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My last post, “Sound, Architecture, and Necromancy,” shared thoughts about recording at ancient sites in Greece and Italy. This post examines the development of Lavender Ruins, a four-channel sound composition created in collaboration with artist Fujiko Nakaya and experimental lighting designer Shiro Takatani. (Lavender Ruins plays simulatneously with Nakaya’s fog sculpture Fog x Ruins at Franklin Park, Boston, through October 2018.)
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, curator Jen Mergel commissioned Nakaya to create five site-responsive fog sculptures to be installed along Boston’s Emerald Necklace, a five-and-a-half-mile chain of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO). Experiencing the sculptures is immersive and wet. Changes in the wind, humidity, temperature, and light transform the sculptures. Speaking of her work, Nakaya says, “The atmosphere is my mold and the wind is my chisel to sculpt in real time.” The exhibition, titled Fog x FLO: Fujiko Nakaya on the Emerald Necklace turns the 1,100-acre Emerald Necklace park system into a platform for artistic creation, celebrating both Olmsted’s foresight to connect the city with greenspace and Nakaya’s fifty-year practice. The exhibit included an open call for artists to propose on-site interventions, in response to Nakaya’s sculptures. Fog x FLO is a first for Boston and Nakaya’s most expansive exhibition in her 50-year career. It is expected to attract more than 800,000 visitors over twelve weeks.
I experienced Nakaya’s work before we ever met. In 2014, I wrote about the futuristic Pepsi Pavilion which was covered by a fog veil of Nakaya’s design and created by the group Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) for Expo ’70, Osaka. In 2017, I saw Nakaya’s mesmerizing performance collaboration with Shiro Takatani, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and dancer Min Tanaka at Ten Days Six Nights at the Tate Modern. Nakaya also saw my performance with Phill Niblock the following day at the same festival. On the eve of her arrival in Boston from Tokyo in February 2018, Nakaya came to my concert at the ICA Boston called “Sounding the Cloud,” with Scanner and Stephen Vitiello. By April, when Nakaya again visited me, we already had a clear understanding of each other’s practice. She invited me to create sound for her Fog x FLO fog sculpture at the Overlook Shelter Ruins, a pavilion designed by Olmsted that was destroyed by fire in the 1940s, leaving only the stone remains.
For me, the Overlook Shelter Ruins are the Necklace’s most evocative site for an installation. The remaining stone archway feels like a timeless relic. Three stairways that once flanked the building’s entrance now lead to open sky. The corner walls are overgrown with wild foliage. An added allure is that, beginning in 1966, the ruins were used by famed Bostonian Elma Lewis to host annual concerts by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I imagined the sound of Ellington’s reed section lingering in the air. Lead alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, both born within miles of the ruins, probably played with Ellington on-site. I’ve spent countless hours in Franklin Park and the nearby Arnold Arboretum. These are parks where I fell in love, taught my son to bike, and still visit to replenish myself. The commission became an opportunity to revisit the personal importance of Olmsted, Ellington, and E.A.T.
The size of this installation, production logistics, and changing weather presented a number of challenges and opportunities. For Fog x Ruins, Nakaya designed a 96 x 40-foot rectangular structure comprising scaffolding and an array of 900 mist nozzles perched atop the perimeter. A nearby fire hydrant emits a 90-PSI stream of water, regulated by computer-controlled pumps, to produce cycles of fog that intensify for a minute or two and then stop entirely, allowing for the fog to dissipate. When visitors walk into this pavilion, they see their friends disappear in the mist, strangers emerge, a ceiling of fog above obscures the sky. Takatani’s lighting design gives the sculpture a spectacular presence as night falls.
Creating sound for a large outdoor installation has been a dream of mine for years. This installation was a challenge because there were a lot of unknowns, including elements that could not be tested until the sculpture was finished and I could hear my audio on location with the fog. I also knew that the timing of fog and light projections were subject to change, even after I finished the music.
As composing started, I sought to link Ellington and Nakaya’s work. I listened to related themes by Ellington, including Lady of the Lavender Mist, The Kissing Mist, Atmosphere (Moon Mist), A Blue Fog That You Can Almost See Through (Transblucency), and The Fog That Clouds It (Schwiphti). I chose the first three ethereal chords of Lady of the Lavender Mist as a point of departure for writing the music.
For this project, I booked a five-day recording session at the Tank, a 65-foot-tall empty metal water treatment tank in Langley, Colorado. The Tank has a convex floor, concave roof, cylindrical walls, and a 40-second reverb. A container just outside the Tank is outfitted with recording gear. The size of the Tank expands and contracts based on temperature changes. Heat, windstorms, howling dogs, and the noise of trucks dictated when I could record. However, when conditions were right, I heard saxophone notes linger in the cavernous space above like a cloud of sound, with specific harmonics coming in and out of focus. The room responds like an old band mate who knows your music well and plays your performance back in harmonic variations.
Engineer Bob E. Burnham came on the final day and set up four stereo pairs of microphones surrounding the saxophone. We multi-tracked both alto and tenor parts to get more of an ensemble sound. I thought of the audio recording process as something like a four-camera shoot. The four mics could be used to construct a 360-degree panoramic sound field, or used individually to highlight specific angles of listening. My thinking was to create a quadraphonic piece surrounding listeners inside the fog, where the alto saxophone played from one end of the sculpture and tenor played from the opposite side. Much of the actual sound of the saxophone would be edited out, and the resonant harmonies of multiple notes lingering in the Tank would be emphasized.
In the end, I composed a fifteen-minute quadraphonic piece to play at the Overlook Shelter Ruins. I used waterproof JBL speaker arrays placed in the four corners of the structure. There are no electronic effects on the saxophone and, as visitors wander freely inside the structure, there is no “best” listening point. In that way, the listening space is designed after my experience in the Tank.
At our first sound check, presenting the draft with pride, Nakaya responded, “It is so serene. Should I make the fog more serene?” At first, I admittedly took this to be her way of saying, “Not turbulent enough.” During the same auditions, Mergel pointed to the perimeter of the scaffolding where nozzles cut a line of fog upward and wondered if the sound could reflect the contrast of solid architectural shapes and soft ethereal droplets. Listening to Nakaya and Mergel, I added vignettes of impulsive computer-regulated clicking and noise bursts that gave a sense of turbulence, which Mergel equated with “an Arctic icebreaker cutting through.” In the end, Nakaya requested that the sound be extended from the originally planned sunset hours and be heard for the entire day as an “integral part” of the collaborative work. It also turned out that the music was not subordinate to the fog. As Nakaya noted, when the cloud is thickest, “the sound gives a form to the installation.”
Despite having done a number of outdoor projects, this was my first opportunity to create sound for a long-duration, outdoor piece in a widely accessible urban site. As much as any work I have been involved with, the audience is in dialog with the art. Some visitors return daily, while others make a single pilgrimage to the site. I hear them talk about their experience amongst themselves. As Mergel has noticed, “While Nakaya’s fog is set at the former roofline of the building to float like a cloud dome that fills the space, Leonard’s clarion sax sounds in Lavender Ruins reverberate on invisible walls, surrounding us with echoing generations of genius: of Olmsted, Ellington, Nakaya, and Leonard, the past and future fading into each other.”
Fujiko Nakaya and Neil Leonard at the opening Photo by Jen Mergel
Quotes are from an email exchange with the curator on Oct 7, 2018
Early in 2015, I asked Donald Nally to join me as co-music director for a Chicago performance of David Lang’s crowd out, a work for 1000 untrained voices, written in 2014. It would be the work’s US premiere.
What is the power of a crowd?
When creating this piece, David had asked himself: What is the power of a crowd? What do we as individuals gain by joining with others? What do we lose? crowd out is his answer. Performers are scattered around a large venue, initially indistinguishable from audience members. They whisper a crowd-sourced text. Whispers turn to speech, which turns to shouts, which turns to song. Is this a celebration? A rally? Sports fans at a game? A congregation?
I approached the Chicago Humanities Festival about presenting the work, and in 2016, Illinois Humanities came on board. The work of these organizations complemented one another: Illinois Humanities, whose work brings together communities from across the state to “share ideas that matter,” would gather participants for crowd out; Chicago Humanities Festival, which presents a major annual festival of arts and ideas, would organize the day-of performance.
The project also received a $50,000 grant from the City of Chicago.
Donald Nally, co-music director
I’m interested in creative artists who are questioning how we receive information, how we interact with people. David is at the forefront of that. A piece that is by a crowd, about a crowd.
David Lang, composer
Twenty-five years ago, I was doing a project in London. I wandered through the neighborhood of Islington, where the Arsenal football team had their stadium. I was walking by right as a soccer match was about to begin. And someone was outside selling tickets. You entered this arena, there were 60,000 people, and they’re all singing, yelling, screaming. And occasionally there are these songs that every single person seems to know. A bunch of ordinary people making this music together. Everyone was welcome.
Bindu Poroori, Illinois Humanities
Crowd Out Chicago was an opportunity to develop relationships and have conversations about the state of the arts in our neighborhoods. We didn’t just want to engage with music groups, we wanted to engage with other community organizations. To be part of the conversations. None of us knew exactly what it was exactly going to look like. We just jumped in.
Heidi Hewitt, Chicago Humanities Festival
The scale, the partnership, the amount of players, that made it one-of-a-kind for us. I was a bit skeptical. I know how small Chicago Humanities Festival is, and what an undertaking it would be.
Kait Samuels, Chicago Humanities Festival
I come from a background as a stage manager in musical theater, and the largest thing involved seventy preteen tap dancers…which is its own bout of chaos. But nothing like this!
Co-director Donald Nally and I discussed possible venues for crowd out over several months. Indoor, outdoor, stadium, park, mall. All had pros and cons.
There is nothing wrong with the way that the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group produced [the premiere of] crowd out [in a shopping mall], but I had an aversion to the idea that the piece would be involved with commercial activity. We wanted to find an organic setting where a crowd didn’t feel unnatural, where one could choose to be in the midst of the performance, or find a place to observe.
All images: David T. Kindler, courtesy of Chicago Humanities Festival and Illinois Humanities
Illinois Humanities set itself an ambitious goal: draw participants from all fifty wards of the city of Chicago. Each ward would have a “member ensemble,” but all city residents would be welcome to join. Each ward-based group had its own group leader. Illinois Humanities structured each ward’s rehearsal as part-conversation, part-rehearsal.
We [contacted] choirs, art groups, after-school and church groups across the city. There were days when all we did was walk around a neighborhood, put up flyers, talk to the alderman and knock on church doors. We now know the distributions of denominations, about how people come together in different parts of the city.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna, group leader, Hubbard High School
Any time I have an opportunity to expose my students to something out of their neighborhood, that will give them a new experience, I jump on it. And I thought they might love that it is so unique and weird.
We were looking through the lens of this piece, asking what it means for people to cross neighborhood lines, what it means for people to come together, and why they might be interested or hesitant about a project like this.
Michael “Mike” Jones, group leader, Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy
A thing that was important was giving them the experience to see something new and different. To go with the kids to meet in Millennium Park. I assumed they were all youth groups. Then to understand that it was everybody, all ages, cultures, genders? It was a great melting pot. I felt really proud for my kids.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
The thing that drew me is that it was going to bring people together, to be representative of all fifty wards of Chicago.
Jefferey Thomas, Group Leader, The Hideout
It wasn’t my desire to put together a choir of really bitchin’ singers. I believed I could teach it to the most eclectic community group of people who could sing, or not sing, who were strangers.
I look at the world that we live in right now…I never said when singing in a choir, “I hate the person who is standing next to me.”
I look at the world that we live in right now, and I try to compare it to experiences I’ve had in choirs. I never said when singing in a choir, “I hate the person who is standing next to me, I don’t like them, so I’m going to wreck their part.”
The music of crowd out is unusual in that there is no musical score, but rather something closer to a script. The work is divided into eight parts, and in each part David describes waves of activity that take place across four colored groups of performers (called “strands”). For instance, the work opens in this way: “ALL 4 STRANDS: each person independently, speak in a whisper at first and gradually move to normal voice, at a normal pace, repeating sentences in order, with varying lengths of silence between each sentence: I draw deep breaths, I feel more confident and calm…”
It’s a score that you look at and are not sure how it’s going to play out. In a more conventional composition, at any given time you can say “The texture is _____.”
Theater improvisers would be great group leaders. Cheerleaders would be great group leaders. You don’t have to be a trained singer. Even an alderman would be a group leader. Community organizers and activists would be great group leaders.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
I teach high school on the south side, and my students aren’t exposed to much in the classical world, let alone in the contemporary new music world. My first reaction to the piece was, “My students are going to hate this.”
Gathering a 1000-strong choir from across the city was no easy feat.
There were five million moments when I thought it wasn’t going to happen. FIVE MILLION MOMENTS.
During the making of this piece I realized the value of having something difficult that you need a community of people to accomplish. It is something very beautiful and powerful to me, people coming together to solve a problem.
A lot of the stasis happened early. It seemed like a behemoth, and I didn’t know where to start. I was scared to have the first conversations, going in with the anxiety of “Who would want to do this?”
Kait Samuels, Chicago Humanities Festival
You can’t explain [crowd out] in five minutes. You can’t be like, “We’re going to sing ‘Carol of the Bells’ by the Christmas tree.”
I ended up with several members [from another ward’s group]. They told me that their choir dropped out. And I asked why, and they said, “They didn’t understand it.”
“What does it mean to bring this weird piece of contemporary art by a white dude and take it to a bunch of black and brown people all over the place?”
If you want to do a project in a city as ethnically diverse and segregated as Chicago is, then the first question needs to be, “What does it mean to bring this weird piece of contemporary art by a white dude and take it to a bunch of black and brown people all over the place?”
Michael “Mike” Jones
You know what I called it in my mind? Performance art. I thought it was really cool and different, and I thought, “How do I get my kids to buy in?” I told them about the piece, and you could see that confused look on their faces.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
I started [rehearsing] the singing first. It was catchy, [the students] could open their hearts to it. When I started introducing them to the text, it was tough. I teach some kids who have tough lives, and the words are isolating.
The text for Parts 4 and 7 includes these phrases, to be shouted: “I feel anxiety,” “I feel awful and I wish to be alone,” “I feel like rushing into tears,” “I feel so alone I could cry.”
That’s a problem with the libretto. It is kind of jarring. To sing those words, “I’m obsessed with being at the center of attention” in almost a plainchant way.
David Lang crowd out is very introspective, and it can be a little bit of a downer, because it’s very serious about who you are, what you lose when you’re in this crowd.
When I first started carting this piece around, it was with my implicit endorsement. A group would say, “There are things in this piece that make me feel uncomfortable,” and I felt on the defensive. I wish I’d said, “Here’s this controversial piece, that doesn’t speak to everybody. Now that you’re here, what does it evoke in you?”
Michael “Mike” Jones
[Musical Assistant] AJ [Keller] was really the deciding factor. His strength and confidence, and the way he was able to interact with the kids. Once AJ gave them background and substance, we were able to move forward. You could see them nodding their heads.
At some point in February we made our naive timeline of how things were going to shape up. By May, all fifty groups and the entire schedule should have been put together. And it was a barren wasteland in May. One thing I learned, if you’ve got to throw away the timeline, then, honey, throw away the timeline. Don’t let a piece of paper throw you on the ground. It took me a long time to come to terms with that.
One thing I learned, if you’ve got to throw away the timeline, then, honey, throw away the timeline. Don’t let a piece of paper throw you on the ground.
We didn’t know until July what the final timeline would be, and there was some mystery around what the number of participants would be. There were trust issues [between Illinois Humanities and Chicago Humanities Festival] that we had to overcome.
In May, the Fyre Festival brouhaha was happening, with people turning up and nothing there. I remember thinking, “This is what crowd out is going to be.” It’s going to be me faking for a very long time, then October happening, and people being like, “Bindu, did this fail?”, and me being like, “Yes, it did.”
I live my life going, “It’s okay if it doesn’t work this time.” A bunch of times I take similar risks, and not every one can be a home run. Once in a while I have to walk away and say, “Well, nobody died.”
Rehearsals took place at the ward level, then each group attended one of four “dress rehearsals” in the week before the performance.
At the Hideout [dress rehearsal], one person in another group criticized everything I did: “You know, there’s a space in here, and a space in here.” I thought that was wrong, to interpret it in this strict way. He was thinking of it as a “choir piece”, and that there are standards and traditions that must be observed. All the baggage that comes with performing “high” works of musical art. But crowd out is a piece for a crowd!
As we got into the rehearsal process, as we realized that people coming together were so different from one another, it meant that the piece itself took on a thousand different meanings.
The performance took place on October 1, 2017, in Chicago’s Millennium Park, in front of Cloudgate, known to locals as “The Bean.” Donald Nally directed, with the help of six assistants holding cue-cards. Before the performance, there was an hourlong rehearsal in the nearby Pritzker “bowl”.
With crowd out, we didn’t actually know how things would sound until we were in “The Bean” whispering. It was like rehearsing a wind octet without four of the players.
Michael “Mike” Jones
It was exciting from the time we gathered at our school. We took a trip to McDonalds, and the students got what they wanted to eat.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
The energy of being out with so many people! They were feeding off one another.
It was a full day of activities, of people getting to know each other. I feel like that is part of the piece.
Michael “Mike” Jones
When we were in the Pritzker, gathering, I wish that we’d had a warm up person or an emcee or a video, to get our minds working together: “Hey, everyone ready for crowd out?!”
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
The [short final] rehearsal at the [Pritzker] bowl was more exciting than [the performance], because the sound was different there and it was the first time my students heard all 1,000 people together.
We had to move quickly in our bowl rehearsal. I would have liked to run the piece, feel the form and structure of it, but we couldn’t do it. There were a lot of cooks in that kitchen.
When everyone was in the bowl it felt like it was in the 700s, but once we got to “The Bean,” it was so full. It had the power of a thousand.
Before the performance, people said, “Tell me about this piece. Can we do it?” All of a sudden, someone said, “It’s starting!” And I said to the new people, “Just stand here and watch.” They performed it without knowing the piece.
The piece began, and it wasn’t just whispering, but also commenting on the whispering from people who weren’t in the piece. And they became quieter, really listening to the whispering.
People would come up to me and were like, “Where is the choir performing?” And I’m like, “All around you”.
There were crying children, there were people trying to wiggle in front of “The Bean” to take a selfie. A woman was walking around with a cardboard cutout of Bernie Sanders. Someone overheard a tourist tell his friend, “I don’t know if I like this or I hate this, but I’m not going to forget it.”
Michael “Mike” Jones
I was surprised at the focus of everyone. The only word I can think of is “engulfing.” That’s what I tell everyone when we’re doing performances: When you get like people with the same goal in mind, you’re going to have success. No matter what your color, or age, or ethnicity, or background, the art will bring you together. Art is for all.
The gentleman with the hat, the very enthusiastic group leader [Jefferey Thomas], was just a joy to watch.
I’m wearing this crazy suit and acting like a nutball. I was so focused on my group that I couldn’t focus on the larger work. I don’t even know what the piece sounds like.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
I challenged myself to try to keep [the students] on their toes, avoiding rote monotony. When we’d do call and response, I tried to make things different.
The people shouting together were surprised at the power they had. I was reminded of David Lang’s piece Statement to the Court. He said that while writing the piece he would stand in front of his computer and just shout.
I was having a conversation with my ensemble. In [the shouting of] Part Seven, I realized that the group was mocking me. I wanted them to taunt me more, really let me have it.
Sharon Quattrin Campagna
One of the first comments my students made was, “I wish we were singing more.”
The words on paper have a sense of sadness and loneliness, but when 1000 people were shouting or singing, the words were transformed.
People commented that I looked like I was having such a good time in a melancholy piece. But it’s such a joyful thing to stand in one of the great public parks and invite the direction of this love and energy.
Emotionally it felt so different from different parts of the crowd, with the amounts of casualness or non-casualness the groups were bringing.
Donald Nally crowd out is a really intimate piece. It doesn’t look that way on the page, but people came up to me afterwards and said, “I really became very emotional.”
I heard a few people say, “Oh, I’ve never been part of a flash mob until now!” It took a lot to not be like, “It’s NOT a flash mob. It is a PERFORMANCE.” But, I thought, hey, at least you’re here, and you’re excited.
It was very powerful to watch David Lang participating with a group he didn’t know, and smiling, and proud.
I went around to every single group and sang with them during the performance. I think I got to experience everyone from every ward of Chicago, from professional people to little kids. I think in a way I had the best experience.
I bet as a composer that would be amazing, to walk around your own forest of sound.
Michael “Mike” Jones
I was really proud of my kids. If they saw audience members who looked interested, they would say, “Look at this,” or “Follow this.”
It was lovely having the sign interpretation in and around the piece, and an app made it possible for deaf or hard-of-hearing people to select each “strand color” and follow along.
Illinois Humanities now has this network of cultural organizations, venues, and community groups—a little phone book to help with collaborating across the city. We’re also going to be sending out a survey, and I’m working on a report that brings together notes from the community gatherings.
The participants of Mike Jones’ Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy were spurred by their experience with crowd out to create their own version of the work.
Michael “Mike” Jones
They want to call it “singled out.”
Aquantee Hendricks, Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy
When we arrived, we were some of the only people of color there, and we thought, “It would be funny if they understood how we feel sometimes in a crowd.”
Michael “Mike” Jones
They want it to express what it feels like to be one of the few African Americans in a place. You see another African American, and you give that head nod. We’re all looking for solidarity, whether it is gender, age, race, creed, or color.
At first we were just playing around. They started thinking of concepts, the way it could look, how it could start. Incorporating pieces we already have. It started making sense.
Michael “Mike” Jones
I’m excited that it’s student driven. My hope is that it grows, and organizations like Encore [a choir of seniors] would ask, “What does it feel like to be a senior in a crowd?” Or [a group of women], “What is it like to be the only woman in a world where white men make all the decisions?”
At the composer’s home in New York City
November 18, 2013—2 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation and text condensed and edited by Molly Sheridan
It’s difficult to stand anywhere near composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa and not feel energized by proximity. Her dynamic personality fires up a room, making it easy to see how, just a few weeks prior to our meet up for the interview posted below, she rallied hundreds of musicians for the performance of her massive outdoor work Crissy Broadcast on a repurposed airfield in San Francisco.
Raised in the Bay Area, Bielawa has recently returned to her hometown to serve as the artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, an ensemble she herself was once a member of as a young artist. Yet as a touring performer (in addition to her compositional activities, she has sung with the Philip Glass Ensemble since 1992), she began a kind of nomadic existence that continues to carry her from city to city. New York has been her primary address as an adult, but her music has also led to long stints in places such as Boston, where she was in residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for three years; Berlin, where she mounted the first of the Airfield Broadcasts; and Rome where she was a fellow at the American Academy and produced a performance of a previous outdoor work, Chance Encounter, along the banks of the Tiber River.
An extrovert to the core, Bielawa acknowledges that her highly social nature has taken her in some specific directions both as a composer and as a musical citizen. Community building and close collaboration with performing artists is often central to her compositional process. In 1996 she co-founded MATA, a festival which allows young composers to celebrate other young composers outside of a competitive context. Yet the flip side of this outward focus is a deep love for language and careful reading that led her towards a bachelor’s degree in literature from Yale University and now continues to fuel her artistic output.
While there may be some unusual twists to her career trajectory and the scope and scale of her music, Bielawa is quick to point out that her path should not been interpreted as a rejection of traditional concert presentation or compositional education. She is focused on broadening the reach of new music, not completely rerouting it. And in the course of so doing, she is able to allow the sparks and energy of her ideas to fly.
Molly Sheridan: You began your career in a sense as a young singer with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and now you’ve come full circle by returning to serve as the organization’s artistic director. As you listen to the students and reflect back on your own time there as a young performer, how much have things changed—both musically and culturally? Lisa Bielawa: Before I actually, officially took over my position as the artistic director, the girls came to Berlin to participate in [my work] Tempelhof Broadcast. One of the reasons I got back in touch with them in the first place was that I was working on the project and wanted them to be a part of it. So that discussion started before any discussions about the new position began. I had been in West Berlin on tour with the chorus when I was a girl. It was the first time that I had ever left the country—I was 14 or something—and I remember thinking, “Wow, I really like being on the road!” Of course, apparently I really do like being on the road, because I’ve been on the road ever since.
It was really amazing to see the girls in Berlin and remember what it was like for me to travel with this group—making music with people and understanding that making music at a high level was one of the things that makes travel meaningful. That cultural exchange through music is something that especially young people are hungry for. I think the ambassadorial role that musicians have in the world is incredibly important—just listening and making sound for each other, creating work for each other and with each other across cultures. The world is much more interconnected than it was when I was in the Girls Chorus. Now you’ve got girls from San Francisco meeting host families in Berlin, and they’re still texting each other. But there’s no replacement for actually making music together physically and in community. There are many wonderful uses of social media and interconnectivity online, but music reminds us that engaging with each other face-to-face in space and in real time is irreplaceable. That’s what music making is. MS: Your own compositional roots are also partially connected to the Girls Chorus in a special way. LB: For a lot of girls who come through the San Francisco Girls Chorus, that’s where they start their music education. That wasn’t the case for me. I started my music education at home and, at the age of three, in the Suzuki violin program. I had musician parents, so the chorus is not where I got the beginning of my musical education. I got something really important that’s different from that, which is I individuated at the Girls Chorus.
At home, everyone was a composer. When my brother and I were little, we would write music at the piano, just sort of playing at what dad does. You know what that’s like—you play at what your parents do. So I had written music already when I got to the Girls Chorus, but I had experiences there which were my own. I’d come home to the dinner table, and I had had an experience with Brahms or something. It was the first time that I ended up having individual musical experiences that were emotional for me, and that started to build my own sense of what I wanted to hear and why that was. I started writing music that my friends and I could sing. Elizabeth Appling, who was the founder and the artistic director at that time, really fostered that. She saw that I was doing this with my friends and she started to program my music on our actual concerts. She had me conducting my own work at Davies Symphony Hall during the holiday concerts, and it was really the first time that I saw myself as a musician, the way that someone might see someone from the outside. I got a chance to have a witness outside of my family. That showed me that I was an individual artist, and that I had something to offer that was mine. So that was a really important training point for me.
Early work composed at 4 or 5 years of age.
Then I went to Yale, and my very first commission was from the Girls Chorus. My second commission was from the Girls Chorus. That kind of training-wheel support went on. So it’s very meaningful to have it come back around now. MS: I know that your actual degree from Yale was in literature. That might have been just a formality or perhaps not, but student composers often have a vision of how their education has to go. So when it goes somewhere different, I think it’s worth exploring the impact—both in terms of the big ideas and the practical skills. LB: One of the things that I’ve actually started to say when I talk to people about this is that I really don’t want to be the poster child for DIY. I’m trained. I came from a family where there was formal training available at home. I trained on the violin. I trained on the piano. I trained vocally. I learned to read music in my mother’s church choir before I even read English. I did composition workshops at the summer music festivals in San Francisco. So to some degree, that means that I had already created a little body of work before I went to college.
My intention at Yale was to major in music and something else. The only thing you needed to do to take advanced classes in music at Yale was to be advanced enough in music to take them. I studied composition there and had private teachers as an undergraduate. I did all that stuff. However, I had gotten very interested in literature in high school, and here I was in the school of Harold Bloom! There was this incredible energy in the air, and all of the boys I had crushes on were literature majors. I was so turned on by the exchange of ideas that I felt you could have as a literature major. But what I discovered was that it was a very competitive major, and you couldn’t get into any of those classes if you were not a major. Plus, if you said you were a double major, then you were deemed not serious enough. In order to take advanced classes in literature and music, I had to major in literature.
So that’s the answer. I think there was a lot of pressure the entire time I was at Yale to major in music. I’m sure I probably fulfilled the major, but I just didn’t declare it. I think it was the right choice for me because I really got so much out of my studies in literature that wouldn’t have been open to me if I hadn’t declared that. MS: Was that the end of your formal training then? LB: Yes, it was. I moved to New York two weeks after [graduating from] Yale, and my intention was pretty vague. I had a friend who had graduated a couple of years before me who seemed to be getting some commissions in London. I was sleeping on sofas and basically trying to scrape together enough money to go to London or apply to graduate schools in something. I didn’t know what yet.
I knew I had musical skills, but when I was at Yale, I auditioned for voice lessons and didn’t get accepted. It’s a big opera school, and I didn’t have a big old opera voice. I had a different kind of voice. So I came to New York not really believing that I was a composer necessarily, and not really believing that I was a singer necessarily, but doing both well enough and in ways that were useful enough that I was making a living somehow, here and there, with also some administrative jobs and things like that. Then, through a series of flukes, I got the job with the Philip Glass Ensemble. I was 22 years old, and that totally changed my whole life. MS: But it doesn’t sound like you were necessarily ready for that life. LB: I had no idea. I didn’t have any indication from anyone else around me that I was a soloist. In fact, when I first got the job, they were just desperate to have somebody, and they probably would have hired someone more experienced with a more trained voice than mine if they had been able to. But who’s going to be available for a five-and-a-half-week tour in three weeks, except for someone who’s starving and 22?
So, I was really lucky in that I auditioned into that job on sight reading and rhythmic musicianship and the skill set that I had as a basic musician. As a singer, they weren’t so sure about me. And they shouldn’t have been. I was no great shakes as a singer yet. Once I got over the headiness of the first tour, I came to understand—and it was not very easy for me—that I had to get my act together. I had to get formal vocal training, which I basically had never had, or I was not going to keep my job. So I wasn’t an official member of the Philip Glass Ensemble until almost two years after I had started touring. They were actually looking at several people, and I was basically a sub until I could improve my abilities as a singer. It was a very difficult time, and expensive, too. It meant that my standard of living didn’t go up that much. I was getting platinum-style voice lessons and eating canned beans for dinner for the first year or so because I was just trying to catch up. MS: But in the midst of all that high-pressure catching up and then the ongoing touring with Philip Glass, you still kept the composing going, too. LB: That’s true, but again, taking myself seriously as a composer and/or as a singer? I knew that I was a musician, but it wasn’t clear to me, or basically anybody around me really, what I was. My brother, who’s 20 months older than I am, was at that time getting his doctorate in composition, and so my family was focused on my brother as a composer. Suddenly then we were kind of focused on me as a singer, but we were all a little surprised, I think. I had sung some of my father’s music as a soloist and when I was in the San Francisco Girls Chorus I got a few solos, but I was not one of the prized soloists in the group. I wasn’t really sure what I was.
A singer, a composer, and definitely a leader. Photo by James Block
I was writing music, but I didn’t think of myself as a composer necessarily until somewhere in my 20s. I wrote a piece for the San Francisco Girls Chorus that won the highest ASCAP young composer award and that completely took me by surprise. I had some people take me aside and say, “Look, maybe you’re a composer.” I just didn’t really understand yet—possibly because it was an over-populated environment. My family was over-populated with musicians, then I went into a school that was over-populated, and then I came to New York and was just trying to figure out how to be useful to make a living. I was always writing music, but it seemed like it was always the wrong kind of music. When I was at Yale, I was writing choral music, and I was writing cabaret songs, and I was writing arrangements of jazz standards for a cappella groups; I wasn’t writing serious music. So I just assumed that that meant I wasn’t a composer. MS: Do you think not having a structured undergraduate music education, for all the reasons you outlined above, might have contributed to this in a certain way—as in, rather than your path in music being set out for you in clear formal terms, it was all on you to self-direct? LB: It was all on me. But when I did study composition privately as an undergrad, I wasn’t really a very easy student. The irony is that now I feel very passionate about mentoring younger people. I love teaching, especially teenage composers. I’ve sort of specialized in that, but not because I had such a satisfying experience as a student. I was proud, and I was really independent-minded. I didn’t respond so well to somebody trying to guide me. I just didn’t. MS: You said you like mentoring teenagers. It’s funny: You weren’t an easy student, and now you specialize in teaching perhaps the most challenging demographic. LB: Well, teenagers are cool. Grad students are great, too, but they’re really colleagues already. They already have an ideological direction that they’re going in. You’re either going to feed into that ideological direction because you share that, or you’re going to butt up against it, and then you’re going to have to be arguing with your students.
I find that with teenagers, they’re all over the place. They’re discovering that they’re composers. They’re coming up with all these ideas, and they’ve got this fountain of musical energy. They’re complicated because their egos are also developing alongside their abilities in ways that they get ahead of themselves, or they’re super insecure, but there’s something about that sloppiness and about the fact that there’s personal development happening at the same time as musical development that I feel really prepared to deal with. I was writing music that young, too, and I remember what it was like to be trying to figure out who I was as a person at the same time that I was trying to figure out who I was as a musician. It was really an important part of my struggle. And I envied kids who were already cellists by the time they were 16 or who knew they were composers when they entered grad school. I didn’t have that luxury. MS: You spoke some about how your voice wasn’t the right fit for Yale. A lot of your pieces have a soprano vocalist, but I was surprised to find out that those weren’t necessarily supposed to be sung by you. You were actually writing for a voice much different from your own. LB: That’s true, although I will say that this spring I had two commissions, both of them European. One of them was for the Academic Male Choir of Helsinki. They wanted me as soprano soloist with this group—fifty men and me—and bass drum of course, because why not. Then there’s the piece for Radio France, which is for myself and chamber ensemble. I now feel ready and totally happy for that to happen. I know how to sing well enough so that I can actually find it interesting enough to write for myself.
First of all, the reason I got into vocal music was really more because of my relationship to language. It had very little to do with the fact that I was a singer. I was a singer because I had played all these instruments, but I didn’t have enough money to buy them. Your voice is free, and I had to make a living. How I became a professional singer was almost accidental and the kind of singing that I was doing—not just for Philip but for Toby Twining, who actually hired me even before Philip Glass did—my music is not like that, and I don’t use the voice that way so much in my own music. So I wasn’t really the right soloist for my music anyway. I wouldn’t have hired myself.
I’m also a collaborator. I just love to have the creative process be about getting to know others. That process is less interesting for me if it’s just me getting to know me some more. Though this last year, it’s been fun because I am finally finding things in my own voice. Something about being in my 40s, it’s like my voice is mature now. There are things it can do that are cool, that I’ve worked my whole life to figure out. I feel like I won’t have that forever, so it’s interesting to celebrate that. But my interest in writing vocal music had very little to do with being a singer. It had mostly to do with being close to language. MS: We actually spoke at some length about your relationship to language almost a decade ago, just before the American Composers Orchestra premiered The Right Weather. Clearly you still take this aspect of your work very seriously. So why use music and not words exclusively in your creative expression? LB: I love writing, but I also think one of the things that I love about writing is that it’s not my profession. So it’s a creative thing that I can deepen and that I can get better at, but I can also get away from it for a while and it doesn’t cause any anxiety. It’s nice to have an area that I’m deeply informed about, that I care deeply about, that’s not professionalized—because I have a lot of different areas of my life that are professionalized.
Then there’s also the fact that when I’m deeply moved by something that I read, usually my response is a musical one. So there’s something that happens that’s organic. I read on the sofa in the morning; if something is so beautiful to me that it makes me feel a certain way, that has to be resolved by sitting at the piano. That’s a way of working that when I have to start cranking out music and I’m on the road in practice rooms in universities, or writing music in hotels or on planes, I don’t always have that luxury—that deep cycle that involves contemplation, reading, responding to reading, and then composing. But if I don’t have that cycle every once in a while, then I lose my artistic ground.
MS: That seems like a constant through the years with you. You drill down into text. This is not a surface feature—you began learning Russian to compare Pushkin translations! So what does that end up doing to the music in concrete terms? LB: Making it possible? I remember when I was writing The Right Weather, and I was thinking, “God, I’m such a loser. I’m supposed to be writing for orchestra and there’s no language in this. I don’t know if I can write music if I don’t have language that I’m setting.” And then I thought, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe I am a loser; maybe I’m not a loser. But just because there are no voices singing here doesn’t mean that this is not connected to language.” I could either look at that as a crutch, or I could see myself in it and realize that that’s what it is. Some composers respond to nature. Some of them respond to paintings. Some of them respond to a number of things. It’s just the thing that hits me the most deeply and the most consistently. The place where I can find the most depth in myself is as a reader. So it helps me get to the place where I want to be when I’m writing music. MS: You touched on collaboration and the importance of that in your work. I was thinking about this particularly as I was listening to your two-CD set In medias res, and I thought it might be good to talk specifically about your relationship with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in this regard. LB: The truth is I was actually quite scared of what my job was going to be in Boston, because the expectation was that I was going to be there for three years and was going to write these massive orchestral works. There was still a part of me that was like, am I a composer? Not for lack of ideas, but just something about the way I saw myself—or didn’t, or others did or didn’t. Who knows? Maybe it’s left over from the early years when I first came to New York. But I had people around me who had faith in me and who really wanted to see this happen, namely Gil Rose, who really believed in my music and felt that this would be an opportunity for me.
I wanted to make sure that I could keep myself on a schedule so that the piece that I wrote at the end of my residency, In medias res, would fulfill the potential of that. In order to do that, I decided that I would write these short, three- to five-minute Synopses—short pieces for solo members of the orchestra—and that I would write each of them during a week that I was in residence. Composers in residence seldom actually compose in residence, but I was going to write pieces when I was in Boston.
Of course, it was a pleasure, but it did force me to have a regular diet of engagement with the individual musicians for whom I was writing this much larger piece over a long period of time. And it meant that I was actually tilling the soil—not that I know anything about farming, but I was keeping that whole area of my mind and these relationships really fertile for the whole time. So when I was writing the big piece finally, which took me around seven months, I was informed by these 15 shorter pieces that I had written for the individual members of the orchestra.
That personalized it, and that was really helpful for me. Collaboration for me means that you’re beholding the amazingness of some other person and what they can do. Then I’m using my own abilities as a composer to make that shine or to engage with it. That’s a really great way to know people in the world, right? It deepened my connections with the musicians that I was working with, which heightened community in the orchestra itself. And it brought a sense of process to the audience there that was seeing these pieces unfold. So those are the kinds of ideas that I’ve designed for myself along the way—to keep myself on a schedule, but also to enhance community and therefore make composing less lonely and bring the vitality of interaction into the process in as many ways as possible. It’s helpful to me because I’m social and composing is not that social. I’m not really temperamentally cut out for this work, unless I can make it a little more social for myself.
Bielawa greeting musicians at Crissy Broadcast Photo by James Block
MS: Those Synopses then later ended up influencing a piece you did for a dance work, correct? And there are other examples of you developing ideas through multiple works. I thought that was really interesting: it wasn’t that all of your work was a piece of some single uber-arc, but each piece wasn’t always completely self-contained either. Would you speak some about what you hunt for and gain through that kind of occasional revisiting? LB: I often think that it takes more than one piece to work through an idea. Individual compositions can get burdened down if you try to make them completely saturate or satiate one idea world in one piece. So I like to take the pressure off individual pieces. What if I had been working on one of the Synopses, let’s say, and the purpose at that point was for me to learn as much as possible about the harp and write something amazing for the solo harpist, right? But then later on, some of the material that I developed could, if the piece had gone a different way, maybe have been something really interesting to explore in relation to the human body through dance. I mean, I could just start over every time, and sometimes I do. It’s interesting looking back at pieces—did this come out of the germ of some other piece, or is this a whole new thing just by itself.
But generally what I find with shorter pieces is that I don’t actually feel very comfortable in small forms. I’m a large-scale person. So the only way that I can fulfill those kinds of commissions is to, at least in my own mind, embed them in some larger journey. Then it also ends up creating relationships that mean that those other pieces come along later. Some of these solo instrumentalists that I wrote the Synopses for were actually then the soloists in the dance piece. So it also brings the possibility of deepening those relationships and bringing them further. Many of the musicians that I’ve worked with I’ve written multiple pieces for in some guise or other. Look at Colin Jacobson, who’s been in, what, like nine or something? But they’re all different—just him, or sometimes there’s a whole orchestra, his string quartet. Sometimes I pair him with somebody like Carla Kihlstedt. And those relationships, as they deepen, I think that they really open me up, too, and help me find things through that trust that I would not otherwise find. MS: What attracts you to the large-scale format with such intensity? LB: I think it’s just a suitability thing—it’s my temperament. I admire Chopin enormously for the way that he was able to find a whole world in the solo piano works. He’s not here to answer, but we could ask ourselves, why didn’t he have a whole lifetime of writing symphonies or operas? He didn’t. This is what he wrote. It’s inconvenient for me sometimes that I end up wanting to write pieces for hundreds of musicians on an abandoned airfield. But it’s even more inconvenient to try to fit into certain assigned ways of making work that don’t fit. So I’ve accepted that I have to make it work for myself and the best way for me to do that is to go ahead and see things in terms of the larger picture and in terms of broader strokes—whether or not an individual performance or composition is seen that way. I need to see it that way in order to make it work for me and in order to make the best work I can. MS: Before we get into those big airfield pieces and the musical communities you encourage through those, I want to take a step back. Because in a sense I see things such as the founding of MATA, which takes us all the way back to 1996, as another aspect of this big and social piece of your artistic life. LB: Yeah, MATA. I really felt a need for it when we started it. I felt that there were all of these contexts in which I was coming into contact with my peers, but every time we came into contact with each other we were actually competing. I’d see so and so because we were two of the four finalists of the such and such thing. We would each have a piece read, and then one of us would win. Yeah, we would have fun and there would be a party, but underneath it all was the knowledge that somebody from on high was going to choose one of us.
There is this sort of protracted adolescence for composers: you get all your graduate degrees, and then you go to summer programs and you study with so and so. That’s another place where you can meet your peers, right? You’re all 31-year-old students of so and so, in like, Europe somewhere. And there may be value to that, too. I participated in both of those kinds of things and had some positive experiences. But why not support each other by having a festival where we all encounter each other’s music, and nobody was going to come and decide or teach. We don’t have to agree. You don’t have to like everything. Nobody’s the winner. I think that was a really driving motivation for me.
And that’s one of the reasons that, as I was nearing 40, I was feeling like I was not immersed enough and my ear was not to the ground as much as it needed to be to be MATA’s artistic director any more. All of a sudden, I was going to become the person on high who was choosing the commissionees for the festival. It was starting to turn into the thing that we were trying to be other than. So I’m still on the board and I’m very committed, but I cycled out and wanted to get younger people in charge. And we’ve really managed to do that, and I’m really super proud of that. MS: So you shook things up some with MATA, but pieces such as Chance Encounter also gently stretch conventional ideas about how things are done. I love the degree that the venue is woven into the work itself, from finding the text to presenting the piece. But when you take your work out of the concert hall, how does it change the goals and impact of what you make? The loss of control seems like it becomes part of the point of the piece. LB: Yeah, it’s funny. It’s like talking about the fact that I never got degrees in music. It doesn’t make me an anti-degrees-in-music person. I have nothing against the concert hall. I find myself so often in environments where people really want the fact that I do these public space works—which I’m very passionate about—to mean that I’m against the concert hall. That’s not true—I love the concert hall! These pieces are an affirmation; they are not a rejection. And that’s really, really important to me. I still have more to affirm outside the concert hall. They come out of the fact that I’m a very urban person. I think in my life I’ve been healed by city life. If I’ve gone through difficult times in my life, one of the things that I always know I can do to fall in love with humanity again is to just walk around the city. I’ve had this experience in San Francisco where I grew up, in New Haven where I was in school, in New York, where I’ve lived my whole adult life. Boston, Berlin, all the cities where I immersed myself.
That’s another thing besides reading and besides collaboration: urban life. That’s super important and inspiring to me. There are certain ideas that I have that make the most sense right there in the cradle of active urban life because that’s where my head is. Chance Encounter actually has Susan Narucki singing things that we overheard, so in order to write the piece, she and I had to immerse ourselves by eavesdropping on people for 14 months to collect all these things. There’s no better way to fall in love with humanity than to just go around the world and eavesdrop. So tender, the moments you hear.
Susan Narucki and I did a performance together of Birtwistle’s The Woman and the Hare. I feel like The Woman and the Hare is one of these pieces that if you were to stumble on it, just in the hall of your local community center, it would be a really arresting experience. She and I were talking afterwards, and she said, “I wish there were some way we could make work like this in an environment where people could just encounter it.” So it really came about as a collaborative light bulb. We thought we should make a piece that’s intended to be performed that way. It was only later as I was working on it that I decided to use overheard things. The idea was to have the kind of experience you have with concert works that I love, but to provide that outside in public space. And I’m not done with that.
Souvenir chair from Chance Encounter
MS: You can’t really speak for the audience, but was the experience that you anticipated having ultimately the experience that you had when listening to the performance in this setting? LB: I actually have to take the fifth because I have no idea. I have performed Chance Encounter, but my preferred role in the performance of these large-scale public space pieces is to just be like anybody and walk around. I like to put myself at a distance from everybody and feel myself in space. I like to change the arc of my own experience by moving towards or away from certain groups. And I notice that other people do that, too.
I certainly noticed that with Crissy Broadcast in San Francisco. There’s an overhead time-lapse video. There are the groups of musicians that stay together, but in the middle, there was just this constant latticework of people moving around. I heard responses from people that they were having this kind of awareness of being in a space where they were also integrating the sound of traffic and the dogs, and that’s part of it. The music has to sit comfortably in an environment where other sounds are also there. It has to feel mostly successful like that.
So I seem to be getting somewhere with it. I like working in that way. I feel like my experience of it has been sometimes different from what I imagined, but in a positive way. Or other times, it’s not what I thought and I was disappointed. But maybe I would go to the next performance, and the wind changes and then it’s what I hoped, or maybe it’s just that I was not standing in the right place; someone else had the experience that I had designed and imagined for myself. MS: I guess that’s my question: how much can you even anticipate when you’re working on a scale like this and in an outdoor venue? There are so many wild cards. In some ways, maybe it’s not even possible. LB: It’s absolutely not possible, but it’s not possible in any music. This is not the exception; this is just the obviation. I’ve heard from some people that they felt that by listening to these pieces, the Airfield pieces for example, that it brought them in touch with that existential thing: I’m always only me, and I’m always hearing what I’m hearing. Even though you’re out in public space, the experience of these pieces is one that’s very private and sometimes quite lonely. You realize that you’re an audience of one inside your own head, and that’s the human condition.
You were asking about the control that I think I have, or can have. There’s a lot of control going on in these pieces. It has to do with the fact that I’m dealing with amateurs and students. It has to be a safe performance environment for hundreds of people. I’m asking them to do some crazy things out there and it’s outside the box for everybody. It’s outside the box for the professionals! So contrary to what it may feel like when you’re out there in it, the listeners hopefully feel an amazing openness. But the actual compositional process has an enormous amount of control of material. If I set up a situation where this group is playing this or that, and there are some choices being made—aleatoric sections where maybe cues are being given from one group to another—I do actually try to imagine every possible way those things could work out using a kind of lay person’s game theory. I do try to imagine every possible outcome of every decision that I’ve allowed people to make in each section, and I have to be O.K. with the sonic result of every possible combination of decisions. If seven out of the nine decisions are going to be really cool, and two of them are going to sound really stupid, then I change the whole game. So there’s a lot of control. MS: Even The Right Weather at Zankel Hall back in 2004 had you walking through the space and timing out planned musician movement, but I saw the charts you made for the Airfield pieces and this is a whole other level. How did you even begin structurally to make this work? LB:Chance Encounter is a piece for one soprano and chamber orchestra in two different groups. So in that piece, I was able to experiment with what it means to have groups that are far enough away from each other that they can’t possibly be expected to play together, but they can respond to each other. I got the chance in five cities to experiment with different air densities and different winds, and to experiment with what kinds of sounds and what kinds of cues carried across space. So that was really important, because once I started bringing in more than just two groups, then at least I had that experience with communication between musicians across distances out in the real world—how to make rules, how much to tell them, how little to tell them.
When I started putting together Tempelhof Broadcast, the very first thing I did was work with The Knights again. They wanted me to write a piece for this concert that they did at Central Park in 2011. It coincided with my communications with the Berlin Parks Department, such that I realized that if The Knights were into it, I could use this commission to start working on some ideas, not about distance and space, like I did in Chance Encounter, but to work on some free, aleatoric decision making—large groups of musicians playing things that cue each other in such a way that there is no conductor. It’s 40 musicians or so, and it was a chance for me to experiment with some of these game structures where groups of musicians are communicating with other groups of musicians across the stage. So there were these intermediate steps.
With the Tempelhof Broadcast, frankly everything you do, you can’t really hide. You rehearse [on the field] and you’ve kind of done the piece, right? So in September of 2012, which was eight months before the premiere, we tried some of the sections with 50 musicians out on the field, and it was a way for me again to start experimenting with these large distances and these materials. So I gave myself a lot of experimental stages with this. By the time I got to between 230 and 250 musicians there, I was working with around six to eight different groupings; whereas in San Francisco for the Crissy Broadcast, I had 14 groups and 800 people. It’s like a balloon [being inflated] before the Thanksgiving Day parade gradually becoming Snoopy. It took, like, three and a half years for this balloon to fill. All along the way, I had to design the balloon with no air in it. So it was back and forth between an experiential and a conceptual process involving acoustic research that I did and collected from both parks departments. I took an alto saxophone and a pair of crash cymbals out on the runways and walked around with a pedometer learning about what carried. It was just a long and deep process, and that’s my favorite kind of process. So that graph [you asked about] was maybe the third or fourth solution that I found to write down the material that I had already been developing for months or years. I was just finding a way to represent it to myself, because a score was not going to work, and I finally found this way to use a multi-colored graph. It was in my hand the whole time; I had it in my hand for two months.
Charting out Crissy Broadcast
MS: Artistically, what is the point of 800 people on an airfield? LB: It’s an acoustic decision. The artistic decision is the airfield. Eight hundred people is a pragmatic solution that has to do with no amplification. No amplification is an artistic idea that has to do with the fact that sound comes from a certain place. If you want to experience a space, one of the ways that you feel yourself in the space is if you hear the sounds coming from where they’re coming from. You hear a dog bark; it’s far away. It’s over there. If you heard that dog bark through quadraphonic speakers all over, then you’re no longer in a field. If I want to write music that celebrates a certain space, which I’m interested in, then the way to do that is to articulate the space honestly without manipulating it through amplification. Amplification is a way to erase a space and place another sonic space on top of it in such a way that you no longer feel the space.
So, in order to have an acoustic rendering of a space with human beings, you need hundreds of them. But the great thing about hundreds of them, which is an acoustic necessity, is that it happily brings in a whole other thing that I’ve become passionate about, which is celebrating the whole musical life of an urban area and shining light on all these other corners. Look what this middle school band director has been doing with so little funding for all these years with these amazing kids in the public school system! Check out this chorus that is organized through the Community Music Center in San Francisco of people from the various elder care centers! They have a chorus. That’s so cool. Turns out it was too cold out there for them to be there for my piece, but it’s really awesome.
That was something that was really effective in San Francisco. These hundreds of people—most of them middle school and high school kids—they encountered each other in this project and they were calling out to each other on a field, playing these signals to each other across space. There’s something very beautiful about it, and they really embraced it. MS: So the piece had to be composed to suit amateur and student musicians? LB: If you’re outside on a field, you have mezzo-forte and above available to you. The material has got to be declamatory. I wanted it to be joyful. There were some yearning moments, but I wanted declamatory, joyful, bold-colored shapes because that’s what works out there. And you know what? Middle school bands can play that. So can professionals. Everyone can play those things. I don’t need 800 super advanced contemporary music technicians to play this piece. Sometimes I do need them. I love virtuosity. This piece is not about virtuosity. This piece is about something else.
The fact that the model itself can be inclusive of performers at any level then touches something else that’s important to me, which is community. I need 800 people because it’s an airfield, and they can be at any level because the kind of material I need to write, many levels of musicians can in fact achieve together. And so it ends up being a natural fit. MS: Are you satiated yet on these big pieces, or is this becoming something of a calling card? LB: Steve Schick was my right-hand man out there in San Francisco. We were joking and he said, “After this, are you going to write a string quartet?” I don’t know! I’m of two minds. I absolutely love working on this project, but I don’t want it to be the only kind of thing I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I also really loved writing the Synopses, and I think those are good pieces. There’s an intimacy that I also need in my work that I may need to cycle back around to soon. But that doesn’t mean I’d be abandoning this forever either. I think the fact that my work sometimes goes in this direction where I’m interested in engaging community in these larger, bolder shapes out in these spaces, that’s a certain direction in my work, but it’s not the only direction. So I don’t think I’ll ever abandon it. I also think, God, are you kidding? If there are other airfields that are now public parks that have city agencies and music communities around them that want to do this, I am so game!
Bielawa in the thick of it at Crissy Broadcast Photo by James Block
MS: Hopefully those airfields exist in a country where you already speak the local language. LB: So I don’t have to keep learning languages. That’s so right. MS: I am interested in how deeply passionate you are about community building. You yourself have lived in so many communities in sort of semi-longterm situations in the sense that you go in, deeply connect and make some precision drills, but then when the work is done, you move on. LB: There’s a really specific thing that happens at the end of the Airfield Broadcasts. The groups go away from the center. By the end in San Francisco, there were 14 groups all around the perimeter of the park, and so the ones over here couldn’t even hear the ones over here. It was just too far away. And then in Berlin it was two, and in San Francisco there were three meeting points where these groups come together. There’s a small group of people that starts playing this little dancing phrase. They start playing that, and then most of the other groups around them join in with them—I wrote them all different parts that all go together, no matter when you enter—so there’s this big party that happens. In San Francisco, it’s like 200 people all doing that. Then some other group, like the Berkeley High School Band or something, shows up and plays something else completely unrelated and interrupts them. And they all stop.
But what you didn’t realize was that while this whole big party was going on, the original people who started playing that little dance-y thing, they snuck away. When the interrupters come and they all stop, [this small group] starts doing it again somewhere else and then they all go over there. This is happening in three separate places on the field inaudibly far from each other. This is exactly, I think, the poetry. There’s something so beautiful about that.
But that’s also kind of what I do, too. I want to go somewhere and I start a party. I get the party going. Then, when the party is at its fullest, I like to sneak away and start another party somewhere else. I wrote it into the piece, and I didn’t even realize I did that. I don’t know why that is. Leaving a party at its height—that’s heartbreakingly beautiful—and then you go somewhere else. That’s my role. I start fires, you know, and then I leave.
In San Francisco, even our fog posts regularly on Twitter. In real life, you never know for certain when Karl the Fog is going to roll into town, but once he does his presence can’t be ignored. A posse of foghorns mounted on the Golden Gate Bridge announces his entry into the city and the bay, each pitched and positioned differently to help guide vessels under the bridge.
All photos by Sidney Chen
Karl the Fog was out in full strength on the morning of October 26 at the start of the first of three performances of Crissy Broadcast, described as a “spatial symphony” composed and directed by Lisa Bielawa. Gathered in the mist at the center of Crissy Field, right next to the Golden Gate Bridge, were hundreds of musicians drawn from a dozen or so local ensembles, including middle school and high school bands and orchestras, adult amateur musicians, two choruses, a traditional Chinese instrument orchestra, and a gaggle of electric guitarists with portable battery-powered speakers slung over their shoulders. They assembled in discrete groups in the center of the expansive, dew-laden grass field, surrounded by audience members and the fog.
At 10 a.m., the regularly sounding foghorns were joined by an instrument playing one of the foghorn pitches in a similar timbre, but the sound was both quieter and closer. Listeners began moving across the grass toward the new sound, trying to discern where it had come from and what was making it. That call of what was ultimately identified as a Tibetan longhorn (played by Karma Moffett) launched the hour-long event during which the act of listening became a physical activity involving more than just the ears.
Bordering the San Francisco Bay, Crissy Field is a decommissioned airfield that has been converted into a park as part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area (administered by the National Park Service). Due to its iconic views of the bridge and the extraordinarily successful restoration a dozen years ago of the field’s natural saltmarsh environment, Crissy Field is one of San Francisco’s most beloved and frequently used public spaces. While developing Templehof Broadcast, a performance event in Berlin involving hundreds of community musicians performing on another former airfield-turned-park, Bielawa was out for a run on Crissy Field, heard the foghorns, noted the pitches, and began to envision a similar work unfolding in the town where she was raised.
Nearly three years later, Bielawa was walking in the wet grass among the listeners and musicians as each of the 14 groups announced its presence with short fanfares, initially on a single pitch and gradually expanding into compact motives that constantly drew the ear to different locations, coming from all directions. At the beginning of the work the sound was concentrated in the center of field, where it was possible to wander to each group in turn and hear individual group sounds in the context of the gathered masses.
Aptos Middle School band, led by Bielawa collaborator Moritz Sembritzki and San Francisco Opera principal trumpet Adam Luftman
A few minutes into the work, listeners who had gotten oriented to the placement of the groups of musicians became aware of movement as the texture began to thin out and groups broke away from the center, starting their journey to the edge of the field. With a professional musician from the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players acting as a Pied Piper, each group had its own trajectory, which in many cases used one of the eight monumental steel sculptures by Mark di Suvero, temporarily installed on the field by SFMOMA, as a landmark. As the sound spread, listeners were obligated to make choices regarding whom they would follow, how close to get, whether they wanted to hear one group clearly or a multiplicity of voices less distinctly. There was no optimal seat in the house; every position created a different listening experience, and that experience changed continuously throughout the event.
Musicians lining a path, passing motives in a game of musical telephone
A constant through most of the first performance of Crissy Broadcast was the foghorns, engaging in dialogue with the performers wherever they were on the field. Though the mist on land burned off as the event progressed, it lingered by the bridge for most of the hour, which allowed for listeners to become increasingly aware of the integration of the foghorn pitch set with Bielawa’s musical material. With so much distance between groups of musicians—walking from one end of the field to the other might take ten minutes—it was impossible to hear all of the music Bielawa composed. Instead fragments of melody, individual pitches, textures like a mass of glissandi would be transported across the field from one direction, be met by a coincidental antiphonal echo or congruous counterpoint, and be overtaken by a foghorn. Or the sounds would dissipate into Cageian “silence,” drawing one’s perception to wind, laughter, traffic, conversations and questions from passersby.
Lowell High School Orchestra, led by San Francisco Contemporary Music Players violinist Roy Malan
As a large-scale public arts event, Crissy Broadcast was something of a marvel. Given the impact of the government shutdown on the National Park Service, the organizers weren’t sure if they even had a venue ten days before the performance. (During the shutdown, around a hundred events on Crissy Field had been canceled.) An integral member of the project’s production team was Marc Kasky, designated as the director for civic engagement, who has been charged with gaining the support of public stakeholders for seeing this public space as a gathering place for artistic activity. On the artistic side, Bielawa and her team, partnering with the San Francisco Symphony’s Community for Music Makers program, had to register and rehearse hundreds of school-age and amateur adult musicians, who had to play music in an unfamiliar format and a challenging environment. The number of musicians signed up to participate numbered over 800 (actual numbers on the field were likely somewhat less), and though musicians only played once they had stopped moving, music stands were not feasible, leading to many innovative solutions. Crissy Broadcast took place three times—at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, October 26, and at noon on Sunday, October 27. Since there are so many variables to how one might experience the piece, I went to the first and last performances, choosing to follow different groups of musicians and changing my own listening trajectory. The Sunday performance was much colder, windier, and much less foggy, and consequently the clear interactions between the performers and their environment took a different shape as the wind took the place of the foghorns, and carried more of the musical material away from the listeners’ ears.
About 15 minutes before the end of piece, a mass movement started to be perceptible at the edges of the field, where all the musicians had been broadly cast. Up to this point, the groups had remained individual entities, nomadic tribes calling across space to fellow travelers. The groups coalesced into three larger communities headed in different directions—out to the beach, toward the bridge, onto the road—each playing celebratory music to exit, leaving the audience on their own to listen to the quiet field. For more background information about Crissy Broadcast, the Airfield Broadcasts project has a particularly robust Tumblr which has video, photography, press, and background info about the lead-up to the event.
Last Thursday, the weather finally cooled down, so I ventured outside for a triple bill at the Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors Festival to hear the otherworldly Ukrainian singer Mariana Sadovska perform her eerie cantata Chernobyl – The Harvest backed by the Kronos Quartet, followed by singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Emily Wells, and finally Shara Worden’s uncategorizable My Brightest Diamond. In between sets, I rummaged through the program and saw a listing for a performance the following night involving a rare Greek musical instrument called the laterna. According to the notes, it is “a small, portable, hand-cranked piano with a wooden cylinder spiked with thousands of nails, each representing a musical note.” Wow! I had to come back on Friday, and so I did.
In the interim I googled laterna. I found a short audio clip on YouTube which gave me some idea of what the instrument sounds like, but no video alas. I also discovered a whole website devoted to the laterna in Greek and English, but most of the navigation only works on the pages in Greek. Then I looked up the player for the Lincoln Center gig, Magda Giannikou. Again, not much to go on internet-wise—the Lincoln Center Out-Of-Doors page about her (which contained the same info in my hand-printed program), a placeholder for an as yet to be launched website for her band, Banda Magda, and a MySpace (yes, MySpace!) page. So I listened on MySpace for a while and was particularly intrigued by a song called ”Mystery.” After hearing the minute-long snippets for four of her songs, none of which featured a laterna as far as I could hear, I was asked by a MySpace bot for all my Facebook information, so I left the site. For all the claims people make about the web being the easiest way to experience music, live still wins.
Anyway, experiencing a live laterna performance turned out to be more fascinating than just hearing it or seeing a photo of it; at least it was for me. A crowd huddled around Magda Giannikou, seemingly hanging on every note, as she spun a lever on a very fragile hand painted wooden box which was propped up somewhat precariously on wooden legs. It seemed perilously close to falling down several times during her set and probably would have were it not for someone holding it up for her. Everyone applauded her rapturously, but were they applauding her performance or the instrument or both? A performance on a laterna is really not the same as a performance on, say, a violin or a guitar, since it is preset like that of a player piano or a music box. And the cylinder inside the laterna, which is what triggers the nails and makes them sound out, only has room to hold a total of nine short pieces of music—a rather limited repertoire which in this case consisted of traditional Greek folk songs. Performing on the laterna means merely turning the crank, which presumably affects tempo, but still all of the pitches and basic rhythmic relationship have already been predetermined. Perhaps everyone was amazed that it was possible to get sound out of such a rickety antique. I have no intention of undervaluing Giannikou’s contribution to this event; I clapped as vigorously as everyone else there. She was graceful and engaging throughout; she actually had a stage presence that was as confident as someone who was playing an instrument that required prodigious technique. At one point she even sang along with the laterna and she has a very intriguing voice.
Here’s a brief video excerpt from the performance, recorded on my smartphone, which I post here with Magda Giannikou’s approval.
Truly magical, I think, but it still begs the question: where does mechanical manipulation end and musical performance begin? During the heyday of the laterna in the late 19th and early 20th century, musical instruments were gradually being supplanted by gramophones and radios in most households. It was the beginning of on-demand home listening, a cultural phenomenon that drastically reduced the amount of amateur at-home music making. No less a musical celebrity than John Philip Sousa denounced pre-recorded music, which he called “canned music,” both on aesthetic as well as financial grounds. A century later, however, we realize that machines designed to reproduce music can also be messed with to create brand new music—e.g. turntable scratching, glitch, etc. Also instruments that people once thought anything could be played on, e.g. the piano, proved to be finite as well. An un-retuned piano can only play music in 12-tone equal temperament and even when it is re-tuned you are still limited by the finite number of keys as well as having only 10 fingers. Strangely, Conlon Nancarrow’s original music for pre-punched player piano rolls (a device which originally limited what a piano could play) showed us all kinds of amazing music that human pianists will never be able to play. Could similar experimentation be possible on the laterna?
Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Jul 29, 2013
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