vietnam War vet. But these kinds of backstories are hard to decipher in a piece of abstract instrumental music with no vocal line; they hinge on people reading the program notes. How important is it for you that people know those stories?
MM: Sometimes it’s important that they know, sometimes it’s not. Certainly it is with the dramatic work that I’m doing, even in an abstract opera like Song from the Uproar, which does not have a conventional narrative. It’s more like a fever dream. But it’s important to me that people generally understand what’s going on, even in the simplest terms. Other times those stories are just for me. That’s just the way that I conceive of music. I conceive it as a human struggle. I conceive these melodies and rhythms as being characters that are sometimes working together and sometimes in opposition to each other.
In my piece for eighth blackbird [Still Life with Avalanche], the percussionist devours all the other instruments and absorbs all the material. It’s a weird, abstract play that’s being enacted by these performers. Whether or not you know that that’s what I was thinking of in that particular piece doesn’t matter because it just leads to a musical result. The same thing is true with These Worlds In Us and Tooth and Nail¸ the piece that I wrote for violist Nadia Sirota, which is about jaw harp music in Uzbekistan. I don’t really care if people understand all the things going on in this piece because, at the end, it’s just leading me to create a musical structure.
My two composer obsessions this month are Anna Thorvaldsdottir and John Luther Adams. They’re both really inspired by nature. A couple of months ago, I was driving around Death Valley thinking: I wonder if there’s something in there for me. I should get inspired by nature. But the thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances. What do they do? How do they get out of it? How do they relate to each other? That stuff to me is so fascinating and juicy, even as a way to think of non-narrative instrumental music.
FJO: One of my favorite pieces of yours is Magic With Everyday Objects, which you describe in your program notes for it as music having a nervous breakdown. But part of the reason I love it so much is I don’t think you even need that program note. That message gets immediately across in the music. Obviously some narratives are harder to convey than others, some details are just too subtle. I wouldn’t have known the backstory of These Worlds In Us just from hearing the music.
MM: But that doesn’t matter to me.
FJO: There’s another backstory with These Worlds In Us which is a purely musical one. You used the same melodic material in another piece of yours, a piece you wrote for Newspeak called In Spite of All This. And yet, though this material sounds so pretty in These Worlds In Us, it’s decidedly not pretty anymore in the other piece. It’s something else entirely.
MM: I think that’s totally a function of the orchestration. I actually wrote the piece for Newspeak first and then orchestrated it out and changed it to fit into an orchestral context. I think when you move into an orchestral context, I don’t want to say it’s inevitably prettier because a lot of composers don’t think that way, but there’s a certain lushness and a lyricism that happens when you have a full string section, versus just a solo violin. So I think maybe that’s what you’re experiencing. And also, because I had more instruments in the orchestra, I was able to flesh out a lot of the harmonies, and so I think it comes across as this richer, more immersive experience.
FJO: Even though they share the same material, that material is presented so differently to the point that I don’t think they’re the same piece at all. They’re very different pieces.
MM: They share a theme and a structure, but that’s about it. I do this all the time. I steal from myself all the time. I think a lot of composers do, and I think it’s a fallacy that we’re supposed to reinvent ourselves completely with every piece. My boyfriend is a painter and he’s been working on the same series of work for the last year and a half; it’s so fascinating and satisfying to watch that happen. I think of music in the same way. I’ll often use the same material to generate a few different works before it’s completely out of my system.
FJO: You wrote the Newspeak piece back in 2005; I don’t know anything you wrote before that.
MM: Before 2005, when I was 24! Well, it’s funny. The piece that Lisa Moore recorded for an album that just came out two days ago is the earliest piece of mine that is published and available for people. It’s a piece for piano and electronics called Orizzonte. I wrote it when I was 24 for a band that I was in when I lived in Amsterdam; eleven years later, it’s finally been recorded by someone else.
FJO: I have a demo recording of you playing it that you gave me the first time we had lunch together ten years ago.
MM: Oh really? Oh my God… Wow. Well, it went through a bunch of different versions. It started off as an improv experiment and then solidified into something I could play on a concert program.
FJO: I didn’t realize back then that you had been in a band in Amsterdam. So even that early on, you were involved in several different approaches to making music. People still package things into “classical music” or “indie rock,” and you’ve certainly done work that could fit in either category, and many things that have aspects of both over the past ten years, but it seems like you’ve been doing that from what you consider the very beginning of your musical output.
MM: I don’t think about it that way at all. This band in Amsterdam was a great example. Was that a band or was it an ensemble? I don’t know. I got a residency in a squat, and was like: Let’s start a band; we’ll work all week in this squat and then we’ll give a concert at the end. Great. So it’s just people together making music. It was a welcome change for me from just working alone in my room and then delivering pieces to people. So it just sounded like fun. That’s where that came from.
FJO: In some ways Victoire is a band, but it’s also an ensemble. It’s a little bit of both.
MM: I don’t lean towards one or the other. My goal in creating the ensemble was to take the best of what was going on with bands. I wanted to make records. I wanted to tour. I wanted to create a show that was a consistent instrumentation for which I was creating new music, because people were asking me to put on concerts. Our first show was at The Stone, John Zorn’s venue on the Lower East Side. I didn’t want to just bring in a string quartet and then a solo clarinet; it just didn’t make sense programmatically. I wanted to have a consistent ensemble and I wanted to tour the world. I wanted to perform all over the place. That was from the indie rock world. But then I wanted a really virtuosic level of performer. I needed people who were classically trained. I wanted us to be performing music that was written down and that I wrote. So that was coming from the ensemble side of things. So it’s equal parts both.
FJO: Of course there were several models from the previous generation of composers forming their own groups to exclusively perform their own music, like The Philip Glass Ensemble or Steve Reich and Musicians. But you didn’t call it The Missy Mazzoli Ensemble.
MM: Because that seemed pretentious at the time. I don’t think it was pretentious of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but I think that in the current climate, it just felt wrong. I don’t know. We were taking so much from the band world that I wanted to give it a name that wasn’t my own name.
FJO: But do you think of that music differently than you think of the other music you write?
MM: No, I don’t. Often a piece will start as a commission for someone else, and then I will arrange it to be performed by my ensemble. I took Magic With Everyday Objects, which I originally wrote for NOW Ensemble, and arranged that for Victoire. Then I re-arranged it and it became The Door into the Dark, which was the opening track on our first album. I did that with bits of my opera, Song from the Uproar, too. The opera ends with an ecstatic coda, and I really wanted to play that myself. So I arranged it for Victoire. The music is exactly the same. But even if it’s not the exact same notes, it’s the same level of complexity as all my other music. The biggest difference is really just in the way that it’s rehearsed, because I can try things out with the group, experiment with different synthesizer timbres. I’m obviously not really able to do that when writing for someone else.
FJO: Curiously, the biggest project that has involved Victoire is Vespers for a New Dark Age. The first Victoire album, Cathedral City, was credited to Victoire. Only someone reading the fine print could see that all the compositions were by Missy Mazzoli. But Vespers was clearly identified as a Missy Mazzoli album. So even if you don’t think of there being distinctions, distinctions are being drawn somehow.
MM: Sure. Inevitably. But the Vespers album also included three tracks that are electronic pieces I created myself, with the help of the producer Lorna Dune; it didn’t involve the band. And then there were all these other people involved, like the percussionist Glenn Kotche. Lorna also created a remix of this other piece, A Thousand Tongues. Jody Redhage performed the original version of A Thousand Tongues, and we sampled her voice. So there were a lot of people involved. For me, a Victoire album is the five of us getting in a room and making music together. This felt like so much more, and the unifying thread was me as a composer. So I think it felt right to release that album under my name. It felt more in the lineage of Song from the Uproar, which is the album of my opera that was released two years before.
FJO: It was fascinating to hear you say that there was music you wrote for someone else that you wanted to perform yourself, and so you reworked it and made it into something else. This ties back to an earlier thread in this discussion about communication being the core of your music. Certainly performing is a form of communicating, so being directly involved in a performance is an important way to engage with an audience.
MM: Well, yeah. I love to perform. I was a performer before I was a composer. It’s part of my musical DNA. Initially I was just performing to scratch that itch, just to be able to be in front of people because it’s fun and exhilarating and nerve-wracking in all these great ways. And when I’ve performed, I realized that my connection to the audience was much deeper as a composer when I was in front of them as a performer. You tell people you’re a composer and they have no idea what you’re talking about; they don’t have a sense of what you do every day or what your place is in the world. I found that people were a lot more open and understanding when I was up there as a performer saying, “I wrote this, I’m going to play it for you.”
FJO: So you were a performer before you were a composer?
MM: Well, it all happened when I was super young. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven, so in that sense, I was a performer before I was a composer. I was a kid. But really quickly I started writing music and realized that this is what I need to be doing with my life. I started writing when I was about ten, and there was no question that I was going to go to school for composition. This was going to be my life.
FJO: So you definitely came out of a lineage of classical music.
MM: Oh, yeah.
FJO: So the whole indie rock thing came later. How did that come into your life?
MM: Well, it came into my life from being a kid in a small town in Pennsylvania, which means that I spent a lot of time driving around listening to the radio because there was nothing else to do and music was just a big part of my life. My parents are not musical, but I was moved by all kinds of music in a way that I wasn’t moved by anything else. And classical music in particular—because I was able to play it myself and have that connection—had a huge impact on the way that I process the data of the world. It gave me an identity and it gave me a focus as a kid. So I think I just obsessively latched onto it in this really extreme way.
FJO: I couldn’t help snooping around the apartment when we were setting up, and I noticed that you have a bust of Beethoven on a bureau as well as another Beethoven portrait hanging on the wall. I was a little surprised by that.
MM: Really? He’s the best. I fell in love with Beethoven as a kid. You know, you’re not really exposed to John Luther Adams or Philip Glass when you’re seven and taking piano lessons. I loved playing Beethoven, and I loved learning about his life and realizing that he struggled, that he was constantly trying new things and then discarding things. When I was in school in Boston, I would go to the Harvard rare manuscript library and just dig through Beethoven sketches, most of which have these big Xs on them. It was always very reassuring to see that he was not always happy with what he wrote the first time around.
FJO: Unfortunately nowadays so many composers do everything on computers, so no one can see sketches with Xs on them.
MM: Well, I have a lot actually. I still work a lot by hand and there’s definitely some obsessive scribbling there.
FJO: So, are you going to save those things for posterity, or are you going to be like Brahms and destroy all your sketches?
MM: I save them, but I wouldn’t say I’m saving them for posterity. Who knows? That’s for future generations to decide if I’m still interesting. But I do save them for myself.
FJO: Do you ever find yourself going back to those things that you crossed out and using them?
MM: Not really using them as much as just taking stock of the passage of time. I have filing cabinets full of old manuscripts and notebooks and journals. I like to look back and see like, oh, that’s where I got the idea to start Victoire, to start this ensemble. Or my initial notes for creating Song from the Uproar or Breaking the Waves, which is a project that’s taken over my life. It’s fun to go back and just see the initial brainstorms for those projects.
FJO: So what was the initial brainstorm for Vespers?
MM: I wanted to create my own version of a Vespers prayer service. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do that without being heavy handed and religious, because I’m not a religious person. But I love the musical form of that prayer service, the idea that it’s a series of invocations broken up by singing. The tradition varies depending on what precise religion you belong to, but it seemed like this great, flexible, inherently musical form. So, the invocation in Vespers is not “Help me, oh Lord”; it’s “Come on all you ghosts.” The lyrics were written by the poet Matthew Zapruder, so it’s all by replacing the sacred text with secular poetry; I was able to hint at the themes of the prayer service without being overtly religious.
FJO: But by subtitling it “for a New Dark Age” it has a kind of ominous undercurrent to it. “Dark Age” is a negative term, even though some wonderful things happened during the original so-called Dark Ages, the Medieval period.
MM: Were there? Was there anything good?
FJO: There was some great music.
MM: Okay. If you’re in the top one percent. Well, that line “New Dark Age” comes from a line in one of Matthew’s poems called “Korea,” where he says, “I know I belong in this new Dark Age.” So, that is a little more uplifting than the phrase “new dark age” alone and that summed up my feelings about being alive. I know that we are kind of in a dark age to some extent. Things are messed up. But I also know that I belong here. You know, this is my time, and I embrace that. So when I read that line, I was like: this really resonates with me. That was the impetus to use his poetry for the entire piece.
FJO: So this poetry existed before you set it.
MM: Yes. And Matthew Zapruder was amazing. He’s also a musician, so I think he understood that I wanted to be really free with which texts I used. He let me draw fragments of texts from a bunch of different books and remix them into lyrics that made sense for the project, each individual set of lyrics. Sometimes they come from a couple of different poems, or a couple different books. But all of it existed before, except I got him to write one new piece; the second track, “Hello Lord,” was a new poem written just for the project.
FJO: That’s interesting. You just described it as the second track rather than the second movement.
MM: Well, I get confused myself with that because this piece is a little complicated. There are five acoustic movements, but then there are these three electronic remixes stuck in there. It’s confusing.
FJO: But the reason I brought it up is I wonder if you think of the recording rather than a live performance of it to be the definitive way to experience the piece. It was initially written for live performance.
MM: It was, but it was also written for recording. I knew I wanted to make this into an album even before I started writing. You spend so much time with an album when you’re editing it and referring to everything as a track. I think that was emblazoned in my memory.
FJO: And clearly, in our time, many more people will have heard the recording than would have been at the original live performance at Zankel Hall.
FJO: But what’s strange about that—maybe this is part of us being in a new dark age—is that even though music gets primarily transmitted through recordings, recordings are no longer a viable economic stream for most people now that so many people are just listening to music online. This hasn’t really sorted itself out, but you clearly still make albums. In fact, one of the reasons you said that you formed Victoire was that you wanted to make albums. So making albums is still important to you.
MM: Sure, it’s important to me. I also like the idea of releasing singles on the internet. Or creating music that’s just for video and releasing that on YouTube. I’m not really precious about the album. I do think though that—as a composer and as someone who grew up listening to records—the natural length of a CD is really satisfying to me. I like the idea of making grand statements, coming out with 40 to 60 minutes of music and saying, “This is my latest statement,” rather than saying, “This is something I made this morning, and here’s three minutes of it.” So I think that there is value and weight to this idea of the album and that that length still has significance. My friend Judd Greenstein, who runs New Amsterdam Records, used to say when he was starting the record label that albums are the new symphonies. And that really made sense to me. There are pieces that can be accepted as a whole or can be broken up into movements, and there’s still a logic to that. So that’s how I think of it now.
The video by Mark DeChiazza of “Wayward Free Radical Dreams” from Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for a New Dark Age is making its debut on NewMusicBox
FJO: Now, what’s interesting is that in your discography to date, you have pieces on different people’s albums, but the albums that are your albums—the Victoire album, Uproar, and Vespers—are all unified as albums. They’re not like most single composer new music recordings which are usually just a collection of pieces for various ensembles. I guess that’s coming from the same impetus as wanting to form an ensemble with consistent instrument to perform concerts of your music. You didn’t want to have all these scene changes on stage that are really awkward. Of course, in an album those kind of scene changes aren’t awkward, because it’s pre-recorded. But it can still be an awkward listening experience.
MM: Yeah. I don’t know. It just seems a little bit awkward. I’m not against the idea of composers releasing these sort of compilation albums of their pieces, but it just has a different feeling from someone like Philip Glass releasing Glassworks with the Glass Ensemble or Meredith Monk and her Vocal Ensemble releasing something like Dolmen Music, which has a bunch of different pieces on it, but it still makes sense because it’s a consistent instrumentation. That to me felt smoother, so it was what I wanted to do.
FJO: Since we’re talking about making grand statements, this seems like a good place to talk a bit about your operas. Once again, these pieces come out of your love of literature and, in the case of the most recent one which we’ll get to a little later, film. I tried tracking down an opera you did based on a story by Boccaccio, but I wasn’t able to find very much information about it.
MM: I knew you were going to say that! It was sort of an exercise, a workshop kind of thing I did in my first year as composer-in-residence with Opera Philadelphia. It was a collaboration with Mark Campbell, who’s a great librettist. He’s very collaborative and I really loved working with him, but we had some trouble coming up with an idea that worked for both of us. He had come to me with one story, and I sort of tentatively said yes, but I think he could tell that I wasn’t that excited. So then he came back to me and was like, “I think that with you we just need to go dark,” I took it as a major compliment. I was like, “Yes. Do you have any stories about sex or death?” Because I feel like all my interesting work is about sex and death. And he said he always wanted to do something with Boccaccio’s Decameron, to take one of those little stories and work with it. And I ate it up. It’s this story about this woman whose lover is murdered by her brother. She plants his head in a pot and then this basil plant grows up and she sings to it. It’s called the flowering basil. It’s hilarious and dark. There’s love and death and sex and intrigue, all in this little seven-minute mini-opera. I think it is being done in Cincinnati somewhere; I’ll get that recorded and let you know.
FJO: Boccaccio, though maybe not as widely read as he used to be, is part of the literary canon. On the other hand, Isabelle Eberhardt is not somebody everybody knows about—yet. But she’s a really fascinating figure, such an amazingly headstrong, independently minded person, a real role model from an era where women weren’t, by and large, allowed to be what she was. At the same time, she’s a really tragic figure; she died at the age of 27. How did you come to know about her, and what made you decide to make an opera about her?
MM: I was 23 when I picked up a copy of her journals in a bookstore in Boston, really just completely at random. A new edition had just been published in English, and I was immediately struck by what I read when I opened it up. It just has this tone and this openness that is really strange for travel diaries of that era. You read Pierre Loti or André Gide and they’re writing about going into the desert with 45 servants and having high tea; she had nothing. She was very poor and extremely adventurous and brave, and had these really raw experiences, sometimes amazing experiences. She was one of the first women to witness this particular religious ceremony that happens in the desert where people shoot guns into the sand in this very colorful ceremony. She also experienced extreme poverty and extreme loss. She seemed to live this very extreme life. I was really struck by how she wrote about her sadness in particular. She had 25 different words for being sad.
I knew immediately that I wanted to do something with her life, that there was something in there that was resonating with me. I started actually by just writing songs about her. I would take fragments of her journal and create texts based on the fragments and just write songs. Then it became apparent that it needed to be an evening-length theatrical work. At that point, I brought on the librettist Royce Vavrek to sort of craft the true libretto. But it’s called Song from the Uproar, because it’s her song; this song emerging from the chaos of her life, that’s the song coming out of the uproar.
FJO: There are some interesting parallels between Isabelle Eberhardt and Stephen Crane, whose poem you set in your short piece for Jody Redhage, A Thousand Tongues, which you mentioned earlier. They probably never met each other, since they were based in different parts of the world, but both were tireless adventurers who scoffed at conventions and both died before they were 30, around the turn of the 20th century. It was a very different world than the world we live in now in many ways. Yet in both cases, the music you chose to convey their words is a very contemporary sound world. You didn’t feel the pull to go back into their sound world.
MM: No, because what’s interesting to me was what was going on in their minds, which I think is something that transcends time and place. So I was interested in the things, about Isabelle’s story in particular, that made her story universal, the things that I identified with as a woman living in the 21st century. There’s this constant loneliness, this feeling of being very much in love with her husband but really wanting this independent life. And there’s a conflict between Eastern culture and Western culture, in her own mind; this stuff was really juicy and interesting and is not just about her being in Algeria in 1904. So I wanted a piece that was unmoored from time and place. That’s why I felt free to use electric guitar, electronics, and samples, and that’s why for the production that we did, initially at The Kitchen and later at LA Opera, there’s film with images of things that happened long after her death—people answering telephones and riding in cars. But I think it all makes sense because the story is about this fever dream of a life that she had.
FJO: And in the case of the Stephen Crane?
MM: Well, that was a much shorter text, but I also tried to get at the universal qualities of that poem. He says, “I have a thousand tongues, and nine and ninety-nine lie, though I try to use the one, it will make no melody at my will. It is dead in my mouth.” Who hasn’t felt like that sometimes? It’s this idea that you have these many faces, but which one is your true face and what is the truth? So it seemed to tap into something more universal.
FJO: Compared with these other pieces, Breaking the Waves is much more contemporary. It’s based on a Lars von Trier film that’s set in the 1970s. But you initially didn’t want to do this.
MM: Right. So my librettist, who’s also one of my best friends, Royce Vavrek, came to me and said we should make this into an opera: Breaking the Waves, Lars von Trier’s seminal 1996 film. And I was like, “That’s a great film. It’s already this complete object; why would we mess with it?” Also, at the time, there were a lot of operatic adaptations of films being made, and I just felt like I wanted to try something different. So he left me alone and let me think about it. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I watched the film again and I was like, “Wow, I can hear music for these people. But it’s not going to be what people expect; it’s going to be very, very different from the film. I really feel like I can make my own piece based on this incredible story.” Once I felt the freedom to separate myself from the film, that’s when the project became real and became very exciting to me.
FJO: Of course, that’s an even bigger challenge. When you’re reading a story or a poem, even if it’s from another era, it’s still a disembodied text that allows you to hear it in your own mind rather than a specific way. But if you’re basing something on a film, that film already comes with its own sound world: the sounds of the actors’ voices as well as the music of the soundtrack in the film. There are all these things already there that you have to strip away in order for it to become your own thing.
MM: It’s true, but less so in Breaking the Waves, since there’s no composed soundtrack for it. There is music in the film—some ‘70s rock tunes by Elton John, David Bowie, and Deep Purple—but there isn’t a score that’s telling you how to feel. I think that that left space for me to create my own music for it. That’s really significant. But still, you’re right, especially with Lars von Trier, you have all these amazing hand held shots, and these close-ups of people’s faces. That is such a part of our experience of that story, just being in the room with these people, in their face, as Emily Watson is crumbling, or in her wedding dress waiting for her fiancé to come on a helicopter. It’s really emotional. How do I keep that in the opera, when it’s a singer who’s a hundred feet away from you in a theater where your eyes can look anywhere? You don’t have to look at her face. And there’s no way that I can make you look at her face, except to have her sing something really awesome. So it’s an interesting challenge that I solved in a couple different ways throughout the opera, since that intimacy is something I wanted to maintain from the film.
FJO: There’s that word “intimacy” again, going back to that comment you made on the blog ten years ago.
MM: Right. I haven’t really changed much. I’m still trying to do the same things all the time.
FJO: Now the initial impetus for this conversation was Vesper Sparrow, the piece being done in Korea. Once again the source of it is literary inspiration, although this time from somebody who’s an exact contemporary of yours.
MM: Well, the thing to know about working with the group Roomful of Teeth, who commissioned and premiered it, is that they have this residency every year at MASS MoCA, the museum in Massachusetts, and they invite composers to come stay with them for two weeks to learn about the group and to learn whatever vocal techniques they’re learning. At the time, they were learning Tuvan throat singing and Sardinian su cantu a tenòre singing. So I would try to learn it with them or try to sing along with them, and I just hung out with them for two weeks. During those two weeks, you’re supposed to write a piece or two for them, and then they perform it at the end. It’s like Project Runway without the snarky competition, where you have to create something very fast and then present it. So I did that and the week before I was going to go, I was thinking, “Wait a second, are they going to sing words? If they’re going to sing words, what are they going to sing?” Thankfully my best friend is a poet, Farnoosh Fathi, so I called her and I said, “Send me the manuscript to your book,” which was coming out that fall—it’s called Great Guns—and she did. I just printed it out and on the train ride up there, I sat and read through all these poems. She was also very open to me taking bits of poems, and cutting out what didn’t necessarily work for voices or was too long. She has this great poem that at the time was called “Vesper Sparrow,” which was later changed to “Home State,” and that’s where the text comes from that happens like three-quarters of the way through the piece.
FJO: But there are also all these other syllables that are not really comprehensible as language. That’s not part of her poem? She didn’t write those syllables?
FJO: Now I’m totally confused.
MM: Yeah, rightfully so. So, in one of the versions of the poem, again I don’t know because she was writing while I was writing the piece and a lot of it changed for the final book, but one of her poems began with the call of the vesper sparrow, which translates something like “hey, hey, now, now, all together down the hill,” or something. We put words to it to remember the call. And so the Roomful of Teeth piece is sort of an explosion of that. It’s like these bird songs initially. And then, halfway though, they just start singing words that come out of nowhere. So it’s this mish mash. Farnoush’s poetry is very lyrical and is free association. There are all these beautiful images that you don’t expect that come in out of nowhere. And that’s what inspired the piece. This text comes in out of nowhere. You don’t expect it. And the connections between the phrases are tenuous, and you’re supposed to come up with that in your own mind.
FJO: Before you told me this story, I had no idea that this came about because Roomful of Teeth was learning traditional Sardinian singing techniques. Yet still, when I first heard it, I immediately associated it with Sardinian traditional music because I have field recordings from Sardinia, and what you wrote sounds remarkably authentic at times. And so when I was trying to figure out the connections I thought, well I know that you come from an Italian background, but you were using a poem by a woman with an Iranian background. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together in my head.
MM: Well, now you know the story, which is that I had to come up with something very quickly and called in favors from friends. But I think the result is something that does capture the spirit of not only the Sardinian singing, but also of Roomful of Teeth itself. It’s like this joyful coming together of people from all these different places, of these very particular voices, and somehow the combination of all of them makes total sense. And this combination of bird song and a strange abstract poem by this Iranian-American poet somehow all comes together and makes sense in this little five-minute piece.
FJO: It was written for Roomful of Teeth, and they made a fabulous recording of it, too. But it’s printed in score and so it’s available for other groups to perform. So it can have a life beyond Roomful of Teeth. And now it’s going to be done in South Korea as part of the 2016 ISCM World Music Days. The singers who are performing it there might not necessarily have the same background as Roomful of Teeth. They might not have had the workshop in Sardinian folk music that Roomful of Teeth had that week. How can they do an idiomatic performance without all of that? How necessary are those elements in order for the piece to work?
MM: When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group. But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.
FJO: So to come full circle, we talked about you playing your music yourself with your own group, as well as writing for orchestras where you have very little face time with the musicians. Now here we have an example of a piece that’s out in the world and you may have no face time at all with the musicians. That’s actually a very typical situation with composers whose music is published and gets widely performed. At a certain point, you can’t be everywhere. Your identity has to be conveyed exclusively through those marks on a printed page; that’s how it ultimately lives if it is to become repertoire.
FJO: That’s the opposite of intimacy, but I guess it’s vulnerable, isn’t it?
MM: It is. And if my only outlet was to make these marks on a page and then deliver it to people who I would never meet, I would be really depressed. I created this band, and I perform, and I write for my friends, and I try to be intimately involved with people who are in the process of performing my music to counteract that, to maintain some sense of control and involvement on every level. In a good way, not in a control freak kind of way, but just to be involved in all aspects of the music making. It’s a little bit scary to send this piece off and have people I don’t know yet perform it. But that’s also really exciting, and I will know them in a few weeks!
Austin’s Mother Falcon is comprised of an ever-changing group of performers, mostly string players, who’ve taken their classical training and background and applied it to their own music. Their sound is born of instrumentation largely rooted in the world of classical music mixed with a healthy dose of an indie rock aesthetic. After recording an EP and a full-length album, as well as garnering a number of accolades in Austin, Mother Falcon has begun to branch out into new ventures, including projects involving education and film. I sat down with Nick Gregg and Matt Puckett to talk about the past, present, and future of the group.
Tracks excerpted in this podcast (in the order in which they appear):
Most music nowadays is some kind of cultural hybrid, but rarely is someone as all over the map as Matthew Welch. Welch’s music is the by-product of an unlikely blend—Indonesian gamelan, Scottish bagpipes, and indie rock. While these types of music might initially seem completely unrelated, Welch has found his compositional voice in their common ground.
If you analyze each of these musical traditions, you will find connections. For example, gamelan music and rock rely heavily on repetition and infectious rhythmic cycles. Music traditionally played on pipes or by gamelan is frequently pentatonic. Pipes and rock can both be deafeningly loud. But the arrival at such a synthesis is nevertheless an unusual destination, especially since the sources are so geographically scattered. Yet to hear Welch describe the origins of his one-of-a-kind journey, it almost comes across as an all-American coming of age story. Well, sort of:
When I became aware that I wanted to be a musician and gravitated toward something slightly different, pop was the accessible model. I got really into They Might Be Giants as a kid and that inspired me to pick up the accordion. But it wasn’t as pungent as I thought it would be, and within a year I was on pipes. […] I grew up in a pretty small town in the panhandle of Florida and there happened to be an Irish pub there that sponsored a pipe band; it was basically me and a bunch of old pipers that they would teach for free. Me and my family would go to the mall on Saturday afternoon and they’d drop me off for a piping lesson.
Gamelan entered his life somewhat later, also through serendipity. The large classroom where Welch studied music as an undergrad at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University had a gamelan stored in the corner, which distracted him during his lessons and made him eager to experiment with it. Over time this curiosity became a way for Welch to explore counterpoint, something he was unable to do with bagpipes since they can only play a constant drone underneath whatever melody is played on them. Eventually he went to Bali, bringing his pipes along to jam with local musicians there, and it all clicked for him.
To create opportunities for these disparate musical languages to converse with each other, Welch, like so many musicians before him, formed his own group. But even among the myriad composer-led performance vehicles scattered across our landscape, Welch’s idiosyncratic combination of bagpipes, flute, viola, keyboards, electric guitars, bass, and drums stands out. Equal parts rock band and contemporary music ensemble, it even has an extremely unusual name—Blarvuster. Says Welch:
Ten years ago it seemed that I wanted to have this esoteric name that sounded like a Scandinavian metal band, but Blarvuster is the name of a tune from the most ancient bagpipe music called pibroch. This was the oldest tune that I could find in the printed repertoire and curiously it was very minimalist; it seems like it could have been a Steve Reich piece.
While Blarvuster remains his primary compositional outlet, Welch has also composed over 70 works for all sorts of combinations, including a particularly gorgeous Southeast Asian-inspired string quartet called Siubhal Turnlar (performed by the Flux Quartet on a composer portrait CD called Dream Tigers that was released by John Zorn’s Tzadik label in 2005). His recent opera, Borges and the Other, which was staged last month in Brooklyn at Roulette as part of the series “Experiments in Opera” and which features an expanded version of Blarvuster, remains his largest work to date and provides perhaps the most elaborate showcase for Welch’s unique compositional vocabulary. To create such a score for a story involving Argentina’s celebrated modernist writer, rather than, say, experimenting with tango, seems much more inventive though somehow counterintuitive. Welch, however, claims that he was infatuated with Borges’s writing long before he started blending these different musical genres and that Borges ultimately “inspired this crazy magical combination.”
“Crazy magical” is a good way of putting it. As musical barriers continue to erode and omnivorous polystylism has become commonplace, Welch’s juxtapositions are still a little bit further outside the norm and the audience response to his sonic amalgamation over the past decade remains somewhere between bewilderment and surprise.
I’ve had piping friends come to my shows and they were like, “O.K. That was really strange.” Some of my gamelan friends are not quite into the bagpipes. And the rockers are like, “This is really heady music.”
By seamlessly weaving together musical threads that seem like they shouldn’t fit together but resoundingly do, Welch has forged a highly personal sound world that offers challenges and rewards for open-minded listeners.
Frank J. Oteri
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.
Jun 13, 2012
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