What is the Black Sheep Contemporary Ensemble?
Black Sheep Contemporary Ensemble is a new music group focused on performing music by living composers, commissioning new works, interdisciplinary collaboration, and educating audiences about new music. Since forming in 2014, the ensemble has performed with visual artists, dancers, and choreographers to create new, often site specific works. BSCE has commissioned and premiered multiple new pieces while also giving repeat performances to works by living composers worldwide. Our instrumentation is fluid, consisting of our four core members Nicole DeMaio, Bradley Frizzell, Emma Staudacher, and Aaron Smith, alongside a varying number of invited guests. We alter the instrumentation of the group based on the specific needs of each performance, but you’re likely to see several guests join us for multiple performances within a season. All of our core members perform with the ensemble and also hold administrative positions, like Nicole who is our Director and Bradley who runs our Outreach Program.
How did you all meet and being playing music together?
The ensemble actually first started out as a bass clarinet and tuba duo with myself (Nicole) and Liam Sheehy. We met at Montclair State University in New Jersey when I was working on my bachelors degree and Liam was getting his masters. After graduation we both ended up moving to Boston. I was starting my masters at The Boston Conservatory and Liam, a Massachusetts native, moved back and started working in the city. When I started at BoCo, I quickly realized I wouldn’t have many performance opportunities since I was majoring in composition. I decided the best solution was to start my own group, and thus, Black Sheep was born. I asked Liam to join because I knew he was interested in contemporary music and I liked the unusual instrument combination. Our first concert involved commissioning a handful of BoCo composition students to write us pieces and was held in one of the school’s performance halls. After graduating, I decided to expand the duo into an ensemble to help avoid always needing to commission new pieces. Emma and I both graduated together, and I knew that she was interested in new music, so she was the first person that I asked to become a core member. Bradley performed with us at our first Boston Sculptors Gallery show in 2016, and became a member and our Community Outreach Coordinator shortly afterwards. Aaron and I met at a BSO concert, and now handles all of our technology and viola related needs.
How do you go about programming? Do you commission a lot of new works in addition to existing pieces in the repertoire?
Programming for our ensemble varies from selecting works for a traditional concert to composing all new music for a site-specific event. For our concerts, we used to hold Calls for Submissions throughout the year, but have since switched to an open submission forum that any composer can add to for free. We accept a variety of new works, previously performed pieces, and proposals for new pieces to be written for us. One of our goals is to program works that have already been performed, as many other groups focus primarily on premiers and commissions. To decide the instrumentation for a concert we first pick one larger work, one that includes some of our core member’s instruments, and then select other pieces based on that.
Do you have any other special considerations in terms of programming? Do you like to perform at certain kinds of venues, involve technology and other media, etc.?
Our programming varies from concert to concert. A lot of what we do is based on the space and the type of concert we want to put on. Some concerts feature traditionally composed pieces while other concerts will be programmed with electronics or other non-traditional aspects in mind. We have done performances featuring things like sculptures, interactive light suits, dancers, iPads that audience members can control, or improvisation. Sometimes the music we pick is based off of artwork inside the space we are performing, or we might focus on a particular composer’s body of works that we feel have been overlooked.
Intersectionality and representation of marginalized voices is a topic (and issue) of contemporary music that is being discussed more these days. How do you feel about this, and is this a concern (or perhaps a goal) in terms of concert programming and commissioning?
We feel that the representation of marginalized voices in music is a subject that everyone should be concerned about. So many chamber groups and orchestras only play music from a small category of composers. Black Sheep Contemporary Ensemble has made it one of our priorities to be a champion for women and POC in contemporary classical music. There are many wonderful voices out there that just need a proper opportunity to be heard. We recently commissioned four composers to write new works for our core instrumentation, three of whom identify as female.
Your website mentions that you also enjoy interdisciplinary collaboration. Could you talk a little more about that and maybe about some of the work that has come from those projects?
Many of our projects include interdisciplinary collaboration. One of our most frequented venues is Boston Sculptors Gallery. The performances always combine sculpture, music dance, choreography, and composition. We perform music specially composed for the occasion, written by members of the ensemble. All of the music is based off of the sculptures that inhabited the space. We then in turn created choreography that connected with the music and artwork. After our first performance at BSG, we’ve ended up performing at several more galleries throughout Boston and have expanded to New Jersey and Rhode Island venues as well. One main goal of our ensemble is to create true interdisciplinary collaborations. We have no wish to create concerts that are just musicians playing music next to dancers with paintings in the background. That isn’t really collaboration, it’s just three things happening at the same time. We create works in which all the arts are influencing each other. Often times we even switch roles between the performers; musicians dance while playing, dancers sing while dancing, and everyone helps compose and choreograph. If we are performing with visual artists we try to keep an open dialogue with them during the compositional process to ensure that there is a mutual understanding of the artwork and the ensuing composition.
What, as an ensemble, has been a highlight of your career performing together?
One of our favorite moments came from our concert back in December of 2018. The crowd for that show was fairly small, and we felt a little disappointed that more people hadn’t come out. After the performance, an audience member came up to us and complimented us on our programming choices and the effectiveness of our works that incorporated dance and visual art. He said something along the lines of “I’ve been following you guys online for a while, and what I saw tonight was really unique. There’s a lot of new music happening in Boston and this was refreshingly different.” Getting feedback like that makes you feel proud of what you’ve invested your time into. We loved knowing our audience, no matter how small, enjoyed what they had seen and heard that evening.
Do you have any long-term major goals you are working towards? Maybe a large-scale collaboration with a composer, concert series, or something else entirely?
We are currently working on commissioning a new micro-opera to be paired with one that is already composed. We’re aiming to have the performances in Spring of 2021. Our big hope is to perform the work both in Boston and New York. Our biggest struggle has been to get enough funding to travel and perform the same musical program multiple times. We are also in the middle of a collaboration with an author to create a new piece for children through our Community Outreach sector, but can’t talk details just yet.
What projects do you have in the works right now?
Our focus now is on the other two performances this season, one of which will be in Providence. I’ll be working with Aaron and Bradley to create a new, evening length work which will be premiered at AS220 on March 8th at 2:00pm. We’re hoping to bring that performance to NYC, NJ, and beyond. We’ll also be presenting a traditional concert of new works with exact dates and times to be announced soon. Again, if we can get the funding, this concert will happen several times in multiple locations.
Follow the links below for more information about Black Sheep Contemporary Ensemble:
Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAG3_uoJpmyvuucGjmI0rKQ/videos
Below are video samples of Black Sheep Contemporary Ensemble
Short collage video of highlight performances by BSCE
Extended video of performance at the Boston Sculptures Gallery in 2018
What originally drew you want to pursue composition?
As a child, I got into music in kindergarten by perfectly playing melodies back on a piano after my teacher played them. I always had a natural ear for music, and I always loved creating things; I knit, crochet, cook, bake, and growing up learning these things, I quite often bent the rules. My first improvisations happened at a young age. Then, with my first long-term piano teacher at the age of 10, I learned rudimentary music theory, which lead me to compose small pieces in the style of Chopin and Debussy (my two favorites at the time). I attended Apple Hill for chamber music camp, and composed pieces for friends there, as well as some solo piano works and a PDQ Bach-esque piece called Mozart’s Piano Concerto for Orchestra. Then, during my undergrad, a composition major student (fellow freshman) encouraged me to double major in composition, which I did, and eventually dropped the piano major. I remember during my freshman year debating whether or not I should take composing more seriously. I used to, on my own, spend about an hour or 2 in the music library after a bi-weekly class listening to music with scores. When I got to Gruppen by Stockhausen, I was COMPLETELY blown away. That was the moment where I thought to myself, I really want to do this.
You’re also very active as a performer. How has your work in performance influenced your approach to composition? Or do you see these as separate practices?
For the most part, I see these as separate practices. I even have a weird split personality when it comes to these different activities, often criticizing my compositions when I perform them. But nothing is totally separate, and I think some of my approach to consciously writing-in specific types of performance freedoms in my works comes from my performing personality wanting these freedoms. Additionally, my penchant for idiomaticism may also come from my own desires for idiomaticism as a performer. I have played many works by young composers, and no matter how lovely a piece may be, if the piano part is not idiomatic, I feel some level of anger … mostly at the teacher of the composer!
Your music is very eclectic in terms of style and genre. Can you talk a little about where you draw inspiration, and what drives you to create the music you write?
My inspiration comes mostly from my life experience. I was born in Virginia, but raised in Rhode Island, then spent significant time in Boston, then Boulder, and now I live in the Netherlands. However, I travel often, though, and I always seem to have multiple homes. This idea of multiple homes and multiple loves is really a metaphor for what and how I compose. Growing up, my dad made me love Motown, my mom made me love Gospel, my brother made me love Rap and Hip Hop, my friends made me love alternative rock and musical theater, and my own musical inclination as a pianist gravitated towards classical (from baroque to contemporary). I never had a permanent home in my musical interests, and this has translated to my own compositional interests and abilities. A quick glance at my repertoire reveals that I semi-regularly use visual art, American text, and the music or musical ideas of past composers for influence. I also like to use stories or ideas from marginalized communities, stories from past unsung heros, and I am now beginning to explore my own queer identity in my music and performances.
I always hear a sensitivity and attention to timbre and instrumental color in your music (thinking specifically about Nicht Zart II: Hommage a Scelsi and Ohkyanoos). Is this a particular concern of yours during the composition process, or is it more a bi-product of counterpoint and instrumentation? Or something else entirely?
This is a BIG concern of mine, and it makes me so happy that you pointed this out! In fact, during my music theory tutelage at BU and NEC, the relationship between orchestration/instrumental color/timbre and the overall musical journey of a piece was rarely discussed. When it was discussed, the teacher was a composer teaching a focused theory class or one of my private composition teachers. I guess I subliminally became frustrated with this lack of attention to color on an academic level, and said to myself, “what would happen if I stopped paying attention to rhythm, and focus almost obsessively on color?” This lead to me creating a type of notation (admittedly based on Lutoslawski’s box notation) that allows for a certain type of color manipulation, which you can hear in pieces like Midnight and the taking-in or 3 groups. This type of hyper-attention to color freed me up to compose the pieces that you mentioned above.
Your bio places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of social justice and awareness in your music. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you and how it manifests in your work as an artist?
I have always been a political person, and my attention to and discussion of politics increased exponentially during my freshman year. I think 9/11 had a big impact on artists in that way, and even though 9/11 happened during my senior year of high school, the event was still discussed and argued over will into my senior year (and even to this day, for that matter). I remember hearing all of these 9/11 tribute pieces where a solo instrument or a chamber group would play pretty music, and I guess the listeners were supposed to be moved. I remember listening to tributes by more famous composers that took a similar approach, and I was left frustrated and empty. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to be provoked. So, in 2004, I wrote my own 9/11 tribute piece, which was about the first world trade center bombing in 1993. It was around this time that I realized the power that music could have in conveying the gravity and the other complex identities of injustice, and since then that is how I have used music for social justice.
You have a particular approach to creating music that is socially and politically engaging in which there is a clear statement, but I find is much more reflective and inquisitive than declarative of any position/thought. Is this intentional on your part?
Definitely. When something important happens, it is easy to hear the story on the radio, read about it in the newspaper, online, or on social media, see it on the news, and just let it slip into the bromide of daily life. But certain things stick out to me. They gnaw at me. They scream at me to try to do something. And when I embark on a social justice project, it involves research, interviewing, intimating, imagining myself in another person’s shoes, arguing, writing … it is a process until I feel I am intellectually and emotionally ready to comment. Because I go through all this work, I want my audiences to have both an emotional and an intellectual experience. I like it when people think. I think people should think more, and music should make people think more. Especially social justice music.
Can you also talk about your work with Castle of Our Skins - what is it, what is your involvement, etc.?
Castle of our Skins is a concert and educational series organization dedicated to celebrating Black artistry through music. We produce educational programs as well as large-scale concert productions, community concerts, and other activities related to our mission. We also have had a research residency at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, and a college residency at Gettysburg College, and we are about to have another college residency at Brandeis University (sponsored by Music Unites Us) centered around the theme of being (musically) Black in Europe and Beyond. I am a co-founder, associate artistic director, composer-in-residence, and an occasional pianist. I have also given lectures to adults and younger students about the lives and music of Black composers, and composed the musical component to our most successful educational program entitled A Little History, which teaches children about the lives of 9 legendary figures of Black history through music. This year marks our fifth season, and it shows no signs of stopping! Much of my social justice work happens through Castle of our Skins, and creating this organization was a big step in coming into my own identity. It is the sole reason why I came to realize the severity of the lack of young, Black composers being represented in new music today, which is why I truly believe that my own existence is rare and - in many ways - an act of social justice.
Do you have any interesting current or upcoming projects?
Oh yes! I am very excited to be part of counter-tenor Carl Alexander’s Voic(ed) Project (https://voicedproject.com), where 15 Black composers have been commissioned to compose works that incorporate Mr. Alexander’s voice in some way. This project could benefit from grassroots fiscal support, and donations can be made here: https://voicedproject.com/support/ For this project, I am composing a work entitled Empathy I: Diamond Reynolds, which uses words that she said after her late partner Philando Castile was murdered.
In January 2018, the tenor Anthony P. McGlaun (http://anthonypmcglaun.com) will premiere a new work for tenor and piano quartet called … her phantom happiness … , which uses poetry by Georgia Douglas Johnson.
In Feburary 2018, I will attend the Escape-to-Create residency to focus on some song cycles I am composing in the big three European languages. I will start with the German cycle, which uses text by Louise Otto-Peters (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louise_Otto-Peters). During this residency, I will also give a community lecture and a concert featuring the music of Black composers.
In the fall of 2018, NOISE-BRIDGE (http://noise-bridge.com) will premiere a commissioned work for voice, clarinets, and objects. This mega work (about 30 minutes) will be based on 9 visual artists and our (me and the ensemble) personal responses to these artists. Each of us will select three artists and respond to them in some way, and I will use the material to create a work. This will be one of my most exciting, collaborative works to date.
I also have some performance projects/collaborations coming up, performing works by Renee Baker, Robert Schumann, and Ed Bland.
And the inevitable final question, what are the top 5 pieces/songs that have had the most influence on your work as a musician?
TOO MANY!! :-D If I were to pick a top five though … perhaps …
For more information about Anthony Green check out his website
Below are some samples of Anthony's music
What made you want to pursue a career in music? More importantly, what interested you about being a composer?
I always had an interest in music from age 4, but it wasn’t until I took an orchestration class with Judith Lang Zaimont that I tried composing. It was more fun than practicing, and that was that! I also knew I would never be happy in a corporate office of any sort.
Who were some of your earliest musical influences, composition or otherwise?
As a small child, I would always play the same two songs in the jukebox at the truckstop diner in town: Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and Pink Floyd’s “Money,” in that order. The Pixies and 90’s industrial music taught me about dissonance and timbre as an expressive force. Aphex Twin sparked my interest in electronic music and production. Before I started composing, I wrote poetry and short stories, so that carried forward to an interest in songwriting when I started writing music.
Can you talk a little bit (generally) about your music. Where do you find inspiration for new pieces and what is the general process you take when composing?
My process is intuitive in that I start at the beginning of the piece and write to the end, often developing ideas as “organically” as possible, with lots of editing along the way so the pacing and balance is right. I tend to be slow to start a piece, then get obsessed once I figure out where it might be going. Often marathon sessions are undertaken out of necessity to meet a deadline or when a break in the schedule allows for extended creative time to start and finish a project. I generally draw inspiration from my other non-musical interests: sociopolitical and environment issues, nature, mythology, spirituality, the intersection between art and science. It’s an opportunity to start conversations. For example, little tiny stone, full of blue fire is a quartet inspired by the discovery a new pigment in a very hot fire, YInMn blue, which led me to discover a poem by Dorothea Lasky (“Beyond the Blue Seas”) that deals with similar ideas, but in more personal terms. River Rising was inspired by the video I saw of the 2011 tsunami in Japan and the consequences of climage change.
My first experiences with your music were pieces for instruments and electronics. When did you begin working with electronics and implementing that in your pieces for live performers?
I took Evan Chambers’s electronic music seminar as a masters student at the University of Michigan without much initial interest in the subject. After one semester of learning to listen entirely differently—to appreciate that music is far more than notes and rhythms—I was excited to have limitless possibilities and absolute control over interpretation, timbre, and spatialization. Gaia was the first piece I wrote in that class. Its source material was one four-note djembe sample that I processed a million different ways. It took me six months to write, partially because I didn’t know there was a grid function in ProTools, so I lined up all the individual hits by ear to make various rhythms. It was the first piece I ever heard premiered as a young composer, spatialized in 8 channels in a big auditorium, with sound flying all over the room creating a sense of physicality and power I hadn’t experienced before… and I was hooked. When my friend Lisa Raschiatore asked for a piece, I wrote for clarinet and fixed media (Ultraviolet) and learned a lot about technical needs of the performer in trying to sync up with technology. I learned to approach the electronics as I would any other instrument: they can play a supporting role or take the lead, be in counterpoint or harmony with the solo line, tacet to allow for acoustic moments or take a solo while the performers stop. Orchestrationally, it feels the same as writing for any other ensemble, but now any sound I can imagine and create is possible.
Do you work primarily with fixed electronics or do you also work with live processing of instruments?
I’ve always been drawn to fixed media because I felt I had a better ability to control every last detail (and there are tons of them) with less of a possiblity of computers crashing. In more recent works, I’ve used live processing to color the solo line, to change its relationship to the fixed media part, to allow for freedom in performance. When Lilit Hartunian requested a looping piece (Alone Together) on a quick deadline, I played around in Ableton and a piece appeared within the day. I try to use whatever tool works best.
You’re also active as a performer (pianist with Verdant Vibes and Hotel Elefant). Can you talk a little about your work as a performer.
I started college as a performance major and when I decided to pursue composition instead, I literally shifted my time spent practicing to time spent writing. I would play my own pieces here and there, but it wasn’t until Hotel Elefant invited me to play with their newly-formed ensemble that I started performing regularly again. When job opportunities almost lured me away from Providence, but then didn’t, I felt motivated to create my own gigs as a composer/performer locally, so Jacob Richman and I started Verdant Vibes with a seed grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. We’re in our third season and have performed over 40 pieces by an array of living composers from around the area and the world. It’s rewarding to create jobs for other people and bring this kind of art to the community.
How does performing influence your approach to composition? Do you keep these separate or do you feel that one is always influencing the other?
Performing makes me more aware of the physicality of the music—what it feels like to interpret a score or how people breathe and interact expressively on stage. My ears are continuously learning more about what works and what doesn’t, and how we physiologically respond to sound and ideas. It allows me a better understanding of the sounds I want to hear when I compose and how to make that happen.
You’re also involved with other projects in various capacities (performer, composer, lecturer, artistic director) and have worked in multimedia. Can you talk a little bit about your interests in collaborative and/or cross-disciplinary and multimedia works?
The arts community in Providence is exceptional and has been a valuable resource for finding collaborators and friends. Working with people possesing different skills and ideas has allowed me to create projects I never would have dreamed up alone. I write and perform with Meridian Project, a multimedia performance group exploring topics in astrophysics and cosmology. We often perform at plantariums and observatories as a collaboration between musicians, scientists, visual artists, and audience participation on topics like dark matter detection, comets and meteors, the sun and moon. Half the band lives in Chicago now, so we’re working on finding residencies to have time to create a new project in collaboration with scientists at LIGO.
I worked with video artist and composer/performer Alex Dupuis on a video to accompany for Anna Atkins and invited dancer Meg Sullivan to improvise movement. Previous projects with Jacob Richman have included playing accordion in a multimedia dance piece at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and a multimedia roving opera about an unsolved murder mystery in Rhode Island. In 2011, I worked with a group of local artists under the moniker Awesome Collective to create a roving performance piece Mercy Brown and the Devil’s Footprint at a park in Providence exploring local folklore that involved theatre, installation, dance, music, shadow puppetry, and animation.
I am also co-music director of Tenderloin Opera Company, a homeless advocacy music/theatre group I’ve been involved with for 7 years. We meet weekly before a community meal and devise characters and scenes that become an opera over the course of the year, which we set to music and sing/perform together in May. We also perform at meal sites, protests, arts events, and schools to raise awareness and support to address issues they face like access to public transportation, benefits, and health care and end homelessness.
Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to talk about?
I just finished a piece for bass clarinet/percussion duo Transient Canvas called Year Without A Summer that they will be touring around the country this season as part of an electroacoustic program. I have an orchestra piece in the works commissioned by Rhode Island College and a duo for piano/bass/electronics to be premiered this spring with Verdant Vibes. It’s application season, so various other things have been dreamed up, and perhaps they will come to fruition.
And, finally, the list. What are the top 5 pieces/songs that inspired your most throughout your musical career.
This is hard, and I am indecisive, but albums I listened to a bazillion times in my formative years seem most relevant:
Nine Inch Nails — Downward Spiral
Björk — Debut
The Cure — Wish
Stevie Wonder — Greatest Hits (any of them)
Aphex Twin — Selected Ambient Works Vol.1 & 2
For more information about Kirsten Volness, her music and other activities check out her website: www.kirstenvolness.com/
Below are some examples of Kirsten's work:
This week I sat down with Amanda DeBoer-Bartlett, one of the organizers of the Omaha Under the Radar festival, to talk about this exciting event, its history, and what you can expect from the 2017 festival, going on July 5-8.
How did Omaha Under the Radar get started and who all is involved behind the scenes?
After graduating from BGSU, I moved back to Omaha to be with my husband, who has a job here. I had organized a couple festival-like events before Omaha Under the Radar that were basically beta OUTR, so I had a little bit of experience before I decided to move operations here. What I learned from my previous events is that it is infinitely easier and more meaningful (for me, at least) to organize this event in the city where I live and have roots.
The organizing team is really the heart of this event. All three of us are from Omaha, so we’re very much pretty tied to this place and have a stake in contributing to the cultural landscape. In general, we’re all equally in charge of programming and managing applications, venue selection and artistic direction.
Stacey Barelos is a composer and pianist who grew up and currently lives in Omaha. She runs our outreach and education branch, including SOUNDRY Workshop, she manages rehearsals and logistics for our large ensemble pieces, and is developing our new, year-round concert series presented by KANEKO.
Aubrey Byerly is a composer and bassoonist based in California. She spent her childhood in Omaha and returns every year for the festival. She runs financials and does a lot of contracting and personnel logistics, and is also helping with programming for our concert series at KANEKO.
What would you say is the primary goal of this festival, and what are some things you would like to plan for future festivals?
I could quote our mission statement...but basically, we want to present artists who are taking risks and challenging the status quo (both their own and others’), and who are seeking deep connection with the people and communities around them. We want to be an inviting presence in the Midwest that encourages audiences to think deeply about art and form strong opinions about this work. We want to be eclectic, and to create complex programs that offer divergent experiences within a single event. Basically, we want to challenge people and bring people together! And we want to be challenged! The best moments are when we, the organizers, are completely taken aback and surprised by an artist. I mean, we planned it, we should be ready for it all, but we never are!
Long-winded questions here, but as a composer (and former OUR festival attendee), I’ve always loved that Omaha seems to be focused more toward the performative/performance related aspects of the music. For example, conferences like SCI, the BGSU New Music Festival, June In Buffalo, the ACF Festival of Contemporary Music, etc. are all very composer-centric. Composers submit pieces or are invited to attend, the concerts are organized around presenting the composers’ music, there is often a featured composer, the list goes on. Omaha seems to take a different approach and asks artists (of all kinds) to submit projects or full 30-minute sets of music, sometimes by various composers or a single composer. The focus is shifted to make the performer as important as the composer. Is there a reason you took this approach to programming and curating?
I think we originally conceived of it more as a “fringe” like festival, so those are really geared toward the performer. Every year, however, composers and creators who are not performing do attend, which is fantastic. We love that.
The events you mention are “conferences” in my mind, and are really geared toward helping the people attending to learn new skills or research, network and build their resume. There is plenty of that happening at Omaha Under the Radar, but the primary focus is getting these artists in front of Omaha audiences and building connections between audience and artist. If artists network with each other, that’s great! But the public performance side of this is the most essential element.
I have found, in attending and participating in plenty of conference situations, that I have definitely enjoyed them and benefited greatly from them, but that they often feel pretty disconnected from the cities and communities where they are held. We try to integrate the event into the city as much as possible, and for us, that’s all about building the local audience.
Every year I’ve attended OUR it seems the festival grows and spreads across the city with more events and more venues. Is that trend continuing this year?
We actually cut back a little! Our most common critique is that people didn’t like that events overlapped in the schedule. They didn’t want to have to choose between acts. We didn’t want to add a day to the schedule, so we cut a couple events. We went from about 40 acts to about 30, and we spaced things out a little more. Honestly, it’s for the best. By the time you watch that many performances, your brain is totally fried! If we had it in us, we would cut it down to 20 acts and be even more selective, but we just love these artists so damn much. It’s heart-wrenching having to turn people away every year. I wish we could accept 100 artists! So no, we aren’t expanding, but we are becoming more and more selective every year.
Is there any kind of theme to this year’s festival?
Not really. We don’t want to impose that strong of a curatorial presence. All of the artists have complete control over their individual programs, and we want to keep it that way. We basically just tell them how long their set is, and then let them to it. We obviously have to choose which artists to put together on which events, and that often comes down to schedules, tech, logistics, boring stuff.
Will there be any large or special events for this year’s festival?
Yup! We’re presenting “Eight Songs for a Mad King” by Peter Maxwell Davies. John Pearse is singing the role of King George III, and we have an ensemble of fantastic musicians filling out the ensemble. I can’t wait for this one. It’s our first time hiring a costumer/designer and stage director, and it’s going to be bonkers.
So much time, effort and money goes into planning an event like Omaha Under the Radar. What do you find to be the most rewarding takeaway from organizing an event like this?
Dang. So much. Seeing audiences return year after year, and watching them become more critical, discerning, and inspired at each festival. The fact that my mom is developing strong opinions about contemporary performance work. Seeing the national network of contemporary performers come together in my hometown. Hearing from Omaha artists that this festival inspired them to start a project or group, encouraged them to take a risk, or helped them take themselves seriously as an artist...it’s actually pretty overwhelming and I’m tearing up writing this. Sorry not sorry.
Will any portion of the festival be live-streamed so that people who can’t attend the festival in person can at least see some portion of it?
Hmm...maybe...I’ll get back to you!
And if there is anything else you would like to say about the festival, its history, what can be expected this year, etc. please feel free to share.
There is a massive amount of love put into this festival, for the artists, for Omaha, and for this work. Thanks to everyone who supports us, both at the festival and from afar! And major love to anyone who is doing similar work in parallel, non-coastal locations <3
For more information about the Omaha Under the Radar festival, checkout their website and Facebook page for this year's festival.
Below is a video compilation of last year's festival (video by Philip Kolbo), as well as some images from previous festivals (all photography by Karjaka Studios).
What made you want to pursue music as a career?
The sound of the clarinet. I heard it in the Beatles song “When I’m 64” when I was a kid and really was fascinated. Maybe more formative: I have this memory of seeing a performance of Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela by the Savannah Symphony Orchestra when I was like 13. It’s hard to recollect precisely, I only know that the experience was powerful and new and elusive. Something about the way the string chords made my body feel, like I was enveloped in sound. It was some sort of complete experience, a bodily one, a temporal one, an emotional one, a generally overwhelming one. This may sound exaggerated or self-involved, but it was like being born; or at least the memory of the experience makes me want to use language like that. It lives in my memory as a kind of traumatic thing happening to my personhood. And it made me drawn to musical experiences like that (which a bit ironic, since I tend to be risk-averse; but maybe doing music is my way of sublimating that impulse). Along those lines, I recall in college reading the ancient Greek text “On the Sublime” by Longinus and relating to it strongly. The aesthetic category of the sublime remains an area of great interest for me today.
More specifically, what got you interested in conducting? And even more specifically, what do you love about conducting new music?
Thanks for asking this question; it’s something I’ve thought a lot about. My initial impulse to be a conductor was probably ego-driven, as I imagine many people’s choices about their instruments/fields are. Though it’s hard to reconstruct accurately, I bet that I fantasized that conducting, would, you know, make me feel good. Is that right? Like, it seemed like the conductor was the one having the most fun, and that’s the person I wanted to be.
As my life has gone on, my attitude towards the role of the conductor has evolved considerably, and no doubt will continue to do so. And this lives in a symbiotic relationship with my interest in conducting new music. While conductors are in many cases necessary and sometimes even helpful, I’ve also seen conductors often get in the way or become (much, occasionally) more trouble than they’re worth. While this can happen in obvious ways—we all know the trope of the tyrannical, high-maintenance, diva-type conductor, one who exercises power simply for the sake of exercising it—it can happen subtly as well. Conductors can both aide musicians, but also impinge on their autonomy in long-term and detrimental ways. I think this really works on all levels: from how one thinks about programming to how one runs rehearsals to the actual conducting technique itself. Conductors that are hard to play for—and I think all instrumentalists and singers know what I mean by that—really do impose upon a performer’s personal musicianship in a way that is harmful, even if the affects are only perceptible over time.
I think there’s a reason I felt a strong connection with the composer mathias spahlinger when I met him. He has a work from the 1993 called vorschläge/konzepte zur ver(über)flüssigung der funktion des komponisten (hard to translate without sounding fancy, but I’ll do my best: propositions/concepts on the liquidation/redundancy of the function of the composer). I get the sense that for both him and I, the goal is our own elimination. The utopian goal of the composer is to make it so everyone composes music for themselves (Attali has written about this as well, and I sort-of review a performance along those lines, that you can read about here); similarly, for a conductor it should be for people not to need conductors. I don’t think this has a Cage-ian flavor as such, but a more straightforwardly politically emancipatory one. Though I don’t want to make my claims too grandiose; what I do is limited in scope and in any case I don’t expect a utopia to arrive, as such. (And I’m not even sure I have a clear idea of what I mean by utopia.) But if we can slowly and asymptotically approach it, well, I can be part of that. I admit that that seems far-fetched in 2017’s political climate.
So so so very important to me is how I relate to the musicians I conduct. If it’s not an actually collaborative atmosphere, I just don’t want to do it. With the Dal Niente musicians it’s easy—they give me plenty of pushback when they don’t like stuff I do, and they are very independent and autonomous musicians. With orchestras, though, sometimes, it can be a challenge. Some (certainly not all) musicians really are habituated to simply just doing whatever a conductor says, and it can cause discomfort when they are asked to have an opinion. Well, really it’s a continuum—some musicians want to be super independent, and some just want to be blue collar workers, and there’s everything in between. But I strive to do what I can to be some part of helping them be able to self-realize better; in some cases it’s a lot, in some cases it’s not much. But it’s a process, and it’s important that it continues, and that I’m conscious of it all the time, and that I’m conscious of my own limitations. I’m sure I fuck up a lot.
Do you do much performing, or is your work primarily rooted in conducting?
Well, if were to self-identify in a capitalist-division-of-labor type way, I would say I’m a conductor first, a teacher second, and a writer third. But I’d immediately problematize this statement, and say that really teaching is part of my artistic work. While I do strive to make sure that my students are appropriately trained to be professionals—that they can get orchestra jobs if they want to work at that, say—it’s much more important to me for them be artists and people who can work on their own self-fulfillment. I’d rather them be happy, or approach happiness, than have a so-called “good job” that they actually hate. Sometimes this means being super real with them about their chances of success in fields where things are tough; sometimes it means encouraging them to take risks I know they want to take; sometimes it means introducing them to repertoire, or coaching their chamber music group; sometimes it means putting them in an uncomfortable position with music they don’t like. Honestly, I find teaching to be much harder than conducting, and it’s a minefield of artistic and ethical and financial quandaries; I’m not a natural at it, so spend a lot of time second-guessing myself. I tend to hope this second-guess-y nature is a net positive for me.
Do you assist with the concert organizing and repertoire selection for Dal Niente?
Yes, but I should hastily add that I am not the artistic director of Dal Niente, and that it doesn’t have an artistic director, and that it will never have an artistic director. ...something about power and corruption and absolute power and absolute corruption… The programming process for us is complex and messy and takes a long time. There is a sort of programming committee, but the players have plenty to say if they want to do so. I definitely have an agenda of my own, one that I try not to hide: I’m interested in—depending on how you look at it and how you define words—canon expansion or canon destruction. By which I mean not that we (I’ll leave “we” intentionally undefined) shouldn’t play old (or even last-50-years or contemporary-but-conservative) music by dead white guys, but that we must make sure to have complex and nuanced understanding of why we do so and why it is/was influential; while at the same making sure to understand that such music is highly historically contingent and doesn’t necessarily have to be played; while at the time trying to make so that music we play is representative; while at the same time not reducing programming to a question of identity politics. Basically: what was or is or could be or will be music is huge; and it’s getting huger, and I’m interested in feeling as much of that hugeningness as possible.
What is one of your most memorable moments as a conductor?
The bit in Haas’s in vain where I don’t conduct, lolz. The bit where I’m just standing on stage in the dark while everyone else plays. It’s electrifying, terrifying; sublime, to use the word I did earlier.
(sidebar from Jon: Dal Niente’s February 28, 2013 performance of Haas’ in vain is one of my most cherished live performances to date. I couldn’t be there in person [unfortunately], but watched a live stream and to this day rewatch the video here)
You've also done some writing on various topics of new music. What drives you to write and what are some of your primary topics of interest?
I think there are many people who are doing terrific (non-academic, say) writing on music these days and in the very recent past; the following come to mind in no particular order: Doyle Armbrust, Ellen McSweeney, Deidre Huckabay (who, full disclosure, is my partner), Steve Smith, Ray Evanoff, Marek Poliks, Ian Power. Cacophony Magazine, an heroic Chicago DIY effort (started by Bethany Younge and Lia Kohl, currently run by Jill DeGroot and Kelley Sheehan), is trying very hard to cultivate a sort of thoughtful online discourse in this city. (I intentionally don’t mention a bunch of brilliant young scholars working on new music, which is a different and v exciting topic.) I note that almost of my favorite non-academic writers on music, though, are not journalists in mainstream media publications. I don’t think I’m saying anything too controversial by asserting that discourse one reads in such publications (newspapers, say) about classical and new music has been frustrating in recent years. (...hastening to add notable exceptions who do terrific work, and who may be responding to this very problem: Will Robin (with his various hats), Anne Midgette, Mark Swed, Zachary Woolfe among others.) Perhaps we’re at a crossroads. We might genuinely question the relevance and purpose of the concert review as we’ve inherited it. While there are some good exemplars, there are many more that are problematic: sometimes boring or unhelpful, occasionally actually detrimental. For standard rep concerts, reviews might be, say, vague speculations about what a conductor might have thought, mixed with congratulatory or cutting remarks about a performer; for new music shows, reviews are often one paragraph about each piece, with some descriptive language and then an evaluation (either that the reviewer liked it or didn’t like it). I've read many reviews during which I've asked myself why it was written, and what it contributes to the discourse, and I end up thinking that it's actually just an unconscious expressions of neoliberal ideology—where there's a tacit commodification of a musical experience, a turning the concert into an athletic event. Such writings reify the music and the performers, and really strip away something meaningful about their listening experience and their humanity. The performers often feel misunderstood or patronized. And what does someone reading a review after the fact really get out of it besides gossip?
I’m intentionally speaking in generalities by using language I have above, “many reviews,” “reviews are often,” that sort of thing, because I’m not trying to call people out. I can only assume that everyone’s doing the best with what they have and I don’t mean to be insulting. It’s more that I wish music journalists who write like this, and who have jobs at newspapers and such, would self-reflect honestly. Written, non-academic mainstream media discourse about music is a hugely problematic aspect of our culture; and I’d speculate that some sense of this problem drives the people I mentioned above to do the excellent work they do.
Put yet more positively: there are so many musicians and composers and writers in this rapidly changing field who are doing actually genuinely mega-exciting work. So how do we understand and interpret this work, and how do we construe its meaning, what does it do in our lives? It seems to me that the role of the critic in these questions is central to this ecosystem. While it’s deeply frustrating to see a poverty of discourse in some places (especially publications with money and reputation and readership), it’s life-affirming to see to see it develop richly in others.
Since actually you asked about me, and I didn’t answer your questions, I’d say this: I wrote mostly because I enjoy writing and I have stuff to say. I’m a bit uncertain and insecure about my writing, but I think Deidre actually described my attitude accurately: that I seem to view it as an act of good citizenship. I think this is right. I feel a duty to communicate in every way I know how, and I’m ok being wrong about stuff.
This is a huge topic with no easy answer, but what direction do you see contemporary music going in the 21st century? Or is it proceeding in any clear direction?
I feel like reading the last chapter of Attali’s Noise, the one about composition, is a good place to start.
It’s pretty hard to hazard a guess what going to happen, but I will say this: I have been really heartened by the sometimes angry sometimes perplexed but very energetic reaction of musicians to the terrible, terrible political situation in this country. I find myself almost saying something like: I hope this leads to a more engaged, political sort of art. But I don’t think that’s quite accurate; rather, art is instantiated politics; it is always already political. Maybe what I feel is new music waking up to that realization. It would irresponsible to make a self-important or aggrandizing claim about new music—that it can advance a concrete political cause effectively—but I do want think that how we conduct ourselves, how we interpret the music we make, and how we interact with our audiences, really does have transformative potential in some areas. Culture is a big thing; music is a part of it, and let’s not pretend that it’s above or removed.
Do you have any exciting upcoming events or projects?
YES, YES I DO YES VERY EXCITED OMG!!!! We’re releasing the record we are finishing of George Lewis’s pieces at the Art Institute of Chicago in a multi-day event in September. In October, we’re doing two new monodramas by Eliza Brown and Katie Young as part of our Staged series. I think these are two of the most exciting composers working today, and I think these pieces will do things that will feel strong and real. More immediately, I’m looking forward to being resident conductor of the soundSCAPE festival in Italy this June and July.
Longer term, I’m lucky enough to have just been granted tenure at DePaul. I’m still trying to process what exactly that means, and how I might best use the security of such a position for the best artistic and education ends. I have programming ideas, of course, but I bet I can do better.
And for the always-necessary top 5 list: what are the top 5 pieces/albums/scores that have been your biggest influences over the years?
1) Beethoven’s Eroica symphony: in a sense, I use this as a yardstick for myself; I’ve known this piece for a long time, and it’s never lost its power over me, though my reading of it has changed a lot.
2) Mahler’s 9th symphony.
3) Some Shostakovich pieces, say the 4th and 5th symphonies, but maybe not for the reasons you might think. It’s a very personal association: it’s from when I was 16-17 years old, studying with Prof. Musin in St. Petersburg, and remembering how Musin conducted that music; he was just so good at embodying it, like really “em-bodying” it, having it in his body.
4) Ligeti’s Lontano was a piece that I encountered early in my life on Chicago Symphony radio broadcast, and maybe was actually my introduction to doing such a thing with an orchestra; and it’s a piece I’ve returned to frequently over the years.
5) Hard to identify just one work, but George’s Lewis’s music and thought—particularly how broadly he construes the practice of improvisation—has been tremendously important to me recently. If you don’t mind the shameless plug: do pick up Dal Niente’s our George Lewis record when it comes out. This is a way of doing music that everyone should encounter.
I find myself noticing that all this music ^^^^^^^ is by dudes, and I regret that there aren’t any ladies on my list; this reflects a complex, long-standing and thorny problem from which I do not exempt myself and in which I have surely been complicit. But I also recognize how much this is changing, and I wonder what it will look like if you ask me this question in 20 years?
For more information about Michael Lewanski and his work check out the links below:
Personal website: www.michaellewanski.com/
Ensemble Dal Niente: www.dalniente.com/
The following are videos of performances by Dal Niente with Lewanski conducting
What initially got you interested in the idea of composing?
I was probably around 14 years old. A friend, with whom I was also in a band with in some shape or form until I was 27, had the Noteworthy Composer software (remember that thing?). I remember being fascinated by the scrolling score and the fact that no matter what you wrote, the computer played it back. Yes, I’m fully aware that this mentality is not a great idea for, say, graduate students in composition, but to a high school freshman it opened a lot of creative doors. I got the software and pretty much dove in, trying out any idea that came to mind. At the same time, I was in drumline for marching band. We had this book of cadences (most high school/college drumlines have one large, intricate cadence; we had about 20 little ones). Most of these were hand-written (save the ones that our director stole from Ohio State and Ohio University) and were composed by him for our drumline. With equal fascination, I began hand-writing a whole book of drumline cadences. I found a cathartic release in the act of writing by hand; it hasn’t faded. Still today, I get the same calming sensation when I’m sitting in a comfy chair with a blank page in front of me, waiting. These cadences were also the first time I started working with polyrhythm and rhythmic dissonance, though I had no idea that I was doing something along those lines. But, and I still have them around here somewhere, you can see a lot of triplets against 16ths, 5 against 3, etc.
So, these pieces pretty much poured out of me all through high school. Sadly, it was during this time that I got the first wrong idea about my music: I had proudly, in my senior year, walked my book of 25 or so cadences and my triptych of mallet trios up to my band director, who was also my percussion teacher, and asked him to look at them. For lack of a better term, he pretty much dismissed the whole thing. A few weeks later, I bounced the idea of being a composition major by him; he gave me the “there’s no jobs in composition” line. These statements didn’t stop me from composing, but they did stop me from showing them to teachers. I wrote a lot during my undergraduate years, and with the exception of my percussion teacher, Ted Rounds, I showed them to no one because I had this weird block, this weird notion that I wasn’t good enough to formally study composition. It took a lot to finally start discussing composition with teachers, and even then it took a few years to finally put my foot down (equally towards myself and others) and cut my own path.
We’ve had some conversations about your music in the past, and how it is tied to your interests in visual art and literature. Could you talk a little more about how these other fields influence your music?
I doubt I could only talk a little, so get comfortable. Of the two, literature is by far the stronger influence; however, painting is by far the more concentrated and intense influence. What I mean is that when painting’s influence does show up, it is not subtle and it is very immediate, whereas literature’s influence is much more “in the blood” of the my approach to composition. Yes, Rothko is a huge influence and I could easily see someone saying, “You wrote a 90-minute piece for solo piano that covers a few areas of material; obviously there’s Rothko’s influence.” However, I would say that painting in general comes around more in that it gives me permission to toss the sudden change of color here, the visceral, disturbing 10-second thing over there, etc.. What I mean by “permission” is more of a justification to myself to do those things that a teacher (or an audience member or critic or someone who thinks the word “accessibility” means anything to me) may question.
With literature, I have to state this: By saying that I am influenced by literature, I do not mean that I am trying to recreate a particular story, emotion, or narrative in a programmatic way. I’m not trying to “set the stage” or “create an image” or portray a plot twist or anything like that. I’m not an author or storyteller, and when someone says, “here’s the part of the piece that portrays the part of the story when X happens,” my first reaction is, “Why? Why are you doing that? The author already made that moment happen in words; who are you to try and recreate it?” In other words, you won’t see me making a leitmotif, something that one has to follow and recognize that “this musical thing means this other extra-musical thing” in order to successfully hear the piece. This discussion could easily tangent into a take-down of programmatic music in general, so I think I’ll stop before I get too snarky.
What I take from literature are approaches to form and structure, especially when literature gets nonlinear or circular. Though yes, it’s possibly the most difficult book out there, I love the fact that Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is circular- the first sentence is the back half of the last sentence. Where my mind goes is a curiosity into whatever method and technique Joyce used to turn the story around from going “this” way into going “that” way. Another example is Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which requires the reader to use 2-3 bookmarks at times. My interest in that book is not “the story,” but a curiosity as to what methods and techniques he used to navigate such a terrain. One last example is Agatha Christie. Take the opening of And Then There Were None. Slight spoiler alert, but the secret to the whole mystery is revealed in the first few sentences! My curiosity? What methods and techniques did she use to mask and get around the fact that she gave you the secret so early? I read that story on audiobook during a long drive from Nebraska to Ohio (don’t do that). The story ends and I’m sitting in the car, thinking, trying to remember the whole piece and if there were any clues. Well, the app started to replay the story, and 15 seconds later I realized that I had been told the clue from the get-go. This obviously connects to the circularity of Joyce’s work.
I also enjoy the fact that literature can leave things unresolved, can leave loose ends. However, I can see one of your upcoming questions, so I’m going to hold off on this until later.
What I will say is this: It’s the way the thing is made that strikes my interest, and I love the different ways that novels and short stories are made. Yes, I obviously understand that there are many different ways that pieces of music are made; however, when a novel (or film, like Pulp Fiction) is nonlinear, it’s clearly nonlinear and the reader or viewer understands the nonlinearity and therefore can place themselves in whatever mode they go to when presented with nonlinearity. That clarity is not so easy with music, and I think (and here’s where I’m apprehensive about saying this publicly because I don’t want to speak for composers, but oh well) composers say, “well if you can’t tell that the piece is nonlinear, why would I write it?” My thinking is “who cares if you can’t tell?” It’s a great way to approach a piece, it places you in a different creative headspace, and it can produce some ideas that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of if you were only thinking, “the piece starts in measure 1 and ends in measure last.”
Tarantino makes Pulp Fiction in 1994, confuses the hell out of everyone the first time they see it, and he’s called a genius. Cage makes a form based on chance operations in the 1950s, and people still trash his name (everyone remembers the terrible Huffington blog posts from 2012).
Have you always been interested in painting? Is the intersection of music and visual art something that came from your interest in Feldman, or did Feldman come from your interest in art?
Yes, I’ve always been interested in painting, but (and here I’m going to change your wording; I hope it makes sense as to why I’m doing so) the intersection of music and other arts came from my interest in Feldman. And my interest in Feldman came from my interest in Mahler. Yep, you read that correctly.
When I first starting getting into Feldman’s music and writings, I noticed the recurring theme of painting and rugs. And then I read his essay on Crippled Symmetry (he wrote the essay a few years before the piece) and I saw how the form and structure of rugs influenced the form and structure of his musical material. I then started to ask, “Is there a way to relate the form and structure of novels into the form and structure of my musical material?” At the time, I was reading Joyce’s Ulysses, so I grabbed my copy and grabbed my notebook and started counting. I arbitrarily chose a duration of three hours. I then counted the number of lines in each chapter (not as tedious as one might think; the book tallies every 100 lines or so. It’s based on Homer so it has the layout of an epic poem). I then divided the duration in three movements (the book is divided into three parts of 3, 12, and 3 chapters, respectively) and figured out what the appropriate duration would be. Turns out that if you take three hours and divide into three parts that correspond to the formal division of Ulysses, you get movements of approximately 12 minutes, 126 minutes, and 42 minutes, respectively. I never saw this idea through to an actual piece, but it got me thinking about form and pacing and scale and structure and all of those terms. More on this later.
Anyway, to bring it back to your question: My interest in Feldman got me interested in other arts as influence. I chose to go a different route than Feldman, but because I was now curious about all of these other arts, I was now surrounded by all of these other ways of thinking about structure and composition (in the general sense) and approach. It was also at this time that my style started to change in a somewhat drastic way.
I think one of the best yet worst things about life is that there’s so much good stuff out there, yet not nearly enough time to fully absorb it all.
I hear your music as being very conversational. I don’t notice it in terms of melody/countermelody, but more as voices playing nearly in unison (but not quite), “call/response,” instruments passing a melody from one to the next. Is that something you think about consciously in your compositions?
Please email my doctoral advisor, David Gompper, and tell him that you think my music is conversational. Please. My dissertation (which is a piece that is full of negative energy and is a whole other story for another day) was a double concerto, and David’s conception of the concerto is a narrative dialogue between soloist(s) and ensemble, and he kept saying that my music was not conversational and there was no dialogue and all these other negative things. (Don’t email him, but it felt good to read that statement; thank you.)
Alright, back to your question. Yes, I think about the act of passing lines and figures across the ensemble in a conscious manner, but I’m not as confident in saying I’m consciously thinking about conversation (so perhaps David was right?). In Essay for Voices, it’s pretty obvious that I was thinking about one human voice transforming into the next human voice, or many voices striking out on their own from and returning to one single pitch. In Piano Trio, it was a conscious effort to separate the strings and the piano, creating an idea of “they do this, they do this again, they do this a third time, and now the piano comments. Repeat.” At the same time, going back to that piece, the fundamental driving force behind the work was one word: sparse. I wanted to make a very sparse piece. The conversation (or dialogue or whatever you want to call it), is secondary.
In a lot of my work, the sketches are one or two lines (often in piano score) that then are realized in a contrapuntal way once I get to the notation software. So yes, I guess I’m very comfortable in writing that way - the way of placing lines between voices and seeing where they lead the piece. Some of my favorite music is from the Renaissance (more on that later), and I have an almost unhealthy obsession with canon, so I’m very concerned with how my lines interact with each other.
I saw Elliott Carter listed as one of your compositional influences, but I hear a striking difference between your music and Carter’s, primarily in terms of energy and moment-to-moment pacing. Can you talk a little about where the Carter influence comes in your music?
I clearly remember being a freshman in college and killing a lot of time in the music library. I loved (still do) reading through scores with a recording. It’s a great way to learn a lot about composing and also how to pay attention! Anyway, I think I randomly grabbed Carter’s First String Quartet one day and gave it a go. Now, as a freshman, I had no idea what the hell I was listening to, no idea how to make sense of it, and ended up being very very confused by the piece. However, for some reason the piece lodged itself in my brain, as if it said, “Hey, remember me? I have more things to tell you.” So, I returned, again and again, trying to figure this piece out in some way. My teachers weren’t much help; I clearly remember a professor putting up their hands in a crucifix when I asked them about Carter, and he was a cellist in a professional string quartet!. So, I kept digging. I remember the first thing about Carter’s music that intrigued me was the rhythmic play between voices, followed quickly by the metric modulations. Being a percussionist, the next stop was obviously the timpani pieces, on which I later did a little bit a research in grad school. The Carter spiral continued with the remaining string quartets, the concerti, and then the giant Night Fantasies - what a piece that is! Have you dug into it? It’ll give you fits!. I’m still following the Carter spiral; his music simply fascinates me on so many levels. But that’s not what you asked. You asked how his influence worms its way into my stuff. Here goes:
Along similar lines, is there any direct influence of Crumb? The meditative pacing, use of nontraditional timbres, and especially the use of the voice in certain works evoke Crumb, but it never loses the identity of your own music. Could you talk about that a little?
I used to be a huge fan of Crumb, especially of Music for a Summer Evening and Ancient Voices of Children; I’ll happily admit that the opening of the latter piece is very influential on how I shape a line, both vocal and instrumental (not to return, but the opening cello line of Carter’s First Quartet is, in my opinion, one of the great examples of twentieth-century melody). And yes, we both share elements of meditative pacing, but I think Crumb is a little more clear in his forms than I am. I think my biggest debt to Crumb is how to treat register. Going back to Music for a Summer Evening: There’s a moment where he places a high crotale note against a low perfect fifth in the piano. It’s easy to understand now, but when I was young, I was blown away by the fact that this chord (which I think is something like B-F# with a high F-natural), when played in closed position in the middle of the register sounds dissonant and kind of junky, sounds magical and beautiful when spread out over 5 octaves. Today, I find that I’m very sensitive to register, and I think this sensitivity comes from listening to a lot of Crumb.
One thing I took away from your artist statement is the sentence “I often do not intentionally end my pieces, preferring to allow them to stop on their own. I believe that this approach brings a satisfying ambiguity to both the creation of the work and the final product.I” think this is a really interesting and intriguing way to approach form. What led you to take this way of working?
This is the “more on that later” from the discussions on literature. Doing those initial calculations on the Ulysses form got me thinking, “Here we have a successful book with a form that works well, but when applied to music it could be considered unbalanced.” I started to question the traditional notions of formal balance and structure; David was very concerned with form, but he wanted us to have traditional balance. After Ulysses I read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It was the Wallace that really got me thinking about how we form and shape our pieces. Here’s what I came to: Infinite Jest is over 1,000 pages with 100 pages of endnotes, some of which lead you to other end notes, some of which are chapters themselves. The book, as a piece of literature, is huge; I compare it to the Feldman evening-lengths of 2-3 hours. However, Infinite Jest has three qualities that make it even more complex and difficult: 1. It has no climax, 2. It has no clear ending, 3. It is not a complete story. If the entire tale of Infinite Jest can be represented by a line from 0 to 100, the actual book of Infinite Jest only tells you, perhaps, 10-90 of the story. Or maybe it’s only 40-60. Maybe it’s only a portion of the fifthtieth percent of the story; who knows? We readers, however, don’t mind: it’s a 1,000-page book and we have invested a large amount of our time and are satisfied with the completion of the physical book. This got me thinking, “what would it be like to make a piece that only presented, for example, the middle 80% of the total piece, as if the first 10% and the last 10% were never heard?” Furthermore, I got to thinking, “What if we did this kind of formal design on a piece that is not terribly long, say 10-12 minutes?” From this kind of thinking, you get works like my Piano Quartet, That Does Show Design, Piano Trio, and a lot of the Roman numeral pieces. I don’t hear those endings as the true ending; I simply let them stop. I don’t do this all the time, but sometimes I feel like the piece shouldn’t end, as if it’s not up to me to complete it, but to perhaps take the piece away for now, letting it finish somewhere else (or never at all). Yeah, this approach might sound hokey, but it works for me.
The other part of this discussion is that from this approach I started thinking seriously about duration. What are the qualities of “six minutes?” What can you do in a 20-minute piece that you can’t do in a 5-minute piece, but also what can you do in a 5-minute piece that you can’t do in an hour-long piece? What is the personality of 7 minutes, 30 minutes, 180 minutes? Sometimes, in my weirder moments, I would try to pay attention to the passing of time, taking note of what went on in the passing of a certain amount of time. It’s interesting: I came to this approach to form because I felt I had to push back against being concerned with form.
Anyway, I really don’t like it when I can tell where I am in a piece, which is funny because one of my favorite things to teach in class is Classical sonata form. I’m like that with a lot of things: I don’t read the backs of books or read book reviews because I do not want to know anything about what might happen. I roll my eyes at a lot of new music concerts when I can hear the “big finish” or the “clear introduction.” If I know a piece is about 3/4ths of the way through, I kind of go on autopilot. I’d much rather work with and experience an elastic, anti-climatic form that doesn’t reveal its entire self until much later, after the piece is over, when you’re rolling it around in your memory. The piece lasts. Coming back to literature, I often think of those characters in Infinite Jest as if they were still working within the story - did Hal ever get better? What happened to Don?
Do you have any upcoming projects you’re working on?
I do! I finished a three-hour piece for Chamber Cartel back in December and decided to take a few months off to study. In that time, I was asked to write a trio for Soprano, Cello, and Percussion. I’m almost done with the sketches for it, and will be moving on to putting the score together pretty soon. I’m also working on revising a solo double bass piece that I wrote back in my Iowa days; it’s nice to go back to work you’ve done five-six years ago, as you can bring a more objective (and hopefully wiser) approach to the piece. I also have a piece to write for myself; I’d like to make a marimba or multi-keyboard solo in memory of my percussion teacher, Ted Rounds, who passed away last year. Finally, I have this songbook that I told Quince I would be writing for them, but it always seems to be put off to next month (and then the month after, and then…)
And the always necessary top 5 - what are the top 5 pieces of music you feel have most inspired you and your music throughout your career?
Is it really necessary? Haha. I never know what to say. I’m always apprehensive about these lists, for several reasons. First, what do you exclude? What criteria does a piece need in order to make it into someone’s top five? Second, what about those pieces that you used to really love, but don’t anymore or simply have fond memories of but perhaps don’t feel it’s “top five” worthy? And finally, who is going to judge the list? You know the type: the people who spend more time self-aggrandizing on Twitter than they spend actually working on their craft. These lists are always terrible to make; you see what you’re doing to me, Jon? Haha.
Alright, enough complaining. Here goes, with two small bends of the rules:
Listen to some of Anthony's pieces (discussed above) with the embedded soundcloud links below.
To learn more about Anthony and his music, check out his website at https://donofrio-music.com/
Essay for Voices (performed by Quince Contemporary Ensemble)
V: oratorio secreta (performed by Chamber Cartel)
Piano Trio (performed by Longleash Piano Trio)
You have collaborated with the author and visual artist Webberly Ebberly Finnich (Zachary Webber) on many pieces including your recent work Passion of the Wilt-Mold Mothers for the Quince Contemporary Ensemble. How/when did the two of you begin collaborating, and what are some of the facets of those projects that have kept the two of you working together?
Well, we started “working” together in maybe 1996, but by working together I mean recording non-sense, primarily improvised songs as adolescents. He and my brother have been friends since they were 9 years old, and when we were a little bit older our group of friends (middle school and high schoolers) all played in each other’s bands and “side projects.” We certainly didn’t know what we were doing, and were trying to figure out how music worked, but we also tended to listen to really weird music, and so we didn’t feel a strong sense of musical limitation. Most importantly, we all genuinely loved the music our friends made. Zach and I had a band called Puckered Yeast, which largely consisted of us improvising songs at open-mic nights in Syracuse, and I think that was the mainstay of our youthful collaboration. Zach was also in a band called Mad Bears, with my brother, Tristan. They recorded and incredible (I stand by that assessment to this day) album called Lines and Squares. It was Tristan on Casio keyboard, and Zach singing these dark, fable-esque stories. Their hit song was a song called Rover, about a giant dog that inadvertently crushes entire towns when it rolls over. They joked that someday they would be famous, and perform it on Pops concert.
In 2005 I rewrote Rover as a 25 minute chamber work. Not quite a Pops concert, but, it’s what I had to offer. I actually revised the piece recently for a performance by Alia Musica featuring Tony Arnold. The 2005 version sparked a revisiting of our creative relationship. Zach had gone on to study creative writing at Oberlin, and honed his craft in some regards, although there’s also something wildly intuitive about his approach. His sense of word choice, and phrasing, and character, and voice; it has always been distinctively his. He can improvise verse that is better than anything I could ever write. Because he is a musician, possibly, he also has a very good ear for what can be sung. I honestly can’t imagine working with anyone else. The pieces we write are very much collaborations, and usually we spend a lot of time generating text, and story ideas. He’s immensely creative, and talented, and the works really are his, as much as mine.
Your pieces often have wonderfully imaginative titles (Sex Poem for Lightbulb by Beetle, Passion of the Wilt-Mold Mothers, The Long Hibernation, and my personal favorite Bear on Hi-Hat, Roach on Snare, Kitty on Purr, with a Squeeze-Box Solo by Yours Truly). Do you choose titles that are intended to be programmatic and evocative of some kind of story
Aside from the last title you listed, all of those titles, actually, Zach came up with. The last title is for a tape piece I wrote, and the source material is literally made up of a wind-up bear laid on a hi-hat, a cockroach walking on the head of a snare drum, a kitten purring, and me opening and closing a broken toy accordion. I do like the idea of imagining me and all those animals in a band together though.
You also often write for voice. Is storytelling through music an important form of expression in your music?
Storytelling is central to what I do. My most important work, I think, is as a half of a short story writing duo whose medium happens to be chamber music. I have a very difficult time writing without text, and am not particularly interested in doing it. I want to grapple with lived experience, and the story form, for me, seems the most potent entry point to that. That said, I am fundamentally a composer, and am fascinated by sound, and form, and counterpoint, and I love music that is not programmatic -I love sound. I’ve also recently become more interested in language, and linguistics, and the possibilities of exploring the intersection between music and language. I’m also interested in the semiotic implications of music. My creative mind is most excited when I can work with all of these elements together, and when I’m trying to grapple with questions of our shared existence through this medium.
In 2013 you began the festival Musicarte Panama along with Andrés Carrizo and Liliana Carrizo. Could you talk a little bit about this project, it’s history, goals and how you met Andres and Liliana?
MusicArte is a bi-annual new music festival in Panama City highlighting Latin American new music. We’ve had two festivals so far with composers including Mario Lavista, Ileana Pérez-Velazquez, Carlos Sanchez Gutierrez and Valentín Pelisch and ensembles and performers includeEnsemble Dal Niente, Grupo Paisaxe, Alia Musica, Graciela “Chelín” Núñez and the soundSCAPE Trio. So far it has focused on Latin American composers, but has featured performers from both Latin America and the US. I think the tendency, in the US, when we look outside our national borders, has been to look to Europe. It so happens that there are incredibly creative composers and performers working in Latin America as well. For me the festival has been a consistent source of discovery, and collaboration, and relationship building.
Andrés and I met at the soundSCAPE Festival in 2011, and initially bonded over a shared love of Latin American literature. He and I both returned to soundSCAPE in 2012, and I met Liliana (they are married) shortly after, in Milan. Andrés is a composer, and Liliana is a musicologist. We started talking about the festival that summer in Italy, and by the next summer it was a reality. Like many collaborations, at its heart is friendship. We’ve never managed to live in the same city, but we are very close. My wife, Sarah, and I are the godparents of their children.
In addition to continuing to feature music from established and emerging Latin American composers my hope is that we can broaden the leadership of the festival to include musicians that have participated in the past. So, for example, Valentín Pelisch was invited to our first festival from our call for scores. When we were planning our second festival I suggested inviting him back as a featured composer, which resulted in him producing a concert length work that was fantastic. I personally love his music, and would like to see him take a larger role in planning the festival.
I’ve always found your music to be very eclectic in terms of style, aesthetic, instrumentation, etc. Is that something you strive for in your music?
My musical language has always had a playful approach to genre. I’m an eclectic listener, and see no reason to limit myself, even within the context of a given piece, to staying within a single musical idiom. When one is writing within the context of “new music” as a genre I think there is often an assumption that the musical materials themselves are somewhat neutral, or without connotation. When genres are juxtaposed we become aware of the cultural and personal associations that come along with genre, especially when the materials are either anachronistic (in a value-neutral way), or draw from musics outside of the western classical tradition. For example, if a piece is going along in the idiom of what one may think of as consistent with current new music aesthetics, and then introduces a radical shift in style, to say, an operatic aria, the listener likely recognizes the shift to the anachronistic style as the introduction of a musical language that is outside of the idiom of current trends, and it is likely that the listener intuitively brings to the “outside” music whatever extramusical associations they may have with that genre. The effect is similar if the “outside” music is a form of popular music. We have a baseline assumption of what is within the genre of new music, whether it is post-minimalism, or new complexity. When that genre is violated by a music that is outside the palate of new music, I think this heightens the poetic implications of the music. This is, of course, somewhat dangerous territory in which to tread. If it ends up sounding like pastiche, with all of the negative connotations of trite pandering that this word has, then for me the technique has failed. Similarly there is a question of cultural appropriation. I try to approach the question of genre seriously and respectfully, even if I am being playful with the materials at times.
You also have a background as a guitarist (performance honors in guitar performance at Syracuse University). How has your experience as a performer influenced the way you approach and/or listen to music from a compositional standpoint?
Specifically as a guitarist, being a performer has drawn me to poly-stylistic materials. The guitar, rivaled in the last 35 years possibly by turn tables, is the instrument of popular music in the 20th/21st century. Almost any guitarist can speak multiple musical languages. Style analysis, to use the academic term, is what guitarists learn to do intuitively. I performed somewhat as a classical guitarist as an undergraduate, but no longer do (though I love classical guitar music). There are many composition lessons to be learned in the process of preparing a piece for performance: in getting your hands dirty in the music. After I stopped performing as classical guitarist (which time was very short lived), I continued to perform as an improviser. There is something about playing with other people that can’t be replicated in the composing process. You also learn a lot about writing for instruments that you don’t play by listening to other talented performers improvise on their instruments as you play together. I also use the guitar to compose tape parts for a series of collaborative pieces I have been writing with trombonist Juna Winston. I have a Godin guitar with a special pickup that converts the guitar signal into a polyphonic MIDI signal. I use this with a pedal that Roland makes which has a ton of midi instruments and synths in it. Some of them sound terrible, and these ones I am especially drawn to.
Can you talk a little about your work and involvement in social activism? Is your involvement in fighting for social justice something that has informed your work as a composer?
My adult life has been essentially divided between my work as an activist and my work as a musician. Currently the social justice work I do is as a union organizer. I represent a little over 900 healthcare workers in Western PA, bargaining contracts around wages and benefits and other terms and conditions of employment, fighting for better patient care, and if necessary, going on strike. It’s a workforce that is 90% women who are usually the primary breadwinners in their families. The hospitals that I represent are primarily rural community hospitals, meaning in this political moment, with PA being a red state, Trump country. The issues that Trump used to mobilize rural America (the economic issues, not the racism and xenophobia) are really the same issues that we are working on. Neoliberalism has been devastating to rural communities (as well as urban communities). Jobs that used to be decent working class jobs that you could raise a family on have either been exported, or the mines have dried up, or the unions have been broken, and now they are low wage, if they exist at all. Healthcare is an exception, because it can’t be exported, and because it is one of the few private sector areas where there has been a growth in unionization. But of course, in the face of this, you see a wave of privatization and massive healthcare corporations emerging whose only goal is to minimize expenses through cutting labor costs or through cutting corners on standards of care, and of course, by trying to break the unions either through legislation or through aggressive anti-union campaigns. I’m fundamentally though, sympathetic to the people who found hope in Trump’s message, though again, not when it comes to the racism, xenophobia, or the willingness to make apologies for his rampant misogyny. I have seen an emboldening in my members (those swayed by Trump, which I think is fewer than most of their demographic) as far as their willingness to say racist or xenophobic things, and I think this is a direct result of years of Republican race baiting culminating in Trump. Not that this makes it excusable.
Prior to being a union organizer, I was a community organizer. I worked with public housing residents in New Orleans after Katrina, when the city decided to use the storm as an excuse to demolish all of the public housing units in the city, even though the vast majority were undamaged by the storm. I also worked on housing issues in Syracuse, as well as other organizing both there, and in other cities.
As far as my composing goes, I think it, as well as my interest in other art forms, especially literature, fulfills more of a role of questioning for me, than of political action. That questioning (what is the nature of violence? Are we, as humans, by our nature predisposed to building oppressive societies and waging war? To racism? To sexism?) has been driven in my composing by my political engagement. At a certain point I started to realize that political ideologies were limited in their abilities to answer these questions, and that art was more qualified. I think that’s why I’m drawn to the story form. Similarly, and probably at around the same time, I also realized that to make the kind of art I want to make I needed to make it my life’s work to try to understand people. In some ways my organizing has always been at service to my art. I always knew it was important for me artistically. I don’t delude myself into thinking that my music is somehow an effective force for political change, in the way that organizing is, however, and I’m not writing politically didactic pieces. Composing for me is a process of questioning, not declaring.
Do you feel artists (even outside of music) have a responsibility to create socially and/or politically engaged art?
This is a really big question for me, and I’m not sure I have an answer to it, but I’ll try to work through my thoughts on it, because it’s been pretty central in my life. I feel compelled to follow my artistic and aesthetic questions where they lead me. I also believe as a human being that I have a responsibility to oppose oppression and violence in the best way I know how. Unfortunately, I think there are more effective ways to oppose oppression than to do so through art. If you are choosing to be an artist (really, if you are choosing to do anything other than wholly throw your body against the machinery of war, oppression, imperialism, etc.) I don’t believe you are making an ethical choice given the state of the world. What this means, fundamentally, is that I have to apply this thinking to myself as well, and recognize that by being an artist I am engaging in a massive amount of privilege, and that there isn’t really a way to justify this morally -that I am morally failing. So is everyone around me, and so is most of humanity. All of us, really, are morally compromised, depending on our level of privilege -the more privileged, obviously, the more compromised you are, or at least, the more responsibility you have to work undo systems of oppression. If you choose to be an artist, it’s up to you to figure out how to sleep at night. I personally think it’s more interesting to acknowledge this and engage it than it is to try to justify our decision to walk away from our responsibility to the world in order to make art that very few people will ever even be interested in. I think people that find an easy answer to how they can justify doing this either aren’t thinking hard and sincerely about the question, or are deluding themselves, or are very good politicians.
Even people who make overtly political art that I agree with, I question their sincerity. It tends to be that this work occurs in universities or arts organizations whose communities are made up of fairly progressive people, so being seen as political can increase your social capital as an artist. Yet these organizations, as a whole, engage in practices that are antithetical to the values of their intellectual communities. Imagine that I, as a composer, write a big orchestral work called “Stop the War,” or something like that, and it gets played at the university where I am a professor. I feel great about myself; really morally pure because I’ve taken a stand. Well, it turns out that my university, like most universities, is actually deeply entrenched in the military-industrial complex. Say it’s Syracuse University, where I did my undergrad. Syracuse has a special training program for high-level Pentagon officials as part of it’s Maxwell School of International Relations. Every year literally the architects of the war that my orchestral work is supposedly opposing are sitting in a room only 100 yards from me and studying how to more effectively execute the war that I am so opposed to. Do I do anything about it? There they are, right in front of me. Do I work to end my educational institution’s participation in war? Nope. I don’t have tenure, or if I do, I’m hoping to eventually become an administrator, or get more funding for my program, or whatever, and anyway, who am I to think that I could have any effect on what happens at the university? I don’t have any power. So I just keep writing pieces like “Stop the War,” and feel great about myself. Clearly “Stop the War” is doing nothing to stop the war. And when I am confronted with the actual machinery of war, I don’t fight against it because it might cost me something if I do. In addition my university, like many urban universities, is aggressively gentrifying and displacing local residents, mostly working class and mostly people of color. Do I oppose it? Do I fight against my employer? If I’m like most people, probably not. So, what am I actually doing when I write “Stop the War”? I’m either fooling myself into thinking I’m doing something meaningful when I’m not, or I’m being self-serving and using politics as a way to differentiate myself as a composer and create an identity for myself that I can market.
I am not proposing that academics should go out and sacrifice their careers in order to take on their university administrations. The labor market is far to insecure, and favors the employer far too much for this to be a viable strategy. What we would end up with is just a lot of really good, principled composers who are out of a job, and literally thousands of replacements willing to take their place, and tow the line and stay quiet. The only solution to this from a long term perspective is for academics to form strong unions, and bargain contracts that protect their intellectual freedoms even if they are criticizing their employer. Unfortunately, many universities insist on what amounts to gag clauses in their collective bargaining agreements that prevent professors from criticizing their employers, or standing in solidarity with other university workers. It would have to be a strategic priority not only to unionize, but to oppose these gag clauses once the union is formed. Even with a gag clause you are better off with a union than without. The other barrier to this is a psychological barrier. We, as academics, don’t think of ourselves as workers. We are intellectuals, and unions aren’t for intellectuals. Therefore our pride leads us to cede power to the administrators. If we want to be able to take on strategic fights in the arenas where we have the most power -in our workplaces, in our communities, etc. -then we need protection. Unfortunately, labor law does little to protect free speech. Therefore, our only option is to bargain contracts that protect us, as a baseline for starting to exercise our power in a manner that isn’t career suicide.
Getting back to “Stop the War,” of course, maybe I am being overly cynical here. Whereas I don’t believe an individual artist making a single political work of art is a particularly effective way to make change, on a broader scale I think that arts and culture are extremely important to build community and give energy to social movements. We, as activists, need literature, and film and music that inspires us, and deepens our understanding of the world and its nuance. In saying this I am completely contradicting what I said earlier about the the impotence of being an artist in the face of oppression, and also contradicting what I said about the irrelevance of political art. When art becomes integrally linked with a community of resistance, as jazz did say with the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, then it becomes incredibly important as a force for building community and energizing the struggle, even if the actual subject matter of the music is, in its most literal sense, apolitical. It doesn’t matter if the name of the piece is “Stop the War,” or “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat.” What matters is what the community of musicians, and the community of activists, stand for, and how they are feeding each other.
New Music, or Modern Classical Music, or whatever we want to call it, doesn’t strike me as particularly poised to fill this role, but this could change at any moment, and how we make our art, and what we stand for could become incredibly important. If this is something we care about, and we are not going to be activists, then our only option is to act as if our music could at any moment become powerful, and act as if the decisions that we make about how we organize ourselves as a community are deeply important, even if all evidence is to the contrary. With Trump’s election this seems to be happening more and more.
I also want to add that there are plenty of artists whose work I admire that make no claims to be political, and never have, and are engaging in aesthetic explorations that I find fascinating, and love. As artists, our first commitment, over our careers, and our political obligations to the world, should be to our work, in whatever direction that takes us. Otherwise we will never say anything profound (or rarely).
So, as to your original question, whether we have a responsibility to make political art, I don’t know, fundamentally. We have a responsibility to oppose and alleviate suffering and oppression to the extent that we can, which is a responsibility that we will inevitably fail to live up to. Art does play some role in this, and it is important, though it probably isn’t the most important thing we can do.
In addition to composing, activism and organizing the Musicarte Panama festival, you are also Chair of the Board of Alia Musica in Pittsburgh. What is your role with this organization, and with Alia Musica more generally?
Alia is a very special organization, in that it is a new music organization that really has dedicated itself to fostering the New Music Community in Pittsburgh as it exists outside of academia. It is both a new music ensemble, made up of some of the best freelancers in Pittsburgh and beyond, but also a presenting organization that frequently showcases ensembles and composers both nationally and internationally. It was founded 10 years ago as a composer’s collective, with Federico Garcia DeCastro as the galvanizing force for the organization. For many years its primary mission was to promote and perform the work of Pittsburgh-based composers. The unintended consequence of this was that a community of composers and performers committed to building New Music in Pittsburgh, and who were not explicitly associated with any of the academic institutions in the city, came together around Alia. In turn, Federico has used the platform of Alia, I think, in a very generous way, to build the Pittsburgh new music community into something bigger than Alia. Every two years we dedicate the overwhelming majority of our annual budget to producing a New Music Festival whose purpose is primarily to showcase other younger ensembles that are emerging in Pittsburgh, or to bring artists from outside Pittsburgh to come and participate (Ken Ueno, Tony Arnold, Frederic Rzewski, Quince etc.). I don’t want to misspeak and imply that building the New Music community in Pittsburgh is only the work of Alia. David and Heidi of E.L.C.O. have been doing similar work, as did the late Dave Stock when he founded the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble (PNME) over 40 years ago, although PNME is no longer really a part of the New Music community in Pittsburgh. None of the performers live in Pittsburgh, and very few of its audience members are musicians or part of the New Music Community in Pittsburgh. This isn’t a criticism. It is a deliberate strategy on the part of PNME, and an interesting experiment as such. Also, they are only a summer series, meaning they don’t exist in Pittsburgh for 11 months out of the year. One very interesting aspect of the Pittsburgh New Music community is that the faculty at Pitt seem unusually dedicated to fostering New Music in Pittsburgh outside of the university. This isn’t something you see, for example, in Boston as I understand, or from the other universities in Pittsburgh even. This is in part because Pitt runs a really great new music series called Music on the Edge at the Warhol Museum, where they bring top-notch performers to Pittsburgh. It’s actually very generous from the perspective of the non-academic New Music community. They could use that money to hire JACK to do student reading/recording sessions, or bring ICE to do the same, or whoever, and keep it all very insular. And they do do this to a certain extent, but they also produce a really incredible concert series for the public that is also affordable. In addition to this they have started to produce a micro-tonal music festival every other year, which again is all public, and attracts a lot of musicians and artists that are not associated with Pitt, and brings in a lot of very talented musicians to participate from elsewhere (Alia was honored to present a piece by Haas as part of the last/first festival).
Fundamentally, though, getting back to Alia, I think our role, and really Federico’s role in building this community in Pittsburgh, is incredibly important. There are a number of really good, grassroots ensembles forming in Pittsburgh that didn’t exist 4-5 years ago (when I arrived), and I think Alia played at least a small role in making that seem like a tangible possibility, and a reasonable thing to do. I think also the culture of New Music is changing nationally in a way that, 10 years ago, when Alia started, it seemed impossible to exist outside of academia for a composer, so Alia was a necessity simply so that Pittsburgh composers could have their music played. Now New Music ensembles are springing up in Pittsburgh, and in most cities with any sort of New Music scene, and Alia can start to branch out, and do things like collaborate with Ken Ueno, or have Quince in residence for a year performing really exciting music that mostly was not written by Pittsburgh composers. We aren’t the only opportunity for Pittsburgh composers, which is great.
As far as my role as Board Chair, it has been a mix of Board development and collaborating with Federico to develop a strategic vision for the organization as we continue to grow, and become more of a regional presence. As a transplant to Pittsburgh I have also tried to leverage my network outside of Pittsburgh to create new opportunities for the organization. We brought Alia to Panama, for example, to participate in MusicArte.
Do you have any upcoming projects or collaborations?
I’m working on a concert-length work for trombone and tape with Juna Winston where I compose the tape part, and he composes the trombone part. Eventually we will create a version that is for open instrumentation. The piece is called The Triptych, so obviously it is in three parts. Two of these are finished. I’ll be making the third (which I expect to function as the middle movement) this Spring. I’ll probably rewrite about a third of The Passion of the Wilt-Mold Mothers, and Quince and I have been talking about some instrumental interludes for the piece, and staging (very conceptual, not making it into a chamber opera or anything like that). Nat 28, another Pittsburgh based new music ensemble run by Zoe Sorrell, and I have been talking about a piece featuring guest soprano Anna Elder, who is absolutely amazing, and who has also been loosely been brainstorming with me about a potential puppet piece or marionette opera with her ensemble, Kamratōn. As you know, I’ve wanted to do something like that for years, so that would be amazing. Anything with text, which is basically anything I do that isn’t my collaboration with Juna, will obviously be written in collaboration with Zach, my lyricist. Carlos Camacho and I have been talking about a piece for his percussion trio, Three by Radio, which would be a special challenge, but Carlos is an incredible performer, especially of text. His performance of The Fall of the Empire (Rzewski) blew me away. He has such incredible poise. I’d like to work more with invented language, as I did with The Passion of the Wilt-Mold Mothers, and have been reading more deeply in linguistics to that end. Alia has been working on a version of The Parasite, and Her Sister, which I wrote a couple years ago for Ensemble Dal Niente’s Latin American tour, and which gives the performers a lot of latitude as far as improvisation. I’d like to do a decent overhaul of that piece before it is performed again in any formal capacity.
And the always necessary top 5 list - what are the top 5 pieces (regardless of genre or aesthetic) that have had the biggest influence on you and your career as a musician?
This is an impossible question. Ok, so none of these are pieces, but…
For more information about Curtis Rumrill check out his website at http://curtisrumrill.com/
Below are some examples of Curtis' compositions
The Long Hibernation (performed by members of Ensemble Dal Niente at MusicArte 2013)
Eli Fieldsteel is a composer who specializes in music
technology and is the director of the Experimental
Music Studios at the University of Illinois at Urbana
What were some early experiences that made you decide to pursue music professionally, or I guess I should say at the academic level?
Around 2002, I was a high school sophomore in Middletown, CT and was presented with the opportunity to join the Wesleyan University Wind Ensemble, colloquially called WesWinds. They were unusually desperate for percussionists that semester, so the director, Peter Hadley, reached out to the local public high school. All of a sudden, I was exposed to wind band repertoire that was way more engaging and challenging than I was used to (Holst, Grainger, Ticheli, to name a few). At first, being surrounded by college-level players was really intimidating, and frankly, emotionally overwhelming at times! I even considered leaving the ensemble after a few weeks because I felt totally out of my league. I think it was my second rehearsal playing timpani on David Holsinger's The Gathering of the Ranks at Hebron that I started panicking. It was a five-timpani part that demanded constant retuning. The time signatures were all over the place. I was the only percussionist that semester, so if five timpani didn’t need enough babysitting, I was also covering a few crucial hits (cymbal crashes, etc.) on other percussion parts. For context, my timpani experience at that point was limited to bonking out B-flats and Fs in mostly alternating fashion -- tuning the F to an E-flat on an exciting day. Fortunately, Peter talked me into staying, so I took up the challenge and my percussion chops really improved dramatically over the next year or so.
But, the most important consequence to emerge from my WesWinds experience was that the repertoire inspired me to start composing my own wind band pieces -- really, really bad ones at first. But Peter, being the great guy he was, didn't need any persuasion whatsoever to program those pieces. So, I wrote a new piece each semester, and WesWinds premiered it. This continued until I graduated from high school and started my undergraduate studies at Brown University. There, I joined the Brown Wind Symphony and continued composing and performing. I also served as that group's assistant conductor for three years, so I had the added bonus of conducting premieres of my own music. So, I’d say WesWinds was the primary impetus for pursuing music professionally/academically, and continuing on this path at Brown cemented my decision.
A large portion of your output from the last 4-5 years has been in the electroacoustic genre, utilizing live performers, live electronics performance, etc. When did you initially become drawn to electroacoustic music and was there anything in particular about working with electronic and digital media that interested you?
Well, I've always enjoyed activities and modes of thinking that often get associated with composing electroacoustic music -- mathematics, programming, data charts and tables, chess and other board games, card games -- pretty much anything that presents a well-defined environment or problem, has discrete components, and can be solved creatively and in many different ways.
But, I didn’t start taking electroacoustic composition seriously until I was more than halfway through my Master’s degree at The University of North Texas. Before moving to Texas, I suppose I considered electroacoustic music to be something of a novelty. I took a computer music course taught by Butch Rovan during my senior year of college, and another course on electroacoustic techniques with Andrew May in my first year of grad school. These courses were fun and interesting, but I remember sometimes feeling frustrated by the subject material because initially it felt very opaque -- conceptually and logistically. But, I later came to realize that these courses planted a seed that took some time to start growing -- so I owe these two teachers a great deal of gratitude.
During my studies at UNT, I was spending a lot of time with two other grad students, Ilya Rostovtsev and L. Scott Price. Ilya was an endless source of stimulating conversation; we’d talk about all sorts of things, often but not always electroacoustic music. Perhaps unintentionally, he helped orient my way of thinking so that I’d start asking myself all the right questions. Scott used SuperCollider for some of his music and was pretty handy with it. At the time, I knew what SuperCollider was -- a programming language for digital audio -- but that was the extent of my knowledge. Scott showed me a few things, and after a difficult semester or two, I started making genuine connections between computer programming and electroacoustic music techniques. During the summer of 2010, I took a summer course at Wesleyan University, jointly led by Ron Kuivila and James Lipton, who taught SC from a musical/mathematical perspective, respectively. This course put a lot of the puzzle pieces into place for me, and I was hooked. While pursuing my doctorate at UT Austin, Russell Pinkston was my primary teacher. In addition to studying composition with Russell, I also took his courses on Csound and Max/MSP, and served as his primary TA for a few years. These experiences helped reinforce many important concepts underlying electroacoustic music composition, irrespective of software or language, and that’s when things really started to open up for me.
My first experience with your music was Fractus I for C trumpet and electronics. This was the first piece in a series of 5 “Fractus” pieces for solo performers and electronics. Can you talk a little bit about this series of pieces? Is there an overarching music or extra-musical theme that connects them?
Right, this piece was the first installment in what I tentatively imagined would be an ongoing series of pieces for solo instrument and electronics, akin to Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms, or perhaps Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas. I think there exist versions of the score that are simply titled “Fractus,” because I wasn’t initially sold on the idea of an ongoing series. But, I stuck with it, for better or worse. The title comes from the cloud formation of the same name. Fractus clouds are usually described as having broken off from larger clouds and/or having a shredded, fragmented appearance. It seemed appropriately suggestive yet abstract in the context of the piece and its anticipated sequels. In retrospect I’m not all that pleased with the title; with every conference I attend, I usually see one or two pieces titled “Fractures,” “Fragments,” “Fractals,” etc., so it seems I may have fell headfirst into a cliché. But, it is what it is, and my philosophy on composed pieces is to leave them alone when they’re finished, title and all.
If there is an extra-musical “theme” that connects these pieces, it’s not particularly strong. They’re all written for solo musician and SuperCollider-generated electronic sounds, but that’s about it; they’re essentially separate pieces. Fractus I was the first piece I had ever composed that combined a live acoustic instrument with electronic sounds, and it was my first substantial undertaking with SuperCollider, so the territory was very unfamiliar. I’ve revised the piece since then, but it’s very much retained its identity, and I’m happy with it. So happy, in fact, that I dove right into the second installment (viola) a little too enthusiastically. Looking back, I think I was so excited about this new media combination that I neglected many of the more fundamental tenets of composition. The music in Fractus II doesn’t have the expressive power it should have -- not to mention, the SC code was (and still is) a complete mess. It was performed once or twice, but I’ve essentially withdrawn it until I can sit down and make some revisions.
I’m really fond of the third installment (flute), and I believe it’s got the most performances of any in the series. It was at this point that I started assigning subtitles to the pieces in this series (Fractus III: Aerophoneme), perhaps to give them a greater sense of individualism. This piece was put into motion by flutist Kenzie Slottow, who specifically requested it. The two of us collaborated closely during the compositional process, and it was a great experience. I have fond memories of sitting on an empty stage at UT Austin with Kenzie, score sketches haphazardly surrounding us. More recently, this piece caught the attention of virtuoso flutist Meerenai Shim, and it served as the inspiration and opening track for Pheromone, her album of all-electroacoustic flute works, for which she commissioned five other composers.
Fractus IV: Bonesaw (trombone) was commissioned by ASCAP/SEAMUS in 2012, on which I worked closely with trombonist Steve Parker, and Fractus V: Metal Detector (drum set) was commissioned by Graceland University percussion professor Adam Groh. It’s been some time since the latest installment, but I’m leaning toward a saxophone piece in the near future, because I’ve been talking with a new friend/colleague/saxophonist at The University of Illinois, Nathan Mandel, about taking a piece to the 2018 World Saxophone Congress in Croatia.
Your electroacoustic works involve a high degree of live electronics and interactivity between the performer and the software. What are some of the things that interest you about live electronics, especially in the context of pieces for instrumentalists and electronics?
An environment that’s capable of generating and processing sound in real-time generally offers a larger set of musical possibilities than one that isn’t. I like creating pieces that allow a performer to show off her or his unique talent, and to this end, I’ll often include space for improvisation or otherwise provide the performer with options. A real-time paradigm is great for this sort of stuff, because it can be flexible with durations, ordering of musical events, and other parameters.
On the topic of improvisation, live electronics offers what I find to be an enjoyable challenge of turning a computer into a reasonably sophisticated improviser. A long-term goal of mine is to create a genuine “duet” for composer and human performer, where both parties can riff off each other in meaningful ways -- but I certainly have a long way to go on this front. Most of my work so far has resulted in algorithmically-generated textures which are unique with each performance. In some cases the performer is encouraged to “react” to computer-generated sounds, and add their own sound to the electronic sounds.
A live electroacoustic setup also affords interesting microphone options. The composer gets to work with: (1) the acoustic sound of the instrument, (2) a real-time recording of the instrument that can be electronically processed, and (3) predetermined electronic sounds. In a non-real-time setup, item 2 isn’t available, and in my experience, this is the component that’s most helpful in bridging the gap between an acoustic instrument and pre-rendered electronic sounds. It can more easily convey to the audience that the musician is truly interacting with the musical environment, and it’s all happening right now, in front of them. Live electronics can give the sense that the musician’s capabilities are meaningfully augmented, rather than artificially supplemented, or juxtaposed with other media.
I’m not trying to imply that a fixed media paradigm is inherently inferior. Fixed media has a lot going for it, particularly the degree of control and reliability that it affords. For what I’m interested in, though, I think I’d have to work a lot harder to get the same results using predetermined electronic sounds.
Do you often work closely with performers when creating these works for live electronics, or does most of the collaboration occur in the rehearsal process after the music and software is written?
I certainly try to work closely with a performer from start to finish, if possible. Since Fractus II, I’ve made a point of first finding a performer who’s interested in performing the piece. I’ll then engineer a recording session in order to capture their personalized sound as accurately as possible. In addition to rudimentary sounds (individual staccato/sustained notes at various dynamic levels, etc.), I’ll also ask her or him for any unusual or unique sounds they’re capable of creating. The end result is a diverse library of sounds that have come directly from the performer. This approach has a distinct advantage over commercial sound libraries, in that the fusion between the electronic and acoustic sounds has a greater potential to sound completely seamless. This approach also offers the performer a shared sense of ownership; it’s not just my piece they’re performing, but they’ve actually contributed to its inception in a meaningful way.
I try to keep the collaboration going while the composition is underway, too. Ideally, I’ll periodically bring score sketches and audio mockups to the performer so she or he has an opportunity to try it out and offer feedback. Performers know way more about the capabilities of their instruments than I do, so this kind of feedback is usually extremely valuable. And, I find that it’s better to catch areas of improvement during the early stages of composition, rather than the alternative (having to make unexpected changes when the piece is nearly done).
After working closely with Kenzie and seeing the kind of success that can result from close collaboration, I’ve begun treating these early steps as an absolute requirement, and I encourage my students to approach their live electroacoustic pieces similarly.
You also have a number of multimedia projects (With Oui, Genetic Anomalies, Hypnagogic, and more) involving dance and video processing, which also utilize live electronics and various controllers. What are some of your thoughts and approaches to multimedia works?
I’ve developed a sense that multimedia works have, on a fundamental level, a deeper and richer ability to communicate with an audience than single-media works (e.g. a fixed media musical composition or purely visual work of art). Our everyday lives are filled with experiences in which an encounter with an object excites multiple senses simultaneously. When we flick a light switch, for example, we feel the movement of the physical switch, we hear a click, and we see a change in the quality of our environment. These and other experiences have intrinsic meaning to us, and multimedia works are well-poised to take advantage of this fact by translating these multi-sensory experiences into an artistic experience. This premise might even help explain the widespread popularity of film, video games, and the more recent surge of interest in virtual reality applications, all of which are reasonably classifiable as multimedia art.
My personal philosophy is that multimedia works should somehow take advantage of this ability to create an especially meaningful and immersive experience for the audience. With this in mind, though, there’s also a balance to be maintained. On one hand, if multisensory experiences are translated into an artistic form too literally or simplistically, the result is dull and predictable. On the other hand, if the relationship between different media is too complex (or if there is no tangible relationship), then the result is too abstract and confusing. The best multimedia works I’ve encountered present content that is familiar enough to trigger associations, but altered just enough to keep me guessing (and therefore engaged).
I’ve developed this philosophy over several years and will probably continue to refine it. As a result, many of my earlier multimedia works don’t really adhere to this philosophy particularly well. In retrospect, these early works present a simultaneity of experiences without enough attention paid to integrating these ideas into a single expression.
Do you feel that collaboration is an essential part of a successful multimedia project, at least for projects that utilize so much interactivity and interconnected data between movement, music and video?
Well, collaboration and multimedia usually appear as a pair, but not always. Two artists can collaborate on a single-media work, and a multimedia work can be created by a single artist. But, for interactive works with deep artistic and technical interconnections, a well-matched collaborative effort is crucial. It’s not totally unreasonable for a single artist to handle all aspects of an interactive multimedia work, but it’s to see this approach as advantageous to a collaborative team of individuals who’ve devoted years to refining their particular craft.
The phrase “two heads are better than one” seems apt here; ideas from different brains can often meld in unique, exciting, and sometimes unexpected ways. A well-matched collaborator provides complementary thought processes, and when I’m working with one, I feel like ideas come to me more quickly, and I’m less likely to feel stuck.
Can you talk a little bit about your work with controllers and live electronics, specifically Brain Candy for Arduino gloves?
I think I learned about the Arduino platform while I was pursuing my Master’s degree, where doctoral student Ben Johansen had been doing some interactive multimedia work. He created a piece called Light-Box, in which he used a laptop-Arduino combination to control the opening and closing of a personified black box, paired with LEDs and 5.1 surround sound. Although Arduino had been on my to-do list for some time, it got forcefully pushed to the top of the stack during my first semester teaching at Ball State University in 2015. I was covering Mike Pounds’ teaching load while he was on sabbatical, which included his Human-Computer Interface Design course. As I’m sure you can imagine, having to teach a topic is a very efficient motivator for learning it!
Brain Candy is the result of my first experiments with Arduino. The first task was to get my hands on some sensors and confirm that I could pull their analog signals into SuperCollider and convert them into usable numerical data. With this out of the way, I then had to figure out what kind of sensor-enhanced “instrument” would become the centerpiece. I settled on a pair of sensor gloves, crafted from an old pair of bicycle gloves. Sensor gloves aren’t anything especially new or novel (lots of artists have explored this path), but nevertheless, they’re a natural choice for expression and non-standardized enough that the fine-detail design choices are open-ended enough that I wouldn’t be reinventing the wheel. The palms of the gloves each have a light-sensitive resistor that acts as a linear potentiometer when opening and closing the fist, and the back of each glove has an XY accelerometer. Accelerometers felt like a good choice because they can act like 2-dimensional linear potentiometers when tilting the hands, but create a signal spike from sudden, jerky hand motions, so they can serve as event triggers as well. I then spent a lot of time wearing the gloves, getting comfortable with their expressive nuance, and seeking out reliably reproducible gestures, and finally, I created a real-time SuperCollider environment to generate sound in response to these gestures.
The gloves aren’t wireless (I’m actually tethered to my computer during a performance), so there was a “costume” aspect to the piece that I didn’t fully anticipate. I bought several meter-long jumper cables that run the length of my arms and connect to the Arduino board on my back, suspended by a string around my neck. The board connects to my computer via USB like a vestigial tail. I wear a dress shirt to cover up the wires. There’s a prominent lump on my back, but since I perform facing the audience, it’s generally not visible. I’m happy with the costume, I think it provides just the right amount of concealment.
Do you have any current projects coming up? Multimedia, acoustic, electroacoustic or otherwise?
I do! There are two projects that have the relatively high priority at the moment. One is the aforementioned piece for solo sax and electronics. The other is a follow-up to to Brain Candy, in which I’m planning to create an interactive “sensors en masse” installation. Specifically, I’m envisioning a large quantity of light sensitive resistors positioned equidistantly on a large board, creating a sort of light sensitive grid. Interacting with the installation will involve exploring hand movements to block out the light in various patterns, covering parts of the grid with different materials, etc. I’m hoping to be able to support this project with a research grant.
In addition to these two projects, I’d like to get some reuse out of the laptop performance interface that I designed for my band and electronics piece, Singularity. In particular, I’d like put it into practice with chamber ensemble works (my list of small ensemble pieces is woefully small).
While I was at Ball State, I started experimenting with a MIDI-controllable piano, and I made some good headway on building a robust programming infrastructure. What appeals to me about this instrument is the extra layer of interactivity -- it’s a normal piano, so it can be mic’d, amplified and processed -- but it’s also a MIDI controller, so the stereotypically challenging and somewhat risky technique of pitch-tracking is made much simpler. But, the instrument obviously doesn’t travel well, and different models don’t have identical functionality, so this kind of piece presents some unique challenges; it’s a work in-progress.
I’d also really like to get more comfortable with the visual programming language Processing, with the goal of creating a short but solid audiovisual piece -- although I realize this would violate my philosophy on collaborative multimedia!
Purely acoustic compositions for wind ensemble are always on my mind, though not always in the forefront. Because the wind ensemble was my gateway into composition, it’ll always have a special place in my heart. I’m confident I’ll be writing band works throughout my career, hopefully never taking too long of a break from the ensemble.
And for the obligatory top-5 list - what are the 5 pieces that have had the most impact on your development as a composer and musician over the years, regardless of genre or time period?
Béla Bartók - Concerto for Orchestra
Vincent Persichetti - Symphony No. 6
György Ligeti - Artikulation
Philip Glass - Koyaanisqatsi
Luciano Berio - Sequenza X
Honorable Mention: Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring
Check out the videos below for some examples of Eli's music. To learn more about Eli you can also check out his website at http://www.elifieldsteel.com
Fractus III (for Flute and SuperCollider) - performed by Kenzie Slotow
Fractus I (for C Trumpet and SuperCollider) - performed by Jared Broussard
With Oui (multimedia work for interactive electronic music, video and dance) in collaboraiton with Rodrigo Carvalho (visual media), Billie Secular and Ladonna Matchett (choreography), and Gianina Casale, Nick Kao, Zach Khoo, Sam Olayiwola, Kelsey Oliver, and D’Lonte Lawson (dancers)
Brain Candy (quadraphonic improvisation for sensor gloves and computer) - performed by Eli Fieldsteel
Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble is a quartet made up of members Kayleigh Butcher, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Liz Pearse and Carrie Henneman Shaw. Quince specializes in new music by living composers and has been described as "a new force in vocal excellence and innovation" by the Brooklyn Rail.
Read my interview below to learn a little more about Quince and what they do!
Photo by Karjaka Studios
How was Quince originally formed, and what brought the four of you together?
Kayleigh Butcher: Amanda and I met at a Neko Case concert in Bowling Green, OH. We had an instant connection. Eventually, we were keen on starting an all-female group. I’m not sure it was originally discussed what *kind* of repertoire we would perform, but we gravitated toward new music in some way. We tried a lot of different kinds of rep at various times while still in school, but none of them really clicked until we realized working with composers is what we wanted to focus on.
Let me also say that we were actually originally 5 women. You can even see some of the VERY early promo photos on Facebook. Life happens though and eventually we were down to 4, and then Carrie came along when Quince did a gig with Ensemble Dal Niente in Chicago. We just had to have her :)
Liz Pearse: BGSU! Amanda and Kayleigh asked if I would join their small-ensemble. As I had just started my doctorate in what was a new field for me (contemporary music), it seemed like a good idea. I liked them, and having a team of vocalists around me while beginning my journey into new music was both comforting and challenging.
Your website describes Quince as an ensemble of “dedicated advocates of new music” and your albums (“Realign the Time” and 2017’s “Hushers”) definitely demonstrate that advocacy. With such a rich history of vocal repertoire throughout the Western music canon, what prompted you to focus so strongly on new music?
KB: There’s just something about being able to communicate to composers how to write for us specifically that is such an amazing experience. I see so many singers complain about things that aren’t intuitive in a score and we have a direct hand in making things work better for voices. It’s an empowering feeling. On top of that, we’ve been able to work with a lot of insanely talented composers to make their ideas a reality. It’s nice to know and trust your collaborators in such an intimate way. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Plus I like doing the weird things. I can’t stand going to concerts and knowing exactly what to expect. I want to show people what’s really possible for the voice.
LP: Though there is a lot of repertoire out there, there is not a lot of treble-voice-unaccompanied chamber music post-Renaissance. Neither ADB/KB/nor I were very interested in becoming early-music experts at the time, and there are plenty such ensembles around anyway. It was then, as is now, more fulfilling to work with living composers to create a body of work for our instrumentation, and build a repertoire (in the hopes of fostering a resurgence of interest in treble voice chamber music – why should Cantus/Chanticleer have all the fun?)
Carrie Henneman Shaw: It’s funny you should put the question quite that way. In the Western canon, there is astoundingly little repertoire for unaccompanied women’s voices. There are conspicuous exceptions - convent music, some early American music, to name a couple. Outside of that, most women’s ensemble music includes some sort of lower register accompaniment or is geared towards youth ensembles. This repertoire needs advocates who help expand not only what’s out there but also push it in a direction that broadens the kinds of skills, sophistication of expressivity and decision-making, and the content that’s associated with work for treble voices. Furthermore, I think each of us feels compelled as artists to make work that is entangled with our lives right here and now, and even if we did have a body of repertoire like that of the 19th-century string quartet, I don’t think it would be long before we’d be looking for something that is more specifically the product of our place and time.
On a related note, Quince’s repertoire also has a very strong focus on music by living composers, and you have commissioned numerous new works by young emerging composers. Championing music of living composers seems to be a very important aspect of what you do. Can you talk a little bit about that and what it means to you individually and as an ensemble?
KB: I think we all have our individual ideas about how to write for the voice, whether it is a solo or for Quince. In our personal experiences, academic environments don’t always embrace their student composers writing for voices. I have no idea why. We’d love to see that change though. That’s why we focus so much on doing residencies and student readings.
Also, contrary to what people think, there’s not a lot of existing rep for 4 female voices (SSSA). There are choral works, but they aren’t all that experimental, and there are some renaissance and medieval things, but they weren’t actually written for women so not all of them are actually possible for a female group to perform. Working with student composers and commissioning new repertoire from living composers is basically the only way for us to have new rep. It works out perfectly for us :)
Amanda DeBoer Bartlett: For me, feeling like I have influence and “voice” as an artist has become exceedingly important, and working with living composers presents an opportunity to have creative input as an artist. I want to help bring art into the world that challenges preconceived norms, empowers individuals to use their imagination, and reinforces narratives of individual empowerment for people who need it most. When I’m hired to sing an opera, for example, I usually don’t have any control over the role I’m singing and how I’m portrayed as a woman. With Quince, we’re in charge of our own narrative, and we work with composers that we feel bring those values into their work.
LP: Working with living composers allows us to influence vocal music in our own small way. We have spent much time talking with composers about the human voice – its possibilities, its limitations, and its quirks (both in general and for our specific instruments). The ability to have this direct interaction has created a variety of timbres/sounds/techniques in our repertoire that arguably has not previously existed in treble voice chamber music. In addition, discussing what we do as chamber music (as distinguished from “choral music”) has been enlightening. One-per-part music for SSAA is uncommon, but allows for a greater virtuosity and flexibility than choral singing affords. We hope other treble vocalists will consider such an ensemble as a meaningful musical outlet.
CHS: Amanda perfectly voices a lot of what I feel. If I were to add anything, looking at problem of vocal quartet repertoire from another angle, we feel pretty motivated to ask for new pieces from composers whose works we admire, because once they’re gone, it’s too late, and it’s become part of our role in the artistic world to ensure that future generations of women’s vocal quartets actually has a body of work to drawn from.
The four of you are spread out around the country geographically (Kansas City, Omaha, St. Paul, New York), and perform individually and with other ensembles, but as a group you still maintain a very active performance schedule and always produce highly polished performances. Do you meet often to rehearse together, or do you often prepare your parts individually and put them together prior to performances?
KB: We never do anything without rehearsals. We plan months, sometimes years in advance depending on the project or piece. We make a point to meet every month and also plan residencies where we only focus on the upcoming repertoire. We will always make sure to have a concentrated amount of time before every performance to rehearse. We all definitely learn the repertoire individually first. I can’t imagine sightreading some of the repertoire we do with my other Quince ladies. Dear lord. We absolutely need that prep time so that tuning and metronome work is easier later when we all come together.
ADB: We have several systems for dealing with our long-distance situation. For most of our shows, we meet 3-4 days in advance and have an intensive rehearsal period before the show. We’ve also received multiple artist residencies at Avaloch Farm Music Institute (New Hampshire) and High Concept Labs (Chicago) which we have used to develop new repertoire. Our Avaloch Farms residences, in particular, have been instrumental in preparing for our seasons. The repertoire for our programs is typically decided well in advance, so over the summer at Avaloch we have been meeting before the season begins to work on all of our music for the year. It’s enormously helpful!
EP: Depending on the performance/schedule/timing, we generally try to plan many months in advance, taking advantage of summer residencies like Avaloch Farm Music Institute to put in intense-learning sessions. We must prepare individually (and the way we each learn music is unique, so it is often better to have individual time first!). We then will spend several more intense days together prior to performances/tours, working out final ensemble issues. (For us, video-rehearsals have not yet proven a viable option!)
In addition to being amazingly talented singers, you also employ the use of other instruments, as well as technology and multimedia in some pieces/performances (Fjola Evans’ Whirlpools, Levy Lorenzo’s Intimate Voices, Molly Herron’s Stellar Atmospheres).
Was this always a goal of the ensemble or is it something that evolved over time? And what amount of collaboration with the composers goes into preparing these works?
KB: You know, it never really was the goal. Our goal is always to do interesting and innovative things with the voice and it always manages to manifest in something really cool with electronics. There are just so many cool things happening every day. It’s unbelievable. And to be able to create new works that incorporate new technology AND the voice. It’s living a dream, for sure!
EP: Aww, thanks! I’m not sure it was ever stated as a goal…with all three above pieces, it was the composer’s suggestion/request that we work with instruments they had previously invented (Fjola’s piece existed before we performed it, and Molly’s “Dervishes” has been used in other works. Levy had been working on the iLophone prior to our collaboration, but it was a grant that supported the collaboration between him and Quince!) We met with Fjola and Molly in NYC prior to the SONIC fest performance learning how to use the sensor instruments, and coordinating with the Dervishes. With Levy, we had a few skype calls to talk about nuance and phrasing in Inside Voice. We have since produced an all EA/voice(s) tour in Chicago and Connecticut, as part of a collaboration with Connecticut College. Working with both fixed and live-interaction works, we are able to expand our tonal palette in more ways than we had previously been able.
Earlier this year you were part of the KODY festival as part of a collaboration with David Lang and Beth Morrison Productions. Could you talk a little more about that collaboration, how it was started and what the KODY festival experience was like?
KB: This came about in many steps. Liz was actually the one that realized that a) Anonymous 4 was retiring and b) love fail (the piece that was written for and premiered by A4) was going to be out of exclusivity shortly after. We all absolutely love David Lang and the piece. We made a goal of reaching out to David and Beth Morrison to see if we could continue touring their amazing production. We met David and Beth at various times in NYC and found a date for the Poland Codes Festival.
The festival itself was such a life-changing experience for us. Not only was it our first international gig, but it was our first full-length program with staging and with all 4 of us. (Our only other full-length program is Three Voices, which obviously only has 3 voices!) And working closely with David and Beth was absolutely inspiring. They care about this piece and it shows in the production.
EP: KODY was amazing. Though not a country generally flush with cash, Poland (and Lublin especially) place a HIGH value on the arts, and it was clear a lot of love, money, and care was spent on this festival. We performed in a beautiful, brand new performing arts center run by the city of Lublin (not attached to a specific school). The festival was extraordinarily professionally run – we were pampered for the days we were there. As an ensemble that mostly self-produces, it felt luxurious to be there.
In addition, it was amazing working with David Lang, who was extremely open about his motivations for writing love fail, his wishes for the piece, and his philosophy on what music can be for a varied audience. Being able to prepare the work with him in the room was so, so valuable.
Quince’s second album titled “Hushers,” featuring works by Giacinto Scelsi, Kaija Saariaho, Warren Enström, and Kate Soper will be coming out in February of 2017. Could you talk a little bit about what listeners can expect from this album?
Do you have any upcoming projects or collaborations, both as an ensemble
KB: I think this next album is a total 180 from our first album. Firstly, there’s only one QUince commission on the album (Warren Enstrom’s hushers); the other pieces already existed. We also go in an almost exclusively microtonal direction and most of the pieces don’t have any understandable text. The whole point of this 180 is to show what voices can really do - we can sing tonally, atonally, aleatorically, microtonally, the list goes on. I hope people enjoy listening to it as much as we liked recording it.
ADB: This album dives deep into some spaced-out sounds, but it still has a visceral character. The title, “HUSHERS,” which is also the title of one of the tracks written by Warren Enström, refers to particular phonetic sounds in the Russian Language (SH). As a group, we’ve noticed a tendency to want to use female voices in “ethereal” ways that remove the physical, bodily experience of the singer. On this album, with speech phonemes and earthy microtones and poetry about the body as our inspiration, we created tracks that place the singer and the body in the forefront of the experience.
EP: Listeners can expect representations of a wide variety of sub-“genres” within contemporary vocal repertoire. The Saariaho places beautiful and angular Sylvia Plath texts at the forefront with her signature beauty of line and breath. Kate Soper’s Songs for Nobody is a charming, sinuous setting of Merton poetry. The rest of the album is text-less (over half!). Expect an onslaught of Scelsi’s microtonal timbral-exploration in the full Sauh “liturgie”, with immediacy of ever-changing rhythms and sonic interaction among voices. The title track, Warren Enstrom’s “Hushers”, combines a percussive use of the voice with a timbral chorale reminiscent of Sauh. We loved performing the piece at UW-Milwaukee, where Warren’s piece was premiered, and we are so happy to present it on this album!
CHS: Expect awesomeness.
Do you have any current or upcoming projects and/or collaborations in the works?
KB: Oh, man, so many projects! We’re going on tour with love fail (the concert version, no the staged version) in February and March. We’re recording our 3rd album, which will revolve around politics and feminism. We’re performing Curtis Rumrill’s The Passion of the Wilt-Mold Mothers in December 2016 in Pittsburgh. We’re heading to SUNY Fredonia for a residency.We’ll be performing Music for 18 Musicians with Eighth Blackbird and Third Coast Percussion in Ann Arbor. And the last thing of our season is Berio’s Laborintus II with Alia Musica. As for next season, we’ll be premiering LJ White’s new piece (we got the CMA Commissioning Grant for LJ to write this for us!) plus David Reminick’s new piece, and a few other big projects that we can’t announce yet, but needless to say, we’re excited about what’s on the horizon….
ADB: Of course! There are too many to mention here, but we won a Chamber Music America grant to commission a new song cycle for voices and electronics by LJ White, we’re touring the Midwest and Rust Belt with David Lang’s “love fail” this Spring, we’re part of a three-concert series with Alia Music in Pittsburgh which includes Berio’s iconic “Laborintus II,” and we’re recording our 3rd album in 2017. We’re certainly keeping busy!
EP: Yes of course! Frequency Fest 2017 will see KB/ADB/me performing as a trio, necessitating some new commissioned works for the performance (we have some, but not a full set, of trio rep). We just spent time in the studio recording sounds for Luis Amaya’s commission for that festival. In addition, we’re participating in a performance of Berio’s Laborintus II in May, after a spring love fail tour. Later in May, we’ll record Jenn Jolley’s Prisoner of Conscience, an oratorio using texts from the trial of Pussy Riot…it’s never seemed more current. Next year…we have many irons in the fire, and we’ll see soon which are ready for forgin’!
For more information about Quince, check out their website:http://www.quince-ensemble.com/
Below are some videos of Quince performing selections from their repertoire.
"Three Madrigals on Poems by Wallace Stevens" by Max Grafe
"Whirlpool" by Fjola Evans
"Prospect and Refuge" by Eliza Brown
"Three Voices" (excerpt) by Morton Feldman
Megan Beugger is a composer currently residing in Chicago, IL. In addition to composing Megan also teaches theory and composition at Midwest Young Artist Conservatory and at the Walden School.
What got you started as a musician and made you want to pursue it professionally?
My grandmother played the piano and had a piano in her house, and I was always mesmerized by it, and begged her to play. I wanted more than anything to know how to play, so my parents searched for a teacher. As soon as I started to play, it was intuitive for me to create pieces and improv. Later on, I switched to a more advanced piano teacher named Robert Ian Winstin, who was also a successful conductor and composer, and he immediately saw my interests in composition and started teaching me composition. At age 13, I premiered my horn concerto with his youth orchestra (I was featured as the soloist). I remember as I played the premiere having this strong feeling that this is what I wanted to do with my life, and I’ve been on that path since.
What started your interest in composition, specifically?
I was always improvised on the piano (and later on other instruments), and as soon as I learned to read music and learned what a composer was, I figured if all these guys could do it then I should too. Leading up to college, I was very passionate about horn performance as well, and it was a struggle for me to decide what I wanted to do in music. I applied to college as a double major, but all the best programs told me to pick one, as they felted I could never really be great at 2 things. Around the same time, I was really getting bored with the lack of good repertoire for horn, and felt like I was constantly playing the same pieces. Most of the repertoire for horn orchestral, and as a musician in the orchestra, sometimes I felt like a technician having to realize a conductor’s interpretation that was different from my own. That is why I ultimately choose to be a composition major. It was a huge revelation for me, but not for anyone around me. I actually ended taking horn lessons and playing quite a bit through school and still play sometimes, although it increasingly seems to take a back seat as I find less time. Through having to choose, I really did discover a lot about myself and got to focus on my music and develop a voice- I don’t regret it, but I also don’t condone teachers who force musicians to choose. With less standard music jobs available, more and more people are building their own careers, and it is only a benefit to have a multitude of skills, so my hope is that this is more rare now. I think the focus in composition would have come naturally regardless.
Your website biography mentions that you are interested in the in the physicality of performance and sound production. Can you talk more about how this is achieved in your music?
As an audience member, I’m very visually engaged with watching musicians perform. I find musicians’ physicalities to be very interesting and greatly affect my experience of the music. In my music, there is an overlap with other artforms, most specifically dance. Often my music has some type of choreography, but rather than have music and then movement, or music and dancers in separate spaces, both these mediums are realized in a single action. I often search for sounds and ways of approaching instruments that are physically interesting, and I build instruments as well. When I build instruments, I am much more concerned with the physicalities than the sounds. I feel like I can always accept the sounds at the end, and figure out how to make them interesting, but that isn’t the case for the physical production of sound. I am also very interested in how the physical nature of sound affects time, and have explored what I call “time resultant music,” and “physical indeterminacy,” quite extensively. In time resultant music, time is simply a result of producing a physical movement which creates sound, rather than an impetus for the musical material. For example, the physicality of a single bow or single breath is prescribed in detail, and the time it happens to be played in is just the result of this event. It kind of flips the musician’s typical relationship with time upsidedown. Physical indeterminacy is when the physical nature of the instrument, sound, or performer’s body is unable to be consistent, thus resulting in indeterminacy. This indeterminacy happen outside the will of both myself and the performers. An example would be repeating a gesture for longer than is possible, thus the fatigue of the performer is expressed in the sound, or a gesture that is too fast or too slow to be controlled. My music really showcases the physicality and musicality of the performers in the most raw way possible.
Was this interest in gestural motion and physicality of sound production influenced by your studies with Aaron Cassidy and David Felder, or was that element of music making always of particular interest to you?
I think a little bit of both. As a person, particularly a young person, I never sat still. I was constantly in motion and my own physical gestural language of my body has definitely always been influential, long before I was aware of the fact. I was interested in many physical gestures- fast flurries of notes, glissandi, and passing gestures across the stage in particular ways, well before I met either of them, or realized my specific interest in what I was doing. My mom studied visual arts, and I have always been encouraged to create. I studied painting quite seriously during my undergraduate, and part of where my music ended up was combining all the facets of myself. However, both Aaron Cassidy and David Felder pushed me further than I would have gone- at least at that time. I met Aaron when I was only 18, and knew nothing about new music. I must admit, that I didn’t like most of it immediately, but I was curious about it and questioned what it was trying to accomplish. Aaron continuously exposed me to rather radical music, and played devil’s advocate with me when I initially rejected it. I began to study the music to discover why I didn’t like it, and much of the time I discovered that I did. He definitely threw me outside my comfort zone, encouraged a more open mindset, and moreover inspired me to be boldly honest and myself. When I met David Felder, my music was already starting to cross the line between various artforms, and I was uncomfortable with the fact that it was hard to categorize or label. David Felder really showed me was that my desire (and others’ desire) to categorize what I do was really holding me back, and he encouraged me to go even further, often landing me in areas that were extremely uncomfortable for me. Specifically, he encouraged me to work with choreographers and dancers as musicians themselves. All the sudden I was actually creating choreography for dancers. It was very uncomfortable at first, because I have never studied that medium formally, but I eventually realized that I could learn a lot from them, and they could even learn a lot from me, because I came from a very different place and create choreography from a completely new perspective. It took much more research, experimentation, commitment, and just work than writing a piece that more solely explored my comfort zone (music), but I was able to express in a way that was so invigorating. He supported me working with a dancer instead of writing the typical orchestra piece, and supported me often taking months away from writing notes on paper to research sound, movement, and building new instruments, which is very unique in the academia. Having that kind of support and freedom really developed me into the artist I am.
Does this approach to composition involve a general methodology, or do you take a unique approach with each piece in order to serve the needs of the composition?
I take a unique approach with each piece. I’m not sure if it is because I tend to get bored easily, or that I always tend to overthink everything obsessively. It isn’t enough for me to accept the instruments as they are and write a piece for them. I have to think of these instruments purely as objects made from particular materials. Then I have to create a relationship between the instrument(s) and the player(s), and develop a way for the player to approach the instrument. Usually I end up knocking myself into a seemingly impossibly small box, which encourages me to be creative and push the edges of this box. Then of course once I discover these new relationships, I have to find a new notation system to write down these ideas. I end up making a lot more work for myself than many composers would, but that’s a reflection of my own personality as well.
It seems that focusing so much on physicality of gesture could necessitate some degree of collaboration with performers, especially in a piece like Liaison for dancer and bowed piano. Do you often work closely with performers, or is a lot of the compositional work done independently on your end and work shopped later with the performers?
I do often work with performers. I don’t always work that way, but it is my preferred way to work. For Liaison, I actually collaborated extensively, so much in fact that in the end, Melanie Aceto and I decided to share authorship of the work. I had the initial idea for the work, and made the final decisions on the material and form, but so much of the material was pulled from her improvisations, and so much of my material was explored further by Melanie to find more interesting solutions for both the instrument and her body (being a non-dancer, I had no idea the scope of movements that were possible), that it was impossible to separate the work we each did (as the sound and movement are connected, we each had a large impact in the others’ area of expertise). We worked on it for 2 years before the first performance (and have edited the work since then), spending many hours each week in the same room (pretty much all day every day in the months leading up to the premiere) with each other working over material. There would have been no way I could have created that piece myself. I walked into that piece knowing almost nothing about choreography, and had never taken on a technical project of building and working with a new instrument anywhere near that degree of complexity before. I am so inspired by performers and their personalities, and tend to be a social person. I prefer to be hands on creating and researching sounds with performers- that is the best way to find something new. This style of working however, isn’t always a reality for me, and I have written work, sometimes even strong work, without this collaborative method. Instrumentation is a strength of mine, and I think about it in a physical/ scientific way, which allows me to understand how sounds which I have never heard or explored would work, with a degree of accuracy that surprises people that don’t work the way I do.
When I listen to your music I hear it as primarily gestural and timbrally driven as opposed to focusing on thematic development, in the more traditional definition of music themes? Is that correct?
Yes. I enjoy stripping music down to something more raw and basic. I think working this way allows me to extract a deeper musicality from performers and myself.
What are some of the facets (or even challenges) of timbrally and texturally driven music that interest, both in your own works and pieces that have inspired you over the years?
While my music does tend to be timbral and textural, I also can’t say that it drives me. It is a physical gesture, sometimes connected with a specific music gestural, or physical idea that is the initial inspiration. Exploring within a certain physicality is where I find the timbres and textures, but my timbres and textures are always something that I find, rather than something which serves to inspire a piece of music. I am consistently inspired by the people around me; watching what drives them, the way the move, the way they engage with others and the world, etc. I typically am well into writing a piece before I have any sort of clarity about what the piece is, or even what my timbral palette is. The process really is a constant searching and discovery.
Do you have any upcoming projects or collaborations?
Yes, currently I’m trying to explore projects that I haven’t explored before, especially ones that take me out of my comfort zones. There is something about feeling fear that is comforting for me. I just finished my third string quartet titled Upend, but this quartet is for young pre-conservatory students at the place I teach at (Midwest Young Artists). These kids are crazy talented musicians, however they have little exposure or experience with contemporary music. I have found that younger musicians and people in general are much more open to trying new things and to new ideas, so I am very excited to start working with them and see how they react and engage with the piece. I have a longer term project for piano (an instrument that typically scares me due to its noteyness) in the very beginning stages, and I’m currently actively looking for new projects that put me in an area of a bit of unexplored territory.
And for the obligatory “desert island list.” What are the five pieces (regardless of genre) that have been most influential on your development as a composer?
These pieces certainly expanded the way I think about music
Lachenmann “String Trio”
Cage “Freedom Etudes”
Kagel “Zwei-Mann Orchester”
Tenney “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion”
For more information about Megan, her music and her upcoming projects you can check out her website at http://www.megangracebeugger.com/
Below are some videos of Megan's works. Enjoy!
Early Reflections contains interviews with emerging and currently active composers. Check out the archives to see a list of previous interviewees!