Tag: west coast

It’s not a goodbye, it’s a see you later

A road against the sea with dark, weedy grass

When someone asks me about the path my professional life has taken, I tend to joke that I’m really not that responsible for it. I have most often just agreed when talented colleagues have asked me to do interesting things. Help Carnegie Hall get a podcast off the ground? Sure thing! Become John Luther Adams’s new music girl Friday? Sign me up! But perhaps there was no more important a “yes” than when I stood on the roof deck of the Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea on a hot June afternoon in 2001 and formally accepted Frank J. Oteri’s offer to come and work on this crazy thing called NewMusicBox.

In the years that followed, I grew in my creative and professional thinking alongside the rapid technological and cultural shifts that the internet threw my way time and time again. I learned to code, program a radio station, and record and produce online video packages with gear that became small enough to stuff into a backpack and cart around the country. I’ve written hundreds of posts at this point, edited thousands more, and have shot probably just as many pictures in seeking to capture the myriad facets of this world we know we can never quite define and so call, simply, new music. It has been a beautiful adventure.

I’m writing this post now, however, because it’s time for me to say “yes” again, but this time it means that I will be setting down my work at New Music USA in order to pick up the next thread in a new direction.

It’s difficult to move on from a job I have committed to so deeply and for so long, but after 18 years, I’m ready for fresh challenges. I credit the amazing opportunities I have been given throughout my time with this organization for instilling in me the skills and experience that will allow me to take on the next stage of my professional life with confidence. I’m so proud of how NewMusicBox has consistently celebrated the act of music creation, often in the creator’s own words, rather than labeling it with star ratings and judging what was “best.” Together with music makers from across the country, we have shared and learned from one another as a community, the website a virtual gathering place for diverse voices and a geographically scattered field. For years my day-to-day has involved spending time listening to artists share the stories of their lives and their music, their challenges and their solutions, both as text on my computer screen and as teachers in front of my camera. It has been an education and a profound honor.

Those stories will continue full force, of course. And I look forward to reading them. For my part, I’ll be over on the West Coast, telling new-to-me stories about food and farming and life at a small inn nestled in Friday Harbor. For those who know me personally, you know that an island with an alpaca farm and no stop lights is a kind of Eden.

So here’s to the road ahead for all of us! Mine is next taking me some 3,000 miles across the country, but I’ll be carrying a dynamic world of friendships and music along with me as I drive.

Whither Los Angeles? New Music in Tinseltown

Like many Southern Californians, my personal history has been touched by echoes of Los Angeles’ pop culture past. Family stories include the composer of “When you Wish Upon a Star” babysitting my father, my great-grandfather playing the latest Hollywood hits (as well as Klezmer) on clarinet, and another great-grandfather lured by the promise of Columbia Pictures—not as an actor, but as an electrician. However exotically portrayed, the pop industry’s machinations here are quotidian, a bread and butter background for many who call this place home. And, perhaps like many composers who grew up grumbling about this pop culture backdrop and who are now witnessing the flowering of an LA new music community, I am wondering how we got here.

For this series on new music in LA, I’d like to investigate and invite feedback on the role of the composer in this city in particular, and trace the background of this cultural phenomenon—from the days of European émigrés who took to Hollywood with varied levels of enthusiasm, through the dystopia of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (our “peculiarly infertile cultural soil, unable to produce, to this day, any homegrown intelligentsia”), through today, a Los Angeles that seems poised to define new music in America, or at least a new way of presenting it.

So, what exactly is going on here? While the LA Philharmonic has been lauded as a bastion of institutional innovations since the middle of the last century, these experiments have always seemed, to me, to occur in a vacuum, hardly touching the larger cultural landscape. Now, a grassroots new music community (or as “grassroots” as anything which is tied to higher education can be) is in a true dialogue with the larger artistic culture, and the promise of the LA Philharmonic to make Los Angeles a contemporary musical destination seems to have finally taken root. An LA aesthetic has emerged, and I can’t help but notice a bit of pioneering Wild West in the raucous brew. Simultaneously collaborative and independent, the film set of our city seems to foster a wild creativity that grows everywhere, rather than privileging the genius-hero myth. There’s an undeniable energy afoot, and as the same core musicians bounce from project to project, it’s inspiring to watch a collective style evolve: finally we seem to have moved from our oft-maligned laidback attitude to something more bright-eyed and vital.

It’s hard now to find a week in which you can’t hear something new—really new—in Los Angeles. wild Up and The Industry present ever-more spectacular feats as they expand the boundaries of what opera and intermedia collaboration can be. Inventive new music series are springing up across the city, from WasteLAnd to MonkSpace, People Inside Electronics, Equal Sound, the Wulf, and on and on and on. And many of these groups are “entrepreneurial”—not under the auspices of major institutions, but rather informing them. wild Up has teamed with the LA Phil for the Grand National Composers Intensive, and the Industry is teaming with the LA Phil to develop unique opera projects. More importantly, these concerts and organizations are having an impact on the national conversation about the potentials of new music, as Alex Ross noted in his 2015 new music roundup which included a disproportionate number of Angeleno composers.

It wasn’t always this way. It’s hard to believe that Los Angeles was once a backwater called “Queen of the Cow Counties” for its role in supplying the much wealthier and more developed San Francisco with beef. Or that half a century later the city had turned from “toughest town in the West” to a roaring dream factory, its very existence sold as part of the mythos. If America is a place that went from barbarism to decadence without the usual intervening period of civilization, the Los Angeles of the early 20th century must have seemed an intensification of this phenomenon.

In other cities, the impact of the past might be taken for granted, its influence fluid, but more or less publicly circumscribed. In Los Angeles, the past is oddly prominent in the undying appeal of Hollywood, and yet in other places, seems completely hidden, subsumed by our zeal to tear down or pave over, as gentrification’s disruptions rip the past apart. In a city simultaneously private and public, how can we tell what parts of the past belong to us all, and what is only part of a single story? Does the dream factory affect new music at all, aside from being a source of session work or editing jobs? I’d argue that it does, and that the unique cultural ferment of Los Angeles, its Wild West emphasis on individual freedom, its raw cultural melting pot comprise a subtle but crucial backdrop to our experiments on the musical frontier.

Alicia Byer

Alicia Byer

Alicia Byer is a composer, improviser, and bon vivant from Southern California. She studied composition, improvisation and electronics at Mills College, and continues to follow the promise of new music wherever it leads.

Yo Dawg, I Heard You Like Brooklyn

This has been a dense couple of weeks for new music concerts in Los Angeles. A coincidence of timing (or is it?) means that LA Phil’s Brooklyn Festival overlaps with two Southern California-themed festivals, Hear Now and The LA Composers Project. The temptation to make direct comparisons between the Brooklyn and LA scenes is huge, and Mark Swed of the LA Times took the bait, sort of, though he (perhaps wisely) stopped short of drawing any real conclusions. For my part, I feel far too personally invested in what’s happening here to be even remotely objective about it.

One recurring question that my friends and colleagues keep asking, though, is “Why did the LA Phil feel the need to import a bunch of composers from New York when there are so many great composers here?” It’s hard for me to come up with a good answer—or rather, I can think of many possible answers, some of them exceedingly cynical. But the most succinct one I can think of is “infrastructure.” I can think of more than a few new music ensembles and festivals (MATA Festival, Bang on a Can, etc.) that started out scrappy in the 80s or 90s and have now become fairly established. Anything comparable in LA has come about more recently, so the infrastructure is about 20-30 years behind. So there’s a kind of system in place that helps New York-based composers get their work known and propagated, and there’s nothing comparable here (at the moment). It also means that, for better or for worse, there’s a New York composer “brand,” so that when you hear the phrase “New York composer” a certain sound immediately comes to mind.

This is a blessing and a curse, and I think it often results in New York-based new music being unfairly maligned as being rather homogenous. This was on my mind at last Tuesday’s LA Phil concert, which featured works by Samuel Carl Adams, Matt Marks, and Tyondai Braxton. This program was anything but homogenous.

Adams’s Tension Studies was an exercise in restraint and implication. The version presented was for guitar, two percussionists, and electronics, though there are a few variations of this piece floating around the internet with slightly different instrumentations. (I wonder why Adams keeps tinkering with it.) In all versions, though, the piece is sparsely populated, with guitar and percussion playing plaintive, bending notes and chords while gorgeous electronic textures fade in and out. It’s easy to read this piece as ambient, though the gulfs of near-silence and subtle interlocking rhythms suggest something else to me, like the shape of a building suggested by an unfinished construction site. For all its outward calm, there is an undercurrent of something more unsettled. The overall effect is mesmerizing.

Matt Marks’s pop-operatic Strip Mall also felt suggestively incomplete, though perhaps for more prosaic reasons. A collaboration with librettist Royce Vavrek, it’s a fragment of a planned larger work, a series of Salingeresque interconnected short stories set in American suburbia. This had the most thrilling opening of the three works on the program. “I wanna go to the Dairy Queen,” belts Michael Marcotte as the teenage boy protagonist, over and over, lending the words weight and urgency through sheer force and repetition. His sister, played by Lauren Worsham, responds with “Fine.” Marks brilliantly sets this monosyllable as a melismatic, melodramatic cry. Nothing afterwards quite approaches the unexpected sublimity of this moment, though a hilarious phallic Bible aria, sung by Timur Bekbosunov as the sister’s Christian boyfriend, comes close. If I have a complaint at all, it’s that Vavrek’s characters rarely rise above the level of caricature, though I feel churlish making this judgement about an excerpt, since their personalities and relationships may deepen as the work progresses.
The program concluded with selections from Tyondai Braxton’s Central Market, which has been recorded by the Wordless Music Orchestra, though as I understand it Braxton created a new arrangement for the LA Phil. This is a dense, often hyperactive piece, full of remarkable musical ideas—usually several happening simultaneously. Braxton’s experiments with guitar looping were the genesis of this piece, though it also quite deliberately recalls the jagged ostinati of Stravinsky’s “Shrovetide Fair.” It could be read as a manifesto of sorts, demonstrating that these different idioms of repetition aren’t incompatible, and in fact are in some cases identical. (Don’t call it a comeback, it’s been here for years.) But this makes the piece sound far more didactic than it actually is, when it’s really a natural, sure-footed expression of Braxton’s compositional voice. It was remarkable to hear live, with orchestrational details not audible in the album version popping out all over the place. It had a grand, majestic sweep to it that made even the kazoos sound formidable.

New Marketing for New Art: The Mondavi Center Google Hangout Experiment

In 2003 and 2004, the Concert Companion, a device designed to enhance the concert experience, was tested during several orchestral concerts around the country. The user response recorded in post-concert focus groups was quite positive. The goal, said creator Roland Valliere, was “to attract new listeners to come and attend concerts, much like audio guides do in the museum world,” and many of the concertgoers who beta tested the device reported learning new things about a certain piece or aspect of the orchestra. They felt more connected to the music than they ever had before. Yet despite this positive response, which was accompanied by a flurry of press, the Concert Companion faded from sight.

There were issues with the service itself. The creation of content for the CoCo, as it was nicknamed, was extremely labor-intensive, and special technicians had to be flown in to coordinate the device with live orchestral performances. But perhaps more lethal was the disdain with which the Concert Companion was received by musicians and orchestra administrators. Pianist Leon Fleisher refused to allow its use during his performance at a trial run by the New York Philharmonic, and John Summers, chief executive of the Hallé Orchestra, described it as “patronising.” “For me, music is an aural experience, about being there,” he said. “I would be absolutely staggered if these devices became part of the regular concertgoing experience.”

Here in the Bay Area, the Oakland East Bay Symphony tested the CoCo, and music director Michael Morgan could only muster up a half-hearted, if pragmatic endorsement. “As a professional musician I am, of course, somewhat ambivalent about such devices. But I am also smart enough to know that if using this brings people, particularly new and infrequent concert-goers, closer to the music and provides a more enjoyable experience, then it could be a wonderful tool.”

The Calder Quartet. Photo by Autumn de Wilde

The Calder Quartet. Photo by Autumn de Wilde

The brief rise and fall of the Concert Companion—and its goal of bringing audiences “closer to the music”—was in the back of my mind when I attended a Google hangout with members of the Calder Quartet on January 30. The hangout was part of a new audience engagement initiative supporting the Studio Classics series at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, California. The series showcases new music and I was curious to know why the Mondavi Center chose Google hangouts to promote the series, and what they hoped to accomplish.

For those who are unfamiliar, hangouts are a feature of Google+ (Google’s social network) and are free video chats for up to ten active participants during which everyone can see everyone else on screen. The Mondavi Center also uses the On Air feature that streams hangouts live on their YouTube channel so that those not actively participating can still view the stream, and then an archived recording of the session is made available for later viewing. I asked Rob Tocalino, director of marketing at the Mondavi Center, why the decision was made to use hangouts. “Our intent was to find a way to bring new music fans and artists together in conversations,” he said. “We wanted a tool that was cost-effective, provided real interaction, and allowed us to archive those interactions, in whatever shape they took.”

Lara Downes, pianist and Mondavi Center artist-in-residence.

Lara Downes, pianist and Mondavi Center artist-in-residence.

For more on the appeal of this type of audience outreach, I reached out to Lara Downes, pianist and artist-in-residence at the Mondavi Center. Downes assists in the programming of the Studio Classics series and was the moderator for the hangout with the Calder Quartet. “The goal is to reach out beyond the immediate physical perimeters and to invite in an audience from the much wider community,” she explained. “This is an opportunity to cast a much wider net and really reach out and allow people who aren’t able to physically even be at the performance to at least experience the interaction with the artist.” This is one of the advantages of the hangout, to both audiences and marketers—the personal, visual interactions with artists, what Tocalino called “real interaction.” In hangouts you can chat (if you’re one of the active participants) with composers or performers while sitting in your living room, hear them speak about new works, and get to know them as fellow human beings—a riff on the pre-concert talk in which anyone (well, up to ten people anyway) can participate.

Providing real interaction between audiences and artists is laudable, but does that translate into ticket sales when this technology allows and even encourages participation by people all over the world? Thinking about Downes’s statement about “casting a wider net,” I wanted to understand the benefit to the Center of engaging someone who might live too far away to actually buy a ticket and attend a show. I posed this question to Tocalino and he said that connecting new music fans and artists is the main goal, regardless of whether or not those fans ever attend a concert at the venue. If this seems unusually altruistic, it helps to know that the hangouts are funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation specifically for online audience outreach.

For a complimentary perspective on the free content issue, I reached out to friend and colleague Scott Harrison, executive producer of digital media at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which streams free webcasts of its performances at www.dso.org/live. I asked Harrison how providing all that free content helps the orchestra. Regardless of where viewers are tuning in from, he noted, many are returning for multiple performances and are forming a relationship with the orchestra, and that is what’s important. “I think that it’s not just about reaching people or having a huge audience,” he said, “it’s about having an audience that’s very connected, whether that’s a new connection or rekindling an old one.” I asked Harrison if fostering this sense of connectivity is a higher priority then generating revenue. “If you were only worried about revenue,” he replied, “you’d never get off the ground because you’re never going to make money in the beginning.”

Like the Mondavi Center’s hangouts (and the Concert Companion), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s webcasts are grant-supported, which allows Harrison and his colleagues the freedom to experiment. (He compared the grant funds to the revenue a for-profit company would invest in R&D.) It provides them with a “runway” to get the Live from Orchestra Hall webcast series—currently in its second season—up and running and then start to think about how to make it first self-supporting, then ultimately a revenue contributor to the DSO. Plus, Harrison says the resulting videos are a great resource for promoting the orchestra. They bring the DSO to a worldwide audience at a time when touring is becoming more and more expensive. And while this isn’t marketing specifically in support of new music, performances of some new works the DSO has performed recently, like “Acrostic Song” from David Del Tredici’s Final Alice and Mason Bates’s The B-Sides are archived on their YouTube page for anyone to hear. Even if you can’t experience the DSO live in concert, you can experience it online in more ways than you previously could.

The Mondavi Center’s Google hangouts also generate digital materials that can be used by both the Center and the artists, and while they differ in content, both the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s and the Mondavi Center’s marketing efforts aim to create a sense of community by providing more opportunities to connect with them in the arena in which so many of us spend our time—online.


The Studio Classics series is one of many at the Mondavi Center, which is part of the University of California Davis campus about twenty miles west of Sacramento. Like many large performing arts centers, it hosts a broad range of regional, national, and international performing artists and also serves as the performance space for the UC Davis music, theater, and dance departments. The 2012-13 Studio Classics series consists of three concerts, each with a hangout preceding the performance. The Calder Quartet performances were the first of the series and featured works by Elliot Cless, Lei Liang, Nicholas Omiccioli, Ryan Suleiman, and Tina Tallon along side classics by Bartok, Mendelssohn, and Ravel. The second concert pairs pianist Lara Downes with composer Matt McBane’s band Build, while the third features The Paul Dresher Ensemble performing Dresher’s works for invented instruments as well as works by John Adams and Martin Bresnick. It’s an appealing, eclectic mix, and Downes said she often uses the word “laboratory” to describe the series. “It’s a place where we are able to push boundaries when it comes to crossing genres and developing partnerships between artists who are working in different genres or different disciplines.” The Calder Quartet certainly fits that description; they are the quintessential gnarly-music-playing, rock-band-accompanying, omnivorous new music group.

In order to participate in the hangout I had to revive my previously deleted Google+ account, and after a bit of poking around the Mondavi Center’s Google+ and Facebook pages I was able to join. Other than Calder Quartet cellist Eric Byer and violinist Andrew Bulbrook, moderator Lara Downes, and San Francisco-based PR pro Maura Lafferty, who is also part of the Studio Classics marketing team, I was the only one there. Given that this was the Mondavi Center’s very first hangout a low turnout was not unexpected, but the lack of outside participation stifled the half-hour conversation a bit and forced Downes to carry it all herself. Even so, there were also some really interesting moments, like when Calder Quartet violinist Andrew Bulbrook spoke about his quartet’s role as an interpreter and curator (7:25) and about how participating in the creation of new works is the best way to expand the string quartet canon (11:35). “There is something to a consensus that builds around things and weeds things out,” he said, “but to get to that point you have to create. Things have to be generated; they have to be made and they have to be explored and interpreted and discussed. The canon and what is being created now are completely intertwined.” You can view the full hangout below.

Its clear that it’s going to take the Mondavi Center some time to grow their audience for the hangouts. They just had a second hangout on March 5 with composer Matt McBane and it too lacked outside participants. If the goal, as Mondavi Center Marketing Director Tocalino says, is to create connections between audiences and artists, then I think Google hangouts are an ideal format to help them accomplish it. For me, many pre-concert talks can be a passive experience—a one-way flow of information from the stage to the audience—but I found the hangout to be a surprisingly intimate experience. Perhaps the fact that I was sitting at my kitchen table had something to do with it. While this particular hangout with the Calder Quartet was hampered by a lack of participants, I feel that the format itself encourages free-flowing, informal conversations that have the potential to go beyond the standard Q&A. All the Mondavi Center needs now is an audience.

When asked about the value of new forms of audience outreach like Google hangouts, the Calder Quartet’s Bulbrook said, “as an artist you have to always be searching, trying new things. It’s such a thrill to make one’s life in music, and in picking up a stringed instrument you are entering into a tradition that spans centuries. It’s great to have the opportunity to experiment with new ideas of reaching people with an art that is rooted in such history.”

Ultimately, Tocalino and his staff are figuring out how to better market new music on the fly, and experimenting with new modes of audience outreach is part of the process. “We have tools that we rely on to market the better-known artists on our season; there can be tactical challenges, but they’re usually fairly easy to overcome,” he explained. “But with new music, we are often bringing artists and works into the area for the first time. And, sometimes, you are selling work that is “difficult” in the best sense of the word. But it feels great to work on the front end of trying to grow an audience that, we hope, will continue to value and trust our programming over the years.”

There will always be a need for experimentation in the marketing of new music, and of classical music in general. The use of supertitles in opera, while commonplace now, was quite controversial when it began in America in the 1980s. When Beverly Sills introduced them at the New York City Opera in 1983, she was called a “philistine” in The New York Times. In 1985, James Levine famously replied “Over my dead body” when asked about the possibility of supertitles at the Metropolitan Opera, and yet ten years later there they were, Met Titles in the back of every seat, and in standing room, too. While Google hangouts certainly don’t impact a musical performance the way supertitles affect the experience of opera, they have the potential to achieve what the Concert Companion never did: to allow audience members to connect directly with a composer or performer as a person before connecting with them onstage. Perhaps this is exactly what the Mondavi Center’s Studio Classics series needs, perhaps not, but they won’t know unless they try.


Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of The Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

Sounds Heard: Cold Blue Two

For more than three decades, Cold Blue Music has been highlighting the work of composers working on the outer edges of contemporary music, many of whom are based on the West Coast and “whose personal music visions often blend intuition with process,” according to the label. Sonically, this translates into a very specific kind of aesthetic which can be gleaned from the titles of the works on Cold Blue’s most recent anthology CD Cold Blue Two; Colorless Sky Became Fog and Prelude to Alone, for instance, are telling. Not to say that the music is colorless—it is anything but. This is (to my ears) music that evokes the thick, dark quiet of late nights, and misty rainy days, when a certain level of sleepy, languid melancholy can become soothing and thought-provoking.

Cold Blue Two features 14 short tracks (only Nights in the Garden of Maine by Peter Garland breaks the five-minute mark), many of which were composed specifically for this CD. It offers a panoramic view of Cold Blue’s offerings, which are quite varied and yet make a powerful unified statement. These works could be described as beautiful oddities—some even devastatingly gorgeous, but always with a twist. Even if unapologetic beauty is not your cup of tea, worry not—upon close listen each one of these works sports frayed edges, chipped corners, or other subtle disturbances that turn it into a highly personal proclamation; this is far more than lovely fluff. Daniel Lentz’s smooth, mournful solo cello-with-overdubs piece Celli, Phillip Schroeder’s shimmering Another Shore for celesta with digital delay, and John Luther Adams’s Sky With Four Suns (originally a choral piece but presented here in an arrangement for string quartet) are examples of flat-out pretty music bearing plenty of harmonic and thoughtfully structured substance. But stand by, because things get weirder, and quickly. Son of Soe-Pa for solo guitar with electronics by Ingram Marshall is performed by his son, and also includes a recording of his son singing as an eight-year-old child. This description sounds warm and fuzzy until you actually hear the digital delay pitch-bends dragging down the guitar in a mildly sea-sickly, disturbing fashion. Here, childhood memories are taken to a surreal place.

The disc also contains a healthy dose of just intonation; the 16th note tremolo that opens James Tenney’s Mallets in the Sky, scored for the Harry Partch diamond marimba with string quartet, ushers in an upswing of mood and activity level after a series of somewhat lethargically paced tracks. It is followed by the disarmingly lovely, glowing Eskimo Lullaby, written by Larry Polansky for Lou Harrison’s just-intonation National guitar and the diaphanous, untrained voice of guitarist John Schneider.
All of the pieces have an intimate, small-space chamber music sound, whether it is accordion, clarinets, and piano, and/or electronics. Many are haunting, but not at all cold or alienating; this is music for friendly ghosts. Each work contains treasures to be discovered within, and the heart-on-sleeve honesty of the works is not something one hears often. Cold Blue Two can make you look forward to a rainy day.

Legacy of Lou Harrison Showcased at [email protected] in Berkeley

Lou Harrison remains, even nine years after his death, the quintessential West Coast composer. He often referred to the region as Pacifica (as opposed to the East Coast’s Atlantica), and felt the pull of Asia rather than Europe. “Well, why would anyone choose the East?” he asked rhetorically, in response to an interviewer’s question in 1995 as to why he chose to make his home on the West Coast. “We’re not bound up with industrial ‘twelve-tone-ism’ quite so much as the East seaboard is,” he continued, “and also we’re not afraid out here if something sounds pretty. I don’t see that increased complexity is any solution at all.” Even though these battle lines are not as starkly drawn as they once were, the flowering of “pretty music” throughout the country is certainly influenced by the West Coast aesthetic Harrison embodied.

“He followed his own path, and it took decades to be recognized,” says pianist Sarah Cahill. “I think a lot of young composers today—not just in the Bay Area but across the country—are picking up on what he started: writing melodic, tonal music, embracing simplicity rather than complexity, going back to ancient dance forms for inspiration, incorporating elements of music from Asia and non-Western cultures. Lou Harrison was doing that in 1940 and it took more than half a century for the rest of the world to catch up to him.”

Evidence that the original “pretty music” still resonates with listeners came in the form of the large crowd that gathered in the Berkeley Art Museum on May 25 to hear a selection of Harrison’s works, programmed by Cahill, including his transcendental La Koro Sutro. Also noteworthy was the “re-premiere” of an early piano work, Dance for Lisa Karon. Composed in San Francisco in 1938 when Harrison was just 21 years old, it was first performed in April 1939 on a dance concert involving Karon. The manuscript was subsequently lost for decades before resurfacing earlier this year. Daniel Katz, who found the manuscript, detailed his remarkable discovery in an email to Cahill in February.

I am writing to you because I recently came upon what appears to be a manuscript of a work for solo piano by Lou Harrison, dated 1938 (in San Francisco), entitled “Dance for Lisa Karon.” Lisa Karon was also known as Alice Reawold, an instructor at Estelle Reed’s dance studio on Geary Street in SF. I found the manuscript in a box of sheet music belonging to my father-in-law, several of which had at one time belonged to Alice/Lisa. (Several were signed by her.)  It turns out that Lisa was my wife’s childhood piano teacher and a family friend. My wife then remembered having met Lou several times at Lisa’s house.

“Daniel Katz showed this score to Leta Miller, co-author of the only published biography of Lou Harrison, and I showed it to a number of people who worked closely with Lou Harrison and know his work well,” Cahill says, “and no one had ever heard of it.  So most likely, this manuscript is the only copy, forgotten since that early performance in 1939.  I’m tremendously grateful to Daniel and his wife, Allana Lee Katz, for the opportunity to perform it after all these years.”

This recent concert of Harrison’s music was just the latest programmed by Cahill as part of  [email protected]: Friday Nights @ BAM/PFA  at the Berkeley Art Museum, an evening series featuring extended gallery hours and performances. “Larry Rinder, the director of the Berkeley Art Museum, started the [email protected] series a few years ago, with the idea of bringing new audiences to the museum and creating an informal, engaging atmosphere for music, films, readings, and various art forms,” Cahill explains. “He invited me to program one evening a month, and asked especially for experimental and new music.”

The musical performances take place in Gallery B, an open space on the ground floor of the museum that is surrounded on all sides by several stories of galleries and balconies, and Cahill feels that this unique space is part of the appeal. “The gallery setting, in which people can sit or lie on the floor, or walk around and look at what’s on view in the galleries, or get different perspectives from overhanging balconies, makes these concerts attractive to people who might not enjoy sitting still in a seat through a whole concert.  We get a younger audience, a lot of kids, a diverse group of people.” The crowd on Friday night was certainly diverse, and even included several serious contenders for the Lou Harrison look-a-like prize.

Gallery B at BAM/PFA pre-concert

Gallery B at BAM/PFA pre-concert

The concert opened with the brief Solo for Anthony Cirone for tenor bells. William Winant played the melodic, modal work—dedicated to Tony Cirone, a percussionist in the San Francisco Symphony and colleague of Harrison’s at San Jose State University—with wonderful lyricism. Next came Dance for Lisa Karon performed by Cahill. It’s written in a bracing, modernist idiom that Harrison explored prior to his more well-known work with different tuning systems and the music of Asian cultures. Here’s what Cahill had to say about the new work.

There’s only a marking of “Maestoso,” so it’s hard to figure out the tempo, but big leaping chords in the climactic middle section establish a speed which isn’t too fast (with any of these early dance pieces by Lou Harrison, you try to take the pulse from imagining what the dancers would be doing).  The right hand and left hand are in different keys.

It begins with brash, muscular music; dense chords in the left hand buttress angular melodic gestures in the right, which is then followed by a more subdued section in which oscillating harmonies accompany a circuitous melodic line. A third contrasting section recaptures the brashness of the opening with leaping melodic lines in octaves above the oscillating harmonies heard earlier—this time in a descending sequence—before the opening material returns to close the piece. The music is striving and assertive, and Cahill’s playing captured this sense of barely harnessed power while maintaining great clarity in the live acoustics of the gallery.

Tenor Bells used in Solo for Anthony Cirone

Tenor Bells used in Solo for Anthony Cirone

Next the Abel-Steinberg-Winant trio performed Varied Trio, a five-movement work Harrison composed for them in 1987. Fleeting pitch and ensemble issues did little to detract from an otherwise strong performance. The second movement, titled “Bowl Balls,” is a moto perpetuo for rice bowls that Winant played with scintillating energy. In “Elegy” pianist Julie Steinberg’s swooshing, modal arpeggios evoked the strumming of a koto. In the fourth movement “Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard”one of the ancient dance forms Cahill noted—violinist David Abel subtly darkened his tone to capture the music’s wistful spirit, and was mirrored beautifully by Steinberg. Even in the work’s loudest moments, like the central section of the final movement “Dance,” the ensemble remained well balanced, the piano and percussion playing crisp and lively without overpowering the violin.

Rice bowls—from Harrison’s own kitchen—used in Varied Trio

Rice bowls—from Harrison’s own kitchen—used in Varied Trio

The centerpiece of the concert was Harrison’s La Koro Sutro, a setting, in Esperanto, of the Heart Sutra scored for chorus, harp, and American Gamelan. The eight-movement work opens with Prelude: Kunsonoro Kaj Gloro, a paean to “Blessed, Noble, Perfect Wisdom,” and the following seven movements, sequentially numbered “Strofos,” set the text of the Buddhist scripture that details the enlightenment of Avakiteshesvara, who in a moment of deep meditation realizes that the phenomenal world is an illusion.

The gamelan used in this performance is named Old Granddad and was built by Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig in the late 1960s. Harrison called the gamelan “the single most beautiful musical ensemble on the planet.” , and he loved its range and ravishing tone colors. Colvig said that their motivation for building one was simply to recreate this sound and create music for it.

The composer Lou Harrison and I decided to make our own Western Gamelan based in general on the traditional ones but not copying anything for the sake of authenticity. Our primary consideration was to make beautiful sound; our primary purpose to build a usable musical instrument for which new serious music could be composed.

It is tuned to a just-intonation centering on D. Colvin describes the ideas behind the tuning in an essay titled “An American Gamelan.”

The tuning of any instrument is determined by its use . . . Certainly it could be made with “sharps and flats” and all tuned up out-of-tune Western style in 12 equal tones so you could play “Stormy Weather” on it. Why bother? We already have pianos and marimbaphones etc. to play your favorite tunes on. Marvelous new (to us) sound sensations can be achieved by trying different musical modes in “just intonation”, the expression used for rational tuning.

Harrison and Colvig began with a pentatonic scale on D (D-E-F#-A-B), and added the pitches C# and G, again “justly tuned.” The result resembles a D Major scale but in just intonation rather than equal temperment and is, in fact, the syntonous, or “stretched,” diatonic scale described by Ptolemy in his 2nd-century C.E. treatise Harmonics.

Old Granddad is composed of pitched and non-pitched instruments, some handmade, some “found” objects, and a small organ. The pitched metallophones range from short tubular pipes to large, low-pitched xylophone-like instruments whose resonating pipes, composed of several restaurant-size tin cans, soldered together, are several feet long. Non-pitched instruments include enormous dinner bells, suspended oxygen tanks played with baseball bats, and trashcans. “Using Western materials our Gamelan is a “happy hybrid” of pipes and slabs and metal resonators and rubber mountings for the pipes and wooden stands to hold everything up,” Colvig wrote.

Oxygen tank bells

Oxygen tank bells

On the whole, this was a remarkable performance of La Koro Sutro. The chorus was occasionally outmatched in the outer movements when the full gamelan is employed (a dozen extra voices would have helped), and sounded unfocused and hazy at times in “Strofo 2,” but there were flashes of brilliance as well. The unison singing in “Strofo 4” was perfectly balanced from top to bottom, and the sopranos deserve special praise for their crystalline purity in the chant-like “Strofo 5.” The William Winant Percussion Group was rock solid and Old Granddad sounded like the single instrument—as opposed to a group of instruments played by individuals—the Javanese consider it to be. They captured the otherworldly mood of “Strofo 1” which depicts Avakiteshesvara in deep meditation, and the tranquility of “Strofo 4” where Avakiteshesvara shares his insight with his pupil Shariputra: “Therefore, O Shariputra, in the voidness there is neither form, nor yet sensation, no perception, no impulses, no awareness: nor the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, the mind.” These movements feature melodic percussion writing on the pitched instruments of the gamelan, and the players created beautifully shaped phrases.

Performing La Koro Sutro

Performing La Koro Sutro

Marika Kuzuma led the combined forces with a sure hand, her conducting crisp and assertive when needed, each vocal phrase carefully molded. Other than the sections referred to earlier, the overall balance between the choir and gamelan was excellent; no small feat in a multi-faceted concrete cavern. After the final, ecstatic bars of the piece, where the choir sings the mantra “going, going, yonder going on beyond awake, all hail!” and the gamelan sends up glorious peals of sound from oxygen tanks and gongs, she kept her hands raised and everyone held their breath as the sound reverberated for several long moments.

It bears repeating that, from where I was standing at least, all of the performances on this concert worked wonderfully well in the live acoustic of Gallery B and the performers should be commended. Sarah Cahill also credits BAM Administrative Coordinator Sean Carson, a composer himself, whose knowledge of the gallery’s acoustics is instrumental in determining the ideal setup and location for each concert.  Kudos to all involved, both behind the scenes and on stage, for a memorable musical experience in Pacifica.


Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of the Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

Janice Giteck: Music in Mind

A conversation at Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle, Washington: January 31, 2012—7:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Sometimes a composer’s personality can speak volumes about the music she or he writes. Tranquility mixed with pointed curiosity fits both the outward persona of Janice Giteck as well as the character of her work. Her compositions, which focus on chamber music but also include orchestral works and film scores, combine the rigor of Western European musical training with a meld of Buddhist, Hasidic, Javanese, and African influences. Though born in New York, her music clearly fits within the “West Coast” tradition, both because of its sonic nod towards Pacific Rim cultures as well as its sense of spaciousness.

Giteck began moving west as a teenager when her family relocated to Arizona, and she kept traveling in that direction until settling in Seattle, where she has been a professor at Cornish College of the Arts since 1979. From 1962 to 1969 she studied with Darius Milhaud both at Mills College and the Aspen Institute, then, with the support of a grant from the French government, she went to France to study with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. While it might have seemed unusual for a young woman to study composition at that time, she points out that the gender ratio hasn’t really changed that much over the years. “There were, I think three women in the class to about twenty men,” Giteck recalls. “And that ratio stayed the same, no matter what, all the way through school, up to today when I’m teaching.”

Giteck’s constant inquisitiveness—directed both inward and towards the outside world—has led to numerous compositions that grapple with social issues and dramatically affected her life path. Om Shanti for chamber ensemble with soprano, which is dedicated to people living with AIDS, was composed after a three-year period of compositional silence; a silence which led Giteck to study psychology (resulting in a master’s degree and work with patients in a mental hospital), and brought to her musical consciousness an emphasis on the link between mental well-being and music-making. She has also scored seven feature-length documentary films that address social issues, including Emiko Omori’s Rabbit in the Moon and Pat Ferrero’s Hopi, Songs of the Fourth World; her composition Ishi for the Seattle Chamber Players relates the life story of the last Yahi Indian, who became a much-loved figure in San Francisco.

Whether through writing music, discovering what her students think is important to learn in 2012, improvising with fellow musicians, or even waiting through a time of compositional silence, Giteck seems to find her greatest inspiration in the energy of the present moment. “I just have to wait to see what is it that’s going to emerge,” she explains. “And I’m not going to push it. I’m going to see.”

Alexandra Gardner: We’re here at Cornish College of the Arts, where you’ve taught for many years. You’ve taught more than a generation of students. Do you feel that you have a particular message to impart to students? For instance, things they should strive to learn or understand when they are composing?

Janice Giteck: I’ve been teaching about 35 years, if I count UC Berkeley and Cal State Hayward before I moved here from California. So that’s really more like two generations of composers just about, which is just unbelievable when I think about it. I feel that the sincerity I hear in students’ work is very compelling, and these days there’s such a wonderful urgency about including what is current. Students 20 years ago or so were still trying to really get the classical infusion or transmission into themselves. But now technology has changed our lives completely. Young composers are working at a computer a lot of the time. They can hear immediately what they’ve composed. We all know this is nothing new. So what I try to do is to see how their values are shifting. What they value as being important to know. In a way, I’m letting the students lead me. And that’s actually been the way I’ve always taught. What do you need to know to be able to communicate what you want to communicate? There are still all the basics of theory and harmony. There are some students here who come primarily as electronic music composers, and it’s like pulling teeth to have them become interested in classical harmony. But I think it’s good to have a foundation in what the Western lineage has been. I remember when Jim Tenney came here as a guest years ago, and he was sitting in a theory class, and he said that he thought it was only necessary to study 100 years back in a music school: that if you had 100 years back, that should be adequate for you to have a sense of where things came from (of course, there’d be specialty classes in early music or whatever). And I’ve taken that to heart somewhat. You have to keep going with the times. I like to point out to students what things I think work really well, and things that don’t work well. There was a Bang on a Can concert I went to in New York that was all chamber music, but it was all mic-ed. This was at Symphony Space. And there was a nine-foot grand piano on the stage, and I thought, this is ridiculous, to mic this. Particularly since that piece did not ask for the instruments to be amplified. I’ll give an example like that to students and say, “What do you think about it? Why would you choose to mic an instrument, or not mic an instrument?” Trying to bring those kind of contemporary ideas into the sound of things.

AG: Speaking of teachers, you studied with two of the 20th century’s greatest French composers; Milhaud and Messiaen. What were your experiences like with them, and what do you feel you learned from them that has been particularly important for you?

JG: Well, I feel really, really fortunate. I met Milhaud when I was 16. I went to Aspen in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. I met Darius Milhaud and he always had a lot going on in his house—many guests and visitors all the time. His classes that he taught were in his house as well. Students were there, kind of in the milieu of whatever was going on. A lot of different types of composers would come through as guests in Aspen. I was getting an exposure to Berio and Britten, Messiaen and Persichetti, and I could just go on. Krenek.

There were, I think three women in the class to about twenty men. And that ratio stayed the same, no matter what, all the way through school, up to today when I’m teaching. It’s pretty much the same still. So that’s been really interesting. However, Milhaud in particular, but Messiaen as well, were very pro-feminist. Very pro-women being strong, creative, passionate musicians. After the years in Aspen, I went to Mills and studied with Milhaud there. And that’s a women’s college, and he had me in his graduate level class from the time I was a freshman. So that was pretty amazing. Again, I was very young in comparison to the other students. But I learned so much by being around him for seven years, all together. To compose what is truly my own. Not to try to sound like other people. To study really hard, but then put it all aside and just write what’s my own. That’s something I’ve internalized as a teacher. Study really hard, and then put it all aside and just write what’s you. With Messiaen, I was only at the Paris Conservatory for one year, and it was very dramatic. There was a class full of French students, and three foreigners, and I was one of the foreigners. Again, I think there were only three women in the class. We had the likes of Xenakis come and talk to us about the LP set of all his music that had just come out. Messaien emphasized rigor—to be very rigorous—but he would be the first person to toss away, you know, 12-tone to a tee. He couldn’t even be pinned down to being a serialist composer, even though it was his early work that changed so much for the composers after him. So, I liked this kind of fresh, non-dogmatic approach to things. And there was also a lot of playfulness. Milhaud had one of those little Legion of Honor buttons that he wore all the time. Messiaen had three different levels, and he wore them all the time. He’d wear these very formal suits, but he’d wear these big flowery shirts, with the lapel open.

AG: Your work incorporates quite a few different types of music. Gamelan, African drumming rhythms—all sorts of different voices appear in your work. How did you come to those and start incorporating them into your compositions?

JG: The very first time I heard gamelan was at a concert of Debussy preludes. Jeanne Stark—a Belgian pianist—brought a small group of people and gamelan instruments into the concert hall. This was at the Museum of Art in San Francisco—this big, cavernous room. For the first 40 minutes of the concert, they just played traditional Javanese gamelan music.

Then they put everything on these carts and wheeled it out, and she sat down and played Debussy preludes. I had never heard a gamelan before in my life and it was like whoa. I had read about this in history books, but I had never heard this connection. And then I had a chance to play in a gamelan in the Bay area at a summer program that the city of Berkeley would run. It’s called Cazadero Music and Arts Program out in the redwood forest. Incredible place. We had the Berkeley Gamelan there every summer. So I started learning gamelan with Daniel Schmidt, who was the director then. He’s also an instrument builder. And then of course, with Lou Harrison being in the Bay area, I would hear concerts of his music and became very enamored by his work. He came up to Seattle in ’79, and the first thing that we did was we built an aluminum gamelan here, à la Lou Harrison, with Daniel Schmidt helping a bunch of faculty build it in the night hours after the furniture shop from the design department was locked and closed. It was the first set of instruments for Gamelan Pacifica. And then one of our students, Jarrad Powell, got very, very interested in gamelan. He graduated from here, went to Mills, studied with Lou Harrison, then went to Indonesia and had a gamelan designed and built, which we now have here. It’s beautiful. So I’ve had gamelan music in my life for over 30 years now.

There was also African percussion at the Cazadero Music and Arts Program, first introduced by Paul Dresher—traditional Ewe music from West Africa. My former husband and I were asked to come here and re-vamp the whole music department at Cornish in 1979, so Paul came with us, and he started some African percussion classes. Then we had a West African master drummer, Obo Addy. I just hung around Obo Addy as much as I could and I would play in his ensembles. It was the greatest way to learn. It wasn’t out of a book. He would teach you the rhythm on your shoulder, and stay there with you until you got it into your body. I feel so lucky to have had those kinds of introductions to the music.

AG: Do you feel that there is a “West Coast” style of composition? When I think of West Coast composers, I think of Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, names like that. I’m interested to know whether you feel that there is a school of musical thought that is very specific to the West.

JG: Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, I was born in New York; I lived there until I was 13. I studied classical everything. We’d go to concerts at Carnegie Hall. I studied piano, and then we moved to Arizona. The first study I had that was more advanced was in Aspen, which was directed towards Juilliard summer school, so to speak—a European, East Coast way of thinking. When I went to Mills, it was kind of the beginning of that feeling of, well, there really is something unusual in the San Francisco area. And then I would say over the years, I really identified more and more with Pacific Rim and Asian philosophy, certainly in terms of Buddhist practice and the kind of values that one is exposed to so immediately and readily on the West Coast—particularly the Northwest. I became quite close with Lou Harrison on a personal level, and he was always challenging me to be feeling where is it that I’m identifying with, because he also had a very rigorous European training although his heart was in Chinese music from the time he was a little boy. I would say that the spaciousness and the less competitive environment is true of the West Coast. I don’t know that it’s as cutthroat.

Maybe I’m just romantic about it, but there might be a little more space for more kinds of people stylistically on the West Coast. It’s something that the music faculty at Cornish feels very strongly about; to just let people blossom wherever they’re going and that any style is fine. We’ve had students who are doing hip hop and taking on the marketplace. And we have students who are classical pianists teaching little kids piano. Lots of string quartets are getting written here. Every style under the sun. I say that I lean more towards being west coast, but I was so trained with the values of European music, especially studying with Milhaud and Messiaen.

AG: Early in your musical career you wrote the piece TREE for the San Francisco Symphony, but it seems that since then you have preferred to focus on writing music for smaller forces. Is that correct?

JG: I think that I’ve always felt more excited about the kind of intimacies of chamber music than writing for a really big ensemble. I also feel that when I’m working on a piece, I burn so hot that it feels like it could kind of burn me out, you know. I don’t think that it would be that good. I don’t have bad health. I have excellent health. I just feel that working more delicately is where I’ve found my excitement. And some of that is living on the West Coast. I live in the most amazing place. I live on Penn Cove, which is part of the Pacific Ocean. My house is literally right on the water’s edge. And this area of Whidbey Island was inhabited by the Lower Skagit Indians 15,000 years ago. It comes out of the last Ice Age. It’s very exquisite and kind of magical. And the tempo of being there has a huge influence on me.

AG: But you have written some long-form chamber music. Breathing Songs from a Turning Sky is a substantial ten-movement work, and more recently you wrote Ishi for the Seattle Chamber Players, an evening-length work which also has a film component, as well as some theatrics and audience participation. Can you talk a little about Ishi for those who don’t know who he was?

JG: Ishi was the last member of the Yahi tribe of northern California Indians that had been around for between 4,000 and 6,000 years. We don’t really know. He was literally the last person of that tribe and that language. They had been roaming around the foothills of Mount Lassen for many, many years. They spent decades in hiding because they were being hunted down by gold miners. Ishi lived with this small band of people, and he was their doctor, their surgeon, and their spiritual leader. One by one, they all died off, including his mother and his sister, and he left Mount Lassen and made the choice to come into Oroville, which is a little tiny town at the foot of the mountain. He chose to go to try to live, even though he was surrendering to white people in the town. There are photographs from that very day. And this was exactly 100 years ago this year. This is the centennial—in 1912 Ishi stumbled into Oroville. What he did in the next five years was so amazing. He became close friends with Alfred Kroeber, who was an anthropologist at University of California, and one of the first anthropologists to begin to see natives as completely human. Alfred Kroeber took him in, and Ishi decided to go with him and live in the anthropology museum and tell them everything he could possibly tell them through an interpreter who knew the language of the next tribe over. So there was some linkage of the languages. And he became a very beloved and famous person in San Francisco.

Ishi had such forgiveness in him. He became friendly with a surgeon at the University of California medical school. He would go on the rounds with this surgeon to visit patients who were in recovery from surgery. He would chant and sing to them.

AG: Wow.

JG: It was very important to sing to people when they were healing.

AG: That’s amazing.

JG: Yeah, and the doctor would be glad for him to join him.

I recently had a performance of this piece at the Other Minds Festival and when I was in a panel just before the performance, I asked if anybody knew about Ishi. At least 200 people out of at least 350 people raised their hands. So they knew. And afterwards, a few different people came up to me and told me their Ishi stories, including Bob Shumaker, who is an audio engineer. He told me that his stepfather had known Ishi when his stepfather was a little boy. And Ishi would play baseball with the children on the street, because he wanted to learn baseball. So I mean, these stories were still coming down about who this Ishi was who would sit out in front of the museum and make arrowheads for children out of obsidian because he was just so interested in people. He never wore shoes, even to the San Francisco Opera. He went barefoot. He just felt that it was unsafe to go anywhere wearing shoes. So I incorporate that into my piece as one of the few theatrical gestures. The violinist takes off his shoes, rolls up his pants, and walks around the stage and into the audience playing his violin.

Emiko Omori, a filmmaker from San Francisco, and I went up to where Ishi lived his 40 years on Mount Lassen. We went there in February, and it was completely covered with snow, except for Deer Creek, which is where he lived. We filmed for a few days, and Emiko put together a little film that is at the end of the chamber music piece.

AG: Speaking of films, haven’t you’ve scored several over the years?

JG: Yeah, I have enjoyed very much working on this collaborative approach to making something. And with really extraordinary filmmakers. They’ve all been documentaries—I’ve scored seven feature-length documentaries, mostly with folks in the Bay area. I don’t know how we’ve done it, but I’ve lived up here and worked, you know, flying stuff back and forth, and then eventually sending things via computer. Then going to a recording studio up here and having people fly here, back and forth. It’s worked out pretty well. The thing that’s so wonderful about it is that it’s completely different than writing a piece from scratch. If I am invested or interested in the subject of the documentary, I can just pour my heart into it and give everything that I can give as a composer to some purpose, or cause. They’re mostly social issue pieces. One is Rabbit in the Moon, which was a 90-minute documentary made for PBS about the Japanese-American internment during World War II. That was an amazing project working with Emiko Omori, the same filmmaker I mentioned earlier. It was really her personal family story because she was in one of the camps as a little child. It was the political story and the cultural story that was going on amongst Japanese-Americans, all layered together. She trusted me to be the sound component to tell that story, so that’s pretty thrilling.

AG: In everything that you’ve been talking about, the common thread seems to be that your mission is for music, in one way or another, to provide some sort of healing experience.

JG: For me, making music is like a channel, or a language that’s different than words. And it’s very immediate; and it’s very, very personal; and it can connect something that’s deep inside of me outward in an effort to connect, an effort to speak. Music can be healing in a lot of different ways. I see the young rockers and jazzers here at Cornish who are just banging away on the drums, and they just feel so fantastic after they’ve been playing together like that. It’s not meditative or gentle. No, their hearts are racing. I would say that’s healing, in that moment. Music has been used for healing all sorts of neurological problems. There’s the Oliver Sacks book Musicophilia. I mean, it’s just amazing, the things that he’s putting together for masses of people to know about. Babies listening to music in utero and having an immediate association with music of that nature once they’re born. It’s just amazing. It’s a channel. I don’t know that it’s a language. I think it’s a pre-verbal communication.

AG: In addition to your musical training, you have a master’s in psychology, right? That’s a pretty big switch from serious composer life.

JG: Immediately after I wrote Tree, which was a piece commissioned for the San Francisco Symphony, I got a commission to write a piece for viola and orchestra with the Mid-Columbia Symphony Orchestra in eastern Washington. And about halfway through writing that piece, I didn’t have any ideas! It was like this idiot savant had lost the savant part, or something just turned off. I had a copyist (in those days we had copyists). She would come to my house and sit in my dining room, and I would be sitting at the piano, and she’d say, “Janice, I need the next page for the clarinet part.” Or, “I need the next four measures, could you…?” It’s like I literally depended on her ego structure, psychologically speaking, to get me through that piece. It was a complete disaster, as far as I was concerned. And I took the piece, and I put it on a shelf, never to be played again. After that piece, I stopped writing for three years. Completely. Nothing. Zero. And I thought it was over. I thought, I don’t have anything to say in this language anymore. So I decided that I was very interested in getting into therapy and studying my mind more. And I thought, O.K., I’ll go and do that in a very systematic way, as well as going into therapy. So I did. I went and studied psychology for three years and came out of that with a master’s with an emphasis on working with music as a potential link between well-being and communication and music-making. I continued to teach at Cornish, but I also worked part-time for about six years at Seattle Mental Health Institute with very mentally ill folks, developing music programs and working one-on-one with clients and a music group. I was just trying to find out, well, what is the common denominator for all of us humans on this earth. What is it in music? What is it as a communication? How can music help to bridge different people? And so I was studying my own mental health as well as working with these people. I also started playing in a group with three other musician-composers. Two of them had been students of mine, and we would meet once a week, and we would improvise with no form. We wouldn’t talk; we’d play together for about two hours, and that was it. I loved it. It had nothing to do with writing down notes. It was absolutely expressive, and I could practice following people as well as leading people, which I had already been pretty good at as a teacher. But I found the beginning of a whole fresh way of teaching, and of noticing myself. Then after three years, the Seattle Movement Therapy Institute, which had just lost their director to AIDS, wanted a piece from me that could be used for AIDS benefits that was in honor of him. So I wrote Om Shanti, and it flew out of me in about two or three weeks. It’s a five-movement chamber music piece with soprano, and it was very fresh for me. I didn’t think about it much. It just came out, and then I had another like 20-year run after that piece. And now, I’ve been in a silence again for a few years. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. But it’s very powerful to surrender to it, and see it as part of how life is. It’s not easy. But it’s very powerful.

AG: That’s very interesting. It’s probably healthy to have periods like that where you’re not writing anything, or rather, that you’re not worrying about writing anything.

JG: I crave that silence. I’ve just been asked to write a string quartet by an ensemble in this area, and I would love to. I love string quartets. It’s probably one of my favorite all-time ensemble sounds. It’s just the simplicity and purity of it. I just have to wait to see what is it that’s going to emerge. And I’m not going to push it. I’m going to see.

AG: So you said maybe.

JG: We’re talking about it. I’m also working on a book—it’s a book about composing and about learning composing and about teaching composing. There’s a lot to it already, so I think there will be a book there, after 35 years of teaching. I’ve been encouraged by some of my colleagues to do this book; there’s nothing out there, practically. It’s an interesting time. I have no interest whatsoever in pushing my career out at this point. And I don’t have a feeling of fading, or like something’s over per se; it just feels more spacious.

AG: You have such a different take on existence as a composer than so many people. Trying to figure out what’s going on inside your head seems to have had a positive effect.

JG: Thanks. I’m still trying to figure things out: What am I doing? What is music? Is music the notes that you write on a piece of paper? Or is music the sound that’s made in the present moment connecting with an audience, or with another person? It’s when it’s happening, is what I’m coming to know more. What is a composer? Are we missing something by composing in isolation and then handing it over? Where do we get our juice from? You know, each day when we sit down to work? Where’s that coming from? Are we making music? I don’t know if we’re making music or we’re making something that will then be translated into somebody making music. I don’t know! These are big questions.