Face has a double meaning: light/star in Old Italian, as well as its typical English meaning. But, both expressions—“Voice and ensemble” and “Voice”—must be clarified. Voice, in a general sense, appears in all parts in different ways and according to particular hierarchies. It deals with a main vocal part (the female voice) with two satellites (Flute, special performer).
The solo voice has a rich, free and visionary part, with traces and accents of a pseudo-ancient “Greek tragic voice”, a wide spectrum of spoken and sung moments—but inner vibrations, or instrument-like vibrations. The voice reaches its central moment of development by using only “vocal acts”: basic actions and gestures like breath impulses or throat noises, and so on.
The special performer has a ritual and mysterious function as a “mediator”. His unconventional instrumental & vocal actions mark and accompany the Solo Voice, with introductions, punctuations, and commentaries, until the moment when the “mediator” takes over the musical rule of the Solo Voice.
The Flute musician mainly performs a vocal part—hidden and filtered by the flute, and completely dependent on the Solo Voice.
Sometimes, the whole ensemble turns into a consort of speaking and singing. And in certain contests, there appear “fossils” of voices: fragments on tape of quotations from Cage, Lachenmann, Nono, Scelsi, Stockhausen, etc.
In FACE, Voice means a real constellation open in all direction and senses. It appears everywhere and in any way, and its logic of appearance remains willingly enigmatic and unclear. The usual and traditional orientation towards vocal mechanics and “expression” has no place, here: Instead, the body sounds and vibrates.
Some vibrations have a surface (i.e. a word). There is no real text, so that when a vocal action has a spoken articulation its meaning remains intentionally hidden. The vocal actions initiate bodily gestures, as autonomous act which only afterwards lead to words or language. There is a “clearance” before the word, and independent from the word. The traditional hierarchy has been uprooted.
The body eventually chews, devours, drinks, spits, vomits or builds the word new. The body leaves the voice, coming out or hiding, always starting from its emptiness—but still remaining centered on its emptiness. The voice now needs this free detachment from the language. Why? Because there is something more important and urgent now…
An instrument in my hands, sometimes, turns itself into an unknown thing, still mysterious and therefore motionless, without a definitive voice. The body and the thing must yet find their balance—must be reconciled. In these experiments, I have encountered what enables the production of vibrations, before something can be defined as sound or noise, and therefore be included or excluded from a musical dimension. This happens even before the final mastery of a technique that covers these initial experiences…
By Zach Sheets. Before this weekend’s concert, I had the chance to sit down with vocalist Lucy Dhegrae and composers Christopher Trapani and Shawn Jaeger. Chris moved back to Astoria just ten days ago, after a year in Rome, and we spent the afternoon in his living room talking about inspiration, style, identity, and what’s at stake when we make music.
ZS: Maybe we can start by talking about Waterlines for a bit. Now that the piece was finished maybe five years ago, Chris, and you’ve come back to it again, can you talk more about its performance life? Maybe how your relationship to it has changed in the past five years?
CT: Well, it’s actually much older than that. I started writing it in 2005, so Waterlines had an extremely long gestation. And I wrote the first movement in its entirety and orchestrated it in 2005, basically unchanged in the full version. So, I think of Waterlines as one of several works from that time, when I was around 25 or 26, living in Paris. I wrote a whole bunch of music; a lot of it had to do with New Orleans, with Katrina, but also with folk or rock or jazz and R&B. Then, all this was fused with spectral music and things that I was uncovering in Paris around the same time. I’m not sure what I can say about how my relationship to the piece has changed over time, although it is a project that I came up with myself, and maybe the last project I came up with myself.
LD: What do you mean?
CT: Ever since, I write one commission, then another. I don’t get to decide the parameters. Here, I said, “ok, I’m going to use the dulcimer”, or, “ok, I’m going to have five movements”. And the trade-off was that it took years to have it performed. Only after I moved to New York and started talking with Talea, in fact; we got a commission to finish the piece from the JFund at the American Composers Forum.
ZS: It’s interesting to me the extent to which this project was a research and rediscovery of these musics. In some interviews I’ve seen with you, there’s a supposition that blues, jazz, or rock were always very close to you, growing up in New Orleans. But it seems like you’ve been pretty specific that rediscovery was a big part of the musical project with Waterlines: acquainting yourself with this narrow window of post-Mississippi flood, pre-depression era recordings.
CT: Yes. Of course I was familiar with blues and country tunes, and even some of the specific tunes I ended up using. I did do an exhaustive research from one book, a compendium of blues lyrics, called “Talkin to myself”, by Michael Taft. They’re organized in a rather hilarious way—not by the names of the musicians you would know, so, for instance, you have to look up “McTell, William”, to find Blind Willie McTell, and things like that. I just combed through these looking for artists or songs that referenced the flood, and discovered quite a few that way.
I sometimes get pigeonholed as the composer who “does Americana”. I’m proud that I’m able to work with part of my background and my heritage, but at the same time, it’s very one dimensional to think of it that way. I’ve written several pieces based ideas from on Turkish music, which has also become a big part of my heritage. But, of course no one looks at me and says “he does Turkish music”. This is true in Europe especially.
For me, composition has always been about synthesis. I want to bring things together, from different traditions, different locations. I am always interested in going someplace new, and discovering something else, but then tying it back in to other things, hopefully not always in a very obvious way. When I think about the composers and the writers and artists I admire, it’s the ones who are plugged into often multiple traditions but manage to synthesize something new out of them. But, I’m fully aware that’s not everyone’s goal.
ZS: Well, speaking of synthesis, I’d love to talk a bit about this question of notation and performing tradition, with Lucy. You’ve sung this before, right?
LD: Yes, on a Talea concert 2014, and then in Milwaukee a few weeks ago.
ZS: What was the process like—learning it the first time, but then working again with Chris and getting to know the piece better? I’m especially curious about understanding the conventions of blues & jazz traditions that Chris is drawing on in the music. Notation is obviously a big part of this, too. How do you work on incorporating your interpretation when in some cases such an iconic sound comes to the fore?
LD: At no point in my life was I ever a blues singer—I had jazz training and improvisation training; my parents are music lovers of all traditions, and folk music is huge in Michigan, so I definitely absorbed a lot of styles as a kid. I feel that one thing I do comfortably as a singer is switch between musical styles. Maybe that’s different from some contemporary or classically-trained vocalists, because a lot of times they don’t want to “compromise” their technique. I don’t feel like I’m compromising, and I wish I could sound less “classical” frankly. When I do what Chris wrote, the style comes out naturally. I’m not “adding” anything to the score, I’m just doing what’s on the page.
ZS: How did you guys work together? Did you spend a lot of time one-on-one?
CT: Yeah, when it was you and Ariadne [Greif] and Charlotte [Mundy]. And Alex [Lipowski] was there, and we said to one another that night, “Lucy should sing Waterlines”. We were already looking for somebody, and come to think of it, it was probably because of Shawn’s piece that you sang.
ZS: Which one?
LD: In Old Virginny, a voice and double bass piece.
CT: Your voice just seemed to have the qualities we were looking for. That was how that started. And, now I can barely remember what kind of preparation we did, other than sharing recordings. It was mostly in rehearsal.
LD: I rehearsed with Jim [Baker]. One does not always have adequate lead time to prep new pieces, but I really worked my butt off for that first performance, so now I’m thinking “thank you self from 2014”—any work I am doing on it now is just adding depth, and that’s a wonderful place to be with a relatively complex piece.
CT: I think what I did when I was notating the vocal part is what I do a lot of the time. For instance, I just wrote a piece for viola d’amore & electronics. And the entire piece is based on Turkish Kemençe tradition. I listened to hours and hours of these recordings and I tried to transcribe the gestures. But I think I didn’t realize just how much time I invested in Waterlines, because I had the idea floating around in my head for 6 or 7 years before I finished it. I hadn’t realized just how much I had subconsciously absorbed, just in terms of listening and always thinking: that’s unique—and how would I notate that?
ZS: I was looking at the score this morning, and at the end of the day it’s actually quite simply notated, really. I don’t mean that dismissively—it’s quite elegant. Maybe the trap to fall into when trying to reproduce the flexibility you’d hear in blues music, as someone who’s trained in classical music, would be to reach for always more complex rhythms.
CT: Yeah, the fourth movement is the one that has the highest degree of microtonality, and definitely the most complicated rhythms and tempo changes. It’s also, interestingly, I was realizing today, the only one based entirely on blues progressions. Did you notice that? The lyrics are all blues couplets, but that’s the only one that repeats them, the way you would the blues. Anyway…
ZS: Well, I guess I’m curious: there’s something very special for me in both your vocal writing, in that I always have the sense the voice is floating above the texture of the music. It has a free quality, and I think you both arrive at that in very different ways. I’m wondering if you can talk how you approached the notation of rhythm, especially. The thing that strikes me about Shawn’s piece is that the rhythms feel to me to rub just a little bit against the grid of how I would expect the pulse to flow, and yet the vocal part is very clear and very free.
SJ: Well, the sense of a floating line is definitely something I was after, and one way that I achieve that is through different rhythmic layers in the ensemble. There’s a certain rate of motion that occurs in one voice that doesn’t occur in another voice, and that helps to create a floating thing very generally. You mentioned Baptist Hymnody, which I’m inspired by; there, it’s a group of people singing together, and although there’s coordination, it’s very flexible. They’re not working from notation, so one of the things I’ve thought about for a long time is how to translate that sound in notation. In the case of this piece, it’s often attempted by having moments that line up and coalesce, and usually the vocal part bounces off, either responding to that moment where we feel a strong rhythmic event—or anticipating it. But, there isn’t a lot of alignment in the music.
ZS: Right—these moments of coalescence are in fact quite rare. Where everything arrives on a “hit”? It’s quite infrequent, actually.
SJ: The movement that’s most inspired by Baptist Hymnody is probably the second one, and that’s the one that paradoxically has the most clear hits in it. But the other movements have these stratified lines. I think not so much about tempo changes as a way to get at a sense of floating, but more like beats stretching and compressing. It ends up being more via meter—it’s a kind of written-out tempo change—than a metronome value changing.
ZS: When you’re performing Shawn’s piece, Lucy, to what extent are you really subdividing very carefully in all of these metrical changes and irregular groupings? Or, to what extent do you just trust a certain proportion and internalized pacing?
LD: I don’t know how Shawn feels about this, but since I’ve performed it with Contemporaneous a few times—and David Bloom and I have a mutual trust—I did it memorized at Shawn’s portrait concert at Roulette in May 2016. I felt I was very much floating on top, and probably doing some things exactly and some things more approximately, but since the idea is precisely that the voice is floating on top—and I knew the moments to bounce off of the bass line—I really enjoyed that. With Shawn’s music, I’m comfortable to float around— but what do you think, Shawn?
SJ: (laughs) No, you always get the spirit of it, and it’s not so important to me if a quintuplet is exactly right here or there. I probably end up notating things more from a sense of my own time—singing through it or imagining it being sung. It’s not like those rhythms are coming out of some sort of durational scheme that would make them need to be spot-on for me to feel like my design was coming through. It’s a translation of a spontaneous effect.
LD: I give it a lot of spontaneous effect. (laughs)
ZS: It sounds like that’s a working method for both you and Chris. We were talking about refining and arriving at the specific ways you notate. Chris was talking about listening to a lot of Turkish music, or in the case of Waterlines a lot of blues music, and transcribing ideas and gestures. Is this something you do frequently in your music?
CT: I think what enchants me about a lot of the music that I like is the small details—the surface. I think that’s an idea that crosses certain boundaries. The minutiae in the execution of Turkish Taqsim improvisations is what makes the entire experience. There’s not going to be anything revolutionary about the pitch content: it’s only little expressive gestures. And I feel the same way about the blues, to some extent. So, I listen with an ear to: what are the gestures that are making this music? But then to realize it takes a really certain approach and talent, because you have to give an impression that there’s a skeleton behind it that you’re not hearing.
LD: We were talking about timbre earlier, but the timbres I’m choosing for different notes—when to be a little harsher, when to be rounder and gentler—are not just a dynamic thing… or even a range thing. It’s more led by the text and what the text is doing and what the gesture is—the emotion of it.
SJ: I like the idea of a straight structure that’s never actually presented but is there. It’s like a deviation from a norm that doesn’t exist. Personally, I do a lot of transcribing as composition—not even as pre-composition. As background research for this piece, I did some transcriptions of Baptist Hymnody, but composing by transcribing is something I’ve done more recently. The third movement is quite literally a sequence of raindrops, but I had a scheme for accelerating rhythmic values. It may be contrived, but it’s to get at something that would sound free, spontaneous, and natural.
ZS: So, yeah, let’s talk about timbre for a minute. Starting with the composers, how did you work to incorporate both (1) iconic sounds like raindrops and (2) such particular instruments? Several have such a distinctive sound that I think a lot of us in the audience won’t be able to help but call to mind a specific cultural context and musical convention. What’s different than what’s at stake if you were just writing a string quartet, or something?
CT: I think Waterlines is really influenced by spectral music. I spent a lot of time looking at the blues, in relationship to other music, let’s say, and how you could translate certain concepts of the blues to something else. Certain things are repeated, certain things are constant, other things are always breaking in. But, ok, that’s more of a concept of structure than of timbre. I would just say that I thought of this idea in spectral music, of a continuum between noise and pure consonance.
SJ: Well, it seems like this question is geared at least partly toward instrumentation. For instance, the cultural references that Chris’ stroh fiddle or other instruments have.
ZS: But, I think what Chris was just saying about the continuum between noise and pitch, and how to incorporate noise into an otherwise pitched or consonant context is maybe a bit analogous to how to incorporate an instrument that’s very different than the others on stage.
CT: I can’t remember where I got the idea to use the dulcimer, in the first place. But, I knew it would have such limitations that I felt what I wanted to do was counter it with more extreme timbres, but still not hide its timbre—to let the dulcimer be a dulcimer. To have it play a constant rhythm in 3/4 and have everything else circle around that. (Click to listen to this moment of Waterlines)
SJ: The instrumentation for my piece is more conventional than Chris’, but I do have a mandolin, which occupies a kind of “in-between” space between vernacular and classical music. And, I wanted to suggest but not explicitly have a bluegrass band instrumentation.
There’s a brittleness, too, because the text is talking about winter. I was quite literally trying to capture that in sound by having instruments play in these uncomfortably high registers. So, I was as interested in the noisy timbre that that created as I was the pitch itself. It’s really three high voices and one low voice, and that’s probably because I wanted to have this sense of 3 instrumental voices with the vocalist to create a kind of choir, or an analogue to a congregational hymnody—where they could blur and echo each other.
ZS: Well, speaking of voices following each other—Lucy, as a soloist, can you talk a bit more about your approach to timbre?
LD: In the beginning of Shawn’s piece, it’s so light that I can have any number of textures/timbres, which is such a gift. And in Chris’ piece, because it’s amplified, I have this huge range of vocal qualities I can work with. With Shawn’s piece, there is sometimes a need to project—to tap into that more classical way of singing and how that technique helps a singer project over the instruments. Shawn’s music is well-balanced instrumentally, which allows me to go all the way to extreme timbres— a really breathy or delicate quality—that’s fun.
I really do feel like my job as a vocalist is to offer a wide selection of vocal qualities—this is maybe the opposite of classical vocal music which encourages a uniform golden tone 99% of the time. So, this is probably one of my favorite concerts that I’ve ever done because not only do I love these two pieces just as pieces, but also because of how many different tricks I get to take out of my bag.
Chris’ piece is all about subtlety. It’s about microtones, slides, and virtuosic dynamic changes, to me. There are only a few moments where I really want a particular note to sound “beautiful” and those are special moments. In Shawn’s piece, I really do want it to be beautiful most of the time, which is a much more classical way of singing.
By Zach Sheets. Before this weekend’s concert, I had the chance to sit down with vocalist Lucy Dhegrae and composers Christopher Trapani and Shawn Jaeger. Chris moved back to Astoria just ten days ago, after a year in Rome, and we spent the afternoon in his living room talking about inspiration, style, identity, and what’s at stake when we make music.
ZS: I’m wondering: In both of your works there are theatrical elements—or, at the very least, dramatic elements. For instance, Shawn, the idea of withholding breath at the end of a long line, almost gasping a little bit. Or Chris, in your case, the singer playing an auto-harp. As composers, how did you build that into the DNA of the works? Maybe already having a soloist in front of the ensemble is a bit theatrical, but do you see these things as quintessential to the life of the piece, or as features that grew out of specific moments in the music?
CT: In my case, I don’t know if I think of that as drama as much as instrumentation, again.
CT: Yeah, ok, no, I like the idea of the singer playing the autoharp (laughs). It’s a visual thing, but it’s also just the sound. I’m reflecting as we’re talking, and I’m thinking that one of the things that makes Waterlines the piece it is, is that I had no restrictions. I had no parameters when I was composing. If you don’t have any practical considerations, you tell yourself, well, why not put in a stroh violin part? Or, why not put in an autoharp? It’s not in danger of being performed anyway (laughs). So, I just kept adding things to the piece. I think because of that—in addition to the subject matter, which is very personal—the act of composing this piece was quite free in a way that’s unusal for me.
SJ: I think I was aware of the fact that the singer I was writing for, Dawn Upshaw, is a great communicator of text—and that I know it’s important to her to be able to relate strongly to the text and to the feeling that the music is coming out of the text. And so I probably wrote with that in mind, even more than I would have otherwise. The moment that you mentioned—that gasp at the end of the second song—it’s not necessarily that Dawn is an excellent “gasp-er” or anything. It’s just that I was thinking in all cases, how I could mostly clearly illustrate this text. It’s talking about holding your breath so long that you can almost literally (and metaphorically) see through to the other side of something. For me, this is the cold pane. It’s going to get frosted with your breath, and I put that directly into the music.
ZS: Lucy, I’m wondering if you can talk about that from the perspective of the soloist. I don’t know about you, but as I was listening that this morning that moment was amazing for me. I’m a flutist, and I felt my body tense up the way I do at the end of a long phrase, when I’m almost to the end and need to push a little farther. The pacing and the timing seems just right for it—do you find the same thing?
LD: I do try to push myself to the edge of breathing in that moment. It makes me think of Aperghis—of the final recitation from the 14 recitations, where you take one big breath and then do the whole piece on one breath. It’s extremely dramatic and visceral; if it’s done correctly and with a good actress, it rips your heart out to see someone making sound when they have no air left. They keep going, their eyes are watering— it’s very physical. For me it comes from this theory of acting, where emotion is not intellectual, but emotion comes from a physical gesture. You don’t have to add anything.
ZS: How do you think about that in the context of two pieces that come from such an emotional place for both Chris and Shawn? They’re very earnestly sharing something from their histories. What is the experience of singing from that perspective?
LD: Being a singer is a huge responsibility, and there’s nothing worse than someone taking really personal material and performing it in an overly dramatic way. There are two ends of a spectrum and both have their pitfalls: on one end, you’re not fully investing in the gestures of the piece, not bringing them from the deepest place they come from; and on the other you’re being overly dramatic and cheesy. In these pieces I find it particularly easy to connect and they mean a lot to me, they touch me very deeply. I would love to do Chris’ piece memorized, although I fear that might not be possible to do really well.
CT: I dunno, I think you got it by now (laughs)
LD: I probably have more than I think I do, but it would be cue-city for the conductor.
In Chris’ piece, I spent a lot of time learning about people’s experiences in Hurricane Katrina. We see floods and hurricanes on TV, but our typical response (if we haven’t experienced that ourselves) is a colder and more distant relating.
Being the voice of someone who’s been through a disaster is an important role as a singer. I take this really, really seriously. Singers do function almost as orators, channeling voices through your own voice. I’m not saying “I’m a vessel”. Not that. But, realizing that you are the voice of someone who has not had the opportunity to be heard: that’s a huge responsibility. I do everything I can just to be present in the moment and open those emotions.
ZS: A kind of forthrightness?
LD: Yeah, forthright—it’s just being a human. Being present on stage is the same thing as being present in your life. It’s just that it’s very visible on stage—to many people at once—how well I’m doing.
ZS: I’d love to hear from you two about the experience of writing it—I imagine it’s a huge responsibility for you as well. Especially in your case, Chris, when you’re dealing with an event that was such a part of our national awareness.
CT: I mean… it pretty much just threw over my entire life for several months, if not longer, so there was no way that I wasn’t going to write about it. There was no way to avoid it. I was living abroad, which was a strange, maybe lucky, experience. And, I just really couldn’t think about anything else. So, I also couldn’t write music about anything else. And, for the space of a year, the first movement of Waterlines would be the only thing I composed.
ZS: And, for you, Shawn, the Cold Pane deals with events in your family. In your artistic practice do you often work things that have happened in your life?
SJ: Well, I just think that vocal music invites these kinds of questions, because you have text. So, there’s a question of “what am I going to say and why am I speaking?” What do people need to hear, or what’s a reason to speak? Lamentation in song is really powerful, and when I came across the poem from the fourth song, I realized it was speaking to a very specific experience my dad had. It was strange to see that written out—I couldn’t have described it more specifically, myself. Seeing my own experience reflected in that was really striking, and I think singers like to feel like the stakes are high for singing.
SJ: It’s not that instrumental music isn’t also profound and important, but I think singers really want to understand the motivation and reason for what they’re doing. So, I felt like I should go with a very personal story.
CT: I was thinking about the question that you mentioned in your email about influences and tradition. I know that the composer who influenced me the most—who not a lot of people point out—is George Crumb. For me that’s the paragon of American composer who writes with folk instruments and has a regional voice in what he does. I was heartened to discover that Tristan Murail really likes George Crumb, since Murail was prized in the spectral scene that was influencing me at the time.
SJ: It sounds like you’ve been a fan of Crumb for longer than I have (I came to him later) but my idea of a sort of regionalism came more out of literary influences than musical ones. But what I love so much about your music—and maybe I’m just seeing myself reflected in it—is that you hear traditional music as being, I think, avant-garde in some ways. Or as having these weird things about it that are sophisticated and strange, and you amplify those in your compositions, and that’s the way I hear a lot folk music. It’s, “man, that is so different than other things”, and there’s all this subtlety there that I really want to engage with, and our notational system—to connect it back to Zach’s question from before—is usually so poorly set-up to engage with that. Chris, you manage to capture all these nuances of timbre and style really effectively.
CT: Well, it’s something that I’ve often thought about as I was a student and I was learning about notation and seeing fetishistic notation happening around Paris. I would think to myself, yeah, but you can’t even listen to what’s on a Charley Patton record and put it down. It doesn’t do it justice. I don’t think I’ve always found the solution, but it’s still something I think about a lot. How do you get at what is subtle and weird about these old records?
SJ: And sometimes it’s not always the most direct route, just something that gets you closest. Like, the way you use noise might not immediately seem so connected to those records or those sounds—say, Charley Patton—but in a way it seems to honor it more truthfully.
CT: The literary reference / touchstone for me was Greil Marcus’ book Invisible Republic, now called The Old, Weird America. It’s about the Basement Tapes, and about the Harry Smith Anthology, which I have to admit I discovered through Greil Marcus. And, again, this whole world of weird Americana…. There’s this whole really great chapter about Doc Boggs in it, and how weird his music is. Do you know the book?
SJ: I’ve never read it, but I know Greil Marcus, the Basement Tapes, & the Smith Anthology.
ZS: Well, it’s interesting: both of you talked in your own way about this idea of time and multiple layers. I think that’s something we definitely find in Crumb, and in the two composers I mentioned in my email: Ives and Nancarrow. This was an observation I had never thought about until today. Do you think there’s something in Americana tradition that inspires a desire work with multiple layers of motion? It would certainly also be something we think about with Steve Reich, for example.
CT: I don’t know. First of all, I think of Nancarrow as very different than the other two. Not so much polystylistic as he is a genius of proportion and invention. But, Crumb is not so far from Ives, really, in terms of polystylism, superimposition, and quotation. Even their weird notational fetishes, too. I don’t know if it’s uniquely American. It makes me think of Faulkner, and of course he wasn’t acting in a bubble, either.
SJ: Yeah, it could be that it has some uniquely American quality. I think the music that influenced me to write that way was actually not American music, though. I was probably thinking more about Ligeti. But then, Ligeti was listening to a lot of Reich and early minimalism…
ZS: And Nancarrow, right?
SJ: Yes, and Nancarrow. Anyway, I think that’s where I first started to see that you could think in many layers of time. That was probably my first route into that. But Ives is certainly an early example of that, and really does it in fabulous ways.
CT: Ives is definitely a strong influence for me too, but it will always feel like a certain amount of distance, to me, since it’s such a protestant Northern culture that’s really not my own culture. When I was 17, actually, I had a job to play piano and organ in a Methodist church, and that’s how I learned these tunes that I would see in Charles Ives. But, you know, it doesn’t feel like a natural mode of discovery, to me.
ZS: Well, something you said a minute ago brings us to the last thing I was curious about. That is, your remark that you always feel a little bit distant from Ives, not being from the north. But, for me, as a Vermonter, Ives has always felt almost too natural. Everything we think of when we think of Ives—there’s the town green and the gazebo, the congregational church, etc—was just the daily work of going to school.
Anyway, in your last interview with Talea you asked a rhetorical question about the idea of regional style in America in music. In writing or in visual art we still think about idea of regional style, but in composition we tend to much less. But, this weekend’s concert is all composers who are from a similar region of the world and who have similar fascinations. Do you want to take stab at answering your own question?
SJ: Well, I like thinking about this, and I think that certain cities and ensembles and educational institutions have “house styles”. A group of people congregate around those institutions and inspire each other, and that can lead to certain trends. But, more broadly, in terms of regionalism, I think this is typically outlined as a coastal thing, which of course ignores everything in between and to the north and south. There is an inherent cosmopolitanism in classical music, because that’s where the funding centers and institutions that support it are.
But I think with that oftentimes comes an urge not to seem provincial, and I think that’s sad, because then it can lead to reinforcing this bicoastal attitude. And, it might also contribute to a sense of people outside of the coasts feeling alienated from classical music. So, I have consciously tried to engage with music and literature from Kentucky.
CT: I think the answer is that I want to be able to engage with it but not exclusively with it.
CT: I do get asked often if Waterlines has been performed in New Orleans. It has been performed in Ghent or in Brugges, but not in New Orleans. It’s maybe part of the attitude Shawn just pointed out.
SJ: I like what you said about not wanting to be defined by a certain style that you’re interested in engaging with. I think the opposite of that is folks who, because so much music is so easily available to us, engage with so many things that they do so in a very cursory way. So, thinking regionally is one way to be specific. It’s not the only way, but I think specificity and attention to detail is important to me. So, by limiting myself somewhat arbitrarily to this group of cultural things, I can be more specific in what I take away from them and what I hear from them, but it’s not by any means the only thing that I’m interested in or inspired by.
CT: In any event, it’s a great program.
ZS: Do you have something like that as a performer, Lucy? Either a singer who you think of as very close to your artistic practice, or some aspect of your upbringing that you feel really informs the way you approach music?
LD: I can think of two vocalists who really influenced my life. The first is Pat Madden, who was my school music teacher. Each week she would come to our class with her guitar and we would sing Pete Seeger songs, and so forth. She just had the most gorgeous voice… She was a folk singer and sang folk music in the area. And she was just so honest and her singing was so… I hate to use the word pure, but it was just from her heart. There wasn’t any ego in it. There was just beauty.
And it’s the same thing with Dawn Upshaw. There’s an egoless presence that feels very connected to the text and the music and the other people on stage. For me, it’s not even as much about what it sounds like as it is about the on-stage “politics”: how you conduct yourself with the ensemble and with the audience. We want to see that you’re human. We want to see that you’re vulnerable. There’s not this big wall up where you’re a “performer.”
I very much hope to come on stage as Lucy Dhegrae and sing pieces from a place that goes beyond my own body. I want the singing experience to change me in some way, to move me. When that happens, it’s an almost spiritual experience for me—it’s a feeling of connectedness to everyone on stage, to the composer, to the author of the text, to each and every word—that feeling of oneness is one of the most beautiful things that music lays bare.
Written for Talea is a landmark series of concerts that Talea has been presenting for the past four seasons. Written for Talea is a unique set of concerts because it puts the audience and the ensemble in the same boat- positioning them as explorers. We navigate the pieces together with a blank slate of expectation, not sure what we’ll find. I think often when we embark on an unknown journey, our hope is for smooth seas. I find with art and music, however, sometimes the bumpiest rides give us the most. We can not only enjoy the journey, but it makes us take it on with mindfulness, enriching the experience.
-Elizabeth Weisser Helgeson, Talea President
Check out the program notes and get up to speed with these amazing composers.
Mario Diaz de Leon: Sacrament
The word “Sacrament” describes a holy ritual in the Christian Church, that is regarded as an outward and visible sign of divine grace. I have chosen this title as suggestive rather than prescriptive, allowing the hypnotic and ritualistic character of the music to speak for itself. The initial inspiration for this piece is a fast arpeggiating riff in A minor, punctuated by silence, which repeats continuously with variations. Over the course of the work, the music explores contrasts between speed and stillness, primal pulse and fluid motion, spaciousness and overload. Sacrament was commissioned by the Talea Ensemble and made possible through a generous donation by Katharina Pistor and Carsten Bonnemann.
Joshua Fineberg: L’abîme
L’abîme is scored for a trio of Bass Clarinet, Bassoon and Cello soloists complemented by an on-stage ensemble of Flute, Oboe, Piano, Percussion, Violin and a trio of French Horn, Viola and Double Bass in the rear of the hall.
Much rhetoric in the new music world focuses on the acoustically arbitrary division of sonic material into pitch vs. noise, but reality is much more fluid. In this piece, the noise-based techniques in the soloists are the source of almost everything one hears, but those sounds are projected, distorted, diffused and replicated in the mostly pitch-based ensemble parts — like images reflected again and again in a hall of mirrors. This creates a kaleidoscope of doubles and resemblances that shift gradually over time as one moves through this very disorienting space. L’abîme was commissioned by and written for the Talea Ensemble.
Jason Eckardt: Whorl
As the title suggests, Whorl is preoccupied with lines that twist, wrap, and spiral around one another. The somewhat unusual ensemble — solo guitar with English horn, bass clarinet, viola, and ‘cello — compresses the ensemble’s tessitura around a low center, allowing for intertwining that occasionally obscures the identities of the instruments. The teeming textures that result are sometimes violently torn apart, only to re-coalesce, as if drawn together by an unseen force, circling back to a central axis. Whorl was commissioned by the Talea Ensemble and is dedicated the Nico Couck and the members of Talea.
Most people are familiar with exploded views from putting together Ikea furniture: they are the diagrams that display all the individual parts separated out, showing how they may be assembled, usually via dotted lines connecting the parts. A musical phrase may be understood as a set of connected parts and an exploded view diagram can easily take on a musical quality, as the construction of an object becomes a metaphor for the construction of a musical phrase or sound object. Time and space are splayed out and this deconstruction musical phrase shows the complex inner workings that make it whole.
The idea of basing a piece of music on exploded views came from a theatrical production of How to Get Into Buildings, a play written by Trish Harnetiaux and directed by my sister, Katherine Brook. In this play, the temporal ordering of. The narrative was inspired by exploded views- individual moments were spaced out in such a way as a gradual understanding of the story and characters happens gradually, and the connections of the happenings onstage emerge over time.
In extending the exploded view idea to music, I selected five diagrams, on per movement, and decided upon a few approaches to interpreting these diagrams musically. The first approach follows the basic premise of an exploded view diagram: a set of interconnecting parts that show the complete combination as well as allows for the viewing of each individual part. In musical terms, this meant separating out a “complete” musical phrase into parts that could be used like building blocks, their bare forms revealed.
A second approach is similar to transcription, where short musical objects represent this and that screw or cog in a diagram and the exploded view is composed out as if reading the diagram from left to right. The interest in this approach lay in the desire to represent the same object at different sizes and suggest connections between musician gestures that aren’t explicit.
The final approach is vaguer and freely interpretive: a translation of the affect of the diagram as something that evokes movement through the interconnecting parts and gears. To express this mechanical nature, certain referential performance techniques, harmonies, and rhythms were called upon.
in terra aliena deals directly with the structure and demeanor of the trial of the American revolutionary John Brown in Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia). After a series of all-too-predictable events in the US involving race relations and issues, I asked myself if there had been even one white American male in the history of the country who believed in and manifested a truly egalitarian approach to all people regardless of their physical characteristics. I had to reject the more commonly-cited people (i.e., Abraham Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and others) because their views did not envisage full citizenship or economic equality, let alone a real sense of equality in justice, freedom, and opportunity. Finally, I identified one name–John Brown–who fought and died for these values; I decided, as it were, to verify his credentials through research of his writings and the words of those who knew him. Some very interesting trends became evident. First, his writing and all the anecdotal evidence (from supporters, followers, family, etc.) showed him to be absolutely true to the principle of equality for ALL men and ALL women; his attitude toward Native Americans was the same as toward African Americans, as well as any other ethnicity with which he came in contact. Interestingly, the more contemporary white historians (that is, from ca. 1940 to the present) were the most likely to paint Brown as a fanatic, a lunatic, a fanatical lunatic, a devious power-seeker, or some other equally unsavory characterization. In contrast, EVERY BLACK WRITER of his time and later extolled Brown as a martyr, a beacon for freedom and liberty, and a very prominent figure in the area of social relations in general. For example, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and WEB DuBois, in particular, reflect an admiration for Brown that is in sharp contrast to what any modern writer has written. DuBois’s views became even more radical as he aged, the additions to his biography of Brown showing his view of Brown as a real revolutionary hero, a view shared robustly by Karl Marx himself. Finally, there was the loyalty felt to Brown not only by his main New England supporters but also his family and the African-Americans who followed him to death, realizing that through this sacrifice more might be accomplished than by conventional military or insurrectionary success, however remote that might have been. I felt that there was, in fact, one white male who practiced what he preached and was willing not to back down over principle.
After reading the trial record–recognizing that the trial was fair in the form but not in the application of it took though I decided to center upon the trial itself.
The actual court record is most revealing. While following the forms of the law of the state of Virginia, Brown was clearly rushed to judgment and denied many options for defense—including any semblance of a meaningful appeal—and denied due process as we understand it today. But this record documents the principal views, prejudices, and fears of the time while also showing John Brown at his very best: committed, eloquent, a revolutionary leader among revolutionaries. There can be no doubt that his execution was fore-ordained to the extent that a guilty verdict would lead inevitably to the gallows (hence the use of percussion throughout the present work) and that the voices outside the courtroom influenced or directed the prosecution in its entirety. I decided to use the trial and its various contemporary and more modern extensions as a basis from which to conceive of my piece. I drew upon text resources from the time period and, to show how little as actually changed (especially in the minds of whites and white men in particular between 1859 and the present) from more recent figures, many of whom were also martyrs for the cause of equality in social and economic relations.
As a final note, I intend this work as a reflection and meditation upon the much-maligned figure of John Brown, who was (and is in my view) a true hero, a real revolutionary, and a committed social reformer of the kind the US ostracizes and denigrates without actually discovering anything like the truth. To my way of thinking, John Brown’s example is one to follow far more than the internally conflicted “Founding Fathers,” who espoused freedom while owning slaves and seeing people, men and women, as property.
FOR ADDITIONAL READING:
I would call attention to John Brown’s final address to the court prior to receiving his death sentence. It stands as one of the most eloquent speeches regarding slavery and human freedom in American history, though it has been unjustly over-shadowed by oratory by more savory figures. It can be accessed at: http://www.nationalcenter.org/JohnBrown’sSpeech.html
Additionally, all of John Brown’s letters and other writings are available online generally and compiled in the excellent John Brown: The Making of a Revolutionary, Louis Ruchames (ed.), Grosset & Dunlap: New York, 1969 (2nd printing, 1971).
We arrived at the Frankfurt International Airport as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as jet-lagged travelers can be, looking forward to a fantastic week ahead at the International Music Institute Darmstadt. Usually packing for a tour not only involves your traditional travel items- layered clothing, sleeping masks, power outlet converters- we also need to think about concert clothes, music, stands, instruments and equipment. But this was no ordinary tour. In preparation for Karlheinz Stockhausen’s masterpiece, Mikrophonie I, we had suitcases and suitcases full of percussion, implements, and the works. Unfortunately, traveling internationally with so many crazy instruments isn’t a “smooth sailing” guarantee- and, sure enough, Alex Lipowski waited for his suitcase in the bulky luggage for over an hour only to learn they weren’t sure exactly where the suitcase was. So one big suitcase lighter, we headed out to the shuttle, feeling a slight setback, but with high hopes for a smooth and successful week.
It was like deja-vu, standing in the cold rain. We were reminded of this very scene four years ago when we all wondered why we didn’t include more warm clothes and waterproof materials in our packing strategy. Eventually we got to the hotel, dried out, warmed up, got some rest and food, and now we were really ready for a great week!
It felt good to be back. We saw so many of our friends from ensembles all over the world as well as composers. We heard some fantastic concerts right away and then we began our rehearsals the following day. Speaking of reunions, rehearsals for Steven Takasugi’s Sideshow were first on the agenda. It had been several months since our last performance and it was great to get back into it. You know how there are some good friends that you may not see all of that often, but you’re always able to pick up where you left off with them? Sideshow isn’t one of those friends. It’s a dear friend for sure, one which we have invested in and committed to fully, but that first rehearsal felt pretty strange. It became familiar quickly however.
The following day was our dress rehearsal for that evening’s concert: Stockhausen, Diels, Ferneyhough, and Aperghis. The dress went well, and we were excited for the show. Centralstation has a 500 person capacity, but that was exceeded well before the start of the show with people in the aisles and sitting on the floor in front of the stage. The program for this concert was a special one for us. It was a very appropriate one because Darmstadt was celebrating its 70th Anniversary, so it was an honor to present such a war horse as Mikrophonie I – the groundwork for tradition there as well as a place for departure from that tradition, paving the way for new voices. Then we played works by the giants of today, Georges Aperghis and Brian Ferneyhough as well as the talented young composer, Natacha Diels
After an exciting concert and a good night’s rest, it was time to gear up for Sideshow. This concert, at 10:30 pm, was also sold out and full of listeners and spectators, many of whom were experiencing Sideshow for the first time.
It’s a privilege for us to perform this repertoire and feel honored to bring it to the audiences at Darmstadt. And to Darmstadt, thanks for being a place that has celebrated tradition and sparked imaginations for the past 70 years. May there be many, many more!
At the very end of May, Talea had a whirlwind trip into St. Petersburg to play at the Mariinsky Concert Hall as part of the reMusik Festival. What the trip lacked in length (we were there for just slightly less than 48 hours) was made up for in intensity. It was an incredible experience and we were overwhelmed by the hospitality and reception we received.
We arrived in shifts. Cellist John Popham and I got there first in the early afternoon. After getting through the airport, we met some wonderful representatives from the festival who got us to the Ambassador Hotel in the old city center where we did a fast turn around to embark on our plan: Mission Hermitage. Basically, the plan was to walk to the Hermitage Museum and see it. And we did! It was about a 25 minute walk from where we were staying on Rimsky-Korsakov Prospekt and it was stunning- everything everyone says about it and more. If you’re redecorating, this is far superior inspiration to the IKEA or CB2 catalogues. Room after room with totally different floors, walls, ceilings, precious metals- so much to look at and that’s even before the art, which is spectacular. I’m pretty sure we did a 10K in the museum alone just to try to see everything before they closed so we left there feeling a little exhausted but mostly energized by the entire experience thus far.
We arrived back at the hotel just in time to greet the second Talea shift. No matter how weary we felt from the seven hour time difference, everyone looked stunning with the backdrop of elaborate chandeliers and fresh flowers everywhere in this lobby. Some people chose to rest or walk around while others made a dinner plan. For those of us who decided to go for the dinner option, we headed to Severyanin (bottom left photo- http://eng.severyanin.me/ru/), a charming place serving very traditional Russian food. Pelmini (dumplings), borcht, bird cherry noodles with beef ragout, and of course, vodka! As a bonus, we found ourselves treated to a poetry reading by both people from the restaurant and patrons. It was delightful but quite a bit for our jetlagged brains to handle so we finished up dessert and headed out for a walk across the Griboyedov Canal and over to the Yusupovskiy Park near our hotel.
Despite the fact that it was nearly 10 pm (bottom center photo) it was still quite light. A lot of people were on the lawn having picnics and relaxing. We were about a month away from the official White Lights, but the sun set after 10 pm and rose around 4 am so our window to get vitamin D and a suntan was certainly greater than in New York.
The next day’s itinerary for the majority of the group was a morning rehearsal and a dress rehearsal in the afternoon. I wasn’t in the piece that was being rehearsed in the morning so I woke up early to take in as much as I could see before the dress rehearsal. Following the elaborate breakfast on the top floor of the hotel overlooking the beautiful city, I headed out to walk around and see the cathedrals, gardens, forts and the birthplace of the city. It was incredible to be surrounded by so much history and although I was walking nearly continuously for five hours (during which I saw a very small portion of this large city), the discoveries at each corner turned kept me going.
Then I headed to Mariinsky to meet with the rest of the band for dress rehearsal. While I found the hall easily on my own, finding the Talea Ensemble within the hall proved to be a bigger challenge, highlighting some deficiencies in Duolingo’s offerings. While I could easily say “Hi”, “Thanks”, “Borscht” and “You’re not my mom” in Russian, I didn’t have the words to ask how to find my people. Thus a few rounds of charades ensued. Charades: the real universal language.
The hall, with over 1000 seats, sounded amazing. Every sound we made, no matter how subtle, was clear. And the hall was full for the concert! We offered a program of Georg Friedrich Haas’s tria ex uno, Carter’s Triple Duo, and Timothy Dunne’s For B (Oiseaux Pétrifiés) and ended with Pierluigi Billone’s Δίκη Wall. The Billone was quite an interesting experience because the audience didn’t know what to expect, seeing musicians spread out on stage with Percussionist Alex Lipowski in the center with a gong strapped to his chest, but at the end of this thirty-minute work, the audience was transfixed which they demonstrated with a standing ovation and many curtain calls.
I ran back to the hotel after the concert before the reception and arrived at the reception a few blocks away from the hall along with reMusik’s Artistic Director, Mehdi Hosseini. The rest of Talea had still not arrived and after about ten minutes of being there, Mehdi learned the delay was for the van drivers to have a mini photo shoot with the ensemble. Everyone at the reception was so kind and it was such a pleasure to speak to other members of the community, composers and people associated with the festival.
We left St. Petersburg the next morning feeling like we hadn’t had enough time to enjoy what the city had to offer, but also with great admiration of what reMusik brings to the community every year. We extend heartfelt gratitude to Mehdi and the reMusik Festival for an amazing experience.
A few weeks ago, in late May, I was lucky enough to travel to France with Yuki Numata Resnick and Stephen Gosling to represent Talea at Le Festival Les Musiques 2016, a weeklong program of GMEM, the Centre National de Création Musicale in Marseille. As a trio we presented two concerts on the festival, including a collaborative program with composer Pierre Jodlowski named for his new work for Talea, This Leads to an Emotional Stasis. Upon arrival in Marseille we immediately found ourselves in the middle of an extraordinary flurry of creativity, musical energy, urban vitality, and natural beauty. The festival itself presented a panoramic view of the new and adventurous music currently being produced in France, and Europe in general, with numerous daily events at a range of venues showcasing Marseille’s continuing engagement with its industrial legacy.
After presenting an acoustic concert on our first full day in Marseille at the new Théâtre Joliette-Minoterie on the city’s waterfront, we moved into GMEM’s headquarters for several full days of intense rehearsals with Pierre and his artistic partner and technical director François Donato. For all of us this was an incredibly rewarding interaction in which we spent hour after hour digging into this large-scale new work involving music, movement, electronics, and lights. The result was a fully integrated evening-length program including two works by Pierre, and music by Jesper Nordin and Alvin Lucier. The premiere, This Leads to an Emotional Stasis was a powerful and moving work that explored fascinating new areas of electronic and acoustic interaction while pushing the performers, which is to say us, beyond our usual comfort zones.
Of course after long days of intense rehearsal it was a pleasure to return each evening to Cassis, where we were housed on the grounds of the Camargo Foundation. Each day in Marseille someone from the festival would ask if we were enjoying our stay in heaven, usually with a touch of sarcasm. But it would be hard to argue with that characterization. We stayed in rambling, high ceilinged apartments with large windows opening onto balconies that hover directly above the Mediterranean thirty or so feet below. To the left one could take in the town’s famous cliffs, and to the right the calanques. Steve’s suite was even graced with a white piano, or so it seems in my recollection.
On the day of the Jodlowski concert we gathered at the central venue for the festival, Friche la Belle de Mai, the site of our final concert. I was especially excited to be performing here as I had visited the complex several years earlier while travelling with my family, and I was intensely curious to get another, deeper look at it. La Friche, as it is known, is a former tobacco factory in the neighborhood of Belle de Mai that was converted into a cultural complex in 1992. Described as an artistic and urban experimentation zone, the sprawling complex features an open layout and is the home of numerous cutting edge cultural institutions in Marseille. It includes performance and exhibition spaces, bookstores, a café, the restaurant Les Grandes Tables, radio broadcast facilities, and so on. The scale of the place is remarkable. More importantly though I found La Friche to be open to the surrounding neighborhood in a way I have rarely encountered elsewhere. The complex is directly integrated with its neighborhood and seems to be inviting to all. There is constant activity throughout its grounds with an active skate park and playground, community farming, an onsite preschool, and a general sense of shared ownership of the space. Urban experimentation is part of La Friche’s mission, and going forward it is planning to open a collaborative housing project and launch other such ventures. While such projects, and similar goals, can be found in many locations, including in the U.S., at La Friche I sensed a comprehensive engagement with the community that felt unique. I had the sense that real, daily life is carried out on the grounds of La Friche and a deep exchange is occurring between its social and artistic components. GMEM itself will be relocating to La Friche in early 2017 and will be the first full-time center for contemporary music and composition at the complex. In addition to gaining a state of the art center for avant-garde music it should be an opportunity for an extraordinary organization, GMEM, to become more deeply enmeshed in its immediate community.
Of course all of these observations are the product of a couple days spent at La Friche and can only be considered to be first impressions. With that in mind, and somewhat selfishly, I hope that Talea will have many more opportunities to collaborate with GMEM and to see more closely how things develop at its new home.
As we gear up for Talea’s Russian debut, checkout a preview by Matt Mendez.
For nearly a decade now, the Talea Ensemble has been one of the principal American conduits for recent music from the Continent—vital compositional work that remains all too slow in making its way over the Atlantic, even in our age of distance-defying globalization and electronic integration of distribution networks. Supplementing this core organizational mission have been more occasional ventures such as thematic-historical concerts, special collaborative projects, and workshops for emerging voices, and in that sense, this evening’s concert could justifiably be described as a prototypal Talea program, consisting as it does of two pieces by composers with whom the ensemble has enjoyed intimate, intensive working relationships (Haas, Billone), a classic of the post-1968 small group repertoire (Carter), and last but not least, the first performance of a freshly inked score (Dunne).
Currently a professor of composition at New York’s Columbia University, the institution in whose shadow Talea was originally founded, Georg Friedrich Haas has been enjoying considerable success with U.S. audiences since his appointment to that position three years ago. This has had much to do with Haas’s long-held interest in the composers of the so-called “American maverick” tradition, particularly those, like Harry Partch, James Tenney, and La Monte Young, who embraced the new horizons opened up by alternate tuning systems. Yet unlike some of those figures, the Austrian Haas remains devoted to the great names of classical music’s past, as can readily be discerned in tria ex uno (“Three Out of One”), his 2001 sextet “nach Josquin Desprez.” Its starting point was the second Agnus Dei from that composer’s Missa “L’homme armé” super voces musicales, a textbook example of Renaissance-era contrapuntal technique—specifically, the three-voice mensuration canon, whose parts share the same melodic identity, but proceed using different temporal proportions.
tria ex uno maps this “tripling” principle recursively, onto the level of a tripartite structure. The first part consists of a straightforward transcription of Josquin’s Agnus Dei for bass clarinet, violin, and cello. Exploiting the full ensemble, the second is a “creative” arrangement of the same music, in the manner of Haas’s Austrian forebear Anton Webern, who orchestrated J.S. Bach’s six-voice Ricercare as a way of demystifying its formal properties. As for the third and most extensive part, it blends Haas’s trademark microtonal textures with a veiled homage (in the piano’s pulsed chords) to the minimalism of Steve Reich. Here Josquin’s original material is “paraphrased, transferred, and painted over”—the words are Haas’s, to which we might also add “elongated”—to the point of near-unrecognizability.
Another composerly tip of the hat comes courtesy Timothy Dunne, whose for B (Oiseaux Pétrifiés) here receives its world premiere under Talea. Written last year, the piece was inspired by the work of that most famous of musical ornithologists, Olivier Messiaen. More precisely, it was prompted by a comment from the former Messiaen pupil André Bon, who drew Dunne’s attention to the “sculpted,” “petrified” quality the birdsongs take on in his scores. (By this, Bon was presumably referring to Messiaen’s tendency to clothe his birdcalls in the same instrumental garb each time they appear in a given piece.) The scoring, notes Dunne, also nods subtly in the direction of Messiaen, whose Quatuor pour la fin du temps forces—clarinet, two strings, and piano—he supplemented with three further wind instruments. The seven players’ interactions are largely heterophonic, whereby a principal melody (often, as at the very beginning, given over to the clarinet) is elaborated, embellished, and exploded by the other instruments. While such textures are frequently encountered in Messiaen’s catalog, the directional continuity of for B—its “migration from rapid, episodic material to an entropic state of petrifaction,” as Dunne puts it—can perhaps be heard as a riposte to the excessive fragmentariness of the Frenchman’s forms.
One of the first harbingers of the “late style” that preoccupied him until his death in 2012, at the age of 103, the Triple Duo was Elliott Carter’s contribution to the repertoire of one of Talea’s ancestors, the British group The Fires of London, which did so much in its day to establish the expanded Pierrot ensemble as one of new music’s bread-and-butter instrumental lineups. A “free fantasy,” so Carter referred to it, the Triple Duo exploits most of the favorite technical devices of his maturity: extreme rhythmic stratification, long-range structural polyrhythms, the rigorously selective allocation of intervals and chords, and acute instrumental characterization. As the title discloses, Carter partitions his forces into pairs—flute and clarinet, percussion and piano, and violin and cello. Each duet goes its own way, more or less, observing its own expressive laws and following its own fancy. Though this gambit was already a hallmark of Carter’s 1970s music, in the Triple Duo the relationships between the groups are now no longer predominantly antagonistic. Instead, the earlier emphasis on conflict and indifference is now vitiated by moments of coordination, reconciliation, and playful sparring, a tendency Carter would only develop further in the coming years.
A very different impulse animates Pierluigi Billone’s Δίκη (Dike) Wall, a Talea commission first unveiled in 2012. In Billone’s hands, composing takes the form of painstaking instrumental research: uncovering means for transcending conventional performance techniques. In this he takes after his teachers Salvatore Sciarrino and Helmut Lachenmann, the latter of whom Billone credits with helping him cultivate “a ‘pathos’ of reflection.” To these precursors we might also add Billone’s countryman Giacinto Scelsi, for even though their work has almost nothing in common in sonic terms, the two outputs are nevertheless uniquely invested in the ritualistic, shamanistic meanings of music making. Billone demands of his performers an accordingly preternatural, bodily concentration, and Talea percussionist and Executive Director Alex Lipowski has spoken along these lines of the precarious, “fragile” quality of his practice: given “the super-specific techniques that he requires,” Lipowski explains, “there’s a deep trust that Billone offers his musicians.” That Talea is one of the rare ensembles to which Billone has bestowed that trust is due largely to Lipowski himself, who has in recent years become one of the leading proponents of his solo percussion scores. Δίκη (Dike) Wall reflects this relationship: a pocket percussion concerto of sorts, it conjures an entirely new syntax and vocabulary out of the most elementary of gestures, the rough, rude scrape of metal on metal.
You know Rane and Matt Gold and David and Steve Beck,
Chris Gross, Greg, Beth, Adrian, Yuki Numata Resnick**-
But do you recall?
The common thread of them all…
Alex Lipowski founded it
Along with his friend Anthony Cheung
And if you ever heard them
You’d say it was super fun.
All of the great musicians
Love to play some wild stuff
Fearlessly they rehearse it
Turns out they are really tough.
Then one foggy concert eve,
Santa came to say-
“Talea, we need some cheer-
Play a concert for us to hear”
The crowd gathered in the venue
Dazzled by works that were new
To all those who have supported us,
This piece we dedicate to you!
Don’t miss your final chance to give to Talea in 2014! Your tax deductible gift will go toward a thrilling year of new sounds in 2015. And to make the pot sweeter: for every $20 you donate, your name will be entered in a raffle to receive Bruce Springsteen’s entire discography and personally autographed biography. That’s right! The “Boss” himself! You have until midnight on December 31 to make your donation and take part in this exciting raffle.
Our best wishes for a terrific holiday season!
**Santa can’t compete with our roster. In addition to the above, we have Tara and Barry, Marianne, James and Erik, Jeff, 2 more Daves, another Steve, and Jim Baker in the lead.
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Long Island City, NY 11101
Written for Talea is now becoming a tradition, an annual of concert of works written expressly for the flexible configurations of the Talea Ensemble and reflecting our belief in the creation of a new repertory that highlights important and varied voices. The admiration goes both ways: performers who thrive on the new bring to life music that is written with their own strengths and personalities in mind. Friday’s concert brings together four such pairings.
Oscar Bettison’s work is always white-hot in its intensity, regardless of its decibel level, and one may just as well perceive influences from the European postwar avant-garde as the vernacular playfulness of the Hague school and American post-minimalism. His inspiration here is the artist Joseph Cornell, whose “transformative use of everyday objects” is a vehicle for Bettison’s own longstanding experiments with materiality, whether purely musical or physically involve mutations or reinventions of instruments.
Waterlines is a five-movement work that has deep personal resonance for its composer, Christopher Trapani. Taking blues lyrics from the 1920s and 30s as a starting point (most directly related to the great Mississippi River flood), it serves as a memorial to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which caused the destruction of the composer’s own family home. Various plucked instruments and blues-intoned vocal lines combine with ensemble and electronics to create blurred edges of loss (both cultural/historical and personal) and memory.
Hans Tutschku has spent his entire career thinking about and making electroacoustic music, and is particularly adept at the subtle manipulation of processed and live sounds. Under uses the metaphor of “unseen forces” as a starting point for textural exploration. Piano and percussion play crucial, active roles here, and slowly the other instruments emerge out of granite-like textures to match them.
In Aaron Helgeson’s Poems of Sheer Nothingness, the relationship between text (in this case, ancient and forgotten) and voice, and then voice and ensemble, is one of mutual respect and maximal restraint. Instrumental colors – often sparse and delicate – reinforce particular textual affects and their resulting vocal contours: plaintive sighs in the first song, languid melismas in the second, then gasped breathlessness, quivering arabesques silenced by pregnant pauses, and finally prolonged resonance.
Gave a compliment?
Didn’t get your flu shot?
✘ Kinda naughty
Listened to a new composer?
✔ Definitely nice!
Didn’t try anything new?
✘ Not naughty, but kinda boring.
Took a risk on a world premiere?
✔ Very nice!
Made a paper plane with your program and flew it at the performers?
✘ Most likely that was naughty
Made a charitable donation to the Talea Ensemble?
✔✔ Not only do Santa and the IRS think that’s really nice, but the Talea Ensemble agrees!
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In anticipation of the US premiere of Georges Aperghis’ multimedia extravaganza Happy End on April 23, 2014, the Talea Ensemble offers a portrait concert of solo and chamber works by the Paris-based Greek composer, whose lifelong engagement with experimental musical theatre has influenced every aspect of his work, including the purely instrumental.
Aperghis (b. 1945 in Athens, and based in Paris since 1963) has long been engaged in experimental musical theatre. It was his involvement as founder and musical director of the ATEM (Atelier Théâtre et Musique) beginning in the mid-1970s that changed his own approach to music-making. Involving musicians not just in the sound-based realization of scores but extending and integrating aspects of speech and bodily movement, Aperghis questions and plays with the production and perception of sound, as well as the multi-layered interactions between sight and sound.
The theatrical elements often mix the absurd with the poignant; sentimentality is conspicuously absent, but even satirical moments are driven by an intensely human and emotional impulse. The dramatic action is never cold or abstruse and is wholly integrated into the musical action; through virtuosic and kinetic feats, the performer humanizes what are often calculated and even mechanical processes.
When Talea performs Happy End in April, all the elements you will encounter on this program will be present and amplified. In working with an ensemble of sixteen, the video-artist Hans Op de Beeck, pre-recorded and processed voices, live electronics, and a familiar children’s tale (a retelling of Perrault’s Le Petit Poucet, or Tom Thumb), Aperghis engages with all the senses in larger and grander proportions. We hope that our December 18 concert will spark your new or continued interest in the unique oeuvre of Georges Aperghis.
— Anthony Cheung
Artistic Director, Talea Ensemble
December 18, 8 PM
University Settlement, Speyer Hall
184 Eldridge St.
New York, NY
Georges Aperghis: Dans le mur (2007)
Georges Aperghis: Rasch (2001)
Georges Aperghis: Fuzzy Trio (2006) *US Premiere
Georges Aperghis: Les Guetteurs de sons (1981)
Check out a beautiful article written by Ben Sisario for the New York Times about John Zorn’s life and a year-long celebration of a life-long journey of music making. Zorn is one of the most influential artists across a variety of genres of music. Talea is gearing up for a concert as a part of Zorn @ 60 at Miller Theatre on September 26th. Get your tickets here!
Talea hits the Newport Jazz Festival this Sunday, August 4th, with a brand new piece by legendary jazz saxophonist, Steve Coleman. Checkout Anthony Cheung’s post about working with Steve on his new piece for Talea.
After rehearsal yesterday, I had a chance to sit down with Steve Coleman and talk about his approach and interests. With a career spanning over three decades, Steve is one of a handful of truly influential musicians of our time. His music and concepts, and the musical community that emerged around himself and other like-minded musicians in Brooklyn in the 1980s, led to the emergence of the M-Base movement, the effects of which are still being felt in many players of subsequent generations. Indeed, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer has remarked, “it’s hard to overstate Steve’s influence. He’s affected more than one generation, as much as anyone since John Coltrane.”
After approaching Steve with the idea of doing a project together, he responded with an invitation to play at the Newport Jazz Festival this year. Though he was originally asked to do something with fellow jazz musicians with whom he had previously no contact, Steve insisted on bringing Talea into the fold, after a period of checking out the ensemble’s work and seeing the possibilities of an interesting collaboration.
His new piece, titled “Synovial Joints,” reflects a continuing theme in his work, a preoccupation with systems of the body and the interconnected rhythms they share. But far from mapping these connective tissues literally, they provide a metaphor for the way the music is constructed, the way rhythm grooves – and Steve’s music always grooves hard – overlap and transform. He talks about how shared rhythmic elements between different patterns are like the musical joints that make different independent limbs work together. And the discussion goes beyond musical ligaments, into spheres of influence and overlapping orbits of experience. Can we, as an ensemble that specializes in mostly notated music, capture the essence of what he’s doing with an essentially extemporized idiom? Rehearsals make that point clear: the ensemble responds with alacrity to his modifications and suggestions, both verbal and notated, after a period of adjusting to his way of working. Capturing what Steve is trying to do groove-wise, though seemingly clear on paper, takes longer to grasp, and in the end we are all taken with the absolute mastery with which he communicates his intentions.
He mentions meeting Per Nørgård and taking a liking to his music and ideas immediately, a connection that makes way too much sense: Nørgård, a Danish individualist who also works with the interweaving of rhythmic and melodic cycles, is similarly interested in musical metaphysics, as if the proportions of musical material can lead toward a higher plane of consciousness.
The discussion turns to mentorship, and some of Steve’s early on included the great Chicago-based tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, and later Sam Rivers and Thad Jones, in whose big bands he played for a while. And Steve has continued that tradition admirably, working with younger players and serving as a model of generosity with his own ideas. For the project with Talea, he has brought in two younger players with whom he often collaborates, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, a member of Steve’s longstanding group Five Elements since 2000, and drummer Dafnis Prieto, a recent recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. And another young musician, the Swiss-born saxophonist Maria Grand, is on hand to assist with the score and play clave patterns. It is this coming together of talent from different yet overlapping musical orbits that has been the lifeblood of Steve Coleman’s music, and Talea is thrilled to be a part of it.
Charlotte Hellekant & Barbara Hannigan in Matsukaze, Photo: Bernd Uhlig/LaMonnale/De Munt via Bloomberg
Read what Hannah Duebgen, librettist from Toshio Hosokawa’s Matsukaze, says about Hosokawa’s connection to nature. Re-posted from Talea’s blog from January 2012.
“When I first met Toshio Hosokawa, two things about him struck me immediately: On the one hand his life in two cultures, the Japanese and the Western world, and, along with it, his very modern lifestyle: long distance flights, jet lags and the constant swapping between languages are part of his professional routine, while I also sensed in him a deep affection for nature in general and the Japanese landscape in particular.
Whoever has had the chance to be shown around Japan by him, has seen the joy and devotion with which Toshio points at a wild waterfall, a flower about to blossom or the stone bed in a Japanese garden, begins to understand where the source of his energy and inspiration lies. For Toshio, his profound attachment to nature goes far beyond a mere appreciation of its soothing beauty and recreational value, and is instead fueled by the Buddhist belief that we human beings are all part of a greater whole, a unity that becomes sentient in the nature surrounding us. Just as every breath we take unites us with the air around us, brings oxygen into our bodies which also ensures the life of plants and animals, we thus become, each time we take a breath, part of that greater entity called nature, or even the universe.
This idea of breath as a passageway linking human beings to nature resonates strongly in Toshio’s musical aesthetics. Many of his compositions begin with an ascending sound, rising – like a breath – slowly out of silence into being, then reaching a peak point before returning into silence again. During that process, silence can make itself felt as that which tacitly surrounds us and is gradually inhaled by the rising sound, a sound which gains momentum as it incorporates more and more silence… When talking about his music, Toshio likes to compare the breathing gestures in his works to a calligraphic line that equally arises out of nothing – the blank page – into something, a black brushstroke, before returning into nothing again.
It is in this sense that most of his works are horizontally conceived and bear a natural, organic flow. They play with classical Western modes of musical progression like contrast, counterpoint or harmonic modulations, and yet never lose those underlying breathing gestures which make Toshio’s music unique. Many of his pieces carry names referring to nature, ‘Landscape I, II, III’ being among the most obvious examples, other works allude to the process of ‘Blossoming’ or ‘Dawn’, and even ‘Matsukaze’ the Japanese title of the opera for which I wrote the libretto, refers to a natural phenomenon: matsu-kaze, which in Japanese can mean ‘wind in the pines’ as well as ‘pining wind’.
In all of his works, Toshio remains a wanderer through cultures, combining traditional Western instruments with his particular, Eastern musical aesthetics. And it may well be that combination which fascinates many listeners – Eastern and Western – in Toshio’s work: His use of music as a way of bringing us back to that which unites us all.”
Come hear Talea perform Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee at the Bang on a Can Marathon on June 16th. More info here.
Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee is a wonder. How to say how? It is a sequence of aural images of snow, in some cases onomatopoeic (the swish of brushing off a wooden deck, the soft ease-crunch of steps through a fresh snowfall) but more often poetic, suggesting crystalline whiteness, cold light, gentle falling. It is a set of ten canons, ten systematic processes in which the same ideas are floating in slow spirals seen in mirrors. It is a study in melancholy (and joy). It is a succession of five pairs of movements, where the second in each pair repeats the first, as if the first had been music on glass and could now be overlaid on something else. It is simultaneously time standing still, splitting, revolving and accelerating away – standing still because we are held under the spell of a basic melody throughout, splitting because layers will move at different speeds, revolving because the same ideas are constantly being refracted and reformed as layers knock against one another, and accelerating away because the movements get shorter and shorter, from nine minutes down to one for a total length of just under an hour.
At the start, a tune picks itself out right at the top of the piano as one of the string instruments keeps repeating a superhigh harmonic, almost pitchless, creating gasps of intensity, fire in ice. This is the pristine sound world, new and unforgettable, established at once. The tune is repeated and then overlapped, in the first intimation of the kind of interference pattern of past and present that is one of the most remarkable features of the work. On a larger scale, the entire first movement (for piano quartet, sounding as no piano quartet ever did) is embedded in the second (for the full ensemble, adding a second piano, percussion and three woodwinds), and on the largest, perhaps all the movements are doubles of one another. Fine relationships hover, in this snow-blinding beauty.
This is one way of learning Brian Ferneyhough’s Incipits- graphed above by Talea violist, Elizabeth Weisser. Come out for June in Buffalo on June 5th to hear Elizabeth and Talea featured at this year’s festival!
American Immersion: Beat Furrer is coming to New York May 14-17. Checkout what Tara says about learning this masterpiece and preparing her brand new contrabass flute for FAMA Scene VI.
FAMA is really an amazing composition and it’s a thrill to be a part of this project. The writing is so imaginative and colorful and the Talea Ensemble is very excited to be working with composer Beat Furrer!
I routinely play flute, picc, bass and alto flutes and they are really common these days. What is exciting for me is being able to use my new contrabass flute. The bottom end of the range is one note lower than cello, and its so great to be able to live down there for a while. It’s a lot of pipe and the sound is incredibly sensuous.
Beat Furrer is a master orchestrator and the way he uses this instrument, and others in the work is genius. Don’t miss the opportunity to hear FAMA!
FAMA is coming! Mark your calendars for American Immersion: Beat Furrer for May 14-17. Together with the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Bohemian National Hall, Talea will present an evening of chamber music as well as the US Premiere of Beat Furrer’s chamber-opera, FAMA. Read what Michelle Lou says about her experiences upon first hearing Furrer’s masterpiece.
In November of 2005, I was invited by Beat Furrer to attend the first night of his monodrama, FAMA at the Kunsthalle in Vienna, Austria. It had just received its premiere at the Donaueschingen Music Days the month before. I was living in Graz on a Fulbright Fellowship to study with Furrer at the time. This piece has left many indelible images in my memory, both sonic and visual. There are so many layers in this work that makes it so experientially rich. It was such a striking experience: like I was being pulled closer and closer into an incredibly intimate space, as if being drawn into the emotional and psychological mind of Else. She is the lone character, adapted from a short novel by Arthur Schnitzler about a young woman forced into prostitution to financially support her father. To tell his story, Furrer layers the metaphor of Ovid’s telling of Fama, the Goddess of Rumor. He builds a kind of container around her of sound and space that represents her existential struggle. This container is a resonance of her inner world. We become voyeurs. With the metaphor of Fama, she mutters and whispers into our ears as instruments and voices murmur. Telling us secrets. Voices and music shift from being internalized thoughts to outward expressions until it is too difficult to tell which is which. I remember most vividly Scene IV, the duo between contrabass flute and Else. This scene placed me on the edge of my seat, perception heightened as Else engages in a hysterical monologue while the flute answered her in otherworldly sounds. She seemed like she was both right up against my ear and yet impossibly distant. I also recall the process by which the instrumentation became more and more fragmented as the piece progressed. The climax, signaled by a tam tam roll brought the piece to its finality, and the instruments dropped out one by one. After I left the venue and walked out into the brisk air and through the Museums Quartier back to a friend’s apartment, the work was still resonating in my mind’s ear and it took me a moment to realize where I was. You know, I was very lucky to see FAMA within the sound room that he designed for the piece. It added to the experience, but I am confident that the absence of the box does not take away from it. It is an astonishing work, so potent with metaphor and affect that the stark sensation of intimacy and existential drama prevails in the music and not in the staging. I am very excited to see Talea present its US premiere this month in NYC. It will be more than interesting to layer an experience of this work over another after so much time has passed.
Director of Communications and Outreach, Talea Ensemble
As we get ready for Saturday’s show at the MATA Festival, Taylor Brook gives some insight into his piece, Against the Morning. Come check it out this weekend at Roulette!
The Talea Ensemble will be giving the US premiere of my recent composition, Against the Morning, as part of the MATA festival this Saturday night at Roulette in Brooklyn. This piece explores the possibilities of a “what-if?” genre of contemporary music, as I began the work by posing the question “what would Schoenberg have written if he had composed his orchestral piece Farben today?” How would Schoenberg have explored the same coloristic ideas now that the normative palette of timbres and tunings have expanded so much in contemporary music? Although these questions are both faulty in nature and purely hypothetical, they allow me to face these great, imposing works with an attitude of curiosity and playfulness.
The reason for conceptualizing the piece in reference to Schoenberg’s Farben came from the nature of the commission itself, as it was to be premiered as part of a recreation of Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances, a concert series that ran in Vienna, and later in Prague, during the late 1910′s and early 1920′s. This concert series was, for better or for worse, a breakthrough in terms of how new music was presented as the pieces would have only performed after they were deemed “ready” as no program was given until the audience had arrived in the concert hall. The group presented both chamber music as well as reductions of orchestral music such as Debussy’s Aprés-midi and Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. These orchestral arrangements would have the curious instrumentation of a proto-sinfonietta, consisting of woodwind quintet, string quintet, piano, and harmonium. The harmonium gave the arrangements a particular fullness and was often employed to approximate an orchestral sound in the chamber-music setting. In my work, I decided to make the harmonium a soloist that does not lead the group as much as serve as the fountainhead of the musical proceedings.
Against the Morning begins with Schoenberg’s famed five-note “Farben Chord”. Instead of the slow canonic modulations of the harmony in the original, rather the chord is treated as a block of sound to be parsed, expanded, developed and reshaped. The music then takes Schoenberg’s thematic material and reworks it into a microtonal passacaglia that explores the orchestration possibilities on simple melodic lines. What follows I will leave for the music to show you itself.
Talea is westward bound this week for concerts in Seattle and Victoria, BC. If you can’t join us out west, checkout Anthony Cheung’s program note about Tuesday’s concert at Town Hall Seattle. We’re psyched to be collaborating with rock star cellist, Joshua Roman.
The Talea Ensemble presents a concert on the theme of “games,” loosely defined as musical representations of real and imaginary activities, from sports to video games, relying on cooperation and competition. In each piece, rules are set into motion and either strictly adhered to or broken. More than just sonic mimicry, the aural connection to rule- and role-based music making reveals new possibilities for drama and rhetoric, and consistently plays with the listener’s set of expectations.
In Mauricio Kagel’s Match (1964), two cellists situated on opposite sides of the stage compete in an imaginary tennis match while being “refereed” by a percussionist in the center. A composer very much influenced by Kagel’s sense of theater and play is the polyglot improviser, composer, and impresario John Zorn, whose early game pieces explored the possibility of improvised interactions within strict constraints and single-sheet scores consisting of verbal instructions. “Rugby” dates from this early period; which relies on a prompter holding up instruction cards.
Many of the works of Vito Zuraj, a young Slovenian composer based in Germany, use analogies from tennis, both in their titles and rhythmic and polyphonic energy. The ensemble will present a new version of “Deuce” for bass clarinet and percussion. And turning to virtual rackets, Moritz Eggert’s “Pong,” written in a new version for Talea, is an allusion to the first-ever video game. Here the rackets hit and miss moving objects, receiving and deflecting musical material. Similar to the Kagel, the medieval musical idea of “hocket” is used prominently to convey dialogue and disruption.
Finally, a purely musical game exists in the form of Milton Babbitt’s “Fourplay.” Babbitt, whose punning brilliance with titles was itself a game of the highest order, infers nothing more than musical interplay, with an underlying and fluid two-part polyphony that anchors the full instrumental component through a brilliant network of relationships.
Artistic Director, Talea Ensemble
The man who excites hardly can judge upon what he is doing…
It is late Saturday night, and we have spent many hours over the last few days in a white room making noises on a very, very large tam-tam. We will spend many more hours doing the same over the days to come. I had initially approached Stockhausen’s landmark work Mikrophonie I with an image of myself as a micronaut, an explorer tunneling deep into the inner resonances of the work’s single instrument, the tam-tam. But the division of labor is such that I now realize that in my role as the player who excites the tam-tam I am something more like a test subject in this particular experiment. The player next to me, the microphonist, “probes the surface of the tam-tam with the microphone, as a doctor probes a body with a stethoscope.” Further afield, and therefore operating from a position of objective observation, two additional players utilize filters and potentiometers to analyze, comment upon, and correct our actions. Meanwhile, my counterpart and I are busy carrying out a set of actions which are precisely notated, but the actual material of which is only described by the composer in all too human terms: groaning, baying, barking, bellowing, growling, hissing, spitting, cackling, yelling, grunting, howling, wailing, cracking, grating, chattering, scratching, screeching, murmuring, croaking, and so on, mostly in alphabetical order. We have been joking amongst ourselves in rehearsal that perhaps we should all wear white lab coats for the performance, but I am pretty certain that this would really only be appropriate for the engineers at the filters, and maybe the player next to me who will be probing both the tam-tam’s and my behavior for the duration of the work.
Video Capture from Luna Park (2011) by Georges Aperghis. Photo by Sylvia Gomes via l'Institut français de Pologne.
The first nine months of 2012 have been filled with an underlying sadness in the wake of the death of Ralph Kaminsky, who died on January 15 at age 85. I have never met anyone like him. In a state-of-the-art listening room (with, for equipment geeks, two Wilson Audio Alexandria speakers holding court) he and his wife, Hester Diamond, hosted monthly salon-type afternoons in their home, inviting people for the sole purpose of listening to contemporary music. And I mean only contemporary music. He rarely played anything written before say, 1980. One of the few exceptions was Wagner’s Ring, yet his passion meant that listeners were more likely to hear versions done within the last decade, such as the daring and original stagings from Copenhagen and Valencia.
The list of composers he championed – and in many cases, socialized with – is long: Hans Abrahamsen, Unsuk Chin, Marc-André Dalbavie, Beat Furrer, Gérard Grisey, Kimmo Hakola, Tristan Murail, Olga Neuwirth, Matthias Pintscher, Huang Ruo, and hundreds of others were a part of his regular listening. (Often overheard, “I listen to music by composers who are composing, not decomposing.”) And many contemporary music groups, as well, were part of Ralph’s daily life; Alarm Will Sound, Argento Ensemble, eighth blackbird, Either/Or, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and Talea Ensemble were just a few of his favorites. For Ralph’s 80th birthday, Hester commissioned Dalbavie to write a cello concerto, adroitly done by ICE in 2008 at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre.
Now and then he and Hester would host live concerts in their home. One evening was like no other: the JACK Quartet in Georg Friedrich Haas’s mysterious third string quartet, “In iij. Noct.” (2001), performed in complete darkness. Ralph and Hester enlisted an expert crew to extinguish every light source in their living room: windows were fitted with plywood and sealed tight with tape (two different kinds, to avoid ruining the paint). Spaces around doors were blocked. LEDs on telephones, computers and wall switches – all obliterated. Before the hour-long journey began, Ralph turned off all lights to give the audience a sample of what to expect, for those who might panic. I placed my hand a half-inch from my nose and could see nothing. Afterward, JACK violinist Ari Streisfeld said they had done the piece a number of times, but this was the blackest environment they had ever experienced.
Ralph left so suddenly that it’s still hard to grasp that he’s gone. Many New York concertgoers will miss his familiar mane of silvery-white hair, and after a particularly provocative evening, that mischievous smile coupled with, “Well, what did you think of that!”
He also had a sly sense of humor, often coupled with unexpected timing. After a particularly nice lunch one afternoon, we got together a few weeks later. “Oh Ralph,” I confessed, “I’m so sorry – I meant to send you a card.” He pulled me closer and said, “Want to hear a joke? Why don’t WASPs have orgies?” I shook my head and he whispered, “Too many thank-you notes.”
At an age when some people begin to close off their options, Ralph assiduously – even defiantly – challenged his ears, and those of everyone around him. He may have been the sole person in New York City who owned every recording made by Kairos, the trailblazing music label based in Vienna. Once I asked him if he ever listened to any Bach or Mahler on his highfalutin system, and the cheerful answer was, “No, heard all that already – don’t need to hear it again.”
In the fall of 2011, at what would be his final meeting of the listening group, Ralph had just discovered the glories of streaming Internet audio and video, and transferring the results to his music room. The inaugural example was a spectacle commissioned by IRCAM-Centre Pompidou and the Warsaw Autumn Festival: Georges Aperghis’s dazzling, technically innovative Luna Park (2011)—perhaps the ideal valediction for a man dedicated to the pursuit of the new.
About this time a couple years ago, Talea was getting ready to perform a portrait concert of Boulez’s works at Miller Theatre. Boulez had been with us for the few rehearsals leading up to the performance and we were honored to have David Robertson, conductor of St. Louis Symphony and former music director of Ensemble Intercontemporain, in attendance at the dress rehearsal. I was speaking to him about our experience negotiating the “epic” Dérive II and what he said was so beautiful. He drew an analogy to a road trip in which you are driving somewhere you haven’t been before. The first time can seem long but the more times you take that trip, you start to recognize landmarks and soon the trip seems short. We had the opportunity to revisit a few works this fall, including James Dillon’s New York Triptych, Pierluigi Billone’s Dike Wall and most recently Olga Neuwirth’s torsion.
Lightning Striking Twice (in a good way):
Normally we think of repeating a performance as a positive thing: an opportunity to make up for the unexpected bumps in the first performance; a chance to bring the piece to an even higher level. Olga’s piece, however, presented a unique situation: the first performance went better than any of our rehearsals had even gone. So all of a sudden, there’s a little anxiety that goes into meeting and hopefully exceeding a standard. Around the time we were preparing for this performance, I heard a story from a friend who was cast in the role of Da Ponte in a stage adaptation of the Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte, by Maristella Lorch. There were supposed to be several performances at the Casa Italiana of Columbia (1955), but the first one went so well, they canceled all of the others feeling they wouldn’t be able to achieve the same level of perfection. Well, a second performance of torsion came complete with the challenges of any repeat performances: a new audience automatically requires a certain sensitivity, in this case a new hall required a different kind of sensitivity- and on top of that, we wanted it to go as well as, if not better than, the first time. It did in fact go well: there was a lot of concentration that went into this second performance and it was a thrilling experience for us.
Going Beyond the Landmarks:
There comes a point on that road trip that, not only do the recognizable landmarks make the duration feel shorter, but you feel you can really afford to take your eyes off the road and appreciate other aspects of the journey: the landscape, the wind in your hair (assuming you have a convertible and it’s not winter), the conversation with your fellow passengers. That’s the other great aspect to performing a piece more than once. In fact, in the week leading up to the second performance of New York Triptych, James Dillon was talking about how there’s a point in the course of rehearsals/performances, where the piece ceases to be his and it becomes the performers’- “alchemy” is the word he used in fact. It’s true for us as performers as well- there’s a shift from paying closest attention to our own notes, to noticing how they fit with everyone else’s, to figuring out how to project them in a hall or communicate them to an audience. So ideally, if we do our job right in the performance, that piece ceases to be ours and becomes the audience’s. The more time we have had to live with a piece, the easier this is to achieve.
Taking New Journeys:
This is the nature of performing in an ensemble that specializes in the music of today. We are always challenged by new works and new composers. Speaking personally, the upcoming concert on December 14th is an interesting one for me because it consists entirely of world premieres- so clearly with these pieces we are currently becoming acquainted with. I have had the opportunity to play Anthony Cheung’s music before so, although this is a new piece, there are elements of his language that are familiar or I understand and am able to reference. This will be my first Trapani and Lewis piece though, so as I have been practicing- the muscles in my hands, the idioms in my ears and my expectations all need to be trained. It’s a pleasure to have this experience of learning new music because it’s this process that keeps us vibrant as musicians and as listeners.
Talea Ensemble, Viola and Director of Development
Your new work, SynchroniCities is a play on words; you’ve turned it into a compound word: time and place. I understand you took field recordings in different locations and worked them into the piece. What inspired you to do this? And can you describe the processes involved in incorporating these recordings?
I was interested in finding common ground between sounds captured in various locales and used for different occasions, no matter how disparate the sources and irrespective of time and place. And of course, the original meaning of “synchronicity” implies an almost serendipitous encounter of time and place. Going into this project, I didn’t set out with the goal of capturing field recordings based on particular themes, but found that sounds kept organizing themselves together, based purely on objective criteria like similarity or contrast of timbre, but also on their semiotic and ritualistic connotations. I simply kept my ears open to many sources, as well as my recording equipment at the ready. I’m always struck by how concrete sounds in the world are both overwhelmingly chaotic and commonplace.
We tend to think of image as the strongest signifier of place, yet sound can be equally, if not more, powerful. And especially emanating through the ambiguity of speakers, processed slightly beyond recognition, and further enhanced and in dialogue with live instruments, they can take on many new meanings and references.
Time as objects of perception seems to be a preoccupation in your body of work. How do you work with time here?
Within the four sections of the work, there are many moments that return, slightly altered, expanded, or compressed. I’m very interested in playing with the perception of memory over time. If and when I do repeat things, it’s usually with the alteration of recognizable material – a re-processing of a sample, for example, or the stretching of a very fast rhythmic gesture into something almost unrecognizable. Time is always in flux here, though some sections feel more static than others.
You’ve written before that Jazz is a large influence on your sound world. Sometimes it is clearly audible in your work. Who are some of your favorite jazz musicians?
Improvisation, in particular that of the jazz tradition, has been an important part of my musical background, and I can’t imagine not being influenced by it, whether in subtle or more outward ways. My approach to melodic phrasing is as something quite pliable, and similarly, my use of notation is more as transcription of gesture originating in the body or a vocalization, rather than broken down by the constraints of the parameters of a particular system. Other ways in which I’m influenced include how instruments dialogue with one another in real-time, the power of motivic developing variation through an improvised solo, and how harmonic innovation can really be the stamp of a musician’s personality. There are so many great musicians who have influenced me, where to begin? One of the great things about living in New York was getting to see so many of my heroes live: Keith Jarrett, Lee Konitz, Cecil Taylor, Brian Blade, Jim Hall, Brad Mehldau, Martial Solal, dozens and dozens more. And of course hearing Steve Lehman and George Lewis – both of whom resist and defy categorization within and around “jazz” - on so many memorable occasions as well. I’m so glad that they’ve written fascinating new works for this concert.
How do you place or conceptualize these seemingly disparate influences? American, European?
I think we’re in an exciting time where so many of the sonic characteristics that once connoted acceptance within a clearly defined aesthetic have been lifted, recontextualized, and re-invented, and that there isn’t a taboo surrounding their re-appropriation. Of course there is still the matter of being inventive and in good taste about it, but the fact that it’s harder to point to unified schools of thought based on nationality or region is definitely a healthy thing. But Chris Trapani’s question posed at the end of his interview is an important one to consider: can there be a regional voice for the American composer? I would like to think that regional influences can and should be tapped into, without necessarily being the primary defining characteristic of a composer’s output. And the important question is whether there is something musically interesting and relevant about putting these things in dialogue with one another.
I also think there’s quite a lot to be explored in terms of the consonance (or dissonance) of very distinct cultural references suddenly being thrown together. One of the ways I go about it in this piece is through live-processing of the piano. The piano, the exemplar of equal-temperament in western music, sometimes get processed through an “auto-tune” filter, using modes from different traditions and historical periods, such as just intonation and Indonesian gamelan tunings. Just as field recordings from very different cultural contexts get mixed together, so too do the tuning practices of cultures vastly removed by time and place.
As the Artistic Director and co-founder of Talea, what is it like working with an ensemble that you have such an intimate relationship with? What do you see in the future for the ensemble?
It has been an unbelievable privilege and pleasure working with the musicians of Talea. When I wrote this piece, I knew I’d be very consciously thinking of the personalities of the individual and collective sounds of the group and Jim Baker’s conducting. In concert music, it’s rare to have a relationship with a group of players in which it’s possible to tailor-make compositional decisions, and I realize that I am extraordinarily lucky in this respect. Through the incredible dedication of the musicians, staff, and supporters, we’re going to see the group continuing to attract the attention of composers who want to see their visions realized, who are looking to work with an ensemble that’s known for being adventurous and open. I think the international presence of the ensemble will also continue to expand. That has already happened quite a bit in the last two years, and new projects in the pipeline will make it even more so.
SYNCHRONICITIES: NEW WORKS PREMIERES BY LEWIS, TRAPANI, LEHMAN, CHEUNG DECEMBER 14, 2012 8:00 PM MANNES COLLEGE OF MUSIC 150 W 85TH STREET NEW YORK, NY 10024
Columbia Professor, legendary trombonist, improvisor and scholar George Lewis speaks a bit about his new work for Talea and about his compositional approach.
Talea will be premiering your work, Mnemosis, on December 14th. What was the point of departure for this piece?
Mnemosis draws inspiration from two conceptions of time, history and memory in Western philosophy: Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal recurrence, and Wittgenstein’s conception of Unzeitlichkeit, which is to my mind inadequately translated as “timelessness,” although I don’t have an alternative handy.
Throughout Mnemosis there are measures / blocks of material that are strictly repeated two or sometimes three times and this activity stops at the end where the ensemble finally plays rhythmically together. This plays into the title of the piece. Can you speak more about this?
Over the past few years I’ve used repeated passages to create moments of stasis and reflection, most notably in my 2011 composition for large ensemble, The Will To Adorn. In that work the repetition sections are more cryptic, but Mnemosis is perhaps my first piece that is rather extensively based on repetition, using a process that might recall in some ways the concept of suspension in fourth-species counterpoint. Rather than notes, the units of suspension are “blocks” or modules of behavior in a given instrument or grouping of instruments that recur at irregularly displaced time points relative to other groupings. The procedure also recalls the “visualization” paintings of Jack Ox (see http://abstractcomics.blogspot.com/2009/07/kurt-schwitters-ursonate-by-jack-ox.html and http://www.jackox.net/pages/bruckner/BrucknerText.html), in which a single architectural image is divided into equally-spaced strips and becomes fractured by vertical displacement of individual strips. In Mnemosis, the “strips” may be conceived as temporally displaced in a conceptually horizontal way. As with the Ox paintings, a sense of progress and stasis gradual develops upon sustained engagement. However, this is not “music as a gradual process”; although moments of local recursion are frequent, so are sudden changes of perspective and flow.
What are some of the criteria that you have for yourself to evaluate your own work’s successes or failures, if you even use those terms of critique?
Since I’m basically an experimental composer, the goalposts for success are constantly moving, but the question reminds me of that wonderful article about Michael Tilson Thomas visiting Carl Ruggles. At the time Ruggles was 95 years old and basically on his deathbed in a nursing home. Thomas puts headphones on Ruggles’s head and plays Sun-Treader (which I admit to having a long love affair with) and Ruggles starts singing along, yelling “Great! DAMN FINE WORK!” If I’m enjoying listening to a piece of mine like that, and if I feel that I’ve gone as far as I could go for that moment in terms of the organization and the construction of sound, I suppose that it’s successful for me.
How do you approach composition?
Well, as the fellow in the Quentin Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction put it, I’m in a transitional period at the moment, and there have been distinct changes in the way I approach composing. First of all, these days I try to concentrate on making each moment of sound physically and emotionally evocative. This operates in tandem with my second principle, which is to avoid the unadorned moment. I like to keep the inner life of sounds moving, rather like the “aural exciters” in early studio electronics that were designed to introduce microfluctuations with the goal of avoiding psychological habituation. Moments of repose are outnumbered by overstuffed nonlinearity, and I like to manage noisy, unstable textures that “decorate the decorations,” as Zora Neale Hurston put it.
How do you conceive of form and pitch material?
Lately I’ve enjoyed deriving pitch material the old-fashioned way–that is, old-fashioned circa 1980s, using analyses of musical instrument spectra. For example, Mnemosis and other works use spectra drawn from my audio library of bassoon and saxophone multiphonics. In planning the works, I create modular moments that work for me, and decide later how they are to flow as a sequence; modules that don’t fit the emerging conception of the flow of the work are saved for another time, and sometimes, modules become superimposed upon each other. In performance, the pieces operate in perceptually concatenationist mode; listeners catch the bus and go along for the ride, and I try to avoid teleologies, motivic elaboration, and global form. In this, again, I’m guided by the Wittgenstein quote from proposition 6.4311 of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present.” Living in the present with Talea has been an excellent place to be; I very much look forward to this concert and would like to thank them for their support for my work and that of so many others.
Finally, if the concert is about remembrance, I’d like to have us remember Jonathan Harvey, who just left us.
SYNCHRONICITIES: NEW WORKS PREMIERES BY LEWIS, TRAPANI, LEHMAN, CHEUNG DECEMBER 14, 2012 8:00 PM MANNES COLLEGE OF MUSIC 150 W 85TH STREET NEW YORK, NY 10024
Composer, saxophonist Steve Lehman fields questions about his work and his upcoming piece, Khalid.
Can you talk a bit about how you found yourself choosing to study music composition first at Wesleyan while concurrently at the Hartt School of Music and then later at Columbia? What attracted you to these institutions?
Well, my parents are both very musical, so music has always been a big part of my life. As far as the specific choice to attend Wesleyan, I think I was drawn to the music program there because of the stellar faculty and the fact that the university as a whole is very rigorous academically. And I found many wonderful mentors there, like Anthony Braxton, Jay Hoggard, and Pheeroan akLaff. Alvin Lucier is also on the faculty there and I was able to spend a couple of years studying South Indian music as well. I studied at Hartt specifically to work with saxophonist/composer Jackie McLean, who has been an idol of mine since I was a kid. And at Columbia, I worked primarily with George Lewis and Tristan Murail, and also with Fabein Levy, Brad Garton, and Fred Lerdahl — all composers I look up to a great deal.
You are involved in many contexts: performer, composer, bandleader, sideman and scholar. How do all of these disciplines inform one another? How would, say, your experience performing in a jazz context inform your fully notated compositional work? Do you find that there are moments of dissonance between your activities (and not just in terms of time management)?
I wish I had a good succinct answer for that. I’m really just trying to pursue the things about music that excite me the most, and they come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. With all of the musical activities you mention, I’m most interested in connecting with people in a meaningful way — the social aspect of it. And that can happen in performance, in rehearsal, and also through formal and informal discourse about all of this music that we all care about so much.
In writings on your music, you cite the seemingly disparate practices of African American improvised music and French Spectral composition as important in the formation of your own work as a composer. Can you go into it a little bit here? What are the common concerns of the two disciplines? How do they feed each other and how do they feed you?
Yes, well, a lot of my recent scholarship has dealt with the overlapping histories of these two musical communities. And what I keep coming back to is this idea of musical thresholds, which often manifest as thresholds of perception in the listener. That space between timbre and harmony; pulse and duration; structure and spontaneity. I think the most expressive instrumental music, of any kind, often takes advantage of those kinds of perceptual boundaries, and I think it’s a compositional preoccupation that’s at the heart of Afrological forms of improvisation and much of French spectral music as well.
You mention Grisey and music theorist Jean-Luc Herve as expanding upon ideas of the perception of rhythm and attempting to find that thin line or ‘rhythmic threshold’ between the simple repetitions of a pulse and the loss of pulse by rhythmic complexity. Is creating this space a priority in Khalid?
Right. That’s a kind of rough paraphrase of a comment that Hervé made about Grisey’s music, and it’s making reference, in particular, to the first and third movements of Vortex Temporum. I suppose Khalid does deal with that idea in some important ways. And the whole notion of creating a meaningful and expressive sense of pulse without having to rely of structural repetition is definitely something I think about a lot. That said, there is actually a fair amount of surface level repetition in Khalid — something that is somewhat unusual in my music. If there is a rhythmic or perceptual threshold that this piece explores, it’s probably the boundary between serial and segregated modes of listening. Basically, whether you’re hearing sound events as part of one unified stream of information, or as two or more parallel streams. Rhythm and alignment can play an important role in determining a particular mode of listening, but things like timbre, register, and dynamics also play a big part, as you can imagine.
The piece, scored for piano and percussion, focuses on a right hand arpeggio in the piano, which although the shape of the gesture repeats, the pitches change ever so slightly, with the highest pitch constantly shifting its position in the beat. The others also appear repetitive at first, but like the piano, shift their attacks and they all function to produce layers of rhythms. How did you conceive of this rhythmic structure? Are you using spectral harmonies?
Yes, well the structure of the piece is really centered around the expressive potential of all of these kinds of subtle shifts. And, in particular, it really revolves around a small collection of rhythmic devices that I’ve been developing and refining over the past four or five years. If the piece is working well, there can be moments when the music seems to speed up, slow down, and stand still simultaneously. And I think that kind of musical structure can be very meaningful and even emotional when it’s presented in the right way. So, my hope is that Khalid will at least evoke some of that. As for the harmony, I’d say that the “attitude” towards harmony in this piece is decidedly spectral. Suffice to say that much of the pitch material in the piece is informed by the acoustic properties of both the piano and the vibraphone.
What does the title, Khalid make reference to?
Khalid is an Arabic name which means “immortal” or “eternal.” At first, I considered calling the piece “Khalid/Kaleid/Collide,” since many aspects of the piece strike me as rather kaleidoscopic. But in the end, I decided to keep it simple, and I suppose more open to interpretation.
How has your experience been working with the Talea Ensemble? Consideration of personnel is an important part of your working method. Was it here?
It’s been wonderful working with Talea. This is one of the premiere new music ensembles on the planet, so it’s been a real gift to work with them. And yes, I think the personnel, and the personal relationships have played a big role in bringing this piece to life. Anthony Cheung is one of my favorite young composers and a really beautiful person in general. And we have been keeping abreast of each other’s work and looking for ways to support each other since we first met at Columbia. So, Anthony comes to this piece with a really keen understanding of my work as both a composer and a performer. And he’s able to draw from that body of information in bringing the piece to life, which is really amazing. Same for Alex Lipowski and Matt Gold, who have both spent time working on the percussion part for Khalid. These guys are so meticulous and such outspoken advocates for new music, it’s wonderful.
Composer Christopher Trapani talks about his new work, Waterlines, written for Talea and funded by an American Composers Forum Jerome Foundation commissioning grant.
You were born and raised in New Orleans and it is clear that the rich sonic tapestry of blues and jazz is an important element that you draw from in your own work. Do you find that having had an academic or you could say euro-centric compositional education is difficult to reconcile with the vernacular traditions? Is it a very conscious decision to meld your disparate interests or has it been an organic process of inquiry?
I’ve found that what inspires and fascinates me the most — in cities, in art, in food — is cultures converging to produce unexpected results. That’s how we got Andalucía, chicken tikka masala, and Graceland. Certainly New Orleans fits into that tradition, uniting many more strands than most people realize — including my Irish and Italian relatives who landed there at the end of the 19th century, back when New Orleans was the country’s second largest point of entry.
So the melting pot aesthetic comes naturally to me. I like it when one passion, one part of my life, bleeds into another. That kind of synthesis is a crucial element of my work, as it is for many artists — but it has to be organic, not contrived.
The storm brought up a lot of emotions about home and identity, what’s unique to a tradition and what is universal, and the cycle is really born out of a reflection on the various poetic and musical meanings of home. To the Carter family, home is heaven, a future hope. To Ramblin’ Thomas (whose incomparable “Poor Boy Blues” is set in the third song), home’s a distant memory. To Charley Patton, it’s the tonic chord, the resonant open strings of his guitar. To Gérard Grisey it’s a lush, consonant harmonic spectrum. All these conceptions get tossed in the pot.
Since you left New Orleans, you’ve been many places: Harvard, at the Royal College of Music in London, in Paris, Istanbul and at Columbia University here in New York. How has this physical displacement and experience of such diverse cultures affected your work and your own identity? Does it deepen your desire to maintain a strong connection in your work to the American vernacular?
Well, I have to say first off that I don’t always engage with American folk music or jazz; that’s only a small percentage of my work. But I do like for my music to be heard in a wide context, to draw from and make allusion to a variety of styles: Ottoman classical makam, Darmstadt grit, West African balafons, obscure Ninth Ward rock…
There’s probably some truth to the old cliché that moving abroad (and worse, to Paris) makes you more aware of your “Americanism,” that the distance gives a new sense of perspective. It was here anywhere that I first discovered Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic (now published as The Old, Weird America) and Harry Smith’s folk music anthology, both of which got me thinking about parallels between early American music and the spectral music I was hearing at IRCAM and the Cité de la Musique — another current I found myself immersed in for the first time.
The sounds and phrases of blues and country records run throughout Waterlines. But while it may be the most immediately apparent layer of influence, it’s only the surface. A careful listener will hear the spell of spectral music — an oscillation between consonance and noise, microtonal inflections that mirror natural resonance — as well as snippets of Romantic lieder, marching band rhythms, and the eclectic spirit of George Crumb.
Waterlines consists of five blues songs with lyrics taken from the Carter Family and Bessie Smith, amongst others. The lyrics are poignant. They’re about the loss or displacement of home and of water and floods, with titles like, “Can’t Feel at Home,” and “Wild Water Blues.” On the score of this work you have two dates: 2005 and 2012. 2005 was the year that Hurricane Katrina devastated the southeastern United States and although 2012 is the date of the completion of your work, there is a poignancy and relevance in the wake of Super Storm Sandy. Can you say a few things about this? Did you already begin to compose this piece in the wake of Katrina? How were you personally affected by it?
Katrina was a complete shock. Devastating, life-changing. My father’s house was washed away, my childhood home got ten feet of water, but the worst effects were less tangible: morale was shaken, the cultural landscape of my hometown was changed forever. No one knew what would happen going forward, whether an entire set of traditions and a unique way of life might just disappear. I was already living in Paris when the storm hit, but to say I felt it strongly would be an understatement.
I wrote the first song, “Can’t Feel at Home,” in the immediate aftermath, in the fall of 2005. You’ll hear it nearly exactly as it was finished then, before I returned home for the first time after the storm in December 2005. I’d already gotten the idea of creating a cycle around the songs of the 1927 flood, and had started collecting and organizing texts in my mind, but I stopped composing there, returning to the piece only last summer.
I think it’s fair to say that it haunted me for seven years, while I tried to find the circumstances to bring what I considered a very personal and important project to life — so I’m extremely grateful to the Talea Ensemble and Anthony Cheung in particular for giving me this tremendous opportunity.
Can you talk about why you chose to write these blues songs? Are they still, “the blues” after your treatment of them?
Katrina got me reading (John Barry’s Rising Tide, for starters) about the 1927 Mississippi River flood — one of the most destructive natural disasters in American history, one that complete reshaped Southern society and politics. As it happens, the flood coincided with the heyday of commercial recording in the South, a last burst of enterprise before the great depression that fortuitously left us with several great records chronicling the disaster.
Combing through compilations of blues lyrics and drawing on the research of Memphis musicologist David Evans, I sought out songs with some sort of parallel to Katrina, but always with the goal of fashioning a more abstract and timeless perspective. I tried to be very attentive to the forms of the texts I was treating, but also to mold them into something new.
Strictly speaking, the first is a strophic text, a hymn tune, and I use that as an analogue for the music: certain elements are constant, like a refrain — the steady strum of the dulcimer, the tonal roots of the harmony — whereas others are constantly evolving. The rest of the song texts consist of blues couplets, but these are used in a variety of ways. “Wild Water Blues” gives the first-person narrative, rushes through the couplets in an exaggerated lightning-speed account of the devastation. In fact only the fourth song, “Devil Sent the Rain Blues,” uses the classic AAB blues device of repeating the first line over a different harmony, subtly shifting the insinuation behind the words.
Waterlines showing water levels after the flood.
In borrowing the blues songs, did you transcribe the vocal lines from the recordings? How important is it for you to have a singer who understands the style, that is, not to sing with an, ‘over-trained’ voice?
It’s important to know that there are no actual transcriptions in Waterlines, only stylistic allusions. I did listen repeatedly to and try to absorb something essential from the records that lent texts to the cycle, but I don’t mimic them. I sometimes borrow larger gestural ideas: the way, for instance, Kokomo Arnold falls to the very bottom of his range at the end of each line of “Wild Water Blues,” or Charley Patton’s habit of snapping the low strings of the guitar against the fretboard.
As for the singer, it’s absolutely essential to have someone who sets the right tone and knows the traditions being referred to. Nine times out of ten, when a contemporary composition makes reference to some form of popular music, it’s tongue-in-cheek, a wink to the initiated. Here’s it’s the opposite: a dead-on honest, respectful, and thoroughly un-ironic treatment of the words. One of the reasons Waterlines took so long to premiere is a simple pragmatic one: I simply didn’t want to do it in France, where I hadn’t met a singer who I thought could pull off the English and the folk gestures. It’s such a pleasure to have the astonishing Daisy Press — the only person I know to have sung both Philippe Leroux and Neil Diamond — to collaborate with on the premiere.
Damage done to Trapani's family home after Hurricane Katrina.
The cycle begins with a solo Appalachian dulcimer, and later the singer accompanies herself on a retuned autoharp. How did you approach composing for the ensemble?
Well I wrote the “auxiliary strings” part — for one player who handles the Appalachian dulcimer, steel-stringed acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and a fretless double-stringed Turkish banjo called the cümbüş — with the intention of performing it myself. But I’m not exactly a virtuoso; quite the opposite. Instead, writing for myself allows me to focus on idiosyncratic details in the way I play. The just intonation autoharp is an instrument I first made for another piece (Westering) by retuning all the strings, then taking the chord-bars off, sanding them down, and recovering them with new felt patterns to make new chord shapes in just intonation (microtonal patterns that follow the natural harmonics of the overtone series).
But aside from my own unusual instruments and a few doublings (the clarinetist plays harmonica, the trumpet player picks up the sandpaper blocks), the line up is pretty standard: three winds, three strings, and a large percussion setup. The fifth song also features live electronics: samples of rain, pops from vinyl records, and percussion swishes and scrapes that provide a background constant layer of white noise — an idea either inspired by the pervasive noise of an old 78 RPM gramophone record or borrowed from the omnipresent maracas in Tristan Murail’s Ethers, though the context makes it hard to tell which.
Can you speak about the tuning?
Harmony in Waterlines runs the gamut from diatonic triads to wide microtonal chords. Microtones — that is, the pitches that fall between the tempered keys of the piano — are a common feature of the blues (as shadings of a tonal grid) and spectral technique (as partials of the overtone series), though clearly used rather differently in each case. Precision is important, and there are certain technical devices used to ensure a degree of accuracy in producing mictrotones on tempered instruments: retuning strings on the guitar and viola to match natural harmonics, tuning the flute down by a quarter-tone. Then for the voice and unfretted strings (including the slide guitar), which are obviously more capable of smaller inflections in pitch, microtones are written more freely.
Another parallel with spectral music comes to mind here: nuance of gesture is more important than pitch selection, which is in some sense pre-determined in both styles. A listener who hears just the notes of a blues scale in a Son House lick is missing the point, just as another who hears only shifting shades of consonance in Les Espaces Acoustiques is glossing over whole dimensions of the work. In Waterlines too, the focus is on the local level, small details of articulation and timbre.
Is there anything else you’d like the audience to know about Waterlines?
One question I hope Waterlines will raise is this: Is there any room left for the regional voice in American composition? In American art and literature, there seems to be a degree of recognition for non-centralized trends; Southern writers in particular are always said to have “a strong sense of place,” as Walker Percy always described it. But aside from a few radically disparate voices who unjustifiably get corralled together as “West Coast Experimentalists,” most American composers seem to end up in the Northeast, learning an amalgamated style and losing their accents in the process. Listening to their music, who could ever deduce that Nancarrow was from Arkansas, that Babbitt had been raised in Mississippi?
I was always shocked that the New York Philharmonic, commissioning a piece to commemorate the September 11 attacks, chose John Adams, one of the few composers synonymous with another major city. Was there no one in New York up to the task? On the other hand, you clearly don’t have to be up to your neck in water to have something to say about the storm. It’s a delicate line, but I do believe that re-valuing regional traditions — recognizing again that there are a wealth of perspectives and experiences within our own borders — can only enrich the new music landscape, and more importantly, might even be the key to recapturing some kind of immediate and gut-level connection with listeners.
SYNCHRONICITIES: NEW WORKS PREMIERES BY LEWIS, TRAPANI, LEHMAN, CHEUNG
DECEMBER 14, 2012 8:00 PM MANNES COLLEGE OF MUSIC 150 W 85TH STREET NEW YORK, NY 10024
Looking back on last night’s concert at Wien Modern and looking forward to tomorrow’s concert at Contempuls, Talea bassoonist talks about learning Olga Neuwirth’s torsion: transparent variation for solo bassoon and ensemble.
When I first received my part to Olga Neuwirth’s torsion: transparent variation for solo bassoon and ensemble, I quickly realized the amount of work that I was going to have to put into learning a plethora of extended techniques and various colors. Before I could say a sentence, even a word, I had to learn how to pronounce syllables in a new musical language. However, once I created my new palette of sounds, I discovered an unprecedented freedom of expression. It wasn’t an etude of new techniques for the bassoon, a realm of composition which many new pieces can accidentally stray into. On the contrary, torsion is a complete and complex musical thought filled with many unique colors on the bassoon that many listeners may not have heard before. The enjoyment of expressing myself through a different musical language, however, was only part of the reward in learning this piece. The responses from individual audience members after my first performance of torsion sparked great conversation over what potential sound worlds the bassoon could create. Preformed boundaries of the bassoon’s capabilities were broken down for many listeners. I thank Olga for writing such a great piece to be added to the bassoon’s limited repertoire. I’m also grateful that we get to perform it two more times in Vienna and Prague and look forward to any conversation in response to torsion from others.
Hear an excerpt of Ondřej Adámek’s Ca tourne ca bloque and read what Talea intern, Zach Seely, says about Adámek’s fascinating music. Come hear the US Premiere of Ca tourne ca bloque on September 21st at the Bohemian National Hall.
I am always excited when introduced to a composer’s new works. It’s a thrilling moment, when one is never quite sure what to expect. The journey through the unknown and the experience of absorbing the soundworlds a composer and performer(s) forge together can be entirely captivating. The opportunity to hear new music that provokes different ways of listening or performing can be the most rewarding. Sharing these experiences with others is just as fulfilling.
It is with this same spirit of excitement that Talea will be performing Ondřej Adámek’s “Ca tourne ca bloque” (2008), for ten instrumentalists and sampler, for our opening night concert. In this energetic work, Adámek masterfully interweaves a wide timbral spectrum within an environment full of musical expression. Within the work’s large structure, Adámek playfully choreographs exchanges in timbre and infuses a dialogue with infectiously fractured rhythmic motives. “Ca tourne ca bloque” explores intricacies perceived in the articulations and contour of speech patterns. The instrumentalists emulate these characteristic voices and provide an additional rich palette of sound colors. His pieces fuse contemporary classical music and elements of music from different cultures. Adámek has quickly become a widely celebrated and prolific composer. His works have been featured by many prominent figures amongst our international music community. His musical soundscapes are simple, clear, and engaging.
Read what Beth Weisser says about her experience in working on the new disc.
In March of this year, Talea traveled to EMPAC to record works by one of our favorite composers, Fausto Romitelli. Recording is something that comes with the territory of being a musician, but there is something still very alien about it.
A performance is like life: it’s now and it’s here. There will be good and bad moments, both of which will either fade into oblivion or transform to exist as memories. There is a direct connection between the performers and the audience- a symbiotic energy that can expand only within the limit of the space. A recording is more like a time capsule. It is about some future, determined or not, and it is not about here but rather, there. With a time capsule, one gathers the items and ideas of the time and protects them in a container for future generations to understand what today was.
Talea’s Romitelli disc is our first time capsule. It is our way of sharing with the broadest audience through time and space what we understood this music to be at this point in time. Talea has been performing Romitelli’s works from some of its earliest concerts and from its beginning, the Talea Ensemble has felt deeply committed to Romitelli’s works. We have had the opportunity to bring some of his masterpieces to the US for the first time and we have grown to better understand his sound world and his vision. We have also had the opportunity to work with and speak to many people who knew him well.
Because we all feel so invested, the concentration and care in the sessions was palpable and because of the intensity of the experience, we learned more about ourselves and each other with every take we did. Romitelli came more into our physical, intellectual and emotional selves than ever before. While creating a vehicle for posterity is a great responsibility, it is also a great privilege. Eternalizing the ephemeral is a challenging endeavor, but when the time capsule consists of great music, it is rewarding and an honor to be a part of.
We are so grateful to EMPAC, Argeo Ascani, John Zorn, and Tzadik Label for making this recording possible.
In anticipation of the world premiere of James Dillon’s New York Triptych, Talea cellist and Dillon-veteran Chris Gross talks about his experience in learning Dillon’s music. Come hear the world premiere on July 16, at the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt
Practicing your own part of a new work is kind of like studying an elephant by examining it’s tail from half an inch away: you don’t really know what you’re dealing with until you see all the parts put together. That’s a bit how it feels with James Dillon’s new work New York Triptych, though having had some previous experience with his music, I have certain expectations and notions about how it will eventually be constructed. My first experience with Dillon was as somewhat of a new music newbie – a senior at Oberlin College, premiering The Soadie Waste (a quintet commissioned by friend and pianist Mike Gallope). It was a great honor of course, but we were all green to say the least; that first experience working with James still resonates in my memory. Now of course I know James and his music a little bit better. It’s comforting, but perhaps slightly dangerous when you start to know a composer’s music better: what you the performer might expect to happen and what the composer has in mind could be two very different things. Sitting here in my apartment some things already jump out as quintessential-Dillon (oh yes, those nasty double stops in multiple rhythmic layers). But there seem to be some new elements as well (such as massive virtuosic figurations in palindromic formation); new for me at least.
And that’s the big discovery – we just don’t know yet what this will be. Only James knows and, really, he doesn’t completely know; we, the musicians still have a big role to play. I’m looking at my elephant’s tail: I wonder what’s attached?
***This piece was made possible by a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation.
Of all of the music we play that makes reference to nature, it is the work of Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) that for me most clearly suggests natural phenomena in their manner of operation and capacity for overwhelming power. The Greek born Xenakis was a trained and practicing architect, engineer, mathematician, music theorist, and not least one of the most important composers of the twentieth century. His application of mathematical models and architectural concepts to sound resulted in a music of beautifully conceived forms containing highly volatile materials. Much like nature, his music seems to exist beyond human directed goals or narrative structure. While obeying the necessary laws of physics, a natural event has its own sense of time and space and a capacity for both the sublime and the terrible, but it is ultimately unpredictable and utterly without concern for humans or our experience of it. The Storm King Art Center, where we will play Xenakis’s Persephassa this weekend, is a place of extraordinary natural beauty in conversation with large-scale sculptures that require open space on a vast scale to be properly perceived. By bringing Xenakis’s music into this landscape we hope to introduce another physical element to the environment, one constructed in both time and space and made up of sonic materials, and to extend this conversation into the realm of sound.
Persephassa, for six percussionists, was composed in 1969 and premiered at the first Shiraz Festival, held in the ruins of Persepolis, an ancient Persian site. Its title is a variation on the name Persephone, the goddess of springtime. Making use of the physical layout of the space, Xenakis explored his interest in spatial music by placing the percussionists in a hexagon around the perimeter of the site. The music itself is designed to exploit this placement and send material spinning around and across the ensemble, often in multiple directions at once, and at ever changing rates. At Storm King, we have chosen to place the ensemble at the edges of a natural plateau surrounding Kenneth Snelson’s 1974 sculpture Free Ride Home, composed of aluminum and stainless steel tubes and wires. Here, the six percussion setups will take on elements of both the natural landscape and the human designed artworks inhabiting it, and mediate between them. The listener will be able to sit between the players and hear Xenakis’s meticulously crafted lines spinning around the circle and feel its raw brutality, or sit on a hill above and experience it from a distance, an event of massive power but still not so close as to be dangerous.
The sounds of Persephassa are produced on drums, slabs of wood, metal pipes, thin sheets of metal, stones, and siren whistles. The percussionists begin each section with a unified line, each player gradually striking out at an individual speed, separating from the other players. The lines retain their integrity, but the interaction between them becomes unpredictable. To me this has always felt something like applying heat to a material and watching the molecules launch into motion, eventually becoming chaotic and irregular, not unlike making popcorn. At moments of greatest intensity Xenakis interjects a six-part burst of irregularity and chaos that he refers to as a nuage or cloud, an interaction that he has described as both functioning like a rain storm or a mob in the street – a teeming mass of unpredictable elements.
In planning this work for Storm King it was always clear that its scale would be ideal for the design of Persephassa, providing the space to set up around the audience and let the spatial and temporal processes of the work play out. But it is the uncontrollable aspects of the site, the wild surroundings and its susceptibility to nature that are most in accord with the shattering impact of the work at its most extreme moments.
Come hear Talea play Grisey’s Talea this Friday April 20th at the DiMenna Center! Talea friend and wonderful music journalist, Bruce Hodges, shares his insight on listening to this spectral masterpiece and Talea’s namesake.
In Latin, “talea” means “cutting,” and in Gérard Grisey’s Talea, an initial idea is gradually excised—elements removed and others taking their place. In two parts played without pause, the work is intended to—in the composer’s words—“express two aspects or, more precisely, two auditory angles of a single phenomenon.” But his concise description feels inadequate to describe the experience of hearing the score.
Talea’s power comes from its examination and illumination of an overtone cycle, a phenomenon integral to Grisey’s output (and spectral music in general). Somehow when one hears the ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano) illuminating Grisey’s argument, it feels like being exposed to one of life’s basic building blocks—like grasping at DNA and holding it in your hands.
The five players alternate between moments of great ferocity (especially in the piano), and those of eerie quietude—at times almost as if everything has been shut down completely; at others, sounds emerge like soft groans from the earth itself. The timbres float, hover, barge into your brain, recede, reform themselves, take you hostage. As the scurrying of the first part calms down in the second, the waters reform, interrupted by various phenomena, until a kind of miraculous climax occurs near the end. Bit by bit, the violinist states the overtone scale with a thrilling baldness—as if everything previously had been building toward this moment—before the violinist repeats the scale again, and this time the sequence is abruptly cut off.
As we gear up for a week of recording Fausto Romitelli’s music at EMPAC, get to know Fausto through some beautiful tributes written by his friends and family. We were fortunate to have gathered these for a concert back in April 2010, and happy to share them again here with our e-fans!
Riccardo Nova: Composer Colleague
“It is difficult to speak/write briefly about Fausto; his personality had so many qualities. His very special way of laughing is the first thing that comes to my mind whenever I think of him – it was contagious, and the last time I heard him laughing was few day before his death: I called him from a public telephone somewhere in India. He was in the hospital attached to an oxygen mask. He could hear the heavy noise of the Indian traffic in the background and he made some ironic comments related to the “nice cacophony” … he could not breathe so well, but still managed to laugh. This was my last conversation with him … after a few days, he was gone.
In the late nineties Fausto and I shared a small flat in Liege; we were both working at the CRFMW. At that time Fausto was composing Bad Trip Lesson 1 (at the CRFMW he was realizing the electronic tape) … we were in the studio from morning till very late at night, and usually, in the morning, I was the first to wake up and make the coffee. Everyday when the coffee was ready, I would try to get him out of bed and he responded with the same sentence, “Please do not disturb me, I am working. Let me work a bit more….” I do not know if this was true or not, but whenever I hear his music, and specifically Bad Trip 1, I always recall those moments, for it is likely that his mind was in this “in-between reality”, where dreams and consciousness are merged together and where the mind is not yet totally in contact with the solidity of actual reality. . . I never forced him to wake up faster and every morning he drank his coffee cold. . .”
Giovanni Verrando: Composer Colleague
“Listening to Fausto’s music explains the kind of person he was: bold, cultured, and with a strong imagination. He was an extraordinary reader, thinking it was valuable for a contemporary composer to know in detail the good and bad habits of his time, and taking risks by showing those habits in his own scores. For us, his works such as Professor Bad Trip or An Index of Metals are flags, road signs that show us in which direction we have to carry on with our music.”
Marco Mazzolini: Publishing Representative, Ricordi Milan
“Fausto liked cycling at night in his village of Gorizia. Gorizia is a border town and at night it is completely deserted – when you walk, you hear only the sound of your footsteps. Fausto would pedal fast on empty streets in the faint light of the streetlamps, and was regularly stopped by the police, asking him for his documents every time.
We were friends and we talked amongst ourselves as two friends do. We worked together and joked together. Writing took up all his life and his way of being; there was the same hypersensitivity and visionary soul in his music — the same intelligence, the same irony, the same playful torment. “It is not required that one lives up to eighty,” he said, lying in his hospital bed. His thinking was lively and open, but filled with a strange urgency and full of loneliness. I feel like smiling when I think of Fausto riding the bike, pedaling fast at night through the deserted streets of Gorizia.”
Mauro Lanza: IRCAM colleague
“The very first time I met Fausto was a long time ago in Venice, after a concert. I clearly remember him – an Italian composer between Italian composers – freezing the audience when he provocatively stated his profound dislike for “all that Italian contemporary music”. It was not so much a judgment as the attitude of a child dropping a stink bomb and waiting for reactions to happen.
Our second encounter was at IRCAM. I was a student who had just arrived, attending his first “Espace de Projection” concert ever. There I heard Fausto’s music for the first time: the first chapter of his “Professor Bad Trip” trilogy. This piece deeply impressed me, not only because of the appealing mix of sonorities, echoing spectral music and progressive rock, but especially because of its form.
Unlike many “second generation” spectral composers, Fausto was not trying to get rid of continuity and slowness; he was raising them to the nth power. With him, repetition becomes hypnotic and ritual, inharmonic spectra become a metaphor of un-human, “processes” spreading illness, and the order-chaos polarity, typical of early spectral works, is now a one-way travel towards entropy.
To a certain extent his music was often impersonal, like a natural phenomenon. Fausto was an unmerciful god creating his miniature world, infecting his lab colony with a deadly virus and waiting for things to happen.
I remember having been compulsively listening to “Professor Bad Trip” for months before receiving the shocking news of Fausto’s death. The energy, vision and straightforwardness of his work have deeply influenced me as well as a whole generation of young composers.”
Valentina Romitelli: Sister
“I have never provided a comment on Fausto and his music, as I inevitably focus on the person, the man, the brother, and forget about the composer, which is probably what audiences care most about. Yet, the passionate request by the Talea Ensemble and the sincere enthusiasm of its members convinced me to write a few words about Fausto Romitelli.
The first qualities I would mention are his continuous research, curiosity, need to read and listen to ‘everything’, look ‘beyond’, seeking something new, and then the need to develop, polish, review everything in a restless effort to reach something. I do not know what it was, but he was never fully satisfied. Yet it happened a few times that after a first execution by a good ensemble he enjoyed his music and appeared even happy about the final outcome of his efforts, and, in the end, happy if people appreciated his music.
He was a contrarian, often remaining distant from trends and vogues, and, as a young composer, he got quite angry when someone suggested his music was influenced by his teacher. After a few years, his music had gone very far away, pushed by his research and driven by his strong will to move up, to look ahead. Even in his personal life he was never really still: he used to read many books at the same time, to change his mind again and again…. A friend of his once commented, ‘He was never happy, never satisfied: he wanted to be in his hometown when he was in Milan, wanted to be in Milan when he was in Paris, and to be in Paris when he was back home… in short he was happy only on the train.’
The last aspect of his complex personality I would mention here is his light approach to life: maybe that was also a way of balancing his strong commitment for music — which used to absorb a huge amount of concentration and energy — or a (positive) side-effect of his disease and a way to live with it. In any case his style of blending lightness with complexity and ‘culture’ is definitely part of his heritage, and his music reflects this.”
We are excited to premiere a brand new work by Hans Thomalla. Come hear Capriccio on March 9th! Read what Talea’s Artistic Director, Anthony Cheung, and Hans had to say about it recently.
AC: Many of your works reference historical genres pieces of the past, particularly the early 19th Century. Titles such as “Character pieces,” “Musical moments,” “Album-leaf,” and now with this new piece, “Capriccio,” are but a few examples. What is your relationship to these types of genres? Why do you reference them and what is specifically attractive to you about the early Romantics?
HT: Just as much as it means creating acoustic realities, composing for me means to find out about the musical reality that surrounds me, about the numerous fragments from musical languages that over the years have accumulated into something like a “vocabulary”. Romantic musical gestures, expressions, and forms are a major part of that layering of references (not least because of their dominant presence in the classical music industry, and – at least during the time I grew up – in music for film and television, which because of its connection to concrete narratives so much coins our concepts of what musical figures “say”). My relationship to these materials is one of alienation – it is not “my” musical language – and at the same time one of intense attraction and curiosity. The referential figures are almost always eventually destroyed in my music, though: their dissection into their acoustic elements makes place for a different acoustic reality.
AC: Could you tell us about “Capriccio,” and how it fits into your output as a whole?
HT: I don’t really think about my music as a “whole”. Each of the pieces lives its own life, I hope. There are some traces to other recent works, though: the interest in melody, although one that is not predefined by scales and cadential gravitation, but by sudden linear relations between different materials; the transformation from traditional harmonies into multiphonics and vice versa. “Capriccio” is the attempt to follow the path of a melody that starts out as a rather rigid declination of scales (the concept of a technical virtuosity that has been so much part of the genre “Capriccio”), and that increasingly carries along structural “dirt” – multiphonics, driftwood of major and minor chords, spectral blossoming in the strings, all kinds of acoustic filters; and then eventually follows its own constantly re-charted navigation. “Capriccio” is also a genre of lightness, and I was curious to investigate a sound-world that is literally agravic, where all sounds are more and more airy, flautando, lifting the bow from the string and the mouth from the read, to create sounds that have almost lifted themselves up from any acoustic grounds.
AC: Tell us about “Fremd,” your recent opera that was premiered last year at the Stuttgart Opera.
HT: “Fremd” was a quite exhausting and intensive project – the second run of performances is actually going on at the very moment in Stuttgart, and I plan to see one of the last shows and participate in a discussion with the audience. It is the story of Medea and the Argonauts, which I read as an encounter of strange worlds (fremd means strange in German). It was the attempt to “tell a story” on the stage, without giving up one of the most exciting aspects of contemporary music: its liberation from any kind of system of reference, its insistence to be heard as sound just as much as sign. The struggle between Medea and the rationalistic Greeks is partially just that: the struggle of Medea’s concept of sound (and with that of nature in general) that is essentially “free”, and that of the Argonauts trying to rationalize acoustic experience and expression. It’s a “big” piece – large orchestra (partially placed around the audience), choir, soloists and live electronics. I wrote stage music already as a high school student, and later in college I wrote music for the Frankfurt Theater. After my undergraduate studies I worked at the Stuttgart opera company from 1999-2002 as a dramaturge – so I think that it is a field to which I was always attracted (and the success of “fremd” made me start thinking about the next opera-project already).
AC: You write that in order for contemporary music to be meaningful, it must examine the historical and rhetorical necessities of sounds and their specific uses, instead of relying on a repertoire of known gestures. Is it possible to create in a language without these references, and is that a conscious goal of yours at all times?
HT: I don’t think it’s possible to write music without any of these references, but I am interested in music that truly examines them to the core, transforms them, dissects them, and sometimes violently destroys them. I think there is nothing as boring in New Music as musical language, that in every moment is on stable ground. Whatever that ground is (neo-romantic expressive stereotypes; the never ending repertoire of minimalist- or film-music-idioms; any kind of post-serial “academic” syntax) – music that does not at times shake its own foundations, that actively deconstructs the so comfortably inherited language, eventually becomes meaningless, I think.
Read what Talea violist, Elizabeth Weisser, says about learning and performing Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VI. Then come hear her shred this Sunday, February 26th at 4 PM, at the Roger Smith Hotel!
iNSIDE Out Series
Negative Space: Music and Silence for One Viola
Works by Ianns Xenakis, J.S. Bach, and Luciano Berio
I was asked to play Berio’s Viola Sequenza a year and a half ago. I was very excited about the wild chords and ferocious tremolos. And with my affinity for coffee at the time, I thought that shaking my bow a lot would not only be an easy task, but pretty fun as well. Over the course of the summer leading up to it, I looked at the score and listened to several recordings as well as digging up as much reading material to get the piece in my head and heart.
Then the day came where I put the music on the stand and started to play the first note (violist Walter Trampler remarks about the the duration: “play until you think someone in the audience would scream”). I was playing all four notes as loud as possible with my bow going as fast as I could make it go. Feeling the lactic acid building in my right bicep, I finished that one note and put down my viola to call it a day. (I think Benjamin Franklin said something about do tomorrow what you could do today.) Day two, I tried a whole page. Again, the idea of actually getting through the entire piece when I felt literally winded and in a certain amount of pain after scrappily surviving a sixth of the piece seemed unrealistic. Throughout the process leading up to the concert, I tried everything. I added more core strength exercises to my day. I tried fabric and rubber bandaids and even stuck those wart pads on the top of my bow. I tried different kinds of rosin too. I increased my caffeine intake. I focused on using different muscle group and sometimes would even try alternating muscle groups in the middle of a run-thru. Basically, if you picture the montage from Rocky and replace the soundtrack with an avant-garde solo piece, I think that is what my life looked like for awhile.
And there was a certain dissonance within myself that went along with this process. The piece fought my body, my body fought the piece, I fought my body: it was a real struggle. But the more “beat up” I was, the more attached I found myself becoming to this work. I loved the way the harmonies would go from dense and dark to almost having these specks of light. I thought it was remarkable that he could change the texture so slightly and the dramatic impact was undeniably potent. And I thought the trajectory of the piece was so organic and elegant but in no way ordinary. The physical investment I put into the work made all of the conceptual elements much more special to me.
The day of the concert came and I still had concerns about being able to get through the piece. What would happen if my muscles simply stopped? I’ve seen it happen to marathoners- why not me? Even though this was a much smaller task than a marathon in terms of duration and mileage, this 12 minute piece was a huge journey for me. To keep you in suspense no longer, I got through without needing Gatorade, but I told myself I didn’t think I had it in me again to do it.
I woke up the next morning and felt like part of me was missing (and no, it wasn’t my arm despite what I thought the worse case scenario could be). The Sequenza had become part of my identity- my raison d’etre- for the time that I worked on it and suddenly, it was gone. The soreness in my arms remained but I felt incomplete. I hadn’t appreciated, through all of the bandaids and blisters, what had become almost a meditation for me: a time of escape and growth.
Therefore, I’m happy to get the piece back in my arms and fingers. Muscle memory helps and the negative space during which I didn’t play it allowed for me to regain strength and gratitude for the journey this time.
We are excited to have the fabulous Donatienne Michel-Dansac joining us from Paris very soon. Come hear her sing Bernhard Lang’s DW 16: Songbook 1 as a part of the Austrian Cultural Forum’s 10th Anniversary Series at the Bohemian National Hall on February 17th. Get to know her here first!
You joined a chorus at your Conservatory when you were 11, but had you always been drawn to singing or was that a new phenomenon for you?
I joined a children’s choir in the opera house of the town where I lived when I was 11. The theater was my second home; I spent so much time in it! It was not singing which was new at that time, but singing in choir: I adored it. My very first experience onstage was singing in the choir in “Carmen” and I have been addicted since…
At what point did your fascination begin with contemporary literature? Was there a certain piece that got you hooked?
My mother used to listen to a lot of music at home- mostly classical and jazz. Then in the 70′s and 80′s, there was a big contemporary music festival in Royan, France. My mother took the car and we went there to listen to lots of creations. It was more than three hours by car to go there which at that age seemed like an eternity!! I remember going to a recital of Cathy Berberian when I was nine years old. It was amazing. I’ve always listened to music at home but also going to a lot of concerts. On average, I think I went more than six times per month to the concert or opera since I was six years old. My very first experience as a singer which made me fall in love with contemporary music was meeting Pierre Boulez: I was 22 and it was for “Laboryntus 2″ by Berio, in Paris. Looking at such a big conductor, so calm, so easy, so smily, who conducted this music. It was a new experience for me, but I deeply wanted to interpret it. Since this experience, I always think about my time with Boulez when I work on any new piece. “Laborynthus 2″ hooked me, but it was also meeting Pierre Boulez.
What has been the strangest requirement from a composer/piece of music that you have had to meet?
In dealing with complex new music, I’m sure that with work, patience and intelligence, we can do lots of things!! The strangest request of a composer that I ever had was that he asked me to copy my voice which had been transformed by a computer… I just didn’t understand why because it was done (and very well!…) by the machine. I’m not a machine, so I didn’t do it, but it was very hard to explain because the composer didn’t understand that I was not a machine. His requirement was not strange, it was just ridiculous. No more to say…I work with great composers who are great human beings who write very difficult things but although it’s a lot of work, it always teaches me something about the possibilities of my voice.
What is your process as you are getting to know a work?
When I first get to know a work, I always work first in my mind. Just in my mind, no humming, no mimics, just in the head. To hear inside, to simply read also, to be closer and closer to the score and its own style. This process can take months for certain pieces (for example some “récitations” by Aperghis took me 9 months of this type of work, for finally 4 minutes of music… haha!) But the reward is that when you work so hard with your mind and intelligence, as soon as it’s time to sing (because the deadline of the concert arrives) more than 80% of the work is done. It always is astonishing to me but it’s real.
What is most interesting for you about singing DW16?
Receiving a score is always a present!! Everything is interesting in this score: the difficulties are very interesting because you have to look for solutions and I think I’m born to always look for solutions (even if I don’t find them which can also be very interesting…). In regards to DW16 Songbook I, I like the principle of Chamber Music, to work on a score entirely, understanding all of the instruments, what they do, where they are, where I am suppose to be inside their line etc… I like the repetitions of texts because you’re obligated to always say the same thing but never the same way… It’s a score where everything is written, I just have to do what is written. And last but not the least, there is a lot of humor in this piece.
“I’ve spent the last month or so engrossed in the music of Enno Poppe. His clarinet concerto Holz, was written for one of my heroes, clarinetist Ernesto Molinari. I had a transformative musical experience with him at Darmstadt and hope to run into him again when Talea plays there next summer. I have definitely been trying to channel his virtuosity, artistry and charisma in my preparation.
This clarinet part poses several practical challenges. It is a wild and virtuosic score with frenetic registral jumping and endurance demands, but in sitting down with it my initial task was simply figuring when to play each note. I remember hearing Brian Ferneyhough describe a section in his piece “Terrain” as looking through a window on a highway with lanes of traffic moving at different speeds. While Poppe’s music and rhythmic sensibility differ from Ferneyhough’s, this image loosely sums up the complicated, unstable rhythmic organization of “Holz.” Not only are instruments moving at varying speeds, but within my own part small repeated gestures stretch and push. It’s a compelling abstract idea and tricky to realize!
Luckily practicing this and each of the microtonal pieces for Talea’s Dec 17th concert appeals to my obsessive tendencies. In this piece Poppe employs quarter and eighth tones and while I’ve played plenty of music with various tuning schemes it is always rewarding to discover new tricks to achieve them more easily and accurately. It is a bizarre feeling after an afternoon finessing eighth tones when a half step seems so wide you could drive a truck through it. I love the idea that honing in on micro-details (pitch, rhythm, etc.) explodes open textural, harmonic, and expressive possibilities.
These details, among many others, help Poppe create a striking variety of complex and imaginative sound worlds. My solo line, at times sinewy and at other times explosive, weaves through the ensemble playing ethereal, mechanical, humorous, grotesque, and gorgeous music.”
Come hear Rane shred Holz this Saturday, December 17th, at Merkin Concert Hall at 8 PM!
We are psyched to premiere John Zorn’s Bateau Ivre (2011) on Friday December 9th at Miller Theatre. Join us and a great collection of all-stars including Fred Sherry, Jennifer Koh, Stephen Gosling, and many more.
Bateau Ivre (2011) has been made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.
Read what long-time collaborator Willie Winant has to say about working with John Zorn.
I’ve known John for almost 25 years, he is probably the most creative and imaginative composer I’ve ever known or worked with (and I’ve worked with a lot)! Henry Cowell had said that a composer of today should be able to write music convincingly in more than just one genre (or style), and John does this in spades, not only convincingly but with imagination and total creativity! It’s been a real honor to know, and have the opportunity to work with him.
Last night, Alex and I rehearsed Stockhausen’s Kontakte for the first time since our performance of it at the Spark festival in Minneapolis last fall. The concert on Friday at the German Consulate New York will be our third outing with the work, a milestone of electroacoustic music which remains mesmerizing a half century after it was written. So much of the learning curve with Kontakte is about memorizing and internalizing the tape part; as each event unfolds in fixed, pre-determined time, we interact with the broad strokes of the tape and its minute, moment-to-moment details, not to mention the other live performer. The rather elegant and ingenious graphic notation that Stockhausen devised to represent his electronics greatly aid the performer’s understanding and memory of the part, and two types of notation – prescriptive for the performer and descriptive for the tape – are thus employed simultaneously. Parallel interactions exist in real-time: those of the performer/tape and the performer/performer. The challenge in relearning the work has been to master both of these dialogues, which require different modes of processing information (perhaps even different parts of the brain!). Sam Pluta will be on hand with the tremendous task of balancing the tape and live parts seamlessly, and also giving us a few essential cues. But for most of the time, it’s up to us to feel what 10.4 seconds of near-silence followed by a huge outburst really sounds and feels like. Our internal clocks have to be running smoothly, because mistake 10.4 for 10.7 and you’ve missed the boat forever.
Another amazing thing about performing this piece, from my point of view, is the vast array of percussion that I get to play. We spent the first hour just getting all the auxiliary instruments set up and working. From indian bells to cymbals to cowbells, woodblocks, and gongs, the pianist for Kontakte has an elaborate setup that extends far beyond just playing on the keys of the piano. It’s a challenge that is incredibly satisfying, as I get to step into the shoes of a percussionist for much of the piece and augment the typical sonorities of the piano.
Welcome to the Talea Ensemble’s newly revamped website! With this digital makeover we are pleased to announce the 2011-12 season and several new features of the site itself: updated audio/video clips as well as the beginning of a regular blog series that will feature the contributions of performers, composers, and audiences.
2011-12 marks Talea’s fifth full season, and continues the innovative and unpredictable thematic programming which we strive to present. Bringing forward new works for the first time is the most exciting aspect of what we do, and a number of commissioned works will receive their premieres this season, from emerging composers to internationally established figures. There will be classics of experimental music mixed with more recent works that illuminate them in new contexts. A major event in December is a concert of microtonal music, with a conference at Columbia University earlier in the day. We also continue our commitment to the music of the late Fausto Romitelli. After having introduced much of his music to the US for the first time, we will be recording a disc of his music, presenting a portrait concert, and taking his music on tour.
Talea also continues its commitment to working with student composers, many of whom are already heavily involved in the professional worlds of new music; we will be in residence at four universities this season. And we continue our ongoing relationship with the arts-driven Roger Smith Hotel in midtown Manhattan, presenting a series of concerts integrating traditional repertoire with the new through thematic links and informal concert discussions. These continue to be some of the most enjoyable and rewarding ways for us to reach out to audiences, many of whom are regular attendees.