In the lead-up to Monday’s performance of Michelle Agnes Magalhaes’ Herbarium, we spoke about her work as an improviser and composer, about imagination and memory, and about Emily Dickinson’s garden.

ZS: Thank you for making a little bit of time to talk with me today! Can you talk some more about your project, Herbarium, and your work as a fellow at Radcliffe Institute this year?

MA: It’s my pleasure! Glad to do it. Well, everything with this project actually comes back to my time at Harvard. I’ve even worked with Talea here before in the Harvard summer composition institute, in 2014.

ZS: The summer course with Chaya and Steve?

MA: Yeah! It was super good and I was very fascinated by the performers, especially Alex. The gestures, the way of playing and moving, and so on. I didn’t really get to work with Alex at the time, but the idea remained afterward to work with the ensemble.

When I came here to Radcliffe, the project I proposed was to work with pianos. It’s a very important instrument for me; it’s the instrument I began on and it’s really my laboratory. When I work with other instruments, I try to extend my experience. It’s a kind of imitation of the techniques and the vocabulary I developed with the piano. I’m trying to extend it for other instruments, to find things in parallel, to find things that are similar—or also opposite. So, I begin to build my vocabulary from that apparatus of experimentation.

But, after I arrived, I saw the piano of Emily Dickinson. And, I began to be in this atmosphere of New England, and fell in love with the natural environment: the weather, the sky… it’s always changing and it’s fascinating! Sometimes we can see clouds that are moving, and we go easily from cloudy weather to sunny in the same day. One day snow and another day sun! I’m enjoying this, because at home in Brazil we have always the same weather. I was fascinated by that and I found the same atmosphere in the poetry of Dickinson.

I saw some of her manuscripts when I was visiting a library here, and I saw her piano, and I thought how the whole experience than myself. So, I started thinking about doing a project around Emily Dickinson. But, it’s not a traditional project about songs or quotations. Rather, it’s about the experimentation she did with paper, layout, etc. She almost never published in her life, and a huge part of what she did was for friends—giving small papers in envelopes, and so on.

ZS: She was a very private person, right?

MA: Exactly. Everything was very private. And another amazing thing she did was her herbarium. It’s very beautiful. She gathered flowers and leaves from her garden and made a collection, in the form of a notebook. And, in her poetry, often she didn’t respect punctuation; sometimes she would just distribute the words in an unconventional way, and could be rather experimental, maybe without even knowing. All this experimentation about layout made me think about the things we do today with notation in music—and this is an important question to me.

When we are writing about music or thinking about music—which is about sounds—we’re working with the support of a notation that is written. It’s a written support, so the score is not the music, but it’s super important. And in composition sometimes we mix everything. We are composing music, but we don’t know if we’re “composing” music or “writing” music or working on paper or working in sounds. And, I thought, wow, this is a good metaphor for music. Because, you’re trying to fix something living inside a sheet of paper.

The plants, which are alive, are like the music. It lasts only some minutes, the sound. So, when I saw this herbarium, I thought it’s a good metaphor to think about what notation means and what music means in the context of this “life”. Because as I also worked with improvisation and improvisers, it was very fascinating for me to see how things are changing, how time is important for them… and in composition you have a kind of different point of view, because we are going back and sometimes changing and sometimes rewriting again.

What you find in my Herbarium—this collection of pieces I did—is trying to deal with all these aspects. Sometimes the notation is traditional, but sometimes the musicians have graphic scores. It’s not totally open and sometimes the materials are there, but they can change the tempo, slow down, or speed up, etc. Synchronization is something that is not written, but with other parameters they cannot interfere.

ZS: So it’s like creating a situation for them to explore?

MA: Yeah. It’s also about what’s important in each piece, because each one has a specific question or a specific matter. In this sense Dickinson was an inspiration, too, to explore many types of notations—and, in the notation, many degrees of opening up things that can be managed by the musicians, like tempo.

The project is also called Herbarium because I loved the idea of a collection of things. We have a collection of pieces, each one of a different specimen and a different relation with the “text”. All the titles come from Dickinson poems. So, you also have degrees of intertextuality and reference to words.

ZS: I love this idea of a notebook or a herbarium as a means of fixing something that is very alive—as a provocative metaphor for notation. I’m wondering if you can talk more about that as someone who also does a lot with improvisation. Were you working a lot with the materials of herbarium by improvising? Or by working at the piano?

MA: I think the work I did experimenting with improvisers remains in my body memory, and in my mind—and experience. Sometimes I improvised during the composition process of this piece, but the writing process, was very important too.

I experiment with the sounds and materials, but the focus in this piece was working on resonance—and a chain of resonance. So, I have a main material for my starting point that comes from the piano, and was about my imagination…. Ah! Here’s a good explanation. When I saw the piano of Dickinson, I didn’t touch it. I didn’t play it. But, I imagined the sounds of this piano. And I knew that it was not restored, and they told me that it hasn’t been told since the 50’s. So, the story begins with imagination. I was trying to imagine how this piano sounds today, because a herbarium is also about passage of time, and the effects of passage of time. The herbarium is super fragile, and you can’t open it. You know that these things are about fragility; you are trying to conserve it, and you fighting against time—but you can’t it.

It’s the same for the piano, and this was my starting point. I worked on the material on the strings, kind of scratching, because I was imagining some “damage” to the strings that in my experience happens with old pianos.

I tried to reconstruct it in relation with the poetry, inspired by Dickinson’s experimentations and sound descriptions of the poems. There are lots of sound descriptions too! She wrote about music and sounds, and the piano was a gift of her father when she was fourteen. But, what I know is that she played a lot of music in this very private life of hers. This was my starting point, so of course I tried to find the sounds in my imagination. I was trying to find this kind of old, damaged piano, and working on the resonances of the sound—imaginary resonances—and it’s for that reason that I’m preparing an envelope to give to the audience instead of program notes. The piece is about resonance. We have a start point that comes from reality, but after that we have a resonance, and another resonance, and another development; it’s a kind of an unfolding process, because your imagination goes and goes and goes. My colleagues at IRCAM are excited about this information about Dickinson—and the manuscript—and I received some drawings from them.

ZS: These are on the cover of the score, right?

MA: Exactly! But they will also be in the envelope. So, after some time, the herbarium became another thing—it became different points of view. You have the music and the sounds that begin to nourish themselves. I began to extend the idea of the piano for the other percussion instruments: marimba, glockenspiel, some pieces of metal, etc.

ZS: The aluminum pipes?

MA: Yeah. For me that is the next station of this idea of strings. This is the beautiful thing for me, because you begin with this specific object, and when you see the result it’s like a biological process; it’s growing up and growing up from a small seed.

ZS: It’s like gardening.

MA: Yeah, and this is a super compositional thing. Sometimes people call it development. I prefer talking about “unfolding”, because I love the image of that. Or, just one idea resonating in another one, and opening new possibilities.

ZS: Well, I think it’s very much like this idea that Chaya [Czernowin] talks about of building your island. You cultivate your island and all the plants that you grow there, and once it’s full then maybe you step to a new island and you build yet a new world there.

MA: It’s also about the idea of experience. I like very much this idea that, when you are experimenting with things, you don’t know where you are going, because you are confronting yourself, and you’re not in control of that. I think this is the best part of creation. Although, of course you are more and more secure to do it, because you have more experience—but in some parts of the process you just cannot control it. And this is the thing that can connect you to new things. Because if you try to stay in control of things, you never open new doors; you stay in the same place.

ZS: Is this idea of dreaming about imaginary resonance where you got the idea to use the transducers inside the piano?

MA: Ah, yes, the transducers! The transducers—or “exciters”—come from this idea of resonance too. Because, it makes the strings resonate and the body of the instrument vibrate. But, at the same time, it’s a kind of “joke”, because it’s like if the piano of Emily Dickinson was haunting the piano. It’s a kind of ghostly presence! You have these vibrations of strings that come from nowhere, but at the same time the piano is prepared. So, it’s a clever way to have sounds that are prepared and not prepared, together at once. But, mostly it’s a kind of ghost.

It’s like in the fourth movement, Of all the sounds dispatched abroad. So, in this piece, two of the musicians are inside the piano, and they are reading the text with their voices and fingers. They are not only speaking the text, but they are reproducing the rhythm with their fingers in a pizzicato, and they make it as though they were speaking. And, after that, the piano begins to sound alone and you have this ghostly presence.

ZS: Percussion and piano I understand the close connection, but how did you arrive also at double bass? The length of the string?

MA: Yes, it’s the long strings that are available. For a long time I worked with a lot of double bassists who I improvised with a lot. I’m fascinated by the facility with this instrument, and the common point that is the low strings in both instruments. You have more freedom since the access to the low strings is easier.

What I like to do, that for me is also an experiment, is to give an envelope with some images to the audience and let people imagine and construct their own interpretations of that. Sometimes we are working a lot with words, descriptions, and program notes when we go into a concert, and what I would like to experiment with instead of that is to give images, not words. So, instead of normal program notes, people will receive pictures and drawings.

ZS: That sounds wonderful!

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