On Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, the group Gnarwhallaby presented a concert of music by Klaus Lang, Andrzej Dobrowolski, Edison Denison and three contemporary Los Angeles area composers. Gnarwhallaby consists of Brian Walsh on clarinet, Matt Barbier on trombone, Derek Stein playing cello and Richard Valitutto at the piano. The sanctuary of the church was mostly full and provided a comfortable venue that encouraged concentration by virtue of being completely dark, save for the lights on the music stands of the performers.
The first piece was Die Kartoffeln der Königin (1999) by Klaus Lang. The title translates to roughly “The Potatoes of the Queen” and this began with an extended silence by the performers before the first low, deliberate note was sounded in the cello. This was answered in an equally low register by the piano and this call and answer pattern was joined, at length, by the clarinet and trombone With the entire room enveloped in a solid darkness it was easy to imagine being underground. As the piano continued to sound deep notes, the other instruments generated a soft cloud of light buzzing that added to the sense of being beneath the surface of the earth. This is quiet music, but it was effective in working on the imagination so that as the soft buzzing subsided at the finish, one could fairly claim the experience of having been buried deep in garden soil.
The second piece was Krabogapa (1970) by Andrzej Dobrowolski and this began on a sharp note from the clarinet that was soon joined by the trombone. A series of loud trills, followed by silences, built a sense of mystery and tension that was relieved at intervals by loud crashing chords in the piano and frenzied arpeggios in the instruments. This alternated with soft repeating figures, the quiet strumming of the piano wires, a light tapping or knocking sound that created a sense of slowly feeling one’s way in the dark while building up an expectation of the next blow. The loud screams and frenetic runs by the instruments were all tightly orchestrated and carefully played so that the contrast with the quiet sections was especially evident. Although the piece ended quietly, the roller-coaster effect of loud and soft sections was memorable.
d – s – c – h (1969) by Edison Denisov followed, and this had a more angular sound starting with the sharp opening note from the piano. With alternating sections of stringendo and legato, signaled by the starting piano note, the overall feel is tight and excited. This was music with sharp edges – even in the slower sections – but precisely played. Lion and Wolf (2013), a piece written for Gnarwhallaby by Andrew McIntosh was next and this opened with a more organic sound from the sliding trombone. A nice interplay between deep piano chords and the instruments provided a steady forward movement. This gave way to syncopation and a stretch of exotic rhythm that was complimented by high tones in the clarinet. When a slower tempo eventuated, the striking harmonies evoked a somewhat melancholy feeling, but Lion and Wolf was perfectly programmed to follow the Denisov piece.
Susurrous (2011-12) was next, another piece written for Gnarwhallaby, this time by trombonist Matt Barbier. Although this piece began with sharp sounds from the clarinet and cello, it soon settled into a quiet, deliberate pace that allowed some delicate and lovely harmonies to evolve. The softness and subtlety was almost Feldmanesque and the overall effect was like a gentle breeze blowing through a structure, whispering to the listener in quiet tones.
This set the stage for the final work of the evening, the West Coast premiere of Lullaby 4 (2013) by Nicholas Deyoe. Lullaby 4 begins innocently enough, with a quiet piano line creating a mood that is a combination of ominous and mysterious. But just as you are settling in, an explosive chord shatters the quiet – like hitting your head while crossing a darkened room. The piano returns with a soft melody, but there are deep growling sounds in the cello and trombone, like some beast lurking below. A series of rugged sounds from the cello deepens the sense of mystery and adds to the tension. Again a crashing piano lick shatters the moment before returning again to quiet. At one point Matt Barbier could be seen applying the edge of an upturned wine glass to the rim of his horn, creating a sinister sound of unseen movement. These moments of increasing tension were the perfect prelude to the thunderous chords that flashed by at unexpected intervals. The style of this piece would seem to owe something to Dobrowolski’s Krabogapa, with alternating periods of quiet and sharp, short moments of chaos. Listening to Lullaby 4 is like walking down an unfamiliar alley in the dark and being attacked by an unseen assailant – definitely music to keep you on the edge of your seat and an emotionally draining experience.
This music presented in this concert spans over forty years and included three recent pieces from Los Angeles-based composers. This performance of what, by any measure, are technically difficult works was efficiently executed by Gnarwhallaby and further concerts by this group should be sought out by all those interested in state-of-the-art contemporary music here in Southern California.
The San Francisco Bay Area has long been a friendly and nurturing environment for musicians “without a home” – operating between and outside of genres. For those shut out of the concert halls and jazz clubs, it’s been a haven where non-traditional musicians build non-traditional alliances, and run non-traditional music venues and concert series where they can take risks and create uncompromising work. Over decades of community-building and creative ferment, this lack of formal boundaries has defined the sound and feel of the scene, interweaving free improvisation with elements of noise, minimalism, rock, jazz, drone, chamber music, electronica, and other more slippery sounds which resist categorization.
The scene’s relentless DIY approach has led to the establishment of numerous artist-run concert series and festivals, of which the Outsound New Music Summit, the Tom’s Place house concert series in Berkeley, the SIMM Series at the Musicians’ Union Hall, the Wednesday and Sunday series at the Berkeley Arts Festival Space, and the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival are just a few examples. This month they’ll be joined by a brand-new one, the Active Music Festival, covering February 20-22 in downtown Oakland.
The Active Music Festival grew out of the Active Music Series, the brainchild of local saxophonist, composer, and improviser Aram Shelton. “The [Active Music Series] started at the Ivy Room [in Albany, CA] back in 2008,” he says. “At that time there were a few different monthlies happening on Monday nights. I was offered one of them, and wanted to do something along the lines at a series in Chicago at a place called the Hungry Brain. Jazz and improvised music, with a focus on local musicians.” The Ivy Room series lasted through 2011, and in the meantime, Shelton had been offered the curation of a series in Oakland at the Uptown Nightclub in 2009. This incarnation of the Active Music Series would feature its own house band.
“I had been talking to a few musicians about a large group, including Lisa Mezzacappa, Weasel Walter, Damon Smith, and Darren Johnston,” Shelton reveals. “We decided to try to start a large group of improvisers that also had ideas for compositions. We dubbed it the Oakland Active Orchestra, got quite a number of other folks involved, and settled on a monthly residency. Each month one member of the large group would bring in a small group as an opener.” In its second year, the orchestral concerts became a quarterly event, and Shelton opened up the monthly concerts to other groups and musicians with sympatico sounds and approaches. The Oakland Active Orchestra took off on its own trajectory, going on to perform special sets with Jon Raskin, Marco Eneidi, Lisle Ellis, Frank Gratkowski, and living legend Henry Grimes. More recently, the band played sets at 2012 Soundwave Festival and the 2013 Switchboard Music Festival.
The partnership between the Active Music Series and the Uptown led it to become one of only two venues hosting the Active Music Festival. “The owners of the Uptown do have a strong interest in creative and avant-garde music,” says Shelton. “This is a big reason why we’re allowed to have the series there.” The second venue, Duende, is a new Oakland restaurant and music venue which has quickly become a new home for the very type of music featured on the Active Music Series.
To develop the inaugural Active Music Festival, Shelton recruited local colleagues Jacob Felix Heule and Crystal Pascucci to form a curatorial and administrative team. “Jacob adds a good sounding board for aesthetic in terms of musical choices, as we’re trying to bring together some disparate elements in the music scene in Oakland, as we’re just as likely to bring in noise musicians as we are creative jazz musicians,” he explains. “Crystal has an ear towards new music and contemporary classical ensembles that we’re trying to get involved in the series as well.” The team spent 2013 laying the groundwork for the festival and its aesthetic, aligned with its overarching mission of uniting creative musicians with creative listeners hungry for new sounds.
“I think that what sets the [festival] apart,” Shelton declares, “that it’s trying to get people to rub shoulders in a way that they don’t on other series or in different venues. There’s a lot of interesting music being made right now in Oakland, and having a place where many different kinds of musicians can be welcome to present their music alongside very different music than their own is a unique thing.”
Leveraging the success of the Oakland Active Orchestra, the festival will feature two more large ensembles – OrkestROVA and the Moe! Staiano Ensemble, plus the dense and noisy textures of Beauty School and Black Spirituals. A full and detailed menu of the festival’s free jazz, noise, electronic, film music, and acoustic improvisation artists can be found on the festival’s web site.
The Active Music Festival will be held on February 20, 21, and 22 at the Uptown Nightclub (1928 Telegraph Avenue) and Duende (468 19th Street) in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. All tickets are $10.00, and it is recommended that you purchase tickets to Duende events in advance, as space is limited.
Composer Vivian Fung
Listen to an interview with Vivian Fung about this new concerto here as an mp3 file including how the commission came about, whether to name or subtitle the new work, inspirations, and writing for harp.
The New York premiere takes place Sunday and Monday, April 6 & 7 at le poisson rouge.
Bonus - more behind the scenes for composers – shop talk with Vivian and John Clare: mp3 file Hear the answers to how Ms. Fung started as a composer, dream genres, and the importance of recordings/publication for a composer.
Friday, February 7, 2014 Piano Spheres presented The Intrepid Harpsichord, Part II, performed by Gloria Cheng at Boston Court in Pasadena. The concert included an intriguing mixture of early French and Italian Baroque works along with late 20th century pieces. The Marjorie Branson performance space at Boston Court held an enthusiastic crowd and was the perfect venue for an intimate evening of harpsichord music.
Along with Ms. Cheng, the other star of the show was the double-manual harpsichord constructed by Gloria’s husband Lefteris Padavos. The instrument took shape in their garage during 2012 and is based on a model created by the 18th century French master harpsichord builder Pascal Taskin (1723 – 1793). The tuning was, according to Ms. Cheng something of a compromise given the diversity of the program – the early Baroque and our modern equal temperament being distinctly different. The Vallotti tuning was adopted for this performance and the result was a warm, full sound that did not detract from any of the pieces played. The light amplification and good acoustics of the space also contributed, so that even the more subtle textures and passages with elaborate ornamentation were clearly heard.
The concert opened with Prélude non-mésuré (c. 1650) by Louis Couperin. This was a quiet, flowing piece with a wistful, nostalgic feeling. The tuning and acoustics complimented the music perfectly. Other early pieces by Frescobaldi and Rossi followed, and these had a more familiar harpsichord sound, with cascades of successively more complex phrases pouring out from the keyboard. Ms. Cheng explained that the notation of this period is very general, leaving much to the performer in the moment. The playing here was precise and unhurried, even when the passages were in a fast tempo and highly ornamented.
Trio Sonata (1994) by John Harbison followed, consisting of four short movements, all titled Fast. Beginning with a blizzard of notes and variously quiet, syncopated, halting or playful, this piece provided an interesting comparison to the music of the first part of the concert in that, when played on the harpsichord, it did not seem so far removed from the 17th century. Carolyn Yarnell’s Prelude and Fugue (1984) followed and this seemed brighter and more optimistic when compared to the formal Baroque pieces while equaling them in elaborate phrasing. There was, to my ear, at least, a sense of continuity between the centuries that was underscored by hearing these pieces played successively on the harpsichord.
More Baroque music followed, including La Marche des Scythes (1746) by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer. This piece was very formal – almost pompous – and extremely dense at times. It was written as a musical description of barbarian cavalry and the tempo was often fast and furious as befits the subject matter. The playing was often difficult and taxing – the effort being appreciatively received by the audience at the finish. Les Baricades mysterieuses (1717) by Francois Couperin followed, and provided an excellent contrast to La Marche. Soft and lush, with expressive harmony, Les Baricades mysterieuses has a simple and endearing quality that approaches an almost romantic sensibility.
Three late 20th century works closed the concert. The first of these was Continuum (1968) by György Ligeti. This piece is built on repeated arpeggio phrases, with single notes often floating above, a form that prefigures the later minimalism of Riley, Reich and Glass. The effect as heard on the harpsichord is now lovely, now distressing, and now rising in tension. The playing soon becomes fast and intense and the harpsichord keys in the higher registers could be heard clicking under the strain. The tension and pitches ratchet higher and higher – the notes now pouring out – until the sudden ending, greeted by cheers and applause from the audience. This was followed by the more introspective Rain Dreaming (1986) by Toru Takemitsu, a composer whose work is informed by a love of nature and space. Rain Dreaming is quiet, spare, and filled with beautiful harmonies. It is at times solemn, lonely and seems to alternate between shadow and light. A feeling of uncertainty arises in this music that never quite leaves the piece, but it ends on a lovely warm chord at the finish.
The final work on the program was Phrygian Tucket (1994), a piece by Stephen Montague for amplified harpsichord and tape. A tucket is an Elizabethan musical phrase that means a flourish of trumpets and drums. The addition of the tape provided a series of deep chords in the lower registers that act to form a solid foundation for the melody in the harpsichord. The result is a strong, muscular sound as would be expected from a tucket. The bass tones coming from the tape seems to fill in between the more strident tones of the harpsichord and this adds a luminosity to the upper notes that is quite effective. As the piece progressed, certain of the passages in Phrygian Tucket acquired a more introspective feel. Soon , however, an increasing tempo and discord introduce a sense of building tension that is released in a dramatic full-keyboard arpeggio that ends the piece in sudden silence. The addition of the sounds from the tape definitely enhances the harpsichord and makes Phrygian Tucket an interesting blend of old and electronic.
The Intrepid Harpsichord, Part II was carefully programmed and impressively performed, combining old and new music as heard through the lens of the harpsichord. The audience responded with an extended ovation in appreciation. An encore followed by Ms. Cheng, a repeat of Les Baricades mysterieuses, the Francois Cuperin piece that nicely summed up the mixture of old and new that was the theme of the program.
Piano Spheres will next present a concert by Mark Robson at Zipper Concert Hall in Los Angeles on February 11.
Since (Le) Poisson Rouge, (LPR) opened in 2008; the venue has established itself as a sure ticket to an unconventional concert experience. LPR’s motto, “serving art and alcohol,” gives some idea of its free-spirited approach.
Now, with the launch of its own ensemble, LPR has further expanded the venue’s ventures into unchartered, artistic territory. David Handler, LPR’s co-founder and the ensemble’s artistic director, initiated the establishment of the ensemble as a natural outgrowth of LPR’s curatorial identity. He collaborated with Ronen Givony, co-director of Le Poisson Rouge’s mission and creator of the multi-genre “Wordless Music“line up.
“LPR was always about creating community, cultivating camaraderie among musicians, and encouraging freedom of expression through atypical programs,” says Handler, a composer and violinist/violist, as he describes the core vision for LPR that he and co-founder Justin Kantor, a cellist, had during their student years at the Manhattan School of Music. Handler and Kantor, with Givony’s assistance, were effectively shaping the experimental curating scenery then in demand by a host of diverse audiences. LPR succeeded in providing what audiences were missing by tapping into a broad cultural craving for accessible presentations, a platform on which Ensemble LPR can build with high expectations.
“It’s a very exciting moment for us,” shares Handler. “We feel privileged and take very seriously the trust of our listeners in our ability to create an innovative merger of programming,” he maintains, “And with the ensemble, we continue to manifest and express ourselves artistically by making our own choices as a group. For us that means playing anything from Baroque to today’s music, rigorously, at the highest level, and with peerless guest artists – collaborating with classical and non-classical artists who have something interesting to express.”
The ensemble will follow the principal concept of LPR’s expanding artistic alliances without compromising high-performance standards or intriguing repertoire. The secret ingredients of this model have attracted new audiences and high-caliber artists within the classical and non-classical music scene alike, shifting people’s notion of what belongs on the concert stage and how that stage should project onto its audience.
“The ensemble’s structure is very elastic,” says Handler, “ranging from two to 30 players, and it’s always about the musical context of a program.”Earlier productions with Ensemble LPR have included a memorial concert in honor of the American composer Elliot Carter, in January of 2013. It featured some of Carter’s longtime collaborators, like cellist Fred Sherry, pianist Ursula Oppens, and clarinetist Charles Neidlich, among others, with Ensemble LPR members
This photo shows the most recent performance of Ensemble LPR in January 2014, with pianist Taka Kiagawa and the conductor Oliver Hagen (photo credit: Mark Shelby Perry)
Another noteworthy performance by Ensemble LPR, in December 2013, was Max Richter’s original “Recomposed” performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, with violinist Daniel Hope as soloist performing with the composer. Paying homage to the classical masterpiece, Richter created a fascinating blend of electronic fragmentations of the original score with his own compositions, commenting that he “literally wrote himself into Vivaldi’s score.”
Photo: ensemble LPR, an evening with Max Richter – Daniel Hope, violin; Max Richter, keyboard/electronics; Tito Muñoz, conductor.
Out of this performance grew Ensemble LPR’s aspiration to collaborate with André de Ridder, the conductor who had originally recorded Richter’s program (on the Deutsche Gramophone label, with Hope).
This objective will be realized at LPR on March 7th,2014, when de Ridder will make his New York City debut with the ensemble. In the program that will illuminate LPR’s main agenda – to integrate classical music into the larger cultural dialogue – de Ridder will conduct Ensemble LPR in works by Bartók, Jonny Greenwood, and a premiere by Bryce Dessner, titled “Lachriame”. For the first time, New Yorker audiences will have a chance to see the ensemble lead by De Ridder, who is well known as a universally diverse collaborator and has performed with artists and ensembles as varied as the Philharmonia Orchestra, Jazz musician Uri Kane, and MusikFabrik. During the past five years, he has been principal conductor of VIVA, the UK-based Sinfonia known for innovative programs, often juxtaposing renowned works of the classical tradition with contemporary music inspired by the traditional works.
Given the broad scope of national and international collaborations with these innovative programs, it is Ensemble LPR’s intention to tour beyond its home- based venue in the near future.
In the meantime, the ensemble takes part in LPR’s vast volume of productions, numbering two shows on most evenings, and providing a wide breadth of music choices to appeal to their diverse audiences.
“An audience member may come precisely because of a long-awaited program or artist or simply because he or she had a prior good experience here. Some want to be surprised and are open-minded, even challenged, in the best sense of the word, to discover something new,” adds Handler. “That’s a testament to the diversity of our listeners – they really continue to surprise us by being constantly willing to expand their domain.”
The successful concept of LPR has clearly gained a following, evident in the many co-productions at LPR with the “giants” of music presenters, like the MET or Carnegie Hall, which recognized the appeal of changing up the “packaging” of some of their productions.
Says Handler: ‘We are honored if we are able to co-produce with such stellar forces like the Met or Carnegie Hall, but our loyalty is to our crowd. If the program would not be right for us, we would not choose to do it. Our being here is a part of a bigger movement, and it’s happening all over. We have never set out to be the only ones, and if we were a catalyst in any way, we are very pleased to have helped create a new environment.”
The American Composers Forum–in partnership with the super cool So Percussion, has announced the finalists in the 2014 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest: Michael Laurello (Yale School of Music), Todd Lerew (CalArts), and Kristina Warren (University of Virginia). In addition to a cash prize, the three finalists get to compose an 8 – 10 minute piece for So Percussion, and travel to Princeton to hear it workshopped and premiered on July 20 as part of the So Percussion Summer Institute 2014. One of the works will be chosen to receive the final prize, which includes an additional cash award and future public performances by So Percussion.
The National Composition Contest is open to composers currently enrolled in graduate and undergraduate institutions in the United States; this year’s installment drew more than 250 applicants from 39 states. Each finalist receives an award of $1,000 plus an additional stipend of $750 to help defray expenses associated with attending the workshop and studio performance. Along with further performances of his/her piece, the winning composer will receive an additional $2,000.
The competition began during the 2010-11 season as the Finale National Composition Contest, partnering with the group eighth blackbird. JACK Quartet was the ensemble for 2011-12. The competition went on hiatus last season, returning in September 2013 under its new name, the American Composers Forum National Composition Contest.
A B O U T T H E F I N A L I S T S
Michael Laurello (b. 1981) is an American composer and pianist. He has written for ensembles and soloists such as the Yale Baroque Ensemble, Sound Icon, the 15.19 Ensemble, NotaRiotous (the Boston Microtonal Society), guitarist Flavio Virzì, soprano Sarah Pelletier, pianist/composer John McDonald, and clarinetist and linguist/music theorist Ray Jackendoff. Laurello is an Artist Diploma candidate in Composition at the Yale School of Music, studying with David Lang and Christopher Theofanidis. He earned an M.A. in Composition from Tufts University under John McDonald, and a B.M. in Music Synthesis (Electronic Production and Design) from Berklee College of Music where he studied jazz piano performance with Laszlo Gardony and Steve Hunt. He has attended composition festivals at highSCORE (Pavia, Italy) and Etchings (Auvillar, France), and was recently recognized with an Emerg ing Artist Award from the St. Botolph Club Foundation (Boston, MA). In addition to his work as a composer and performer, Laurello is a recording and mixing engineer.
Todd Lerew (b. 1986) is a Los Angeles-based composer working with invented acoustic instruments, repurposed found objects, and unique preparations of traditional instruments. Lerew is the inventor of the Quartz Cantabile, which utilizes a principle of thermoacoustics to convert heat into sound, and has presented the instrument at Stanford’s CCRMA, the American Musical Instrument Society annual conference, the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition at Georgia Tech, and Machine Project in Los Angeles. He is the founder and curator of Telephone Music, a collaborative music and memory project based on the children’s game of Telephone, the last round of which was released as an exclusive download to subscribers of music magazine The Wire. His solo piece for e-bowed gu zheng, entitled Lithic Fragments, is available on cassette on the Brunch Groupe label. H is pieces have been performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the Wet Ink Ensemble (New York), the Now Hear Ensemble (Santa Barbara), and the Canticum Ostrava choir (Czech Republic).
Composer and vocalist Kristina Warren (b. 1989) holds a B.A. in Music Composition from Duke University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Composition and Computer Technologies from the University of Virginia. Recent works include Three Sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (soprano, electronics), Folk Studies No. 1 (Up in the A.M.), No. 2 (Vimeda Sakla), andNo. 3 (Shousty) for voice-based electronics, and Pogpo (electric guitar quartet). Warren’s research interests include voice, electronics, and questions of aleatory and performance practice in conjunction with various non-Eurocentric musics, such as folk music and Korean p’ansori. Warren’s compositions have been performed across the US and in Europe, and she has been fortunate to study composition with Ted Coffey, Judith Shatin, Anthony Kelley, Scott Lindroth , and John Supko.S
Nick Brooke: Border Towns
To experience Border Towns is to undo the idea of both. The border is metaphorically ubiquitous—as powerful as it is arbitrary. Towns are more immediate—tactile and moving to the pulse of indeterminate social interaction. Together the words form not an oxymoron but a median. Such is the spirit that moves composer Nick Brooke in this quasi-opera of Americana and stardust.
The music’s formula is diaristic, appropriating snippets from songbooks familiar and not so familiar, gunpowder from the popular canon loaded into a rather different cannon and shot across the past century until fleetingly recognizable. Brooke’s intertextual approach lays new coordinates over cartographic mainstays, in which resound the piece’s seven embodied singers—voices treading bullion in a cold electronic stew.
Movements like “Silver City” tickle the synapses of our collective memory, opening in a Judy Garland nightmare with the barest intimations of rainbows. An old radio pays homage to underlying frequencies, flagging the limits of nostalgia in what little we may recognize. What begin as utterly ingrained snippets become new beginnings, radiant and free. The end effect is haunting in the best way possible.
Subsequent movements chew their respective morsels of philosophic disturbance. Whether the overt sampling aesthetic of “Del Rio” (a deft reconstruction of a ubiquitous sound byte) or the distant mountain spirit of “Heart Butte” (a pretty mélange of rodeo, Roy Orbison, and Dolly Parton balladry), an oddly compelling backstory emerges by virtue of Brooke’s narrative integrity. The grander arc takes shape in a chain of referential vertebrae, disks filled with everything from Whitney Houston to Steve Reich. Other portions glisten with cinematic qualities. In the latter vein, “Jackman” smacks of thunder with its battle cry, its implications of outer space as dense as its decays are short. “Tombstone” is another. Dotted by splashes of Chinese gongs as it rides the tailwinds of stray bullets and Hollywood stereotypes, it traverses landscapes of lock-grooves and shattered DJ remnants. Border Towns recycles even itself, beginning and ending somewhere not over the rainbow, but in a place without space, folded like a paper football and flicked into its own gaping mouth.
Interspersed throughout this exercise in anthemic surgery are various ambient reflections: train whistles, cross lights, pedestrian babble, sound checks, impassioned listeners, crickets, church services, and the like fill the interstices with quotidian fascination. From their manipulations of source text and flame emerges a quilt of hymnody, torn and re-squared until it burns.
The clock ticks only for those who hear it.
~Interview with Nick Brooke~
1. What is your background as a composer and as a listener?
I was classically trained at Oberlin, though in a healthily offbeat way, and grad studies at Princeton happily did nothing dissuade me from mixing anachronistic materials in my current polyglot manner.
I do listen voraciously cross-genre, coming from a deep interest in getting to know people, contexts, and cultures. I tend not to listen to recordings much—solo listening can feel solipsistic and lonely. I prefer live performance. And given experiments with theater and dance over the last decade, I’m much more comfortable in those mediums than I used to be.
2. Talk a little bit about the history of Border Towns: in terms of both its evolution as a piece and the slices of Americana that make their way into the mix.
When I started Border Towns, I saw a lot of theater and musical groups going on these “all-gone-to-look-for-America” trips and it all felt wrong, so wrong. The whole genre of musical Americana is often engaged in portraying and skewing one side of a multiplicity that’s indescribable. Americana often thumbtacks culture to the wall rather than asking questions about it. So I wanted to use Border Towns to unpack musical icons, but also engaging somehow with those de Toqueville-like-trips—literally traveling around the country.
3. Is there an inherent visual or theatrical element in Border Towns? The music almost screams for it.
Completely. Most of the music is created with the choreography already in mind, often in canon or some kind of physical and musical structure. “Tombstone” is literally a calf-roping contest between two people, as well as a fugue between Patsy Montana and Gene Autry. In “Ocean Grove,” people are laid on blankets, while rapturously singing Ray Charles (“I see”). Then, through a laying on of hands, these performers are converted into Bruce Springsteen (“Born! Born!”). It’s a canon in seven parts, the number of singers in the piece. I need to predict the exact number of physical events when I compose the music, and the choreography develops in lockstep with the samples. (There’s a primer on this weird process on my website.)
4. The first word that came to mind when I listened to the album was “plunderphonics,” although your aesthetic seems like a more organic or live iteration of John Oswald’s mission of audio piracy. In this respect, I am inclined to align it more with the live mash-ups of a group like Ground Zero, whose Revolutionary Pekinese Opera seems the closest analogue. How would you situate Border Towns in terms of genre or musical space?
I enjoy Oswald and Ground Zero, though in terms of mash-ups I tend to take the slow route, with lots of silences, and I often attempt to completely break down then reassemble a specific genre, or even just a song. Plunderphonics and Revolutionary Pekinese Opera have a joyous aesthetics of excess to me, and also revel in effects like tape delay and studio layering. I tend to go for a more “real” sound, which ends up being surreal when you perform it live. A performer sings x song, but the words and phrases are in completely different places, and it still somehow makes sense; at the same time, it plays with memory and meaning. Because I’m using live performers, using the sounds of early tape manipulation or even electronica breaks a surreal plausibility I’m trying to establish. And in Border Towns, the materials are often dealt with more procedurally than these other composers: i.e., “Heart Butte,” which tries to deal in a semi-exhaustive way with slow, classic country.
5. An especially delightful aspect of Border Towns is the way in which it flirts with our nostalgia. Familiar songs are quickly swapped out for others, such that by the end we experience a new folk narrative. Is your intention with the piece to do simply that, or does it have broader, extra-musical aspirations as well?
In making each song, I often tried to go against the grain of the nostalgia, or at least create a new meaning to each song or genre. And of course if I could exactly pinpoint that meaning here, I’d be preaching, and it would become clichéd. The ideas for Border Towns emerged at a time when the “Lomax remix” genre, such as Moby’s Play, was at its height. I resisted the comfortable, warm electronic remix broth given to these samples. Did people realize the issues of Paul Robeson singing “still longing for the old plantation”, or why “cowboy music”—a genre of guys often falsetto yodeling, was anachronous? I was trying to unpack assumptions on a structural level, by the choices of what I remixed and where. I wanted to be omnivorous, and substitute old traditions, even stereotypes, with something else. Each piece take on a different icon—Tex-Mex, border radio, plantation songs, cowboy music—but tries to bend them at moments of expectation.
6. The vocal performances on Border Towns are wonderful. How did you settle on these particular musicians and how did the recording project all come together?
It’s always a challenge. Together with Jenny Rohn, my co-director for the live performances, we’re always looking for that experimental “triple threat”: people who sing, act, move, and also understand the weird, tricky-to-sing music. Some of these singers are uncanny chameleons. Some are hugely gifted in physical theater. It came together as a performance at HERE’s Resident Artist Series first—then I took it to the studio.
7. How do the ambient interludes function in Border Towns?
In a way, the ambient “interludes” are islands of realness. The sounds are actually taken from trips to the border towns on which each song is purportedly “based.” But, outside of these ambient interludes, the songs take on stereotypes of Americana, mass-produced materials that I often found sold, broadcast, or otherwise referenced in the places I visited. Cage once said if you destroy all recordings people will learn to sing again. Likewise, if one stops asking the potentially obsolete question, “What do people from this place listen to?” you just end up listening, and that’s the best part. In recording ambient sounds, I’m vamping off the long tradition of acoustic ecology and soundscape composition. In the final song of Border Towns, the ambient recordings swallow up a single performer on stage, maybe in a final moment of immersive, real listening.
On Tuesday, January 21, 2014 several of the lesser-known works of composer Alvin Lucier were performed by the Southland Ensemble at Monk Space in the Koreatown district of central Los Angeles.
About 35 people attended with only a few empty seats in the compact venue that also doubles as a movie and video location. The reclaimed brick and cement interior of Monk Space was ideal for hearing Lucier, whose work is strongly informed by the relationship of sound and space.
The concert began with 947 (2001), a piece for solo flute and tape. A series of pure electronic tones was heard from a speaker system and flutist Christine Tavolacci matched the tone exactly, or played at an interval, or moved up and down around the electronic pitch by a few hertz. Sometimes the flute predominated, other times it was the electronic pitch and sometimes there was the zero-beating of the two – I thought the zero beating was more pronounced and effective in the lower registers. There were times a single electronic tone was heard and other times there was a mixture of electronic pitches, often slowly changing in loudness. When the cool, impersonal electronic tones were displaced by the flute, there was a sense of encountering a distinctly human element. The constantly changing relationship between the flute and the electronic tones propelled the piece forward, producing a haunting and pure feel.
The acoustic space, electronics and flute were all in good balance – and this was essential to bring out the often subtle sonic interplay. Afterward, Ms.Tavolacci explained that the various effects were all carefully scored and she used alternate fingerings and rolled the barrel of the flute slightly in order to bend the pitches when needed. The pitch control by the flute was impressive, considering that it was being continuously compared by the audience to a series of steady electronic tones.
The second piece on the program was Theme (1994) and this was scored for four voices and sonorous vessels, on poems by John Ashbery. Each of the four voices spoke into a wide-mouth glass jar that was fitted with a microphone pickup and connected to a small portable amplifier. The John Ashbery poem - Skin, Meat, Bone - was recited into these jars, sometimes by a single voice and sometimes in various combinations of multiple voices. The words could occasionally be made out, but text was not distinct – and this was intentional. The jars muffled the words but tended instead to amplify the various tones and frequencies present in the speaking voices.
The result was that the cadences of the text and the patterns in the poetry produced a sort of dreamy tone cloud that hovered around the voices, changing in color and duration depending on what was being spoken at that instant. The varying voice combinations and registers created different intensities and textures from moment to moment and the effect was quite remarkable given the simplicity of the concept. This would seem to be an extension of Lucier’s well-known work from 1969, I am sitting in a room, where the spoken text is recorded, played back and the re-recorded many times in the same room. Eventually the words are lost but the characteristic sonorities of the space are distilled into the tape. The amplified jars in Theme seem to doing something similar to text spoken in real time.
Wind Shadows (1994) followed, and this was similar in structure to the opening flute piece. In Wind Shadows a constant electronic pitch was heard from the speakers, varying only slightly in volume. A single trombone matches the pitch, or plays slightly above or slightly below it. Sometimes the electronic pitch dominates, other times the trombone – and as with 747, your ear tends to hear one or the other. The effect is spare, but warms noticeably when the trombone dominates. The lower register of this instrument was particularly powerful when zero-beating occurred – it sounded like a flight of B17 bombers passing overhead. Trombonist Matt Barbier used two slide positions to match the electronic tone – one giving more control for bending the pitch upwards and the other better for slightly lowering to the zero-beat frequency. As with all these pieces, the balance between the electronics, the acoustic space and the players was excellent.
After a short intermission Septet (1985) was heard and this work is also along the lines of 747 and Wind Shadows, but with larger musical forces. A single electronic tone from the speaker system was matched by three winds and four strings: bassoon, clarinet, flute, bass, cello, viola and violin. The instruments entered in various combinations and sequences, rising and falling in intensity, creating a constantly changing spectrum of sounds. The assortment of timbres and the power of the ensemble against the steady electronic tone produced a fine variety; where the tones were dissonant, the effect was ominous, while at other times there was a feeling of tension and suspense or a sad mournfulness. There was even one section that, to my ear, sounded just like a train horn in slow motion.
The electronic tone from the speaker was set to a loudness that would mix well with the larger number of instruments, but when the instruments would lay out for a bit the electronics seemed too intense. No doubt a compromise, but this was the only time during the concert when the electronics sounded out of balance.
The final offering for the evening was Outlines of Persons and Things (1975) and this was a sound installation for microphones, loudspeakers and electronic sounds. An electronic tone was put out through the PA system and two specially positioned auxiliary speakers. These were arranged in such a way as to produce different sound patterns throughout the space. The audience was invited to walk about the space and in so doing altered these wave patterns. The result was that in some areas there was no sound, in others a definite pitch and yet by walking just a few paces it all changed. My smart phone tuning app seemed to think the sound in the speakers was pitched to B (247 Hz) but changing my position by just a foot or two altered this pitch considerably.
There was also a sound scanning feature. A portable microphone and amplifier were carried about to detect the pitch present in a given place and then amplify it outward, thus further altering the local sound patterns. Scanning irregularly-shaped objects – two 55 gallon drums were placed in the space – produced complex patterns and unexpected pitches nearby. Outlines of Persons and Things was a powerful demonstration of the hidden acoustic possibilities that are present in any given space.
This concert by the Southland Ensemble of works by Alvin Lucier, successfully realized at the boundary of music and acoustic science, provides us with a rare glimpse of the many creative possibilities that await us there.
The Southland Ensemble includes: Casey Anderson, Matt Barbier, Eric KM Clark, April Gutherie, Orin Hildestad, James Klopfleisch, Jon Stehney, Cassia Streb, Christine Tavolacci and Brian Walsh.
Composition-intensive post-rock …
Mogwai’s eighth studio album, Rave Tapes, has to be taken with a handful of ironic humor. The thought of the Glasgow collective hosting raves leads one to imagine the horrified attendees, mellow thoroughly harshed, streaming away en masse in search of various 12-step program meetings. That said, Rave Tapes does incorporate a few elements that resonate with rave culture, albeit thoroughly re-purposed. Analog synth sounds abound, as do heavy beats, amalgamated into doom-laden grooves. Thus, Mogwai’s brand of “rave” doesn’t channel or celebrate the ecstatic. Rather, it extols resilience and seems tailor made for the grimly obstinate.
In addition to the usual fierily dynamic instrumentals, such as “Mastercard” and “Remurdered,” there are some gorgeous darkly hued songs here; in particular, “Blues Hours,” in which hushed vocals are juxtaposed against powerful guitar riffs and cathartic crescendos. Spoken word commentary, about the lyric content of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” of all things, is similarly accompanied on “Repelish.”
However, some of the most thrilling music-making on Rave Tapes is found on “The Lord is Out of Control,” built with a layered approach that starts with a ground bass that is embellished with layer after layer of heavy rock melodies and angrily distressed synths. It might not get woolen cap clad heads bobbing in unison, but Mogwai’s music is eminently stirring in other ways.
House of Solitude at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Photo by Jill Steinberg.
This coming February, composer Paola Prestini and I will present the world premiere of House of Solitude, an installation concerto, at Krannert Center in Champaign-Urbana. We have been working together on the piece since 2010 (Paola as composer and me as performer); this premiere seemed like a good moment to share with the community a short article about how the piece came together.
Our collaboration began in 2010, when I asked Paola to contribute a piece to my Journaling series (an ongoing series of concerts focusing on contemporary music for violin and electronics). At the time, Paola was finishing up some work at the Sundance Institute Film Music program, and she had assembled a collection of short field recordings that she was calling “the Sundance stems.” These included a recording of a man singing, various sounds of nature, and horses running. Using these samples as a point of departure, Paola created a wonderfully lyrical and expressive piece for violin, pre recorded tracks, and a motion sensing violin bow called the K-Bow. Invented by Keith MacMillan, the K-Bow is a blue-tooth enhanced violin bow that enables the performer to use physical motions to manipulate sounds in real time. It was brand new technology for Paola and me, and we had fun figuring out how we were going to use it in the piece.
That initial segment, which ended up as the last section of the completed piece, was presented at the Stone in August 2010, as part of Journaling. In the audience that evening were to visual artists, both friends of Paola: Carmen Kordas and Erika Harrsch. Both Carmen and Erika expressed interest in creating video to go with Paola’s music. Around this time, Paola had been considering developing it into a larger, two-part piece called Labyrinth, so she decided to ask each of the artists to contribute video : Carmen to the first part, and Erika to the second. She decided to make the first section a concerto for violin and electronics (House of Solitude), and the second section a concerto for cello and electronics (Room No. 35).
The next stage of evolution happened in March of 2011, when we presented 20 minutes of the piece at Cal State Fullerton. In preparation for that show, we went into the recording studio and really fleshed out the backing tracks, syncing the music to the first 20 minutes of Carmen’s gorgeous video. Paola added more field recordings to the sonic environment: the sound of an EKG machine, more nature sounds, my own voice, and some recordings of everyday objects. She began to call the piece an “installation concerto,” branding a new hybrid genre that combined aspects of installation art with aspects of the classical concerto. Over the next two seasons we presented this version of the piece in New York (River to River Festival), Washington, DC (The Atlas Performing Arts Center), Zimbabwe (Harare International Festival of the Arts), and Maine (Bay Chamber Concerts). By the end of this run of performances, Paola and Carmen had added 10 minutes of music and video (making the duration 30 minutes), and I refined my improvisations and honed my use of the K-Bow.
When she first started the piece, Paola had recently read Octavio Paz’s famous work, The Labyrinth of Solitude. Her title for the two concertos, Labyrinth, was a allusion to the existential labyrinth of which Paz writes. Together, Paola and I contemplated how the “labyrinth” of an individual’s inner world manifests itself externally in acts of creativity and ways of relating to others. We were beginning to think of the piece as a concerto for violin and “multiple selves,” a concept that Paola and I agreed was deeply connected to the image of an inner labyrinth. I enjoyed how the idea of multiple selves resonated with the object relations branch of psychoanalytic theory, an area I was beginning to explore. For me, the piece became not only an exploration of the idea of multiple selves, but also a musical depiction of the struggle to bring together disparate internalized figures and fragments of the self into a cohesive whole. The drama became the search for clarity through the realization of personal truth.
This coming performance at Krannert Center on February 1 will be the world premiere of the complete piece. For this show we will be joined by some illustrious new collaborators, including director Michael McQuilken, videographer Brad Peterson, lighting designer Yi Zhao, sound designer Dave Cook, EDREAM, and Michael Winger. The second part of the entire work, Room No. 35, will be presented, featuring Maya Beiser on LED cello (conceived by Erika Harrsch and Maya Beiser, created by Erika Harrsch), and video by Erika Harrsch. Room No. 35 is based on the writing of Anais Nin, and approaches the concept of multiple selves from a different angle.
After the performance of the original 10 minute section at Journaling. From left to right:Dongmyung Ahn, Amy Kauffman, Jeff Ziegler, Cornelius Dufallo, Paola Prestini, Alanna Maharajh Stone, Corey Dargel.
Labyrinth brings together two “installation concertos,” two different performers who use technology, two technological innovations (the K-Bow and the LED cello), two visual artists, and two different stories that both deal with the concept of the divided self, into one evening length multimedia piece.
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