Tag: multimedia

Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations

The only thing that is almost as exciting as watching and listening to a multimedia performance by Pamela Z is to hear her talk about it, which she does for almost an hour in a fascinating conversation that spans a wide range of topics including: creating and performing during the pandemic; her artistic beginnings as a singer-songwriter and how she transitioned into an experimental composer; a difficult encounter with TSA agents; dealing with constant changes in technology; and her obsession with old telephones.

Although Pamela is a composer who is mostly focused on creating new sounds by new means, it was extremely interesting to hear her describe her occasional frustration with the ephemerality of so many of the devices on which we all have become so dependent.

At one point she exclaims, “There are a lot of people in the world who all they care about is changing things. They don’t get attached to something. They really think everything is oh so yesterday, so six months ago. That is not compatible in a way with becoming virtuosic on anything. Building an instrument that you can become virtuosic on without having to pause every few minutes to update it and then change all of the things that no longer work with the update and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I always jokingly say: ‘Wouldn’t it be weird if you were a violinist or a cellist or something and every six months somebody would show up at your house and take your cello away from you and say, Here, this is the new cello, and you need to learn to play this one. And by the way, we’ve made the fretboard a little narrower because you don’t need all that extra space?’”

And yet, those technological changes and sometimes the strange glitches and disconnects that result from them have informed so much of this San Francisco Bay Area-based maverick’s creative work. Attention, a work she created for the Del Sol String Quartet, will forever change your perception of telephones ringing. Baggage Allowance will make you rethink your next airplane trip when it is safe to take one again. She hopes Times3, her sonic installation created for the 2021 Prototype Festival to accompany a walk around Times Square that has now been extended through April 30, 2021, “cues people into the thought of expanding their imagination to past, present, and future of whatever place they’re in.”

Pamela Z’s quest for new solutions which create problems that are also an integral part of the resultant work also informs her brand new Ink, a work which includes some surreal reflections on how musicians interact with notated scores which will be premiered by the San Francisco-based chorus Volti in an online performance on April 24.

Aside from learning more about all of these one-of-a-kind compositions, it’s a delight to hear all of her stories since, as anyone who has experienced her work already knows, she is an extremely engaging storyteller. Our time together over Zoom was a non-stop adventure except for, perhaps appropriately, the occasional internet connection hiccup which we mostly were able to fix in post-production editing.

New Music USA · SoundLives — Pamela Z: Expanding Our Imaginations
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Pamela Z
March 16, 2021—4:00pm EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call between San Francisco CA and New York NY
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce and Jonathan Stone; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

How to Exist: 20 Years of NewMusicBox

An interview takes place in a study-type room, with a man sitting on a couch, another man with his back to us sitting in a chair, and a woman in a blue dress behind the camera filming

Forgive me if I begin this look back at twenty years of NewMusicBox and its times by opening a different, older, but resolutely print magazine. In October 2000, about 18 months after NMBx’s founding, The Wire, the UK-based magazine for new and exploratory music, reached a milestone of its own: issue number 200. It marked the occasion with a directory of 200 “essential websites”: sites for record labels, venues, artists, discussion groups, and more. Nearly two decades later, the idea of trying to write down any sort of meaningful index to the web seems extraordinarily quaint; but at the start of the century, before Google transformed how we think about information, such things were not uncommon. Back then—and I’m just about old enough to remember this—it still felt as though if you put in a few days’ work, you could pretty much get a complete grasp of the web (or at least of that slice of it that met your interests).

Within The Wire’s directory, among a collection of links to 18 “zines,” sits NewMusicBox. Here’s Christoph Cox’s blurb:

Run by the American Music Center, an institution founded in 1942 [sic] “to foster and encourage the composition of contemporary music and to promote its production, publication, distribution and performance in every way possible,” NewMusicBox’s monthly bulletins do this admirably, and, with recent issues exploring topics as various as the relationship between alternative rock and contemporary classical, the funding of new composition, and the world of microtonality, regular visits are worthwhile.

NMBx’s presence on this list isn’t surprising. (Although I hadn’t looked at this issue of The Wire for many years myself, I was confident the site would be in there.) The online magazine of the AMC (and later New Music USA) has always been close to the forefront in online publishing. What is surprising—and just as telling—is that aside from a few websites devoted to individual composers (Chris Villars’ outstanding Morton Feldman resource; Eddie Kohler’s hyperlinked collection of John Cage stories, Indeterminacy; Karlheinz Stockhausen’s homepage-slash-CD store-slash-narrative control center stockhausen.org), almost no other sites in The Wire’s catalogue are devoted to contemporary classical music or modern composition. The sole major exception is IRCAM, whose pioneering, well-funded, and monumental presence (especially through its ever-expanding BRAHMS resource for new music documentation) gives an indication of the level NMBx was working at to have achieved so much so early on.


Although NMBx was at the forefront of online resources in 1999, the idea of an online publication for contemporary American music had been circulating at the AMC for some time. A long time, in fact. In 1984—just two years after the standardization of the TCP/IP protocol on which the internet is built, and when the web was still called ARPANET—the AMC’s long-range planning committee wrote, “The American Music Center will make every effort to become fully computerized and to develop a computer network among organizations concerned with contemporary music nationwide.”[i] This seems like an almost supernatural level of foresight for an organization that was still at that time based around its library of paper scores. That is, until one recalls the number of composers, especially of electronic music, who were themselves at the forefront of computer technology. One of these was Morton Subotnick, a member of the AMC board and one of new music’s earliest of early adopters. Deborah Steinglass, currently New Music USA’s interim CEO, but back then AMC’s Director of American Music Week (and soon to become its Development Director), recalls a meeting in 1989—the same year that Tim Berners-Lee published his proposal for a world wide web—in which Subotnick introduced the potential of computer networks for documenting and sharing information to the board, whose members were astonished and incredulous.[ii]

From its beginnings, NMBx was about making composers heard.

Yet they were moved to take it seriously. Carl Stone, another composer-board member who was involved from an early stage, reports that early models were an ASCII-based Usenet or bulletin board-type system that would allow users to exchange and distribute information nationwide.[iii] This idea evolved quickly, and ambitiously. A strategic plan drawn up in 1992 and submitted in January 1993 states that during 1994, the Center would “create an online magazine with new music essays, articles, editorials, reviews, and discussion areas for professionals and the general public.” Alongside Stone and Subotnick, the early drivers of this interest in technological innovation included fellow board members John Luther Adams, Randall Davidson, Ray Gallon, Eleanor Hovda, Larry Larson, and Pauline Oliveros.

This is not to say that everyone at the AMC was an early adopter; Stone says that one of his main tasks was “to keep driving the idea of an online service forward. While it might seem obvious today, there was significant resistance to an online service in some quarters. Some people felt it would be dehumanizing, expensive. They couldn’t see the coming ubiquity of computers in our daily life.” A key role in maintaining this drive, Steinglass tells me, was played by the AMC’s Executive Director Nancy Clarke. Clarke, a music graduate from Brown University, had worked as a music program specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts before coming to the AMC in 1983. According to Steinglass, Clarke was very interested in technology and was sympathetic to the predictions of Subotnick and others. It was she as much as anyone who pushed for and implemented an online presence for the AMC.

The fruit of these discussions (and several successful funding bids written by Steinglass) was the launch of amc.net in the first half of 1995: the same year as online game-changers such as eBay and Amazon, but months before either. In fact, the AMC’s website (designed by Jeff Harrington) proved to be one of the world’s first for a non-profit service organization, a testament to the vision and ambition of Clarke, Stone, Subotnick, and the rest of the AMC board. By June 12, according to a letter from Clarke to the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust (one of the site’s funders), it was already receiving a respectable 20,000 hits a month.

Yet the goal of a web magazine devoted to contemporary American music—meaning all sorts of non-commercial music, from jazz to experimental, as well as concert music—remained incomplete. In that same June letter, Clarke lists the services amc.net was providing: they include a catalogue of scores held in the AMC’s library; a compendium of creative opportunities (updated daily); listings of jazz managers and record companies; a forthcoming database of composers, scores, performers, and organizations; and that mid-’90s online ubiquity, the guestbook. But no mention of a magazine.

The idea was reinvigorated in 1997. Richard Kessler arrived as the AMC’s new executive director and amplified the need for the AMC—and indeed other music information centers like it—to do more than offer library catalogs and opportunity listings. “We’re supposed to be about advocacy,” is how he describes his thoughts at that time. “And not just [for] composers, but also performers and publishers and the affiliated industry.”[iv] To achieve this, Kessler reasoned, the AMC needed to switch its attention away from its score library and towards ways to give a voice to composers across the spectrum, particularly those working at the margins of the established scene. “There are composers out there who, if they’re not published, people don’t know who they are or what they’re doing,” he says.

Planning documents and funding applications produced shortly after Kessler’s arrival in July 1997 discuss the development of “a twice-monthly web column” that would provide “first person” perspectives on American music by experts and practitioners within the field.[v] At this stage an online magazine does not seem to have been in anyone’s mind, although it was suggested that these columns would be supported by chat forums, links, and other materials. Kessler was clear about what he wanted this publication to do, whatever form it might finally take: it should give “a palpable, well-known voice to the American concert composer, broadly writ. I also wanted it to affirm the existence of those artists. Can you play a part in ensuring that those artists will exist in that [online] space? Not only for people to discover them, but also for the artists themselves to feel like they do exist.”[vi]

By late spring 1998, the “American Music: In the First Person” proposal had evolved into an idea for a multi-part online newsletter. Planning documents from May of that year introduce the idea of a monthly internet-based publication “serving as a communications and media vehicle for new American music.”[vii] These documents are aimed more generally at creating an “information and support center for the 21st century,” but the presence of the magazine is regarded as the “linchpin” in that new program.

After this, things moved quickly. On July 1, a conversation between Kessler and Steve Reich was published on the AMC’s website. This was the first of a series of interviews entitled “Music in the First Person” (and which still continue under the title of “Cover”): it is interesting to note how the “first person” of the title shifted from the author of a critical essay or column, as proposed in May, to the (almost always a composer) subject of an interview. In the same month, Frank J. Oteri was approached—and interviewed—for the job of editor and publisher of the planned magazine, a position he took up in November. NewMusicBox published for the first time the following year, on May 1, 1999, featuring an extended interview with Bang on a Can, an extensive history of composer-led ensembles in America written by Ken Smith, “interactive forums,” news round-ups, and information on recent CD releases.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments. The original “Music in the First Person” interviews that began in 1998 were published with audio excerpts as well as text—a heavy load for dial-up era online access. A year later, the April 1, 2000, interview with Meredith Monk introduced video for the first time. And on November 22, 2000, NMBx released its first concert webcast(!). This was a recording, made by then-Associate Editor Jenny Undercofler a week before, but the first live webcast came only a little later, on January 26, 2001—almost eight years before the Berlin Philharmonic’s pioneering Digital Concert Hall. The innovations continued: with its regularly updated content, comments boxes, and obsessive (and often self-referential) hyperlinking, NMBx was a blog almost before such things existed, and certainly long before anyone else was blogging about contemporary concert music. Composer and journalist Kyle Gann and I started our respective blogs in August 2003, although it was a little while before I wrote my first post about new music; Robert Gable beat us both by a month with his aworks blog. In fact, Gable introduced our particular blogospheric niche to the wider world in a post he wrote for NMBx in October, 2004; within weeks, Alex Ross had joined the fun, and the rest is …

Many early innovations were brought to the table by Kessler, who saw potential in webcasts, discussion groups, and more, but this is not to say that the early plans for NMBx didn’t also feature some cute throwbacks. Among them, plans for link exchanges (links to your work having a great deal of currency back then), and elaborate content-sharing schemes with external providers before YouTube, Spotify, and Soundcloud embedding made such things meaningless.

From its beginnings, NMBx (and the wider organization of AMC) was about making composers heard. In the late 1990s what this meant and how it might be achieved was still seen through a relatively traditional lens. One funding application mentions that in spite of recent advances in technology and society, “many of the challenges that faced the field decades ago remain more or less unchanged.” It goes on to list them:

  • the need for composers to identify and secure steady employment
  • the need to educate audiences and counter narrow or negative perceptions of new music
  • the need to instill institutional confidence about the importance of new music—whether from orchestras, opera companies, publishers, media, or record companies
  • the need to encourage repeat performances of new music
  • the need to secure media coverage of new music[viii]
At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version.

At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication and information sharing. In the same year as NMBx was launched, I joined the New Grove Dictionary of Music as a junior editor and ended up part of the team that oversaw Grove’s transition from 30-volume book to what was then one of the world’s largest online reference works. For several years after 1999, we were focused on making a website that was as much like the book as possible. (This was harder than you would imagine: Grove’s exhaustive use of diacriticals, for example, made even a basic search engine a far from simple task.) As far as maximizing the opportunities of the web went, this extended largely to adding sound files (that were directly analogous to the existing, printed music examples) and hyperlinks (analogous to the existing, printed bibliographies), along with editing and adding to the existing content on a quarterly basis.[ix] My experiences at Grove were echoed in NMBx’s office. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version; one planning document (perhaps trying to assuage the fears of the screen-wary) reassures that “anyone who wishes to download a copy of the magazine for printing and reading at a later date will be able to do so free of charge.”[x]

Clip from Billboard, 2001

Just a few years into the new century, however, things began to change in ways that hadn’t been anticipated, even by those at the forefront of technological application. Blogging in particular had revealed two powerful and unexpected abilities of the web: to complicate our understanding of truth and to amplify the functions of style, personality, and connections within the new media economy. In the second half of the decade, these were supercharged by the arrival of social media.

This changed what it meant to be heard. Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers—becoming audible through major performances, broadcasts, and publishing contracts—but about telling personal stories of identity and representation, and about shining a light outside of the mainstream. These changes were anticipated early on at NMBx—the forum discussions from that very first “Bang on a Can” issue centered on the subject of audience engagement—and continue to be reflected in its features.

Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers but about telling personal stories of identity and representation.

Oteri and Molly Sheridan, who replaced Undercofler as associate editor in 2001, have guided NMBx to its 20th birthday—a remarkable continuity of leadership for any publication, online or off! Along the way, they have directed many stages in its evolution—including several site redesigns—and launched many innovations. The major facelift came in 2006, and with it a move from monthly “issues” to a rolling schedule of articles and blog posts that was more in line with the stream-based style of the growing web. By now, NMBx was essential online reading for anyone interested in contemporary American music, and hot on the heels of this redesign came another enduring innovation: the launch of Counterstream Radio in March 2007. Advertised on its press release as “Broadcasting the Music Commercial Radio Tried to Hide from You,” Counterstream caught a mid-noughties trend for online radio stations, but has endured better than some others.

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Yet although Frank (currently composer advocate for New Music USA, in addition to his NMBx work) and Molly (now director of content for the organization more broadly) have always had a strong idea of the best direction for NMBx, the debates in its pages are often sparked by practitioners themselves. (From the beginning, readers were invited to participate in forum discussions around a wide range of field issues or tied directly to individual posts; some of my strongest early memories of NMBx are of the lively conversations that would take place below the line.) To that extent, the site remains focused on what composers want to read; and judging by some of the recurring themes in NMBx’s 20-year archive of articles and blog posts, what composers want to read seems to be: how to get your work heard; how to create (even write for!) an audience; and how to engage with modernity and/or technology.

Even more importantly, there have also been, from the start, debates about representation. Concert music has been slow to confront its problem with race, for example, but it has been part of the conversation at NMBx for years: perhaps appropriately, since as changes in representation have come, one must hope that new music will lead them. Musicologist Douglas Shadle’s recent article on “Florence B. Price in the #Blacklivesmatter Era” is a valuable contribution, but even more pertinent has been the voice NMBx has given to living composers of color—from the early interview with Tania Léon in August 1999 through to the most recent of all featuring Hannibal Lokumbe, with many opinion pieces like Anthony Greene’s “What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers” along the way.

NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well.

In areas like these, NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well. As someone involved in the world of new music not as a creator but as a critic, observer, and occasional programmer, features like these are immensely valuable to keeping an eye on my own privilege, and to pushing me to open up the margins of my own understanding. Greene’s observation that “new music has done very little to change the expected optics of classical music, which is why new music’s identity problem is what it is today” is a powerful caution against complacency.

To take another example of those optics, the subject of gender representation and the problems faced by women in the contemporary music world were first addressed pre-NMBx, beginning with Richard Kessler’s February 1999 interview with Libby Larsen. They have remained in the foreground ever since, suggesting that the question remains current, but very much unresolved. A search for “gender” in the NMBx archive brings up almost 200 items, yet this isn’t even everything—it leaves out Rob Deemer’s widely read 2012 list of women composers, for example. (Forty-one items have also been tagged with the word “diversity,” though this list is not a free-text search, and only goes back to 2012.) The debates at NMBx wove in and out of conversations in the wider world. In 2002, guest editor Lara Pellegrinelli—who had recently written for the Village Voice about the lack of women musicians involved in Jazz at Lincoln Center—published a series of posts by women musicians, each headed “How does gender affect your music?” (Jamie Baum’s response: “When asked if gender has had an influence on my compositions, my reaction was of surprise—surprise that I hadn’t been asked that question before, not in 20 years of performing.”) Blogger Lisa Hirsch’s extended article of 2008, “Lend Me a Pick Ax: The Slow Dismantling of the Compositional Gender Divide,” added essential concert and interview data to the debate, highlighting the difference between post-feminist fantasy and harsh reality; and composer Emily Doolittle, with Neil Banas, offered an interactive model to highlight “The Long-term Effects of Gender Discriminatory Programming.” A widely derided column in the conservative British magazine The Spectator of 2015 (“There’s a Good Reason Why There Are No Great Female Composers”) prompted a suitably damning response from blogger Emily E. Hogstad (“Five Takeways from the Conversation on Female Composers”) that deftly drew together several moments across both new and historical music, and in the wake of 2012’s International Women’s Day composer Amy Beth Kirsten enriched the discussion with a call for the death of the “woman composer.” This last article attracted more than 100 comments and extensive debate, but the one that attracted so much interest it briefly crashed NMBx was Ellen McSweeney’s “The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals in New Music Leadership and Innovation,” a nuanced response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and its applicability to the world of new music. Tying questions of both race and gender together was Elizabeth A. Baker’s remarkable intersectional cry, “Ain’t I a Woman Too,” from August last year.

Perhaps most indicative of all was Alex Temple’s 2013 piece, “I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?” Temple’s article (originally published on her own website) is explicitly a follow-up to other NMBx contributions on gender, two of which are mentioned in its opening paragraph. It adds layers of nuance to the debate, both around the question of male/female binarism, as well as the question of whether compositional style can be gendered. No, says Temple to this latter, but:

I have noticed that certain specific attitudes toward music seem to correlate with gender … While I don’t think of my work as specifically female, I do think of it as specifically genderqueer. Just as I often feel like I’m standing outside the world of gendered meanings, aware of them but never seeing them as inevitable natural facts like so many humans seem to do, I also tend to feel like I’m standing outside the world of artistic meanings.

In its combination of raw experience and careful self-reflection, Temple’s article is exemplary but not unique to NMBx; an equally honest and unmissable piece, this time on musico-racial identity, is Eugene Holley, Jr’s “My Bill Evans Problem.” For those of us—including me, I confess—who have found ourselves under-informed about trans issues, Temple’s article provided a welcome introduction: not only to the terms of that discussion, but also for its possible ramifications for artistic creativity and self-expression (articles published since, including Cas Martin’s “An Ode to Pride Month,” have added layers of their own).

The continuing presence of articles like these brings us back to the core purpose of NMBx as the AMC envisioned it back in 1997: to allow composers to feel like they exist. In 2019 that is not only a question of allowing composers to feel like they exist as composers, within the framework of institutional support and recognition, but as people, within the framework of a more humane, more complete understanding of what we are as a society. In recent years, one or two online publications have found ways to discuss difficult social questions within the context of contemporary music; it’s rarer still to see it done with the same level of peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge and experience. NMBx, built in the best days of the web, was there before them all.

In the twenty or so years since we started to pay attention to it, the internet has concatenated every part of our private and public lives. Art, culture, sport, business, and gossip no longer appear separately, like supplements in our weekend newspapers, but together, on the same screen as dinner plans, memes, and conversations with our friends. Since the advent of Twitter, different things have become even more closely braided within the same scroll-stream, units differentiated only by the volume at which they declare themselves from our screens: #ClimateCatastrophe, #FiveJobsIHaveHad, #WorldPenguinDay read three hashtags in close proximity on my TweetDeck right now.

This is not altogether a bad thing. In the 1980s and ’90s, before this whole online thing really took off, musicologists and critics would fret about the disassociation of classical “art” music from life, and of musicology from society. Popular music was better at inserting itself into and complementing people’s lives. Film, literature, and theater were also good at it. Yet music, it was argued, was somehow still regarded in the abstract. It was partly in response to this that the scholarly movement that came to be known as New Musicology was born, having as its aim the study of music within its social context, music as a social creation. Today, music inhabits very much the same space as everything else in our lives (just as music is increasingly made out of the components of those lives). NMBx’s blogs and features, which place the day-to-day stories of actual new music composers at the center of the discussion, are a perfect reflection of this. The internet, with its indifferent reframing of everything as #content, has played no small role in this change in how we see the world. Few people talk of New Musicology now. Not because its premises were wrong, but because they have become standard practice. In this, as in so much else, NewMusicBox has long been ahead of the curve. Here’s to existing, always.

Thanks to Jeff Harrington, Richard Kessler, Debbie Steinglass, and Carl Stone for sharing with me their recollections and documentation of the early days of NMBx and amc.net.

[i] Quoted in American Music Center, 1992: “The Arts Forward Fund: Request for Proposal,” n.p. (“Proposal Summary”).

[ii] Deborah Steinglass, email to the author, April 5, 2019. According to Steinglass, Subotnick “also talked about the future of transportation, and how the US would have highways filled with electric vehicles none of us would actually have to drive.”

[iii] Carl Stone, email to the author, April 10, 2019.

[iv] Richard Kessler, Skype interview with the author, April 5, 2019.

[v] I am grateful to Richard Kessler for sharing these and other documents with me, and for permission to quote from them.

[vi] Kessler, Skype interview.

[vii] American Music Center, 1998: “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century: An Action Plan.”

[viii] American Music Center, 2000: “A Proposal to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Support an Online Information and Communications Infrastructure for New American Music,” page 10.

[ix] I am happy to report that since my time at Grove – or Oxford Music Online as it is now known – these ambitions have expanded greatly.

[x] American Music Center, “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century,” page 5.

Vireo, My Tenacious Muse

Having grown up in a house full of composers, I hit my college years with a heavy dose of curiosity about what else lay out there besides new music. At Yale, I was not required to declare a major right away, and I took many courses in music while also falling slowly and deeply in love with the literature major. It was 1986, the heyday of American poststructuralism, and – unlike the composition faculty – the department’s pantheon of literary theory superstars was strikingly diverse: Harold Bloom (father of the Theory of Originality), Shoshana Felman (French-Israeli feminist deconstructionist), bell hooks a.k.a. Gloria Watkins (proto-postcolonial poet and theorist), and pioneer queer theorist (and nascent opera librettist) Wayne Koestenbaum. It was rigorous and nerdy and glamorous all at once. I was hooked.

Eventually, much to the chagrin of my music professors and some of my family members, I left the music major behind, thinking perhaps that I was turning my back on the “family business.” I embarked on a massive senior thesis in the literature major, with Wayne Koestenbaum as my advisor, entitled “Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Originality, closure and reproduction in the collaborative discourses of psychoanalytic hysteria and Surrealism.” Here is a bit of nostalgia: a paragraph from my dot-matrix prospectus in 1990 that articulates, for the first time, a phenomenon in Western cultural history that ended up haunting me for the next 27 years:


Here are some images used in my essay and in the research for Vireo:


Painting: Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière. Pierre Aristide André Brouillet, 1887
Dr. Jean Martin Charcot, Parisian neurologist, demonstrates the symptoms of hysteria for a roomful of male students. Charcot was Freud’s teacher.


Le Cinquantenaire de l’hysterie
Louis Aragon, André Bréton
1928: The Surrealists celebrated “The 50th Birthday of Hysteria” as “the most important poetic discovery of the 19th century,” with images of Dr. Charcot’s patients

Little did I know that this discovery was the seed of what would later become my most ambitious compositional endeavor: Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser.

Stream Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser on-demand at KCET.org.

I got an A on the essay, I graduated, and I disappointed my literature professors (there is a pattern here perhaps) by not going on to graduate work in comp lit but moving to New York City to couch surf, audition for singing work, and write music. I became the vocalist in the Philip Glass Ensemble and went on the 1992 world tour of Einstein on the Beach. But all the while I also kept reading and reading, about these girls whose fits and starts were the subject of assiduous study by groups of ministers and magistrates in Colonial America, priests in 15th-century Italy, neurologists during the Great War. My essay had focused primarily on psychoanalysis and surrealism, but my fascination with these visionary women continued and the scope of my research expanded. My library grew. Today my bookcase dedicated to this area of inquiry is bursting with wide-ranging works from multiple disciplines and centuries:


In 1993 I was accepted into a two-week program at New Dramatists in NYC called the Composer-Librettist Studio. Four composers and four playwrights created new opera/music theater scenes in a compressed round-robin workshop environment, and brave singers sight-read these scene-lets into being. One of the playwrights was Erik Ehn, whose writing seemed to trigger something in me that made the music write itself. I was in love with his writing, and so I approached him at the end of the session and asked him, with sweaty cold palms, if he would consider working with me on something bigger. I felt like I was asking him to the prom.

We began corresponding, mostly by fax, and I started to send him hefty packages of source materials from my research into young visionary women and the male authority figures who used these girls’ visions and behaviors as proof of their own various theories.


In a rush of dot-matrix pages came the first draft of a libretto for a traditional opera about a young girl named Vireo: “A fourteen year old girl genius. Lives in the 16th century, born in the 19th, does forward roll into the 20th.”


Erik had integrated and assimilated this vastness of source material and created one girl. And on page 29 of this libretto draft, she sang an aria called “The Bat” that seized me immediately:

The Bat.

(Vireo alone in a dark cell, walking circuits. At first she bumps into chair, bed, bucket… but gradually grows accustomed.)


In the morning in my house
Before it’s light
I can walk as if the light
Were shining through our
High windows

If in the dark a chair has moved
I can move around it
I know the room so well
There is no out of place

I am not out of place in a jail cell
I close my eyes and cross to make
A breakfast fire
I remember very well and
Solitary suits me
Decorative as a memory

(To the dark, speaking.)
How well do you remember? Are you going to stop?

Here is the very first sketch of music for Vireo from 1993. This eventually became the aria that opens Episode 9 – Alcatraz:


My own singing voice was still very young then, and when we went into the studio to record the few songs and arias that I created in that first year, I sang the title role myself, with a variety of archaic sampled instruments accompanying me. This was a cutting-edge MIDI demo in 1994!

The Bat 1994 Demo Recording

Erik and I revised. I kept composing. We went into the studio again. We created packets with synopsis, budgets, and cassette tape work samples (with baritone Gregory Purnhagen as The Doctor, a role he would develop further with terrifying precision 20 years later). I applied for every grant I could find. I sent packages to every opera company in the country, with a letter of support from the then-president of the board of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, of which I was an alumna. The SFGC had given me my first performances and my first two commissions, and they took special interest as I began work on this ambitious undertaking.


I followed up my mass-mailings with phone calls, leaving message after message. But I was just 25 years old and had almost no track record of professional performances of my music. A few kind souls offered bland encouragement; most simply ignored us. After a year and a half of dedicated partnership-seeking, it was clear that Vireo was not finding a home. It wasn’t her time.

I told Erik that I couldn’t foresee any project of this size happening before I built a professional life from the ground up. I felt we needed to shelve Vireo for the time being. He and I both undertook other creative endeavors, sometimes in collaboration on smaller-scale projects. Many years passed, during which time I wrote many, many hours of music – solo, chamber, orchestral, chamber opera, and music theater. Commissions and opportunities grew, and slowly the scale of my projects ramped up. I created massive public-space works for up to 800 professional, amateur, and student musicians. My community of collaborator colleagues grew and deepened: Kronos Quartet, American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), Alarm Will Sound, cellist Joshua Roman, violinist Jennifer Koh – these musical friendships sparked with possibility.

In all this time, the two years of sketches I made for Vireo lay largely untouched. Correspondence, research, grant applications, and drafts were boxed up. Life took its twists and turns; the box and I moved from the Bronx to Queens, then from Queens to Manhattan. I never “mined” these musical materials for other works, but I always felt their presence at the back of my mind.

The internet came to be. Collaborations unfolded over email instead of fax. Research exploded online, rendering my weeks buried in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale a kind of nostalgic curiosity. In 2009 I made a simple setting of “The Bat” aria for solo English horn, for a series of 15 short works I wrote, each bearing a six-word title. I titled it “I Know This Room So Well.” Vireo was coming back into my consciousness. The remounting of Einstein on the Beach found director Charles Otte, who had been Robert Wilson’s assistant director in 1992, and me back on the road together again, talking about new opera, film, and new media on the bus. In 2013 I became the artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, bringing my artistic focus back to the voices of exceptional young women.

Meanwhile, I had started exploring new project ideas as artist-in-residence with the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. GCAC’s Chief Curator and ED John Spiak introduced me to a wide range of potential partners to help generate ideas for how I might make work that could catalyze new relationships in Southern California. He introduced me to Juan Devis, chief creative officer of KCET in LA, and Maria Lazarova, then director of the Classical Voice Conservatory of the Orange County School of the Arts, one of the premier public charter arts schools in the nation. A coin dropped in my mind – here was a school full of young women with superb classical voice training. Maybe Vireo was here! And KCET was at the forefront of arts streaming programming. What if we made a TV/internet series that was an opera? What if that opera was Vireo?!

Things moved forward very fast then. Kronos wanted the pilot. KCET signed on as a partner. Charlie Otte brought a visionary concept and design. The box came down from off of my top shelf, and I excavated.


A page from “The Box”: from Draft 1 of the libretto, with notes scribbled during a collaborative meeting between Erik & me in 1994.

It was like seeing the work of a student – a student full of promise but also in way over her head – and yet this student was a younger me. All of the musical ideas felt familiar yet strangely distant. Major structural reworking of the libretto ensued, to embrace the new episodic format. I sifted through the original musical sketches and discovered that I had taken at least a cursory stab at melodic or harmonic material for slightly less than half of the opera. Sometimes I just kept the essence – a harmonic color, a certain phrase, a rhythmic figuration – and other times I started over.


I lifted this one phrase out of early sketches. From it grew the whole “Birth of Caroline” scene in Episode 6, in which you can hear this exact phrase in a whole different setting.

In a few cases, like “The Bat,” I revised only lightly and honored the original. I let the obsessive energy of my earlier self inhabit me, and I felt the power of 20+ years of experience serving to bring the piece to its deserved epic scale. And I let the prodigious gifts of young Rowen Sabala, just 16 years old and a junior at OCSA, breathe new life and inspiration into the role of Vireo.

I would never have dreamed, back in 1990 as a literature major at Yale, or in 1993 when I spent so many months back and forth between the fax machine and the piano, that Vireo would eventually find such complete fulfillment. Now, 350 cast members and musicians, 400+ participants including designers and crew, 12 episodes and over 250,000 viewers later, I feel a certain wonder at the delicate thread that kept the project alive in the back of my mind, in a box at the back of my closet, for so many years. Its protracted latency period gave Vireo the opportunity to feed off of many life lessons, relationships and maturations. Her metamorphosis is complete.

Kronos Quartet with composer Lisa Bielawa

Kronos Quartet with composer Lisa Bielawa
Photo by Remsen Allard

Mary Ellen Childs: Engaging All the Senses

Mary Ellen Childs sitting on a bench on a street filled with plants

While the music of Mary Ellen Childs has a distinctive and recognizable sound, she has long been interested in engaging the other senses as well. Perhaps this is because, when growing up, she was actively involved in dance and theater in addition to playing the flute and piano. In fact, she was choreographing musicals at her high school before she ever composed a note because writing music, at the time, felt “too mysterious and too unattainable” to her. To this day, her experience as a choreographer informs both her own music and the advice she gives when teaching composition.

“I really feel like doing choreography were my first lessons in composition,” she says. “Although the materials are different, the general concepts are the same. When I teach composition, I take that point of view, too. We’re really looking at how to create something that has interest and coherence and surprise.”

Perhaps the area where Childs’s background in dance is most pronounced is in her music for percussion ensemble. She first got interested in composing for percussion as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. “I started to notice how interesting it was to watch percussion players when they played,” she remembers. “They always moved in really interesting ways. … Using movement with percussion is the easiest of all, if you’re going to really exploit movement, because percussionists’ playing technique is already very physical.”

But what Childs ultimately wanted from percussionists went even further than what they usually do. She wanted to them to perform in immersive pieces that are as much about sight and touch as they are about sound. Most of what she wanted couldn’t be effectively communicated through music notation so it needed to be learned through an intensive rehearsal process. So she wound up forming her own ensemble, CRASH, by initially hiring one percussionist and two dancers.

“The reason I wanted dancers was because I knew I was going to have to work in rehearsal and ask the players to remember what they did from one rehearsal to the next,” she explains. “I was worried that if I brought in three musicians that they might say, ‘Where’s my notation? Where’s my score?’ It worked really well because I had one percussionist who really knew how to work with rhythm, and then I had two dancers who really knew how to work with movement and how to work from memory, so I didn’t have to convince anybody of anything.”

CRASH’s idiosyncratic repertoire includes Hands, a piece performed exclusively by the players’ hands, and Click, in which the players navigate a series of movements across three sets of claves—playing their own as well as each other’s instruments. According to Childs, “Part of the rehearsal process is figuring out who’s the active strike and who’s the passive strike—where exactly in the air is that going to be so that you don’t end up either missing, or hitting someone’s knuckle, which is very painful and has happened. You want to minimize that because it’s not pleasant.”

Though Childs acknowledges that it was not very practical, the most unusual piece that CRASH performed involved a series of three exercise bicycles that were turned into musical instruments—the pipe-cercycle (which incorporates organ pipes), the xylo-cycle (in which triggered mallets strike a series of xylophone-like bars right above the handle bars), and the string-cercycle (in which the pedaling motion triggers a variety of strings, including a ukulele and a cello). She is currently reworking another piece originally created for CRASH called Sight of Hand which involves baseball coaching signals turned into percussion. If all goes according to plan, the piece will be performed at a minor league baseball park in August in between innings at a St. Paul Saints game:

The point is having the piece and the live game be part of the same event, then taking all that material and making a piece out of it that exists on video to put my baseball percussion movement into the context of real game plays happening.

Another idea she has been wanting to flesh out for years is a way to merge a musical experience with an olfactory one. Our discussion about the relationship between scent and sound got so involved that we will publish it as an independent post later this month.

However, while engaging other senses has been key to many of Childs’s compositional ideas, listening is still primary. Even though for the premiere of Dream House—her evening-length work for the string quartet ETHEL—incorporated projections on seven different video screens scattered around the space, Childs insisted that the sonic material was foregrounded. “Visual imagery can take over so easily and make music an accompaniment,” she opined to her collaborators. “How are we really going to keep this so that, if anything, the visual material is the accompaniment to what you’re hearing?” Similarly, when composing the music for Wreck, a full-evening dance piece choreographed by Carl Flink for the Black Label Movement, she insisted on creating music that would stand on its own rather than “shrinking violet music.” One of my personal favorite compositions of hers will always be Kilter for two pianos, a work I only know through a recording. Though from its title alone it’s clear that it is inspired by motion, it is sonically ravishing.

A conversation at New Music USA
May 6, 2016—2:30 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: The conversations we have with composers and interpreters for NewMusicBox are inevitably always about sound, because that’s primarily what people think of when they think of music. That’s what’s foregrounded, and certainly that’s pretty much the only aspect of music that people experience when they listen to a recording. But I still remember the first performance I saw of your ensemble CRASH during the Meet The Composer’s THE WORKS marathon in Minneapolis in 2002 and how mesmerized I was—not just by what I was hearing, but by what I was seeing, both of which were the result of the tactile connectivity of the performers. This body of work clearly aims to be about more than just sound.

Mary Ellen Childs: I’ve certainly written a lot of pieces that are concert pieces or that now primarily exist on recordings, and those are certainly first and foremost sound and pretty much only that. But I also think I’m very attuned to all the senses and to what the total experience is for someone, especially if it’s a live performance. If you’re there with the musicians, your ears are engaged, but your eyes are also working. All the senses are working. I don’t do so much anymore, but I produced a series of concerts where I thought about the whole experience for the audience from the time they walked in the door. Really paying attention to that, you make certain choices about what the lighting is like when people walk into the theater, how the musicians enter and exit the space, or what happens between pieces—what’s the pacing of that time so that things don’t sag in between and you lose the audience’s attention?

I think that’s just part of my makeup. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I grew up not only playing the flute and piano, but also dancing and working in the theater. In fact, not a lot of people know this, but I used to work as a choreographer before I was writing music. Then when I started writing music, it felt like there was a natural pull for at least some of my music to be in collaboration with choreographers. So I was still keeping one foot in the dance world, although this time as a composer. It was really from all that experience that I started writing movement into percussion pieces. That’s kind of the short arc of how all that came about. Using movement with percussion is the easiest of all, if you’re going to really exploit movement, because percussionists’ playing technique is already very physical. They’re already ready and willing to do all different kinds of things and play all different kinds of instruments. And, for the most part, percussionists are open to a new playing technique that they might learn for a specific piece. So working with percussionists has all those things built in. To write special sticking patterns or to setup the instruments in a certain way or set them up around the space and put the players on wheels—that’s all something you can do in the percussion world.

FJO: Most people play instruments before they start composing, but I had no idea that you had been a choreographer also. What made you decide that you wanted to write music?

MEC: In my heart of hearts I was always interested and curious about it, but it felt intimidating. It felt like you either just knew how to do it or you didn’t. It was like a channel. I grew up on classical music, and so the composers who were revered were often like Mozart, writing operas when he was a teenager. So it just felt too mysterious and too unattainable. On the other hand, choreography seemed like I could figure that out. I could figure out how to move and, with the somewhat limited dance background that I had, I could make things up. Why not? It felt like something anybody could do. And so I did.

FJO: It’s so funny to hear you say that, because to me choreography is perhaps the most mysterious art of them all. Maybe that’s because I’ve made up songs since I was nine, but I never knew how to move around properly. And the folks who think music notation is complicated probably have never seen Benesh notation or Labanotation, which seem more arcane than hieroglyphics. I don’t understand that stuff at all.

MEC: I don’t either, and most people don’t. That’s certainly not a part of being a choreographer for most people. But I don’t know why it felt so attainable to me. Maybe in part because I saw my older sister do it, so I thought, “Well, I can do that, too. Why not?” I also used to do things to get inspiration. I would go to the public library, which was right down the street from where I went to high school on the shores of Lake Michigan, and I would check out these big picture books of dance. I would look at a still photo and I would imagine how they got to that moment and what happened after that moment. I would just imagine from a still shot what the movement around it might be.

FJO: If you’re a dancer, coming up with your own movements makes sense. It’s analogous to playing the piano or the guitar and then improvising and creating your own music. From there it branches out. That’s certainly what happens for a lot of composers: they’ll play an instrument and eventually write something for themselves to play, and then suddenly they write something for other people. But when you write music, it seems like that can grow into something else. You can take a solo piece and then arrange it for string quartet or even an orchestra. But how do you go from one person moving to, say, people moving? As a spectator, I’m never sure what to watch when I’m watching dancers. If I focus on one person I’m losing the larger totality, but if I’m always looking at everyone I lose the details.

I really feel like doing choreography were my first lessons in composition. And I drew upon it when I started writing music, because although the materials are different, the general concepts are the same. When I teach composition, I take that point of view, too. We’re really looking at how to create something that has interest and coherence and surprise.

MEC: But it’s not that different for music. I really feel like doing choreography were my first lessons in composition. And I drew upon it when I started writing music, because although the materials are different, the general concepts are the same. When I teach composition, I take that point of view, too. We’re really looking at how to create something that has interest and coherence and surprise. I probably should tell you what kind of choreography I was doing. I wasn’t doing modern dance masterpieces that came out of nothing. When I started choreographing, I was choreographing the high school musicals and the swing choir. There was already a framework in which what I was doing had to fit, and I had a lot of information given to me when I was creating dance steps—something had to be communicated or something had to happen, and there was already music selected that this had to go with.

FJO: So I think I understand your transition to composing music and why you continued to be involved with dance as a composer, but I wonder when you realized that music itself could incorporate movement, that writing a piece of music could be more than just the notes.

MEC: Let me think about that. When I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois, I took a class in composing for percussion that was taught by a composer and a percussion instructor, both of them together. That’s when I started writing for percussion. I think somewhere around that time, I started to notice how interesting it was to watch percussion players when they played. Whether it was the timpani player or one of the other percussionists at the back of the orchestra or somebody in a new music ensemble, they always moved in really interesting ways.
But the very first piece that I wrote that had movement written into it is a piece called Still Life, which is for three drummers playing nine drums and gongs. The drums are placed in a palindromic line up, so that the center is a small drum—I think now I use a small tom—and then on either side of that, there’s a bass drum, but they’re placed vertically on stands, absolutely vertically, which is not how you’d ever see a bass drum placed for playing. Then moving outside of that on either side, there are two more toms of varying sizes, and on the end of the setup on either end, there’s a wind gong. So the players stand. Player one is in the center and plays the inside of the two bass drums and the center drum, then the two outside players have mirror image setups where they’re each playing the outside of each bass drum, two toms, and a gong. I was able to do things with sticking patterns that would require the outside players to move in one direction or the other direction, and I asked the inside player to do sticking patterns that might be crossing arms. When I was writing it, I was really thinking about how these sticking patterns are going to force the players to move in a certain way.

FJO: Does the music sound different than it would have if they weren’t moving around that way?

MEC: No. In fact, I had written out the diagram and when I went to the first rehearsal, they had already rehearsed a bit. The players had taken the bass drums and laid them flat. They said, “Oh yeah, we put them flat because it’s easier that way.” And so I had to say, “Well, this is not just about the ease of playing, but it’s about how it looks.” We had to have a little discussion, and we turned the bass drums up and of course it’s very, very, very different.

FJO: Sure, but in terms of the question of it sounding different, they might be able to get it to sound the same way doing something else, but certainly the perception of the person watching it is going to be different, and that’s where the other senses come into play.

MEC: The way a piece sounds and how the listener will absorb it is actually different depending on what they’re seeing, even though the sound doesn’t change. If you were listening to an audio recording, that might change. But if you’re live in the performance space and watching it, you actually absorb it differently based on whether it’s under fluorescent lights or whether it’s in a little intimate pool of light that’s really a bit dim. And it’s different based on how the performer is moving. So I do think that makes a huge difference.

FJO: And you use the word palindromic, which is a word that I love and a structural concept that I frequently gravitate toward, so I’m already fascinated by this. You know, composers have created musical palindromes for many centuries, but most of the time you can’t hear that the pieces are palindromic. That famous Machaut motet, Ma Fin est Mon Commencement—My End is My Beginning—is the exact same music whether you play it forward or backwards, but if you weren’t told that and didn’t examine the score with your eyes—

MEC: —You wouldn’t hear it. Right.

FJO: And I doubt many people can hear Webern’s palindromes. But when you create a situation with these percussionists, and you have a palindromic setup and they’re doing this kind of thing, people see it. And they can infer what they’re hearing from what they’re seeing, so you’re able to create certain kinds of symmetries and formal patterns that you might not be able to do if people were left to their ears alone.

MEC: That’s right, although the piece of music itself is not a palindrome. That’s totally unrelated. But visually, there are these mirror image things. And I think maybe one example in that piece—there’s a place where there’s a two-against-three pattern between the two outside players, and they’re playing with one mallet. So one is doing two, and the other is doing it in three. And I think if you put your attention there, you can see that very clearly.

Later on, after that piece was done as a concert piece, I also created a 16-monitor video wall out of it that took the component parts of the piece and broke them up across 16 screens in a square, so you could really focus in on some of that material highlighted in another way by juxtaposing over the top another set of patterns. That’s when I could take that two-against-three pattern and put those two arms, hands, and mallets next to each other so you can see that as you’re hearing it, which makes a really big difference. It’s a very simple example of how what you’re seeing might affect what you’re hearing. I think it’s usually much more subtle and complicated, but that’s a very simple, straightforward example of how what you see changes how you hear or reinforces what you hear or draws your attention to what you hear.

FJO: There’s also a communal aspect to this that I find really interesting. I’m thinking back to the piece Click which, I think, is the first piece for CRASH.

MEC: Um, well Still Life is a piece that CRASH does and Click actually predates the group as well, but we call it CRASH’s signature piece because that is the piece that’s been done and done and done and done and done.

FJO: There’s also a piece called Crash. Is that how the group got its name?

MEC: Yes, there is a full-evening piece called Crash.

FJO: Before we get into the specifics of how the ensemble got put together, I want to talk with you about the communal performance aspects of Click. It’s interesting that the group that originally performed Still Life initially wanted to move the drums and play the piece more conventionally. That would completely miss the point of Click, which is so much about the players playing each other’s sets of claves. The whole piece seems to be about the sharing of resources.

MEC: I never thought of it as a sharing of resources exactly. I don’t know really where that idea came from, though I remember when I got it. But I also want to say, there is some of that sharing of resources—as you call it—in the marching band world where you might see a drummer reach over and play another drummer’s drum.

FJO: And certainly also in many traditional African groups, like the Chopi Timbila mallet percussion ensemble pieces, where you have many people playing on the same mallet instrument and they’re playing interlocking patterns. If one person was out of step, it would throw the whole thing off.

MEC: I was not the first person in the world to think about how visual and aural things go together. There were hundreds and hundreds of years and cultures that thought that way, and so there are lots of musical traditions, especially percussion with visual things or marrying percussive dance and rhythm.

FJO: Probably the closest thing we have in Western classical music to that is piano four-hand repertoire.

MEC: Oh, yeah. Right.

FJO: But, as far as I know, you’ve never written a four-hand piano piece.

MEC: That could be an interesting thing to exploit visually, too, with crossing hands, or intertwining, something like that. But I don’t have a four-hand piano piece, just the two-piano piece Kilter.

FJO: Which is a really great piece.

MEC: Oh, thank you.

FJO: Kilter is word we tend only to use when we talk about the negation of it, being off kilter.

MEC: Exactly.

FJO: So I imagine that there is sort of a motion and a balance idea within that piece, too.

MEC: Definitely, there’s a motion. I was really trying to get at, well, just what you said. It’s a word that’s usually only used in a phrase that means it’s negative. So I was really playing with those two things. Something and its complement. Something and its opposite. And I find that has been something that has recurred and recurred in my work. I think the interplay of seeming opposites is something that interests me a lot. And that’s where Kilter came from.

FJO: To bring it back to Click, what I find so interesting about it is how effectively it realizes a physical process. First you play your instrument, then you play someone else’s instrument. It really is about the group and coming together.

MEC: Absolutely. It’s very much about the group. That’s one of those pieces where it’s really hard for the players to rehearse on their own, although they tell me that when they absolutely know their own part they can sort of do it on their own. But it’s very much about how you interact with the others; it’s not just about putting your stick that way. It’s about putting your stick that way to hit someone else’s stick. So there’s all that sort of figuring out in rehearsals—where’s your stick going to be and when—because the other thing about a piece like Click that is not something percussionists usually deal with, is that you’re often aiming for a striking surface that isn’t there yet. The striking surface is often in motion, too, so part of the rehearsal process is figuring out who’s the active strike and who’s the passive strike—where exactly in the air is that going to be so that you don’t end up either missing, or hitting someone’s knuckle, which is very painful and has happened. You want to minimize that because it’s not pleasant.

Click is one of those pieces that has ideas that have continued to spin off into more and more possibilities. I actually have a couple of other Click-style pieces, and I put together a whole of evening where Click-like material came back as the connecting thread. But those pieces we haven’t done since. That was probably in about ’92, ‘93, ‘91, somewhere in there. It did feel like I could keep mining this material. There’s another piece I did with CRASH called Talking Stick which also uses only sticks as the instruments and, in that case, we used drum sticks. The main figure in that is this thing that I saw one of my players do in rehearsal one day during a break, and I said, “Show me what that is; there’s a piece in there.” That’s how that piece got started. One stick rests against the cheek, and this becomes the resonating cavity. And then the other stick hits the end of that stick. Then as your mouth opens and closes, you get a change in pitch. That’s why it’s called Talking Stick. That’s the recurring theme that comes back, that talking stick pattern. Then there are all kinds of other things that you do with sticks—whether it’s on the floor, or tossing and hitting them, or making sculptural patterns out of them. So that was not a Click-like piece, but it has some similarities with it.

FJO: So, in order to do pieces like that, you formed your own ensemble. I imagine this isn’t the kind of stuff you could put on a piece of staff notation and hand to some group somewhere.

MEC: No, you can’t. That’s right. I actually experimented with notation early on with the history of Click, but it was so complicated to try to get it all down on paper that it wasn’t worth it. Notation should be something that assists in the communication between composer and performer. And what I was finding with the notation I was trying to get down on paper was that it was something that would take the performers much longer to take off the page and into sound and movement when I could just say to them, “Hold your claves like this and do this.”

Notation should be something that assists in the communication between composer and performer.

And that was quick, so that really became the score, with some kind of an outline. I would name the various patterns, so that we could talk to each other without always having to refer back to the number on the outline. I could say, “Start at the triple patty cake” or “Let’s go from the everybody cross.” But this would be meaningless to anybody else except for me and my group, who have that language in common that we’ve created. Since then, after the fact, now I’ve gone back and I’ve written out some pretty detailed notes for each part. But they are sort of a combination of prose-style language and maybe some rhythms written out. They’re meant to be used in conjunction with a video of my group performing it. They’re also never to be put up on a music stand with your eyes glued to it because that’s just wrong for so many reasons. They’re just meant to be referred to. As other groups learn Click, I want them to be memorizing from day one and not be thinking, “First I’m going to read off the page, and then I’m going to take it into my memory from there.” No, this has to be right into movement and sound from the very beginning. Your eyes have to be available.

FJO: There are people who assume that if something doesn’t have a score on the page, that it’s improvised. But this isn’t.

MEC: No, not at all. I think this is one place where my dance background had a big influence, maybe without me even completely thinking about it. You don’t really write down dances for the most part. As a choreographer you may have some notes for yourself, but they exist in the dancer’s memory and maybe now on film or video so that there’s a record of it. But let me back up.

The very first version of Click was at the Yellow Springs Institute in Pennsylvania. I was there for a week with Relâche. That would have been about 1988, if I remember correctly. Because I had the ensemble for half a day, I could work on several ideas. I had them there in the room with me as I was working. So I wrote an instrumental piece for them that was completely written out and which became Parterre. Then I had this idea to do the piece with claves, and I knew I had to have at least three people to make it work. And the three people were the percussionist in the group, Flossie Lerardi if I remember her name correctly, Laurel Wykoff who was the flute player, and Guy Klucevsek who was the accordion player. So I had the three of them, and I think I created maybe just the first minute or minute and a half of the piece. It was really because I had access to the musicians while I was composing.

Then I went home and I knew I wanted to continue with this idea, so I thought I’d have to bring people in for rehearsal. This is not a piece that I could compose in my head and write down and send off to players like I might with a string quartet. So I hired one percussionist and two dancers to be in rehearsal with me to create the piece. The reason I wanted dancers was because I knew I was going to have to work in rehearsal and ask the players to remember what they did from one rehearsal to the next. And I thought, “Well, that’s how dancers work. They’ll get it immediately.” I was worried that if I brought in three musicians that they might say, “Where’s my notation? Where’s my score?” Even if it was just from this rehearsal to the next rehearsal. So that was the reason, and it worked. It worked really well because I had one percussionist who really knew how to work with rhythm, and then I had two dancers who really knew how to work with movement and how to work from memory, so I didn’t have to convince anybody of anything.

FJO: For me, one of the most fascinating of those CRASH pieces is Hands, which doesn’t use any instruments at all. It’s just the body. And because it’s based on such a primal, human activity—just using people’s hands—I imagine other people who see this being performed might think it is something we all could do, but then the minute you start paying attention to it, you realize, it’s actually pretty hard.

HANDS by Mary Ellen Childs from Mary Ellen Childs on Vimeo.

MEC: You know, that piece was a really surprising thing for me. I think it’s only like three or four minutes; it’s very short. It was part of a much longer evening that was all about percussion in various ways, and it felt to me like just a little kind of a filler thing, like something that I was going to use for that purpose and then completely forget about. But somehow that piece has taken off. There are some groups who’ve taken it into their repertoire and have just played it and played it and played it. And it gets this big response that has always surprised me.

FJO: Well, I think it’s because it’s just so basic.

MEC: It is basic.

FJO: The one thing that audiences are allowed to do during Western classical music concerts is use their hands and clap at the end. But here they are being used to make the content of the music that you’re experiencing without any other filter. Yeah, they hit chairs at some point. But mostly they’re hitting each other. And there’s something very satisfying about that.

MEC: Why does that capture people’s imagination? I don’t understand it. But I think that I understand what you’re saying. I’ve done at least one other body percussion piece, Sight of Hand, which sort of draws from clapping games and hamboning and baseball coaching signals turned into percussion, but it’s a little more complex and varied than Hands is.

FJO: I haven’t heard it or seen it, but I’ve read about it and was very curious about it. It’s a new piece, right?

MEC: Oh no, this is from 1998 or ‘99.

FJO: That’s weird, because one of the sites I went to said it was from 2016.

MEC: Oh, what that could be is now I’m going to do a version of this piece with the St. Paul Saints minor league team.

FJO: A-ha! I want to hear about that.

MEC: Yes, so if all the funding comes through—that’s a big if right now—then we’re going to do the piece at the Saints’ game in August of this year. The St. Paul Saints are a minor league team, you know, serious baseball. But there’s also a very fun atmosphere. There are always other things going on in between innings or in the stands. So I had this idea to do the piece that is influenced by baseball coaching signals there at a game. And then we’re also going to shoot video, live at the game, to capture game plays and crowd responses. We’re going to have a second day of video where we can setup some specific shots with Saints players and coaches and my players, and then create a little percussion music video out of it. So that’s the 2016 project.

FJO: There are all these connections yet disconnections between music and sports: the virtuoso, superhuman performers and the ritual of the event—whether it’s a concert or a game that an audience goes to and witnesses. Both sports and music also engender a rabid fandom. Plus there’s a ton of jargon that’s very specific to those two realms. And, as the guy who’s on the music side of this rather than the sports side, I’m always sort of envious of how sports can be as specialized and even as erudite as we are, and still millions of people care about this. So if we could reach sports fans and show them how similar our worlds are, I wonder if this piece is the kind of piece that could do that.

MEC: I don’t know. We’re just in the middle of conceiving how this is going to work in the stadium. It’s actually a pretty quiet piece; body percussion is not going to read very far, though visually maybe it will. We’re also going to work with a group of usher-tainers—they call them—there, people who are hired to be part of the entertainment, and they’re great. I’m going to have them learn just a few of the patterns out of our piece, so that they can participate. We’re going to amplify it in that way. Instead of three players, I’m going to have seven of my own people, and then we’ll probably have about 10 or 12 or so of these usher-tainers. So we could have a pretty big group doing some of these body percussion patterns.

FJO: No amplification?

MEC: I don’t know. I’ve got to think that through. Like I said, we’re still in the planning process. We might see if we can do something on their jumbotron, which would just be a little snippet—certainly not the whole piece—so that everybody can see and hear it that way. But a baseball stadium is not a concert hall, so this is not going to be the kind of performance where people are going to have their attention focused on this piece that, even at four and a half minutes, is still pretty long. We’re never going to get four and a half minutes of an audience’s attention. So we’ll have to conceive of it a little bit differently: breaking it down into component parts; doing a little bit here, going over to that part of the crowd and doing another bit; interacting with a vendor; getting it all on camera.

FJO: Why do you think that it would be so difficult to get them to focus on your piece? They’re certainly capable of being totally focused on the game.

MEC: Right, but they will never give us four and a half minutes. The time between innings—they told me—is two minutes. And they have a lot of stuff going on in that two minutes. So even if we had the whole time between two innings, we couldn’t do the piece. And we probably will only get a fraction of that out on the field with everybody’s attention.

FJO: They couldn’t work extra time into the schedule just to make it work with your piece? Why not give them a little more than two minutes between innings?

MEC: I doubt it, and that’s not really the point of this. The point is having the piece and the live game be part of the same event, then taking all that material and making a piece out of it that exists on video to put my baseball percussion movement into the context of real game plays happening. So I don’t know. We’ll see how it all comes together.

FJO: Another thing that interests me about all of these projects we’ve been talking about is that even though you work very closely with the performers, you’re not actually performing. But you are so involved in the rehearsal process. That becomes tricky if you have pieces that are being done, say, all over the world.

MEC: Well, there are now percussion groups who do my pieces and I’m not part of that rehearsal process. So that does happen now. Early on, I felt extraordinarily protective of these pieces and I did not want anyone else to do them unless I could go and coach it. Then after a while, I just didn’t feel as strongly about that. I think maybe because there were some groups who learned the pieces and put their own mark on them, because every group is going to do it a little bit differently. Even if the rhythms are exactly precise, their quality of movement is going to be a little different. One might have a more precise feel to it, another one might have a little bit more lyrical feel, just based on what the movement qualities of the performers are like. So I got more curious and interested in having performers take on these pieces. And I did find ways where I could convey the information from my written notes plus a video of my program. Now sometimes I even do Skype rehearsals where I can be at a rehearsal enough to see what’s going on and give them some coaching from my own home studio, which often works better.

FJO: But some things would still be very difficult to do without your involvement, perhaps most of all the music you wrote for these crazy bicycle instruments.

MEC: There were three of them, and they’re no longer in my studio. I donated them to the Schubert Club Musical Instrument Museum. So they’re now in the museum in St. Paul. I hear that they are wildly popular because, at the museum, they allow people to get on and ride them. They’re actually musical instruments powered by exercise bicycles that were created for my group by Norman Anderson, a visual artist in the Twin Cities. A lot of his visual art uses old musical instrument parts and a lot of it runs on small motors. These beings that he creates move and make sound. They sort of come to life and each have their own personality and idiosyncrasies. So I was really fascinated by Norman’s work and I asked him if he would create a piece that I could use with my group. The moment I asked him, I had envisioned something that moves and comes to life, but in some way also has some space in it, both literally and figuratively for my group to play along with them or to interact with this thing coming to life. So Norman said sure and started working on it. Then he called me up one day and he said, “I got an idea. I was driving through my alley and I saw someone had put out, to be taken away, an old exercise bicycle. I know I could find a couple others, no problem.” And he does—many of his materials are found items. So he said, “What if I did three pieces that each were powered by an exercise bicycle?” And so I said, “That sounds like fun. Let’s go for it.” Then we started talking back and forth about what the sounds were going to be for each and so we landed on one that was the pipe-cercycle, which uses organ pipes as its sound and physical material. Then there’s the string-cercycle, which is all strings of various kinds. A little ukulele in the front, a cello in the back, some other resonating strings that Norman created. And then the xylo-cycle, which has xylophone-like bars right above the handle bars and a kind of a music box-style cylinder with screws sticking out of it. When you pedal, it will turn and trigger the mallets over the top of the xylophone-like bars. That’s how those three pieces came about.

Tri-Cycles by Mary Ellen Childs from Mary Ellen Childs on Vimeo.

FJO: There’s actually been a significant history of writing music involving bicycles. In the early 1980s there was an audio artist based in Arizona named Richard Lerman who created an outdoor piece called Travelon Gamelon that was recorded by Folkways and which is now available from the Smithsonian. Before that, one of the earliest musical efforts by Frank Zappa that attracted some notoriety was a film score he wrote using bicycles. He even performed a selection from it on network TV in 1963. It was a few years before he became a famous rock musician; he was announced as being an avant-garde composer.

MEC: Okay, that I did not know.

FJO: It’s pretty wacky. And just last year I heard a piece by Ruby Fulton during the SONiC Festival that involved a bicycle. For some reason bicycles keep reappearing in musical contexts, but in the trajectory of your work, I think, it’s yet another example of calling attention to the physical process of making music.

MEC: The piece I just described didn’t start out being about bicycles. It was about invented musical instruments and how a human can interact with them. But it ended up being about bicycles.

FJO: Now that you’ve donated the instruments, does that mean the piece is out of CRASH’s repertoire?

MEC: We did it one more time, at the museum—must have been the fall of 2014. That was the last time it’s been done. Occasionally I would use the xylo-cycle in concert. But frankly, those instruments were sitting in my studio for a good decade unused. They were hard to get in and out of my house and were difficult to transport. You could not fly them anywhere, so they could really only be used pretty close to home. And what I realized after I got the pieces and started working with them is they’re not well suited for a concert-style performance, unless we started working with a sound engineer. If I had gone to the next stage with that piece, I would have done that. Because they don’t balance very well. Some things are too quiet to really hear, and you have to accept the fact that the sound of pedaling is going to be part of the piece because the bikes themselves are noisy. What I also found about these instruments is that they’re best suited for a more installation-style performance. You can do some very interesting things with them to create kind of an atmosphere or a mood or a sound world. But to shape a musical arc over a period of time, which is what you want to do in a concert setting, was difficult to impossible.

If I was going to continue with those instruments and those pieces, I think I probably would have added some other instruments, singers, texts, or something like that. Plus a sound engineer to finesse all those materials in a way that was going to be fully satisfying if you really have a rapt audience in front of you, rather than an installation work where people are kind of walking through. The performance that I did with my players was meant for a gallery or an installation. People do come and actually pay attention for the whole time. And the players are dressed in our usual black suits, and then they wear bowler hats. They get off the bikes and they do other things with them. I don’t know what will happen to it in the future.

FJO: Now once again, I imagine that there are some written instructions, but no score.

MEC: There are some written instructions, and that is the score. That piece actually does have a fair amount of structured improvisation in it. If I had the time or the resources I’d work that even more, but it certainly is not one of those pieces that anybody else is going to do because the instruments are so specific and so is the process of putting it together, as we discovered when recreating it ten years later. But as I said, I would sometimes take the xylo-cycle out and use it as a little solo piece in the context of a bigger CRASH concert.

FJO: Did you ever get on the bike and play it, or was it always one of the players?

MEC: It was always one of the players. There was a period of time during CRASH concerts when I would do little cameo performances. I thought of them as my Alfred Hitchcock moments—you know, you blink and you might miss me. But no, I never really performed in that group. I haven’t performed in a long time.

FJO: Thankfully, in the last decade, two really significant, large-scale compositions of yours are now available on commercial recordings. Dream House is an extremely beautiful piece that very effectively weaves the sound of a live string quartet with an electronic sound environment. But in some ways I feel I don’t completely know the piece because I only know it from the audio recording and it was created as part of a much more multisensory and omnidirectional experience involving multiple video screens. I’ve only seen a few snippets of that posted online.

DREAM HOUSE by Mary Ellen Childs from Mary Ellen Childs on Vimeo.

MEC: The original piece was conceived as a full-evening piece for live string quartet. It was written for ETHEL and some sound montage interwoven into some of the movements, and then multi-image video.

The theme of the piece was construction and destruction and how those two things are so intertwined; one just doesn’t exist without the other. It’s not that one’s good and one’s bad—although sometimes we think of them that way. It’s not that we prefer one over the other. I chose to take the roof off my house to build my studio up. That was destroying something so that I could create something else.

It was also about cycles of time, and then rhythms of work. The video sometimes filled the performance space, but sometimes was as small as a single flower in a window pane of a relatively very small image. It wasn’t meant to be a 2-D, single-screen rectangle behind the players where you see the image. I really wanted the projected imagery to be able to use the space. I think we had seven projectors used in different ways in the course of the evening. And then the lighting design was also a very integral part of the whole performance because after all, video projection is projected light. The lighting designer used and also picked up on some of these same images that were in the video and physically in the space. It was meant to be a blending of what’s projected and what’s a real image. Then we used quadrophonic sounds so that the sound could also envelop the audience. But I have to say that though that was the original performance and how the piece was conceived, I also wanted the piece to stand on its own musically. That was where it started. My videographer worked from the music. I wasn’t writing music to existing film; it was actually the other way around. And we really talked a lot with my collaborators about how to keep it so that the music is really the primary experience, because visual imagery can take over so easily and make music an accompaniment. How are we really going to keep this so that, if anything, the visual material is the accompaniment to what you’re hearing?

FJO: So it was a deliberate decision to issue Dream House on CD in order for the music to stand on its own, rather than to release it on, say, a 5.1 Surround Sound DVD?

MEC: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this lately. I don’t know how you’d recreate the experience, except to restage the whole thing and have a live audience, just because of how the lighting design worked. If you were to take this experience of the video and flatten it down to one screen again, that goes against what the original experience was like. The only way to experience that piece again would be to restage the whole thing, which has not happened. I would be happy to have it happen, but it hasn’t happened.

FJO: Wreck also has a ton of extra-musical elements. It was created for dance and I saw just a little snippet of video that the dance company put up online, but again, I really only know the music because it was released as an audio recording.

MEC: Well, that happened because Carl Flink—a choreographer whose group is Black Label Movement—was creating a full-evening piece called Wreck. It was about an oar boat on Lake Superior that sinks and the crew knows they’re not going to survive. They end up in the last airtight compartment. It’s a rather dark piece. This is not a true story. But it’s about facing death and also about the power of that great lake.

There was another composer who was slated to do it who tragically died very unexpectedly at the very beginning stages of the work. So that’s why Carl came to me. He had already started working on the piece. My schedule was such that, by the time I was really ready to write it, much of the choreography had been created. He was still ordering pieces and making final decisions, but I came to it pretty late in the game, so I was writing to existing dance. I felt very much like I was scoring a film, and that’s really how I approached it. But I told Carl right away, “If you need to have me mirror your phrases musically and work with your phrase structure, that’s not what I’m going to do.” And he said, “No, no, no, I don’t work with music like that at all.” So I felt very freed up to create a sonic environment for the dance to exist in. But I did find ways where, through musical decisions, I could coordinate with the dancers, because it was going to be performed to live music, so the live performers could cue off the dancers.

This can’t be shrinking violet music. It can’t be wallpaper music. It can’t be background music. This had to be music that makes its own very powerful statement.

Of course, what your perception will do when you’re hearing something and seeing something is that you’ll make the connection that the two were meant to happen in time at that moment, even when they weren’t. I don’t know if that makes sense. I was kind of talking in the abstract there. But I said to Carl early on, “The movement you’ve created is so strong, I think this needs to have very powerful music that goes along with it that stands on its own, that doesn’t take second place to the dance. If that sounds appealing to you, that’s what I will give you. This can’t be shrinking violet music. It can’t be wallpaper music. It can’t be background music. This had to be music that makes its own very powerful statement and can be an equal partner with the dance.” And so again, I think that’s why it works on the recording without the dance. But the recording is not the dance piece from beginning to end. When we did the recording, there were some pieces we didn’t put on the recording. It was like releasing a film score; you order the pieces in a different way to make the recording a satisfying experience. So although it’s the same material, the dance performance and the recording are two different, both satisfying, experiences I hope.

FJO: One of the things that I find curious about both of these pieces is that even though they are large-scale and immersive, they’re both chamber music. You’ve never done a thing like this for a very large ensemble. Of course, working with an orchestra imposes a regimented and quite limited rehearsal process. I also imagine that you couldn’t tell orchestra players to move around, or to have video screens scattered around them on stage.

MEC: Well, yeah, I think that’s a part of it. The kinds of things that I do take a little more rehearsal time. But there’s always a limit to rehearsal time. When I did Click, I counted up how many rehearsals I had over the course of a year. There were like 38 or 40 rehearsals. And that was to create the piece and, of course, the players were learning it at the same time. But in our world, that’s pretty hard to come by. And I don’t think that I’ll ever do that work that way again. The kinds of things that I’m talking about take a lot of rehearsal time. That’s probably why Dream House hasn’t been done again, because it would take a lot to get that piece up on its feet again. We’d have to redo a little bit of the video. You need special equipment. You need to rebuild these set pieces. Simple, but they need to be rebuilt to fly in and out. We’d need very high powered projectors. These are also not pieces that tour very easily. They don’t get multiple performances very easily.

As for orchestras, there are just some practical considerations. It’s just going to be harder to do something like that with a professional orchestra. So if I were to do it, I’d have to think about it very differently. Could something have as much impact that wouldn’t take a week of technical rehearsals in order to pull off? And as far as the movement pieces, it’s just harder with other instruments. I’ve experimented with it a little bit. Percussion is so ripe for using movement. With other instruments, you can’t change the playing technique in the same way. It isn’t as physical to begin with, so it’s just harder to do.

I haven’t actually done new pieces for CRASH in 15 years. That’s a whole body of work that exists, and when CRASH travels it tends to be this existing work. But how I’ve incorporated other elements has kind of evolved a little bit. Eventually I starting to be interested in scent, Dream House came several years after the work that I was doing with CRASH, and that was using multi-image video and lighting design.

Last fall I did a piece at the Farnsworth House, which is a Mies van der Rohe-designed house in Plano, Illinois, about an hour and a half west of Chicago on the Fox River. And it’s this beautiful, historic, all-glass house. I was commissioned to write a piece inspired by the house and performed inside the house as part of the Chicago Architectural Biennial. So I got to spend some time in the house and absorb it. Then I wrote the piece based on what I had experienced, knowing the performance was going to take place in the house, to feel what the audience would feel to be in a space like that and see what they see because it’s glass and so the outdoors and the indoors blend so much. For that, I started feeling like the space itself was my collaborator. I’m really interested in doing more of that, writing for an already existing space. I’d like to do something with the night sky—the night sky is sort of, again, my collaborator, my existing other element. The audience’s experience would be of the music, but in this particular space, in this particular moment seeing the stars or looking out. And it’s not meant to be performances where you’re sitting in chairs, facing the musicians, and your visual focus is on the musicians. So it’s, again, using and thinking about space in a different way.

Sounds Heard: Wayne Horvitz—55: Music and Dance in Concrete

LP cover for Wayne Horvitz's 55: Music and Dance in Concrete
Wayne Horvitz
55: Music and Dance in Concrete

(Other Room Music 001)
Music performed by Steven O’Brien, trumpet; Naomi Siegel, trombone; Kate Olson, soprano sax; Beth Fleenor, clarinet/bass carinet; Briggan Krauss, alto sax; Maria Mannisto, voice; Victoria Parker, violin; Eyvind Kang and Heather Bentley, violas; Roweena Hammil, cello. Recorded by Tucker Martine. Composed and mixed by Wayne Horvitz.

Listen to “55 (3)” from 55: Music and Dance in Concrete


© 2014 Wayne Horvitz. Streamed with permission.

Though Wayne Horvitz’s music has always been somewhat difficult to classify, it has usually adhered to a “jazz” sensibility. Even Wish the Children Would Come on Home, his previous album released back in May of this year which consists predominantly of pre-composed music performed by a brass quartet, exudes a jazz feel despite the overall lack of improvisation (except for a few tracks where Horvitz joins them for some impromptu mayhem). However, no matter how definitions can be finessed to tie all sorts of loose ends together, one would be hard pressed to associate his latest record, 55: Music and Dance in Concrete, with swing, bop, fusion or any of the myriad subgenres that have expanded this way of making music over the past century. Yet it is still clearly Wayne Horvitz and is utterly fascinating.

Each of the album’s tracks is cryptically titled “55” followed by an additional number, but those second numbers (which range from 1 to 29) are not presented sequentially. Horvitz, with whom I corresponded via email, was born in 1955 and was 55 when he began composing this music. So despite the seeming abstraction, this is very personal music. But it gets even more complicated. Though the opening track on the album is “55 (1),” it is followed by “55 (15)” then “55 (29)” and “55 (10)” etc., almost inviting listeners to determine their own path through the material. According to Horvitz, the tracks were simply titled in the order he created them but then he later sequenced them in an order that seemed more organic. The numbers go as high as 29, but he never completed three of the tracks. The 26 tracks, scored for various combinations of wind and string instruments, were actually culled from a total of 110 musical fragments. These fragments consist of performances of 55 pre-composed Horvitz chamber music pieces plus 55 improvisations all of which took place over the course of four days in the concrete bunkers and cistern at Fort Worden in Pt. Townsend, Washington where they were recorded by Tucker Martine (who has also worked with R.E.M., The Decembrists, Beth Orton, and others). Then Horvitz electronically manipulated and remixed these recordings so that the final audio result sounds nothing like what the musicians originally played. Then, these resultant pre-recorded tracks served as the sonic component for a modular site-specific multi-media work presented in a variety of locations within Fort Worden involving choreography by Yukio Suzuki and video by Yohei Saito.

Taken out of its original context the music still manages to comes across as part psychedelic soundtrack (think Barbarella), part mysterious fun house (think Sleep No More). I personally wish that I would have been able to experience the visuals as well as the music, though I’m not sure a DVD would have captured the complete experiential immersion that the collaborators were aiming for. At least the LP (yes, it’s available on LP!!!) comes with some large, tantalizing photos of the original production. Though there are only 13 tracks on the vinyl release (it has not been issued on CD!), all 26 completed tracks are available digitally on a download card included with the record. Additionally there’s a wealth of information (including some tantalizing video excerpts) on a dedicated website about the project.

New England's Prospect: The Gift of Sound and Vision

Ben Russell

Ben Russell and his machines; at the Middlesex Lounge, Cambridge, MA, March 25, 2014. Photo by Susanna Bolle.

In 1941, anthropologist Margaret Mead, then a member of a group called the Committee for National Morale, wrote a memorandum about a proposed exhibit on the theme of democracy to be mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Having witnessed the methods of Hitler in the long crescendo into World War II, Mead and her colleagues were in search of a format that would (Mead wrote) provide a framework

to free the individual citizen from his fear of being moved, to restore to the individual his belief that HE CAN MAKE CHOICES, HE IS NOT JUST A HELPLESS INSTRUMENT ON WHICH THE PROPAGANDIST PLAYS WHATEVER TUNE HE WISHES[.]

The solution—developed in large part by designers and artists associated with the Bauhaus school, émigrés from Nazi Germany—was what today we would call a multimedia experience. It was a striking innovation, intended to promote a radical idea of democratic diversity: choosing their own path of perception through a multimedia environment, a viewer could absorb the overarching message of an exhibit while still maintaining a sense of agency that would work against fascist tendencies. “Ideally,” writes Fred Turner in his (highly recommended) new book The Democratic Surround, visitors to such morale-boosting exhibits “would come to see themselves not simply as part of a national mass, but as individual human beings among others, united as Americans across their many differences.” Still, as Turner points out, with the coming of the Cold War, multimedia techniques were easily appropriated into a campaign to combat communism by promoting American consumerist values. By the ’60s and ’70s, the original vision of the Committee for National Morale had migrated to the counterculture. Multimedia proved a provocative tool to combat conformity, but hardly a foolproof one.
On March 25, filmmaker/sound artist Ben Russell and musician Robert A. A. Lowe (a.k.a. Lichens) presented a joint show (sponsored by the invaluable Non-Event series) at Cambridge’s Middlesex Lounge, and that tension in the multimedia concept proved to be a running theme. Both performances were, on their surfaces, multimedia experiences. But each performance, in its own way, also ended up subverting the technique.


The show was the finale of a three-day residency of sorts—the previous two nights, there had been screenings of films by Russell and Ben Rivers at the Harvard Film Archive (including Russell’s 2013 feature A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, which stars Lowe). For Tuesday’s performance, Russell again turned to film, but as an instrument as much as a medium, manipulating and mixing film loops on two 16mm projectors in real time: overlapping images, drawing one and then the other in and out of focus, waving his fingers in front of the projectors’ lenses to adjust the light intensity, even at one point removing the lens and focusing the light through a stronger, hand-held one.
This was all in the service of sound as much as sight. At first, it was just an abstract, optical sound track on the film loops, but soon into the half-hour set, Russell deployed his light-sensitive skull: a human skull, with electronic light sensors mounted in the eye sockets which control a square-wave oscillator, the volume and frequency varying with the strength of the light. Put in the path of the projectors, the skull produces a soundtrack in perfect—if unorthodox—synchronization with the visual image.
At first, the film loops were representational: an outdoor scene, a man standing up, then walking toward the camera, smiling, and donning a mask. With both projectors running the same loop, in and out of phase and focus with each other, the effect was canonic for both senses, with an added level of organic, unexpected commentary from the skull. But then Russell switched over to more abstract film fragments: simple alternations of black and white frames, triggering simpler on-off sounds from the skull, essentially an elaborate, lo-fi series of driving beats. Image and sound were united in rapid-fire, techno-like regularity, Russell introducing glitch-like effects by interrupting the projectors’ beams.
What’s interesting about both Russell’s set-up and the end result is how it functioned, intentionally or not, as a critique of the sound-plus-image multimedia idea, how it flattened the choose-your-own-adventure possibilities of multimedia back into something more like a single-channel, one-way communication. The image was the sound, the sound was the image; and the almost pummeling insistence of the performance—the stroboscopic flashing, the relentless, high-volume pulsing—left little if any room for the viewer/listener to experience it in any alternate way. What little counterpoint there was to choose turned out to be the actual machines. The projectors still carried at least their potential for propagandistic promulgation; the skull faced them from the other end of the room in macabre riposte.


Robert A. A. Lowe

Robert A. A. Lowe prepares at the Middlesex Lounge, Cambridge, MA, March 25, 2014. Photo by Susanna Bolle.

If Russell’s critique was confrontational, Lowe’s was more hypothetical, suggesting the possibility that the diversity the old multimedia enthusiasts were after could be achieved through sound alone. Armed with nothing more than a microphone and a rack of electronics—analog synthesizer modules, filters, reverb and delay units—Lowe conjured waves of slow-spinning polyphony, singing a note, letting it loop, layering on another, and another, while a simple, gentle percussion pattern clicked away in the background.
The harmonic language was basically modal—for the first part of his 45-minute improvisation, Lowe didn’t stray much outside a single, natural minor scale—but that was just a blank canvas for shades and shifts of sound: the way a little glissando at the end of a held note turns into a rich little cluster on the other end of the reverb, the way slight shifts of intonation in the sung note can, a few seconds down the line, create the effect of a change in waveform or envelope. Of course, these sorts of maneuvers have been around as long as microphones and delay boxes, and even longer—most Renaissance composers worth their salt could wring some expressive use out of the protracted reverberation times of Gothic cathedrals. What sets Lowe’s music apart is, first of all, his sense of balance: even at the most dense, piled-up moments, every thread, every sound, every component was still clearly audible, contrasting timbres in distinct ranges. Add to that the sheer beauty of Lowe’s voice—clear, fluid, and pure—and you get some wonderfully luminous sounds.
There was a projected visual component to Lowe’s performance as well, similarly tied to the aural information: a kind of slightly less slick, more video-feedback heavy version of an iTunes visualizer. It was, perhaps, a bit of added value to make up for the fact that a guy with a microphone sitting in front of a box of wires is not all that visually dynamic, no matter how polychromatic the sound. But it was ultimately unnecessary: Lowe was creating a multitude out of singing and synthesis alone. Making himself into the instrument, he was anything but helpless, opening up the possibility of playing any tune he wished.

Mixed Media: Collaborative Music and Visual Art Making for Ten x Ten: 2013

This Saturday, three Chicago arts organizations will celebrate the release of Ten x Ten: 2013, a collaborative venture between ten Chicago visual artists and ten composers. These artists and composers, paired up by Access Contemporary Music (ACM), Homeroom Chicago, and Spudnik Press, worked together to craft joint “statements of intent” and create pieces of music and art which speak to each other. While the 2010 and 2012 editions of Ten x Ten paired visual artists with rock musicians and other recording artists, this year’s project is firmly in the realm of contemporary art music. The result is a ten-track vinyl LP, performed for the recording by ACM’s Palomar Ensemble, and a set of ten handmade screen prints. 

The Ten x Ten project reflects the inclusive, community-building spirit that animates the operations of both Homeroom and Access Contemporary Music. Homeroom, whose mission is to “create an artistic dialogue with shared and far-reaching impact,” hosts songwriter nights, dance parties, and one-of-a-kind cultural events like “Barbie 101,” which critically engaged Barbie dolls through performance art, queer studies, poetry, and history. ACM’s contemporary music programs include a highly visible partnership with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, a wildly successful silent film festival, and an international commissioning program that brings music from around the world to Chicago. Thus, it’s no surprise that Ten x Ten has generated a set of fascinating works—and lots of interdisciplinary neuron-firing.     

To learn more about the process of creating musical-visual dialogue, I talked to composer Andrew Tham and his collaborator Edie Fake about their journey from collaborative “blind date” to finished piece. 

Ellen McSweeney: Andrew, did you and Edie get to know each other’s work before crafting a statement of intent and moving forward? What was that like?

Andrew Tham: Basically, the setup was that we met each other at the launch event that ACM and Homeroom set up for us. I didn’t know Edie’s work beforehand, so it was like a blind date of sorts. We sat down that same day and had an hour-long discussion. We talked about what both of us were working on in our own fields. He told me about the concepts that he’d been dealing with, up to that point. I told him about the concepts that I was thinking about in music. We asked, “How can we use this project as a way to combine our interests and further the conversation for both of us?”

EM: How did Edie’s visual language, which is so vivid, so full of humor and self-exposure, affect the way you approached the sounds in your piece?

Edie Fake's "Night Baths"

All artwork by Edie Fake

AT: I was really inspired by Memory Palaces, the most recent project that Edie had finished when we started talking. It’s all these reimaginings of spaces in Chicago—places like gay bars, gay clubs, spaces that have social potential and represent an ideal of social utopian space. And those are really architecturally dense—a lot of patterns, a lot of colors, really dazzling. He was trying to achieve an effect where you get this pattern going, and for the viewer, the more you look at it, the more it begins to throb or resonate. So this is the crux of our piece: we were both trying to achieve a changing temporal experience.

So my piece begins in a way that is very static. The idea is that I want it to be this flat, 2-D thing that over time stirs and becomes something more interactive, that engages the listener more and more as time progresses. And that was what Edie’s work was doing in these pieces. As you look at it for longer, you get more depth.

EM: Physical space also ended up being an important theme in your work together.

AT: Yes. As a way of beginning, I went out and found physical spaces that I wanted to translate into music, or capture an atmosphere. I made some musical sketches and field recordings and sent that to Edie—not telling Edie what it was from. He made sketches from that, and that influenced how I wrote the rest of the piece.

Edie Fake: I’ve been doing fantasy architecture drawings for a little while, usually exteriors. But when it came time to portray the space the music was making, it was obviously an interior space for me. At that time, I’d been reading a bit on how the structures of a house or building roughly psychologically align with our bodies and minds. I guess I’m still puzzling it out, but for me a sound almost automatically crafts an interior space in my mind, whereas an idea, thought or aspiration I usually visualize as an exterior, an edifice.
Edie Fake's "Friendship and Freedom"
EM: What were some of the challenges of the project for you, Edie?

EF: Deciding on the colors for the final print was a big challenge. We were asked to play with the idea of synesthesia, and I needed to figure out what colors meant for the sound of the piece. I usually design with a ton of colors, but Andrew’s sounds had more restraint. It definitely took a while for me to realize I only wanted a couple of colors popping out from a dark space.
Edie Fake's "10 x 10 colors"
EM: As people who normally work alone, how did you adjust to the joint process of creating the work?

AT: We acknowledged off the bat that it wasn’t a long-term, completely integrated kind of collaboration, and that posed an interesting challenge for us. The whole project is about the synthesis of visual art and music. How can we contribute to that concept, even if we’re not collaborating on a super intimate level? So we set it up like a game of telephone.

EF: It was pretty great – by playing a game of telephone between sound and image, we were trying to mimic the spaces we were creating in our own media. I really like when an exchange has an element of play to it. This was a great warm up for what we were going for, using static media to talk about the importance of live space.

AT: We had the same concept in mind, and we were interested in how the game of telephone distorts the process. There’s influence, but it’s never quite the same each time. We tried to embrace that.

You can hear all the tracks from the Ten x Ten project, right here. The release party is this Saturday, November 16, at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.

Sounds Heard: Daniel Wohl—Corps Exquis

There’s something a little magical to my ear in Daniel Wohl’s New Amsterdam release Corps Exquis. The music included on this nine-track album showcases a seamless marriage of acoustic instruments and electronics that opens its mouth and sings, up close and personal, in a language that retains its vibrant human energy even while being processed and polished by Wohl’s electronic hand. For a record carrying a title harkening back to a surrealist parlor game, the fact that the tracks follow a somewhat twisted path, one to the next, comes as par for the course. Yet mental exercise aside, I found this music endlessly interesting without ever being “challenging” in that way that sometimes holds my ears at arms length with locked elbows.

Much of the album conjures a sort of poetic intimacy, inviting the listener to experience all manner of fantastic and strange places. The addictive 323 is expansive and beat driven, a camel caravan of rocking movement and color. Neighborhood, also sizable in sonic scope, adds the extra hands of So Percussion into the mix to conjure a radiant sense of sun-on-your-face pleasure. On the other end of the spectrum, in Cantus, something like the echo of church music is filtered through—and perhaps eventually held down and drowned beneath the surface of—a pool of water. Ouverture then traces a sharp percussive line that forms over a reverberation of sound, a foggy memory just beyond grasping.

The turn-on-a-dime twists of Plus ou Moins explore multiple floors of sound, expanding and contracting, racing ahead and then pausing to ruminate on all the sonic elements available for the taking in the acoustic junk drawer. (The bubbling water is a stand out.) Insext, however, follows a scrambled beacon; rather than digging in, its digital signal glides across, skating over rich surface textures.

An attention-grabbing track on the second half of the album is Fluctuations, with a droning timbral character that sent me Googling for electronic bagpipes to see if they had been invented yet. They have, of course, but the samples I heard produced nothing as complex as this five-and-a-half-minute exploration of a quasi piper’s tune built out of melodicas, bass clarinet, violin, cello, and electronics.

Limbs, with its weighty piano line setting the tone, makes it easy to imagine the arms and legs of the title wound in heavy chains, the music shuffling, occasionally tripping, across the aural space in the company of Jacob Marley. Finally, the album bids adieu with the bittersweet sighs of Corpus, for which the multimedia creative collective Satan’s Pearl Horses created this video:

The wordless vocal contributions of Julia Holter and Aaron Roche on select tracks in addition to the guest appearance by So Percussion definitely add a special color to the proceedings, but the TRANSIT Ensemble holds up the core of this music, delivering vibrant performances throughout. I suspect, however, that in addition to composing the music, it is Wohl’s demonstrated skill in programming and sound design that truly makes this music fire (plus loud bonus applause to the recording team). Much that has already been written about this album, including its own accompanying PR, focuses on that favorite trope of genre-less-ness, which the music may very well warrant of you’re looking at it from that angle. But to my mind one of the strengths of the record is that it never once draws any attention to that kind of banter. It doesn’t have any surface cracks betraying a nervous merger to make excuses for.

Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Corps Exquis is that I couldn’t stop listening to it. The tracks are a parade of bright lights and glimpses of secret corridors, all passing by long before they wear out their welcome.

Deep Sky Objects: Musiqa’s Season Opener

For more than a decade, Houston’s Musiqa has presented a sort of artistic cornucopia for its audience. Music, dance, and the spoken word come together with other art forms in dynamic multifaceted presentations that keep the audience engaged and on its toes. Their recent opening night featured a new commission supported by a major grant from Chamber Music America in the form of a collaborative work by composer Sebastian Currier and poet Sarah Manguso. Also featured were works by Lera Auerbach, Musiqa’s Pierre Jalbert, and the world premiere of choreographer Tina Bohnstedt’s work Divided and Scattered featuring music from Currier’s 1995 piece Quartetset.

Houston, like many large cities, is a work in progress and, as such, is regularly being torn apart and rebuilt in one way or another. After a slightly late start to accommodate an Escher-like parking situation, the evening began with several movements from Lera Auerbach’s Twenty-four Preludes for Violin and Piano. Using Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as a starting point, Auerbach’s piece explores a variety of styles and techniques that have been developed and become common since the composition of that seminal work. Violinist Lisa Burrell deftly negotiated the syncopated rhythms and chunky double stops of No. 9 in E major, trading hocketed figures with pianist Tali Morgulis. No. 3 in E major wandered in childlike, tonal, and innocent, lightly colored with dissonance around the edges. The stage was lit in bright swaths of red, blue, and green, which changed with each movement. I don’t suppose that there was any intention or suggestion of synesthesia here, but it was a nice visual reset between sections and pieces.

The Auerbach was followed by a reading by Sarah Manguso of selections of poetry from her book The Captain Lands in Paradise. Hearing a work delivered by its author has the potential to be either fantastic or terrible depending on the creator’s performance skills. Fortunately, Manguso’s understated delivery was captivating and provided an interesting change of perspective during the concert. Secret Alchemy by Pierre Jalbert received its Houston premiere and was prefaced by short descriptions and performance snippets of each movement. Violist James Dunham and cellist Lachezar Kostov joined Nelson and Morgulis for the four movement work. In the first movement, delicate appoggiaturas lead to repeated-note figures in the piano which when added to the close, oscillating harmonies in the violin and viola gave the impression of a breath held. A plaintive melody in the cello provided contrast to this texture, but it wasn’t until the appearance of a series of rapid ascending lines in the strings that the piece fully formed and really took off. Just as the motoric rhythms began to push it forward, it was pulled back by a return to the initial material and a wrapping up of the movement. It wasn’t unsatisfying or a tease, but rather provided a nice set up for the following movements. The second movement began with an agitated dynamic delivered by way of syncopated pizzicato accompanied by rumblings in the piano. A brief arco section gave way to a return of the pizzicato, this time reanimated with harmonics. High register piano skittered about as the harmonics and trills floated, coalesced, and dissipated, with added-value rhythms jumping the barline at every turn. The third movement started icy with the wide range in piano echoed in the strings, meaty fifths and unisons sounding larger than the personnel we saw on stage. The final movement was aggressive and explosive, with brutal attacks leading to rising waves in the strings plateauing in a static staccato figure. Crazy, angular parts for the cello fought for purchase while the violin and viola bickered in the background.

Currier’s Deep Sky Objects is described as “a cycle of love songs set in the distant future, exploring intergalactic longing and desire.” In ten movements and scored for soprano, electronics, and piano quintet, Currier manages to incorporate the electronics without being ruled by them. Each movement begins with an electronic incipit which created a “micro-composition” based on the title of each song, sort of an electronic calling card complete with a nonplussed female voice announcing the title, sounding ever so slightly like HAL from 2001:A Space Odyssey. Incorporating actual elements of signals generated by pulsars, man-made satellites, and Currier’s own creations suggestive of deep space, the electronic elements of the work serve for the most part a largely textural role; and they do it well. At times the incipits approached a suggestion of actual sci-fi fare, but never crossed the line and always set the stage acting as aural illuminations for the sound-text that followed. Soprano Karol Bennet delivered every syllable with finesse and passion, providing a perfect foil for the somewhat cold electronics of deep space.

Choreographer Tina Bohnstedt presented Divided and Scattered, a new work set to “Divided” and “Scatterbrained,”—two movements from Curriers Quartetset. Following a dramatic “Lowering of the String Quartet into the Pit” (by way of a motorized stage) Bohnstedt’s own quartet took the stage. Largely a three-against-one arrangement (and bearing in mind that my background in dance is…modest), Bohnstedt’s dancers from Houston Ballet II mirrored the music beautifully while presenting their own story on the stage.

I go to a fair number of new music concerts, and while I enjoy shows that feature exclusively recent fare, it’s also compelling to see presentations that combine the old and the new. The experience of seeing a concert programmed with music from a variety of eras is similar to seeing a concert programmed with a variety of arts. There is something refreshing about hearing everything all mixed together, and the combination resented by Musiqa on this and other concerts has a similar impact. Overall, the effect is one of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and when the parts are this good by themselves, together they make for a particularly remarkable experience. The extremely high level of artistic presentation, the relaxed and welcoming attitude, and the diversity of programming come together to show why Musiqa plays such an important role in Houston’s new music scene.

Sebastian Currier: Reversible Time

A conversation at Currier’s Harlem apartment on September 6, 2012 — 2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Considering how deeply composer Sebastian Currier has thought about time, and how important time is to music (according to him, “music is […] really nothing but time and air, literally”), his own relationship to time, at least in the chronological sense of music history, is somewhat ambiguous. While the myriad details that are crammed into his scores are reminiscent of the elaborate layers found in the Romantic music of the 19th century, and his detailed conceptualizations for pieces seem as thoroughly plotted as those of a post-War total serialist, Currier writes music that very much belongs to our own less certain times. It doesn’t fit neatly into any particular rubric and—in terms of both the ideas that inspire it as well as the actual way it sounds—it clearly relates to the here and now.

The sonic information overload that is contained in so many of Sebastian Currier’s pieces is perhaps attributable to a childhood spent completely immersed in the standard repertoire. His father was a concert violinist, and his mother Marilyn and brother Nathan are both active composers to this day. Young Sebastian and Nathan at first gravitated toward rock in their youth, but their heroes were Emerson, Lake & Palmer who, in turn, were inspired by composers like Mussorgsky. After a while, they were both much more attracted to the larger forms and listening modalities that were more clearly associated with classical music.

As much as I loved rock music, I felt this other thing had this breadth where you could go anywhere. It seemed to be so rich in terms of motion, character, whatever word you want to say. It was about that sort of travel. A pop song sets up a parameter, and it sort of is what it is. It sustains that and there are minor articulations. But with a piece of orchestra music, if you’re talking about Mahler or something like that, you get on here and you get let off over there and taken all around in between.

However, like most composers in the century since Mahler died, Currier carefully molds his music’s journey in a highly idiosyncratic way. In his particular case, that molding is very elaborate. It’s no surprise that during his formative years, his principal composition teachers were Milton Babbitt and George Perle, two of the towering figures of American twelve-tone music. Yet Currier’s sound world most of the time is very far removed from modernism. In fact, it’s sometimes downright anti-modernist as well as anti-traditionalist. In both so-called common practice-era tonality and in the highly organized serialism that reached its zenith in the middle of the last century, a goal oriented approach was often a driving force. For composers of Currier’s age and younger, that kind of overarching directionality—whether a resolution toward a clear tonal center or a combinatorial approach to a specific chromatic aggregate—carries much less weight. In fact, many of Currier’s pieces seem like multiple answers to the same question, and none of those answers offer the certainty of absolute correctness.

We live in a multifarious world. I don’t like and don’t respect […] the sort of closed feeling that […] it’s this way or the highway. It just doesn’t make sense to me as a conceptual framework for the way the world is.

While he has amassed an impressive catalog of orchestral, solo, and chamber music compositions (he is the only composer ever to receive a Grawemeyer Award for a piece of chamber music), in recent years Currier has also been involved in several multimedia projects which offer a whole new array of expressive possibilities. (In November 2012, the American Composers Orchestra will release a digital download of Currier’s apocalyptic post-Katrina inspired Next Atlantis for string orchestra and pre-recorded electronics created in collaboration with video artist Pawel Wojtasik.) But whatever he is working on, whether he is creating something that will be coupled with constantly shifting images or setting a text, what always comes first and foremost for him is the music. In that sense, he is a very old-fashioned composer, and it is in the company of the music of the composers of the past that his music most frequently lives. Among his most ardent champions is the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter who is most often heard playing Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn; in fact, Currier is the only living American-born composer whose music she has recorded with an orchestra. More recently, his music has been performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, again a rare occurrence for a composer who is both living and from the United States.

But in the end, despite this very clear link to the past, his music and the way he creates it is very much a phenomenon of the present. The most prominent objects in his Spartan apartment are his computer and his electronic keyboard.

I have no nostalgia. I think computers help me […] to work broadly, and then to zero in. [… If] you meet somebody you don’t know and they ask you what you do. […] It’s a funny thing. Here I am in my 50s, and I still don’t know how to deal with that question. When you just say classical music, it tends to sound like a throwback. […] I feel connected to that, but I think when you say that there are also some associations that may be can give the incorrect feeling, too, because it’s all about doing something new, but relating to something from the past also.

Frank J. Oteri: Whether it’s an orchestra piece, a chamber piece, or a solo piano piece, there is such incredible detail in everything you’ve written. To my ears that detail belies a very deep and thorough understanding of past music, the so-called common practice standard repertoire of classical music. Yet at the same time, the music still sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been written at any other time except now. Still I find that deep immersion striking, because it’s something I don’t hear in very much contemporary music. So it made me wonder how important it is to you that a listener be familiar with that tradition in order to fully understand how your music is, in some way, a response to it.

Sebastian Currier: That’s hard to answer. I’m going to agree with everything you said. I grew up listening to Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Scarlatti—just endless hours. It’s something that’s in me. Though it is something I do less of now, I did it obsessively at certain times and I think the level of detail does relate to that. I also think sometimes that maybe I am too detailed, because a lot of music written today isn’t, and it leads to a different type of listening. When you have the detail that I do, it’s sort of more like reading a novel. You need to follow it through. You can’t just let it pass by. So I agree with all that, but whether a listener needs that background—I’d like to think they didn’t, but maybe they do. It’s hard for me to know about that. And I’m not surprised when people don’t respond to my music; that tradition is something that doesn’t mean anything to them. So in a negative way, I see that those two things are related.

FJO: So do you embrace the term classical music to describe what you do? Is that what your music is?

SC: You know, you meet somebody you don’t know and they ask you what you do. What kind of music do you write? It’s a funny thing. Here I am in my 50s, and I still don’t know how to deal with that question. I think the answer is yes, I feel connected to that, but I think when you say that there are also some associations that maybe can give the incorrect feeling, too, because it’s all about doing something new, but relating to something from the past also. When you just say classical music, it tends to sound like a throwback, and it doesn’t point to things like different new media stuff, as I’ve done in the last eight years or so. That would seem to be not included in that sort of description. So I guess I’d say I reluctantly accept it, but it doesn’t seem really perfect.

FJO: We don’t really have a good term.

SC: It always seems to be symptomatic of the slight awkwardness of our place in society that there’s not a name. Even “new music” is something that’s been appropriated to pop music quite a bit. People use that term, or modern music.

FJO: So to get back to those folks you mentioned who don’t respond to your music who you feel might not be grounded in classical music and therefore perhaps don’t quite get what you’re doing in your music. I think this might be about the commitment to listening that it requires. The more concentrated and more focused you are on the details, I think the more someone can get from listening to your music. But by the same token, when you mention that the multimedia stuff doesn’t connect to classical music, I wonder if there’s a lack of comprehension that goes the other way. For people who are so versed in classical music, and the specific tradition of how they experience it, to be suddenly confronted with visual input can be a distracting information overload.

SC: I haven’t found that so much. That seems to be something people readily embrace, the allure of the image and the projection and video as something of our time.

FJO: But I’ve so often heard some people in the classical music community grumble that when there’s a video it interferes with the listening experience. They don’t need to see these things to imagine what the music is. They want to be able to imagine what it is for themselves and let their minds create their own images, especially when video is projected to go along with performances of standard repertoire pieces.

SC: Well that certainly is true, but doesn’t that relate therefore to just what’s being done, and how it’s being done. I mean, if it was done in a thoughtful way that did expand it, they probably wouldn’t say that. But obviously it can seem gratuitous, without a doubt.

FJO: I’d like to return to your multimedia pieces a bit later, but first I want to take it back to what you were saying about growing up being immersed in classical music. Your personal story is somewhat unique—your mother being a composer and your father being a professional violinist. Your brother is a composer also. That’s a competitive environment to grow up in: three composers and a performing musician. How do you create a unique musical identity within that kind of family dynamic?

SC: You mentioned it’s competitive, but it’s also the opposite. It’s also sort of nurturing. You have this common element. I think the competitive part obviously deals more with my brother than my mom, who’s from a different generation. But it happens more coming from the outside, not internally. At a certain time, you’re applying to the same things. [My brother and I] were at Tanglewood together and we went to Juilliard at the same time. So that is where that sort of stuff happens. But otherwise, growing up, I think that was a great thing, because we’d be sitting there talking about and listening to music. And when we were quite young, maybe 10 and 11, my brother and I had this rock band.

FJO: Who started writing music first?

SC: I think we probably both did, and it related really to, again, the pop stuff, because we wrote our own stuff. Whereas, you know, when you’re young with classical, you start to learn an instrument. We liked bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer that had this mix of classical stuff. I remember us waiting outside a big performance space in Providence after an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert. My brother had a score of something he had written for them, and we gave it to them in their limousine at the back. They were very sweet. I’m sure they were looking at us like, who are these little kids, you know. But that might have been one of the first compositions, between the two of us.

FJO: What did your parents think of your interest in rock?

SC: Well, they supported us in a lot of ways except the fact that we had these big Marshall amplifiers, and the police came, and that’s stuff they could have done without. Otherwise I think they were pretty open.

FJO: But you gave up rock.

SC: Yeah. I gave up.

FJO: Why?

SC: No precise reason, except I remember this very, very well. I played violin when I was very young. That didn’t take. We were into rock stuff; we were totally into it like kids are, just all day all night, totally obsessed. But there were all these records in my parents’ house of classical stuff. You know, Beethoven, Brahms, whatever, and contemporary stuff—a whole bevy of stuff. And I remember us starting to listen. My brother and I sort of happened at the same time to be listening to this stuff. And as much as I loved rock music, I felt this other thing had this breadth where you could go anywhere. It seemed to be so rich in terms of motion, character. It was about that sort of travel. A pop song sets up a parameter, and it sort of is what it is. It sustains that and there are minor articulations. But with a piece of orchestra music, if you’re talking about Mahler or something like that, you get on here and you get let off over there and taken all around in between. So I was very taken with that. Again, when you talk about detail in my music, those were the things that I think were very formative for me, that feeling of what this music, whatever we want to call it, does.

FJO: It’s interesting hearing you describe exposure to classical music being about learning to play an instrument whereas rock was about creating your own music. The idea of coming up with something original is something very attractive for a creative mind, but often people will get exposed to classical music and think this is just music by all these dead guys and they do not get exposed to the fact that such music kept going into the present time and that there are living composers who are still doing this stuff now. But your mother’s a composer. So how much of an influence did she have on the music that you eventually wrote?

SC: I’m not sure that much, but maybe some. Obviously in the sense that we grew up with it, there was the model right there for sure. In terms of the actual music, I’m not sure you know. Maybe yes, maybe no. I think I’d need an outside assessor to figure that one out. Have you heard any of her stuff?

FJO: No, but I would very much like to hear it. I do know your brother’s music, but I don’t know your mother’s music at all.

SC: Some of her stuff uses jazz in a way. That’s sort of not my world to do that.

FJO: Except that I’d argue that your Piano Sonata is very jazzy.

SC: O.K. There are elements of it in the rhythmic nature of it, I guess.

FJO: I was listening to it back to back last week with some Herbie Hancock recordings, so maybe it helped me make a connection.

SC: That’s interesting.

FJO: But as long as we’re talking about the Piano Sonata; that’s a title that clearly relates it to classical music. Terms like piano sonata, concerto, string quartet, or symphony are loaded with historical associations. Say the word symphony, and people will immediately think Beethoven, Mahler, etc. So when you use such a title, you’re automatically connecting yourself to those precedents. You subverted it a bit when you named a piece Microsymph. You were saying that you’re attracted to music that takes you on this long journey. Here’s a piece that takes you on a journey, but it does so very quickly…

SC: Exactly. Mahler for modern times, right?

FJO: So why reference those titles now?

SC: Well, the Piano Sonata is an early piece—I think I did it in ‘88 or something like that. I think I wanted to reference, not just going back to Beethoven, but also obviously there’s the Barber Sonata, there’s a contemporary American practice that relates to that, too, or Prokofiev sonatas. I think it came from a kinship with that. However, in the case of the Piano Concerto, that was more of a conscious choice to do that when I’ve mostly had titles that referred to some conceptual component of the piece. There I wanted to banish that and just work within this simple tri-partite structure. That sort of seemed the logical thing to do. But I had alternate titles that I considered that I can’t remember now.

FJO: Yet you’ve written many pieces for soloists and orchestra over the years and you don’t call any of them concertos; each has a unique name, like your most recent one for harp and orchestra which you titled Traces. So is that piece somehow not a harp concerto?

SC: It is a harp concerto in structure, I think. That’s a complicated thing, the history of the concerto in the 20th century—really great pieces that are sort of un-concertos or something like that, like the Ligeti concerti where the instruments aren’t meant to have this 19th-century heroic stance of the individual to this mass and so on. To me, if you’re writing for a soloist with orchestra, wanting to undo that or to totally negate that is a little perverse. It’s about finding a new way of relating. And, of course, the case of harp is interesting because harp with orchestra is so problematic acoustically. So I wanted to find my own way for that. And the way I looked at it for Traces is that harp, in its sheer volume, can never win over the orchestra. But what it can do is lead the way. I have the harp being the initiator of everything. I thought that was a new way to deal with that relationship of the one to the many.

FJO: While the harp can easily get drowned out, if you orchestrate a certain way, it cuts through. That’s how it was traditionally used in the orchestra, as a punctuation that cuts through just now and then, but you’ve made that cutting though the focus of the piece.

SC: I know. Exactly. And it was a matter here of having this incredible opportunity to work with the Berlin Phil, but I also felt I had to sort of act with restraint. So I set up the framework of the piece such that that aspect of it would happen to some extent more naturally.


From the score of Traces by Sebastian Currier.
© Copyright 2009 by Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Reprinted by Permission.
(An excerpt from a performance of Traces, which includes this passage from the score,
is featured in the Cover video above.)

FJO: And if you get asked to write a piece for Anne-Sophie Mutter, as you did, even though you called it Time Machines and not “violin concerto,” you certainly wouldn’t write an un-concerto for her.

SC: Indeed, and I wouldn’t want to.

FJO: So how did you get connected to her?

SC: It’s a totally random thing. And it just goes to show you can never predict the way things happen. Do you remember—I’m sure you do, but many people wouldn’t at this point—the Friedheim awards?

FJO: Yes.

SC: I had a piece there, and it was sort of a little bit like Survivor. There are four people, and then they ranked you there, and you won or didn’t win and got sent packing. So there are four pieces, and I was three of four, so it wasn’t total humiliation, but it didn’t feel like the greatest night. And it was my violin and piano piece Clockwork. One of the jurors was Lambert Orkis, and he came up to me afterwards and he said, “I quite like that piece; I’d like to send it to Anne-Sophie Mutter whom I play with.” And I thought, “Sure, right.” You know, it seemed so unlikely. But I sent it to him like he asked. And then a few months later, I got an email from Anne-Sophie’s secretary saying that she didn’t want to play Clockwork; she’d like to commission a new piece instead. So that’s how we started the association. It turned out—even better—she never even told me, once we had the commission in place, she actually played Clockwork in Asia. It was also this fortuitous thing where the year that she was playing the piece I wrote—which was Aftersong—I was in Rome. I was close by in Europe, so I said, “Can I come to the concerts?” And she actually had me come; I came around to almost all of their concerts. Later she admitted that she wondered if it was a wise idea. Like, you know, was I total nut or whatever. But we actually had a great time, and she’s been really important to me in so many ways since then. It was really one of those things that no amount of planning would make happen; it was a very important, fortuitous chance thing.

FJO: It’s invaluable to have the advocacy of such a world-traveled European soloist who doesn’t play a lot of American composers since she’s really not exposed to what’s happening here very much. So you have your foot in the door in Europe in a way that is extremely enviable for a composer. And Traces just got done in Europe. I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation.

SC: I think there’s probably some. As you know well, it is a very different world. But sure, I am getting played there. She just did Time Machines with the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, which was really great. So one can hope that will continue on.

FJO: There’s another aspect of your pieces for soloists and orchestra that I’d like to touch on here, specifically Traces and Time Machines. You used the name “Piano Concerto” for your piece for piano and orchestra, and when you mentioned why you did so you talked about it having a “simple tri-partite structure.” Three movements is standard concerto form. But these other pieces, which you did not call concertos, unfold quite differently. In both of the pieces we’ve been talking about, you really do an experiment with the form by having many smaller movements and tying them together and having material from one movement be interpreted in a different way in another. It’s a very different approach to form. So in that sense, also, they’re really not concertos.

SC: Right, but except for an early piece like the Piano Sonata, I’m not sure I came from that sort of literalism. When you’re talking about a concerto, yes, there’s a three-movement structure, but there is also that broader idea of what does it mean to be a concerto, which you don’t need to really think about in terms of the three-movement structure, but more the dynamic relationship. I think actually the history of the word itself comes originally from sort of a cooperation. When you think of the Baroque concerto, it’s a very different relationship than the classical one, which is when a sort of a proto-Romantic concerto happens.

FJO: Another loaded genre name is the string quartet. I love the two pieces you wrote for the Cassatt, neither of which you called “string quartet,” but you actually composed two pieces before those, which I’ve never heard, that you did name string quartets. I find it interesting to call something String Quartet No. 2, because it not only gives listeners an association with Mozart or Shostakovich, but it also ties to your own history. You know, what about String Quartet No. 1? But you didn’t call Quartetset—the first of the pieces for the Cassatts—“String Quartet No. 3.” You view it as something other. And I’m curious about what that other is.

SC: Well, the First Quartet is so old, but I felt like I needed to acknowledge it and call the other one the second. But those aren’t pieces that I [now] have played; I was learning at that time. By the time of Quartetset, I was sort of in a different place. We are talking about titles now, it relates to how a title helps you get into a piece and relates also to the concept that surrounds it. At a certain point, I ended up using that as a method most of the time.

FJO: But it’s interesting, because Quartetset is still sort of a generic title, even though it’s a title only you’ve used—well, you and Lou Harrison, who wrote a piece he called String Quartet Set. But calling it a set perhaps calls attention to its having many shorter movements, just like Traces and Time Machines.

SC: Right.

FJO: Yet when you wrote Quiet Time, which is ostensibly your de facto String Quartet Number Four, if I may, it has a similar structure. Like Quartetset, it has seven movements. And, in fact, you have described it as an attempt to go back and create the same kind of piece a decade later, so I’m curious about what your two approaches were to writing the same piece.

SC: I’ll answer that, but to go back to Quartetset, I think that’s one of the few cases where I sort of got distracted in terms of the title. Usually I conceptualize what a piece is, and I generally end up doing that. You know, of course, it’s always sort of T.S. Eliot—between the idea and the reality there’s a shadow, stuff changes. But that was a case where what I really wanted to do, which I mean I think I should have done but I didn’t, was to write a bunch of short pieces. It seemed to me that string quartets [ensembles] only have string quartets [compositions]. So I wanted to write the equivalent of Chopin etudes, or preludes, or mazurkas, things that could be excerpted that were short pieces that made a collection, hence the name Quartetset. But then I got going on it, and I got these sort of expansive movements, and it ended up being more like just a quartet. It sort of morphed. I remember I had problems writing that piece. For some reason, it was a little bit tortured to get it to happen.

FJO: When you talk about movements existing on their own, I can’t imagine any of them doing so except for maybe the sixth movement, which is so hauntingly beautiful.

SC: It is being done as a dance thing.

FJO: The viola seems to have an extremely prominent role throughout Quartetset, but particularly in that sixth movement. It leads in a way that the viola rarely does in the string quartet literature.

SC: I can think of places now that you mention that, but I don’t know if that was intentional. Maybe. My father was [also] a violist. He played viola more later in life, so there was a lot of viola around.

But getting back to how Quiet Time and Quartetset are related, there is an answer to that that might not be apparent. I always thought of Quartetset as part of a group of pieces along with Vocalissimus and Entanglement and Theo’s Sketchbook that sometimes I talk about as music in the third person. When you read a novel—even if there’s a first person narrative—you don’t assume it’s the novelist. It’s somehow distant. And obviously, there’d be other novelists that would have many different points of view, even maybe characters that serve as narrators. In music, however, there’s sort of a presumption—I think—that it’s a first person thing. It’s like memoir all the time. And so I wondered if that needs to be true, or if there’d be an advantage from stepping back from that a little bit. That’s very clear in something like Vocalissimus, where it’s 18 settings of the same Wallace Stevens poem so it becomes very much about that. Entanglement is sort of a basic concept for a piece that two composers have, but they’re very different, so it’s borne out in different ways. Theo’s Sketchbook is a compilation through the lifetime of a composer, so it gives a sense of a narrative arc—a lifetime of a composer’s music.

Quartetset is more abstract, but I suppose follows that in some way. I don’t think I executed it that well, but I thought of it as somehow the past and the present being the two voices. When the piece begins, there is this sort of almost Viennese little thing that it begins with and the violin comes in on this one note, and it crescendos to this note, and when it gets to the top of the note, it moves to the next note, and a chord comes in. You really feel like, right before you, it sort of morphs between two worlds. I don’t think I did it extremely enough, or consistently enough through the piece, but that was my idea. So in Quiet Time, I was following the idea of this sort of dialogue between two things, but that dialogue was between natural and artificial sounds. The beautiful full-bodied sound of the quartet, then the things one does in digital signal processing—some sort of filtering, some sort of harmonic thing, pitch shifting or remodulation, compressing time or expanding time, resonances like reverbs and delays. So basically my dialogue was between the natural quartet sound and then these, in my mind, processed versions. So I somehow related that dialogue to being like the past and the present for Quartetset. But it’s not something that is very readily apparent when you just listen to it.


An example of the strings recreating the sound of “digital signal processing” in a passage from the score of “Time’s Arrow,” the second movement of Quiet Time by Sebastian Currier.
© Copyright 2004 by Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Reprinted by Permission.

FJO: This idea of writing in the voice of another imaginary composer is a very strange one, I think. But what’s interesting is that each time you’ve explored that idea in a very different way. Entanglement isn’t a sonata for violin and piano; rather it’s two sonatas fused together.

SC: Exactly. Right.

FJO: But obviously both composers are you.

SC: Right.

FJO: In a way, every composer is writing toward a specific musical solution that works for whatever idea they may have for a piece in advance, whatever the style or compositional system. In these pieces, you question that process by offering multiple solutions. In Entanglement there are two, in Vocalissimus you offer a total of 18, which is weird. So how are these hypothetical composers you’ve created not you? How would you have done things differently?

SC: Isn’t it reflective of you to say there’s one solution? If you went back to the 18th century, that would be pretty apparent. But since the 20th century, I’m not sure that would be apparent. We live in a multifarious world. So I think that’s part of it. There’s a certain strain today even in European modernist stuff. I was at Columbia University, and there’s [some modernist] music I very much respect and like. But what I don’t like and don’t respect is the sort of closed feeling that that’s the only way, that it’s this way or the highway. It just doesn’t make sense to me as a conceptual framework for the way the world is. All of these things, going back to the different characters, can reflect that point of view. And I don’t know how weird it is. It’s not weird at all to ask that question if there’s a character in a novel. It’d almost be absurdly naïve to say that a character has nothing to do with the author. The relationships that are set up are all from the author, and the story that’s being told as a whole is the author’s, right?

FJO: I take your point, but this is music. I think the piece where it’s the most apparent is Theo’s Sketchbook. You’re creating this world of a composer from his juvenilia to the last piece that he writes, and you’re saying this isn’t you. You’re saying that if you were the composer writing all of these pieces, they’d be much different than this.

SC: Right.

FJO: So, to get really specific, how are you a different composer than Theo?

SC: Well, to get really specific, I’m mid-career, he’s done his thing. One of the things in that particular piece that was the starting point for me was whether we can hear maturity; that’s an attribute that we hear in music. An early Mozart piece sounds different than a late Mozart piece. We feel something. You don’t even need to be told that much. You figure that out. And the question is, why? What is it? So that’s what the impetus was for scoping out that piece. And that just seemed like a way. How else would I do it, but to distance myself and have that sort of fictional narrative?

FJO: It’s funny that you mention Mozart who died at 35.

SC: Right, but Bastien et Bastienne or something like that is different from—

FJO: —the Jupiter Symphony or the Requiem.

SC: Exactly. Yeah.

FJO: But can you write the music of a 70-year old if you’re not 70?

SC: Well, can a male writer take the voice of a woman? Sure. You can, but it is fiction; it’s posed in some way. Everybody knows it’s the nature of fiction; we know we’re reading a book that’s not real. It’s about entering into that world and having that relationship between the actual and the imaginary, right? So I’m asking the same thing. I think you could say that yes, I think I have pieces that maybe in some ways are program music, but that I don’t want to have be program music. So this adds that element, because you’re having to imagine this relationship.

FJO: Let’s continue this analogy of a novelist writing in someone else’s voice. An extremely effective novel written in such a way which immediately comes to mind is Robert Graves’s I Claudius, which is a first person narrative by the Emperor Claudius, somebody from 2,000 years ago. Graves had to get into the head of this guy, who’s not 100 percent likeable at all times, but he has to find a way to make him sympathetic. Graves really had to deeply empathize with Claudius and get into his head and make the reader believe in him somehow. How did you become Theo? How do you get into that zone where you write music that’s not you, to write the music of a teenager again, or, even more difficult, to write the music of an old man decades before you’re one yourself? How did you get to that place and say, this is Theo’s music, for yourself, to make it work?

SC: I don’t know. I think I did that relatively intuitively. There wasn’t that much thought in a way—it’s disappointing to say—in terms of that. But part of it was setting it in the Northwest and there’s Eskimo music in it. As a composer, I generally don’t do that sort of thing. So that sort of allowed me to try it on, within the context of stepping back a little bit. The other thing was having something sort of childish that seems to sort of blossom into something and then move into something else; that was part of the whole formal nature of the piece because it dealt with the full arc of a lifetime.

FJO: I love this idea that writing this piece allowed you to write music you were interested in writing but which you felt you couldn’t write as yourself.

SC: Not music I couldn’t write but don’t write, and that I could maybe dip into in a way that I wouldn’t normally. Maybe I will someday. Who knows?


An example of music by “Theo” that would not have been written by “Sebastian Currier”:
The “Eskimo Song” from Theo’s Sketchbook by Sebastian Currier.
© Copyright 1992 by Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Reprinted by Permission.

FJO: Could this be a way to go back to writing for rock band, say, writing a piece that’s in the head of a guy who stayed doing rock?

SC: There we go, my next piece. You never know. But I should say, because we’re talking about it a lot, that idea was sort of a passing thing. I haven’t done that in some time, but it interested me for a while. It really started with Vocalissimus and with the particular idea of text setting. Actually, because I heard some I thought god-awful setting of Blake’s “The Tiger”—

“Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night”

—and thought why would anybody set that like that. I’m sure that composer, who luckily I’ve forgotten, had reasons for why he did what he did. But that made me realize that when we set stuff, it’s sort of like a mirror of ourselves. We think we’re interpreting one thing, but in fact we’re really more reflecting who we are. So that was the core of where I started. And then Vocalissimus branched out from that. Finding, I thought, a cubist point of view to a text. Then that gave me the idea that I can scope this out in other ways.

FJO: So is a listener going to be able to get that from just the music? How important is it to you that listeners know what the idea is that generates the piece?

SC: I think anything should work. I often go to a concert and I don’t read the program notes. I just want to hear the piece. Maybe if you’re interested, you’ll explore stuff. The one thing I would say, if you’re hearing Theo’s Sketchbook and you know nothing about it: You hear this childish little thing, you hear it change, by the end it sort of broadens out, and then you hear something that sort of is a much more mature version of this childish thing you’ve heard before. I think that would give you signs of something going on. You don’t need to know the rest, but that’s sort of inherent in the shape without having to know any sort of extra-musical, textual thing. I would hope that every piece I do has some conceptual component. In Quiet Time, you might not know that it’s a dialogue between natural and artificial, but once I told you that, you could think, “Oh yeah, I heard that first phrase like this, I heard that same phrase again, but sort of like it was weird and twisted in a way that I guess I can imagine was remodulation.”

FJO: Obviously when you add a text, you’re adding something that people get instantly: the words, unless you’re setting randomly generated words or maybe late Gertrude Stein texts, which are their own wonderful universes. But, as you said, people think they’re being pure to a text but often they’re just reflecting their own aesthetics. Two vocal pieces of yours handle this situation very differently from each other: Sleepers and Dreamers, your new piece for chorus and orchestra, and Vocalissimus. In Vocalissimus you’re setting the same line, over and over again, each time in a different way. It’s a strange idea; you calling it cubist is a very interesting way to describe it. In a way it totally subverts this notion of serving a text in a certain way and the music being a vessel on which this text lies. Instead, the text became a workshop for a wide variety of compositional approaches.

SC: That’s true, but it is something that I set up particularly for that piece. And it took me some time to get the right text, because I think one thing it needed was a certain openness and ambiguity and obviously brevity, too, to make that work. In that piece, it becomes more about the process.

FJO: So you had the idea for how you were going to set this text before you actually had chosen the specific text?

SC: Yeah. I was looking at another Wallace Stevens poem with the phrase “Look at the terrible mirror of the sky,” which seemed totally appropriate because I’m talking about sort of a mirror of oneself. But that phrase was set in three stanzas and I thought, I can’t do this; it was just going to be too long. So I kept looking for a long time until I found that very brief poem by Wallace Stevens that I could set many times.

FJO: Susan Narucki is just stunning on the recording. She takes on these different identities so effectively, which raises an interpretative issue. It’s not about having one sound and you really have to be kind of deliberate in order to deliver it.

SC: But I think that when you’re thinking about the performative aspect of it, that gives a singer something that’s sort of enjoyable to do. It extends what I said about my doing something that I ordinarily wouldn’t do. It’s the same thing in a way. It invites the singer to do things that would be out of her comfort zone and, as a matter of fact, I think the better performances are where singers are more willing to do this—to sing with a voice that they would not want to be heard, one that’s totally flattened and maybe child-like in [another] one, something like that. It allows you to try different things. I’m like giving you that license to do it.


In the “Somnambulist” movement, Currier takes a very dreamy approach to the setting of a line by Wallace Stevens. From Vocalissimus by Sebastian Currier.
© Copyright 1991 by Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Reprinted by Permission.


However, In the following movement, “Scientist,” the text is declaimed by the singer and accompanied by the ensemble much more methodically. From Vocalissimus by Sebastian Currier.
© Copyright 1991 by Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Reprinted by Permission.

FJO: In tying this back to our earlier thread in this conversation about interacting with the tradition of classical music, Vocalissimus connects with a specific legacy that’s 100 years old at this point: Pierrot Lunaire. You use the same instrumentation only with percussion as so many composers have done over the course of the last century. I wonder if the ghosts of those pieces were hovering over you in any way. Schoenberg has certainly been a huge ghost over all of 20th century music. He was a great figure, but he’s also been kind of used as a dart board by people who have certain attitude about what contemporary music should be. He’s the guy that gets accused of making music ugly and being cliquish, creating things that only a few people could understand. I wonder if in some way this piece was about exorcising those ghosts.

SC: The thing with Schoenberg is you have his importance, and then you have his music, and there are few pieces that I like a great deal and then a lot of it I’m not interested in. It doesn’t interest me that much to sit down and listen to a great deal of his stuff. I actually like Pierrot and I love the Five Pieces for Orchestra; the early stuff I like. But after that, I’m not sure it matters that much to me. But maybe you’re asking the question more broadly—what he stands for. The generation before were obsessed with it. It’s not really important for me.

FJO: Well, in terms of your formative years as a composer, your two principal teachers were Milton Babbitt and George Perle, both of whom were direct extensions of Schoenberg. Babbitt was taking Schoenberg’s ideas to their logical next level and Perle’s initial misinterpreting of Schoenberg led him to a whole new way of reconciling twelve-tone thinking with tonality. So I’m curious about how their musical ideas filtered through to you.

SC: Well, in the case of Milton Babbitt, he was, as I’m sure you know, an incredibly smart guy and he very much prided himself on letting people do what they wanted to do. So I enjoyed working with him, and I learned a lot. But his projects and the implicit project of the follow through of dodecaphony and the picayune sort of relationships with pitch and collections of pitches, that didn’t mean that much to me. Pitch is very important to me, but the way things are worked out in this pre-compositional mathematical way wasn’t ever that important to me. So I don’t think in terms of him. I don’t have a feeling of much influence. In terms of Perle, maybe just in terms of his trying to start from the ground up and look at other ways of looking at pitch structures was kind of interesting to me at a certain point. The very basic idea of interval cycles is still something that, I think, does play a role.

FJO: That’s interesting. I’ve immersed myself in many of your scores. I haven’t done too deep an analysis of it, but following along with the score as I was in listening to Broken Consort, it really did seem influenced by twelve-tone music.

SC: I know exactly what you’re talking about, but that’s from a different point of view. The whole idea of having some jagged line that’s moving around and uses all twelve pitches and is sort of complicated sounds great, right? But the feeling that you’re going to take that, and that it matters that later you have one hexachord that you’ve transposed up a fifth, that is the stuff that doesn’t interest me that much, to focus in on that. But yes, there are definitely elements of the sound world that are appealing to me.

FJO: And obviously, the listener is invited to conjure up that sound world from certain types of gestures, and I would contend, certain instrumental combinations, or more specifically certain ways of combining them. To bring it back to Vocalissimus and the ghosts of Schoenberg and Pierrot LunairePierrot Lunaire wasn’t a twelve-tone piece, but the Pierrot instrumentation became the sound world for so much twelve-tone music.

SC: Absolutely, but maybe it’s not always a choice. One just ends up writing a certain amount for that because one’s asked and so on. Static was written because Copland House came to me, and there might have been some wiggle room, like you could not use the flute or not use the clarinet, but it all sort of clustered around that type of combination.

FJO: The Pierrot ensemble has actually been very good for you. Static won a Grawemeyer and you’re the only composer ever to win for a piece of chamber music.

SC: There you go. So my hat’s off to Schoenberg on that one.

FJO: But in a piece like Static, there wasn’t the conscious choice of your saying, “I’m going to write a piece for this ensemble since there are so many of these ensembles around.”

SC: Exactly. But in other cases it might be more a gray area. For Vocalissimus, I did choose that.

FJO: Specifically to conjure up Pierrot?

SC: No, I think more because it was a practical thing that I wanted in terms of getting performance opportunities.

FJO: Sleepers and Dreamers is a lot more ambitious in terms of instrumentation. But again, it’s a very unorthodox approach, I think, to setting a text. It’s a piece for chorus and orchestra, but you’ve set a first-person text. You don’t even have any vocal soloists; it’s always the full chorus.

SC: When you say first person, you mean many different persons.

FJO: Yes, but all the “I”s are being sung by “we”—always.

SC: Right. For the nature of the concert, that was partially practical. It wouldn’t have worked with soloists. And there’s no reason why a chorus couldn’t take on these different characters, it seemed to me, and to make that happen musically.

FJO: I found it interesting that one of the characters is named Sebastian.

SC: Well, I’ll tell you the story. I worked with Sarah Manguso, who is, I think, an amazing writer and a good friend. We did a piece that’s being done in Houston, Deep-Sky Objects, a then we did this piece. The concept was mine. I said basically what I want is the objective signs of sleep and I want to counter that with the subjective world of dreams. And so she gave me a text. I really liked the first part a lot; it’s what’s there now. But her dreams just weren’t right. I think there’s a thing with writers and dreams, because there’s so much license and one would tend to over compensate the other way. I needed the opposite. I needed the basic components of dreams: the exaggeration, the fear, the strangeness. So I ended up not using her text. There are these big dream databases for sleep research in California that I was going to use. I started to look for stuff there, but in the meantime I would just ask my friends, not necessarily about the dream they had last night, but dreams that they remembered from a long time ago. And I got so many good dreams that I ended up using them. So everybody in there is somebody I know; they’re all real people and real dreams. There was something obviously fun about that. I knew these people, but also I just thought they were great dreams.

FJO: So Sebastian is you.

SC: Indeed, Sebastian is me. There’s one where I change it around. Only one. The rest are all real people. Actually there were two that were mine, but I named one after my father instead.

FJO: The dream of yours you chose to include in the piece and put your name on deals with your own body, which is a very private matter.

SC: I’m not that private. It’s a bizarre dream.

FJO: But to have something so personal, whether it’s your dream or anybody else’s, become de-personalized in a way by having it sung by a group of people, rather than by one person, seems like a very unusual approach, at least to me.

SC: Yeah, maybe so. From a personal stand point now, or more of a compositional one?

FJO: Mostly compositional.

SC: It’s funny, I didn’t really even think of it beforehand. In rehearsals, I wondered if there would be joking. But it was fine, it never even came up really. It’s just what it was about. It doesn’t seem to me that it’s sexual. It’s personal, but it’s fine. I thought it was a weird dream, so I was proud of it from the standpoint of how weird it was.

FJO: But I’m noticing a similar attitude to the one you took with Vocalissimus when it comes to how you approach text setting. You had this idea for a vocal piece before you had the text. So the text didn’t inspire the setting. Instead, the setting you wanted inspired finding the texts.

SC: Correct.

FJO: So it’s much less about trying to find a common ground between a text and your own music and more about sculpting the language to fit your specific musical goals.

SC: Absolutely. Originally, the way the project happened, I was getting pressure to have a writer involved. I actually didn’t want one when I first started for that reason. I’m about to work on another project where I’m sort of avoiding that. I mean, it’s using other people’s text, but I’m dealing with it, because, yes, I think there is something to be gained from having total control or last minute control. If you’re just confronted with a text and setting it, there’s something that has been set up already. I think different things happen musically if you don’t have to have that environment. It’s funny because the other thing that can get in the way is simple legal stuff, like copyright, because you have to ask permission in advance. You can’t suddenly just change something on the fly, although I wish you could. So yes, you’re absolutely right that that interests me—to be able to make things with text where I’m making those choices in a way that is immediately responsive to musical things, rather than the other way around.

But I want to follow up with what you said about the chorus singing “I.” You’d probably know better than I do, but in terms of convention that probably happens a certain amount in choral literature anyway. But there was another maybe Jungian aspect to this piece. The first part is sort of a scientific, objective part. The second part—the dreams—alternates between vocalize—I think proportionally, in terms of time, more than half is simply singing on vowels—and these little moments where these dreams are. The reason I did that is obvious, it’s a night of sleep; it sort of duplicates in some way the process of sleep. Obviously it’s compressed. In 90-minute cycles, you move through deep sleep into stage three and sometimes stage four, and then you come up into REM, and then that repeats and so on. I wanted to duplicate that so when you think of it, in a way the whole thing is one night’s sleep. But then it’s all different people’s dreams, so there’s sort of a morphing of the collective with the singular in the nature of the way it’s put together. It is saying we all have our individual dreams, sure, but it’s also this basic component of being human, that we share in our own ways. And nobody really understands it.

FJO: So then how important is it to you that the words of the text are understood when an audience hears them sung? Is that even an issue for you?

SC: It’s very important. And with chorus, it’s hard. What I really want, and I hope in subsequent performances I can have it, is supertitles. I think the text is really important and I think the enjoyment of the piece will be increased by having it. I did my best with the comprehensibility. Maybe not totally, chorus is limited; it’s just the nature of chorus, particularly if you’re having anything that’s not totally homophonic. At that point it becomes very hard. There’s a history of that, too. Often the text is not as important in, you know, a mass, because it’s stuff that’s known already. Phrases get repeated a lot. The Kyrie is just six words total. The history of choral music is about dealing with that in different ways. I try to find my best balance of that.

An excerpt from the world premiere performance of Deep-Sky Objects (2011). Music by Sebastian Currier, text by Sarah Manguso. Performed on September 22, 2012 at the Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall in Houston, Texas, by Karol Bennett, soprano, with Musiqa. Videography by Bill Klemm, courtesy Anthony Brandt / Musiqa.
FJO: In a collaborative work, there’s always a danger that one element will overshadow the other. Music can be overshadowed, too, especially by visual stimuli since we are largely more acculturated to paying attention to what we see more than we hear. You’ve now done quite a few pieces that involve multi-media components, which, potentially, could distract people from the music. So I wonder in those contexts how much of the music you write is shaped by what your collaborator is doing with the video, or how much control you have to shape the images and make it work with your music the way you do with text.

SC: The answer is actually very variable. In the case of Next Atlantis, that’s actually a very complicated story. But the way it is now, I wrote the music entirely, and we edited the video images on top of it. So it wasn’t in any way dictated by the images. We’re used to music in film becoming subordinate. With Nightmaze, the whole idea was to set up something that had a rhythm of attention with a visual aspect. Most of the time, it’s this very neutral thing, you’re just going down a road and then these signs loom up and there’s suddenly attention towards that visual component. I wanted to have some way that you could let the music and sound predominate mostly. I was definitely conscious of that issue. And in terms of that, it doesn’t even exist as a video. It uses a program called Watchout; it’s basically a complicated queuing system. I did this to prevent having to use a click track. I was controlling when stuff would happen. It was predetermined, but not from a video. It was actually from a text of a friend of mine—Tom Bolt—one chapter of an experimental novel of his. I felt I had the space to do what I wanted, but I was also being directed by the images or the narrative basically.

FJO: The images of driving down a highway in Nightmaze fit really well with your music. Of course, driving and music really are an effective combination which is probably why all that music Bernard Herrmann wrote for Jimmy Stewart’s long drives in Vertigo work so well.

SC: Those are great scenes. I’ve even thought that the nice thing about driving is it’s about motion which also relates to music which is about motion, too. There’s definitely a good connection.

FJO: And of course, music is—more than anything else—about time, which has been a recurring inspiration for the titles of your pieces over the years. In the booklet notes for one of the CDs, you made some really fascinating comments about music existing in time, and how you want to capture time.

SC: In [the notes for] Time Machines, I was just saying that obviously any performative art unfolds through time. But music is even more simply made out of time because pitch is a function of time. And therefore, it’s really nothing but time and air, literally. A cycle of time, in the case of pitch, and then the time thing that we’re more used to, personal time unfolding.

FJO: And timbre of course, and harmony…

SC: Obviously all of those, hence my last movement is called “Harmonic Time,” and indeed, all of them are extensions of time, which we normally don’t think of at all. It’s sort of removed from our senses, but indeed it is made that way.

FJO: The very last area I want to talk to you about, and this again comes from just having been immersed in your scores, is that all the scores from the 1990s are these beautiful, hand-written manuscripts and that is how they are published. But the pieces from the last decade are all computer engraved. I see a computer hooked up here, and obviously you’re now using some kind of notation software. I’m wondering if you feel that’s changed your process in any way, especially in terms of working out details, to take it back to the very beginning of our conversation.

SC: I have no nostalgia. I find using a computer is great for all that. But I definitely write differently post computers. But I don’t usually copy a piece until the very end. That’s the last stage. That’s like draft seven, let’s say, or something like that. And not having to deal with musical notation that much until that point, I find very liberating. One thing that’s helped me over time is I’ve learned to sketch. And I think maybe it takes time. You need to know what you do to sketch. It’s always that sort of chicken and egg thing. But I think there’s something very difficult about—and I used to do this—having to notate stuff. You end up working very hard having to make local decisions of details early on. And then you’ve spent a week on this thing, and you suddenly say, wait a second. That doesn’t work. And yet you spent all this time. You make better decisions about local things when you know how it fits in the whole, and to have to make a local decision early on is hard. There was this show of Gehry at the Guggenheim a while ago and they showed all his models. Have you ever seen a Gehry model when he starts? It’s the most horrible looking scrunched piece of paper. There’s a piece of balsa wood that’s been sort of cracked in half, and you look at it and you think, “What’s that disgusting thing?” And then you look; that’s Bilbao! Because he would start with the idea you just need to get the form. He knew he’d figure out the beauty of the particular curve later, but he’s working to sort what the basic layout is. And once you get that, then you model it with a little more detail. So that’s how I work now. And I think computers help me do that, to work broadly, and then to zero in, and all the end decisions are when I copy it into Finale.

FJO: That’s certainly very different from the way composers worked in previous centuries.

SC: Indeed it is. Well, I think it is. Why do you say that?

FJO: Well, Beethoven didn’t have a laptop. Neither did Brahms or Chopin or Scarlatti. Some composers kept extensive sketchbooks, but I think that’s quite a different way of working than what you’ve just described.

SC: Beethoven sketched things. People improvised things and then sometimes half improvised a performance and then wrote it down. So just the presence of musical notation, let’s say if you went back pre-computer, that doesn’t mean that’s the same as before, either though, right? Those things relate to overall musical practice in a broad way. So sure, it’s changed, for sure.