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Artist Spotlight: Courtney Bryan

Courtney Bryan, Composer & Pianist

Courtney-smallCourtney’s new work “In the Heart of God” will be performed tonight on Talea’s mainstage season finale. We sat down to chat about composition, Courtney’s diverse influences, and big-picture questions about diversity and inclusion that are coming to the forefront of conversations in jazz and classical music.

ZS: Let’s dive right in! Can you tell us more about who you are and where you’re from?

CB: My name is Courtney Bryan, and I’m a composer and a pianist. I’m originally from New Orleans, and I recently moved back home, summer of 2016, to start teaching at Tulane University, where I’m an assistant professor of jazz studies. I’m also a jazz artist, so that’s what I’m focused on in my teaching position. But, a lot of my projects are not so connected to jazz, too.

ZS: I didn’t realize that moving to New Orleans was actually a move back home, for you. And, it’s your first major teaching appointment, right? Has moving changed your thinking or your artistic practice?

CB: Yes, I’ve been thinking about this. The nice thing is that it’s a move back home, so it’s a familiar place. But, after a long time it is a little confusing. You remember the place and you think you know it. But, I’m really re-learning New Orleans. It’s pretty exciting, in terms of the music that’s happening. I’m just learning what the exciting things are, and who’s around. As far as the job, I’m also just learning what it means to balance a full-time professorship with being a full-time artist. Even though the position is teaching music, it’s a tricky balance.

ZS: How’s it going so far?

CB: Oh, you know, I feel crazy most of the time.

ZS: Don’t we all!

CB: Because I’m no longer in my early twenties, I’m not able to pull a bunch of all-nighters. I just have to prioritize and trust my creative process. Actually, this piece in particular was a good test with that.

Each project I take on is something I care about. Either it’s a group I want to work with or a topic I want to respond to. But, time is always an issue! Now, I don’t have as much time for brainstorming and trying out ideas, like I’m used to. It’s like: Start! …then meet the deadline. As far as writing In the Heart of God, I actually wrote it in just a few days, which was stressful.

ZS: I didn’t realize it was this quick!

CB: It’s a long story, but I actually had to start all over. So, instead of my usual process of collecting ideas and mapping things out, I just sat at the piano and improvised several takes based on the feeling of falling in love.

And, I had the quote from Khalil Gibran in my head. “When you love, you should not say ‘God is in my heart’, but rather: ‘I am in the heart of God’.” I had that in mind, and thought: I’m making a love song. I started to improvise this way, and I found something I liked. Then I looked at the full poem, and I realized it really does fit. In essence, I took my improvisation and used it as the basis to arrange for instruments.

ZS: I can’t wait to hear it! Do you often work this way, at the intersection of improvisation and composition? How much does this inform your practice?

CB: Improvisation is always a part of my process—and often collaboration, depending on the project. I usually work away from the piano, because it usually opens up my mind more to the possibilities with the instruments if I’m not starting from the piano. I just have certain things I naturally do on the piano—although of course I try to keep growing those, too.

I usually work visually, so I sometimes draw shapes that I’m thinking of. Sometimes numbers are an inspiration, too. I’ll collect all these ideas. I might start thinking of different melodies or harmonies, and that’s when I’ll bring in the piano into my process. But, then, I’ll go back to writing away from the piano.

This time was very different—and in many ways more like how I used to work a long time ago: starting at the piano. When I’m at the piano I might take the ideas and find ways to abstract them different ways, but this time it was like: “Oh, here’s what came out.” And basically I wanted to stick to what I was hearing in that moment. I wanted to trust that and orchestrate it.

ZS: Maybe it doesn’t relate so much to this piece, but at least in some of your other music you’ve been doing a lot with sampling recordings of jazz artists and incorporating them into your practice, and this makes me think of sampling in another tradition: hip-hop. I’m wondering if this informs your practice at all, or if you often think about this? Especially growing up in New Orleans?

CB: I’m glad you asked that, because I would definitely say that the process I use is influenced mostly by hip-hop: Thinking about sampling and building different ideas from recordings that already exist. And, yes, growing up I listened to everything. Being in New Orleans, there was a lot of music just around, usually with live instruments. There’s always some holiday and there are various second lines. Then, with the tourism economy, there’s also “performances” that re-create the original performances of the culture.

The record label Cash Money became big when I was in high school—and No Limit right before that—and in New Orleans we had our own style of music called Bounce Music. We didn’t listen to a lot of the national hip-hop, but when No Limit and Master P starting becoming national we started listening to more from the East Coast and the West Coast. Although, I suppose we always listened to the West Coast. I listened to a lot of Tupac growing up.

A piece of mine —“Songs of Laughing and Smiling and Crying”—reflects that in some ways. I’ve always been influenced by electronic music, but, I hadn’t yet ventured into creating electronic music. So, I was thinking about what the role of technology is in music, and the way I was hearing it.

Geri-AllenWhat wound up happening was me taking recordings of things and manipulating them. In 2012, Geri Allen was curating a month at the Stone and she invited me to do an hour-long show. I really wanted to do an hour-long solo piano piece using technology in some way. So, I looked at all these songs on the themes of smiling, laughing and crying. It included jazz artists, but it really included a lot of genres. It included opera—Placido Domingo singing Pagliacci—as well as Barbara Streisand, Dinah Washington, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Nicki Minaj, Tupac, Tony Bennett. I collected all these things. It ends with Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”, including the voices of Stevie Wonder, Janelle Monáe, Michael Jackson, Nat King Cole. It’s also an opportunity to incorporate all the different types of styles that I play on piano. Since then, I’ve used a similar technique in other pieces.

ZS: You know, I feel like arts organizations often talk about having eclectic or diverse programming, but someone like you just puts them to shame! You have such a sweeping knowledge of so many kinds of music, and incorporate them so thoughtfully into what you do. Has that always been a part of growing up in a melting pot of so many different musics—and having a love for so many different musics? Or is it something that you really try to actively incorporate into what you do?

CB: That’s a good question. I want to say it’s more about making a point to do it. But, now that you say it, I was always around it. Growing up, I went to a church called St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Most of the members were from the Caribbean, along with a mix of people from South America, West Africa, and America. The music was often traditional hymns in the Anglican tradition. But, then, there was always a tambourine playing a calypso rhythm mixed with one of the hymns, or something! You have this sound from one tradition, but you add this other traditional rhythm to it.

But, at the same time, I was always in separate worlds. I was a classical pianist over here, and a jazz pianist over there. Later, I learned about how people try to separate composer from performer, even though I always thought they went together.


I think this is where social questions come in. People talk about styles, but I think race and gender play a role. I feel like being a black person in the classical world that I was the only person in my circle, so I would want to make sure I didn’t stand out. I wanted to be evaluated based on my music—I focused a lot on trying not to be “othered”, even though you can’t really control those things.

And, as a young woman in the jazz world, it’s the same thing. I was very conscious of certain things, like not playing too soft. Whatever stereotypes people had of what a girl would do in jazz, I wanted to do the opposite. I played really hard and really fast. I would get weird compliments, like “Oh, Courtney, you played like a man.”

ZS: As though that’s flattering, or something.

CB: Yeah. But, when you’re just trying to be taken seriously… you just want a chance to do your music. But, as I got older and got into more settings where it was allowed… well, no, no, I had to make it allowed… but I think as I got older I just wanted not to separate any part of myself. My goal was to be my full self in any setting, no matter what it is. This project in particular was me saying: I’m going to do all the things I do in one piece, but it’s all connected by everyday emotion.

ZS: I feel like this very genuine spirit is so clear in your music and something I like very much about it. I feel like it touches on this point George Lewis makes, for example: that new music is always defining things that it is not: that is jazz, this is hip hop, etc. But, it never defines what it is. It’s good at separating things into little boxes—except when it’s time to actually reflect critically on its own orthodoxy.

I was speaking recently about this with the bassist in Talea, Greg Chudzik, who is playing the solo part in Rebecca Saunders fury II. He also grew up playing both classical and jazz, and when he first moved to New York he was playing a lot of both. We were talking about a lot of these bigger conversations that are going on in new music, jazz, and classical music. I’m wondering if you can talk about the same question: these conversations on diversity and representation?

CB: I hate to answer that with “I don’t know.” But, generally, I have to say I’m not exactly sure. Right now, I don’t even know what world I’m in, although I guess I’m in the “new music” world, the parts of it that are open to jazz. One thing that’s in common with all the music worlds right now is the #meToo movement. First of all, I am happy that there has been a lot of focus on programming and diversifying in the classical world, because it is past time. It’s good to make moves forward.

The #meToo movement has been very interesting to me, since it’s stories that people have always talked about, but we’ve been so into celebrating the “great genius” at the expense of everybody around them. Some person does these horrible things, but they’re a great artist so we look the other way. I think it’s really empowering that people are speaking out.

As far as diversity discussions, I hear about conversations happening, but in the more traditional parts of the jazz and classical worlds, I wonder how much has changed regarding gender representation. However there are conversations happening on this issue, which is positive. There are conversations about how to include more women composers and composers of color. Or, just generally more diverse programming. It’s all very important, and recently I feel like I’m getting more formally involved in a lot of these discussions. And, I’m formulating my own opinion of the best way to go about things.

I guess the ideal is when people want programs to be more naturally diverse. American Composers Orchestra is a good example. When I go to their concerts, I feel like there are a lot of different voices represented—musically, as well as in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and so on. I know Talea is talking about these issues, too.

ZS: Finally, then: going into the concert, is there anything in particular you’d want people to listen for or to know about your piece?

CB: Well, I think the process I described above is important to understanding it. But, I’ll also say this: I have had different inspirations in the past years, and I think some of my work that has gotten a lot of attention has been my work dealing with police brutality. I’m continuing on that path, but the natural progression as I’ve been thinking more about these themes is just thinking about life and death in general. This piece is about love, it’s about freedom. So, I guess what I am excited about with this piece is just to focus on the joy—with a little pain in it—and the idea of love. It’s really kind of simple, that way.

ZS: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing your time with me today, Courtney.

To see Courtney’s new work live, learn more, or purchase tickets for the concert on Friday, April 13th at St. Peter’s Chelsea, please visit:

Artist Spotlight: Greg Chudzik

Greg Chudzik, double bass

Greg-5Talea’s illustrious bassist, Greg Chudzik, is the featured soloist in Rebecca Saunders’ “fury ii” in the concert this Friday, April 13th, at St. Peter’s Chelsea. We talked about Rebecca Saunders’ music, Greg’s many musical hats, and bonded over freelancing in NYC.

ZS: So, Greg, how long have you been with Talea and how did you get involved? Do I remember correctly that you met Alex Lipowski at Lucerne?

GC: Yeah, I was at Lucerne in 2008, and Alex was a fellow, too. I had found out from a friend there was an ensemble called Talea back in New York, and they were looking to program a huge work by Fausto Romitelli with a bass part. I found Alex in the percussion section, and told him that I would be interested. After that I kept playing more and more with the group, until I officially became a member in 2013.

ZS: What brought you to New York City, then? You would have just finished at the Eastman School of Music?

GC: I had just finished Eastman. I was thinking of going to graduate school, but also asking myself a much bigger question: “why do I want to go to graduate school?” I didn’t really have a sufficient answer. I moved to New York City because I couldn’t think of anywhere else to live, and I figured I would make it as a musician. Obviously that did not happen as quickly as I thought it would.

ZS: Tell me about it! [laughs]

GC: Yeah. I worked on a cruise ship for two months, playing cabaret music. I saved up enough money to move to New York City, and I figured by the time my $5,000 ran out that I would be a star. Well, that $5,000 went very quickly, and I ended up having a bunch of day jobs. I worked at Bear Stearns for a while, and then in 2008 the economy completely collapsed, and Bear Stearns was no longer.

ZS: What did you do for Bear Stearns?

GC: I worked in HR. I hired a bunch of people, and then I fired a bunch of people when things turned south. At the same time, I started playing a bunch of music—a lot of $50 jazz gigs at restaurants that probably didn’t want jazz in the first place.

ZS: [laughs]

GC: I started playing new music, because it was something that I had been interested in throughout music school, and I found that there was more structure around it than there was in the jazz world—and it was a more open environment.

ZS: Really?

GC: Well, maybe not “open”, but there’s definitely more structure. The fact that it’s more institutionalized is kind of a nice thing.

ZS: So, it’s not something you necessarily did a lot of at Eastman? There’s of course an amazing tradition of new music performance, there.


GC: Well, I suppose I did quite a bit. That’s where I met Brad Lubman, who I still work with a lot. But, at Eastman I started as just a jazz major. I was convinced that I was just going to study jazz, although I took classical lessons as well. But, the jazz department at that time was in an interesting state of flux, where they were trying to get people to play a much more orthodox version of jazz. I think there was previously a tradition that was doing a lot more experimental stuff—which wasn’t necessarily considered “jazz” but still under the realm of improvisation. I was really interested by more of the improvisation stuff. But, at the same time, I realized there was this new music community at Eastman, and I found that was more what I wanted to do as a musician than just playing bebop tunes.

ZS: That brings up an interesting question. We often have these conversations in the music world about audiences and engagement and outreach. As someone who has a foot in both jazz and classical worlds, can you talk a little bit about this? About experimental visions of music-making in the future, versus these kinds of orthodoxies? In classical music I think there’s often this unfortunate idea that jazz is more “popular” and therefore doesn’t address these kinds of questions, but in a lot of ways I feel it’s the opposite: the jazz world thinks about it even more.

GC: Well, I think to tell any jazz musician that jazz is more “popular” than literally any other form of music would be almost laughable, from their perspective.

ZS: Really?

GC: Well, look, we live in New York City, which is considered an epicenter of jazz. But, one of the most amazing concerts I’ve seen was this great jazz guitarist, Ben Monder, who is in my opinion one of the best in the world at what he does. It was at 4 pm on a Sunday in the back room of some bar, and there were about 4 other people there.

So, the jazz audience—and I know this is hard to believe coming from the “modern classical” world—might be even narrower. And, what I notice in the jazz and classical world has less to do with the content of the music itself so much as who is making the music and who is considered in the “in crowd”. You know, I think there’s a lot of reflection going on based on gender and based on race in the modern classical world, and I think it’s finally starting to really affect the kind of music that’s being made. This year’s winter jazz was a really interesting example of this.


Let’s face it: Most music has been made by white males, and more and more is being performed by not white males—and, thankfully, more and more is being written by not white males, too. It still needs to happen more, and the jazz world has a long way to go before it reaches gender parity.

I think there’s a tendency to talk about that as a component that is separate from the music itself and how it sounds, but I think it does affect it. You’re giving space to more people with different perspectives, and I think that’s inherently going to make a different sound.

ZS: Do you feel the same thing happening in the new music world to the same extent? Or do you think it’s happening more quickly or more broadly in the jazz world?

GC: That’s a good question. You know, it almost seems to be happening at the same rate. I will say probably that scenes that are more rooted in orthodoxy, musically, are much more resistant. Whereas, the more “creative” jazz-oriented world is more quickly approaching more gender parity, for sure.

ZS: It’s certainly something we’re thinking about a lot and talking about a lot in next year’s programming. And, we’re soon unveiling this new “Town Hall” series for next year, and we’re working to champion a lot of these questions.

I’m wondering: how do you find it influences you to be a practicing artist in both these different fields?

GC: Well, I don’t want to call it a “school” of composition, but there’s a lot of music where if you were not told—i.e. if there was no context—it would be very difficult to differentiate improvised music and certain complex notated music. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing! I think it’s really important as a performer to be more of an interpreter and understand the texture the composer is going for.

Now, I’m not endorsing “winging” it: I always try to get a piece of music as close to what’s on the page as possible. It’s a bit cliché, but a lot of people in the jazz world will say that improvisation is spontaneous composition.


As far as this Rebecca Saunders piece, there’s a lot of information and a lot of very clear information. I really take a lot of time—and pride—in trying to get it as accurately as possible. Just as much, though, I try to take a step back and ask myself: Big picture, what is this going for? What is the sound? I often think: If I were listening to someone improvise, what would be the most important thing? What would stand out?

ZS: Then, what’s the hardest things about the Saunders?

GC: You know, I haven’t rehearsed it with the ensemble yet. It often happens with such a complex piece of music that things I think are going to be hard are actually fine, and vice versa. For me, the biggest challenge in terms of execution is the very specific lexicon of sounds that Rebecca uses in this piece—ones that I think are wonderful. It’s a very limited range of textures, but it’s a very specific range of textures as well. So, you know that whatever she has written, you have to do it very well. I think that’s going to be the difference between an ok performance and a great performance: really honoring those specific textures.

ZS: Yeah, I was going to ask about that, actually. One of the things I personally find hardest about solo playing with an ensemble is the sense of rhythm, pacing, and pulse: always questioning where to compromise and use my chamber music instincts, and where to use a soloist’s instincts and just go, and expect other people to follow me. In this work—where there’s such a mosaic of floating textures until a moment of alignment—how are you preparing?

GC: Yeah, it’s a lot with the metronome. I’m almost coming from the approach of practicing—or, I should say, training—for a marathon. (No one practices for a marathon). Consistency is key: Doing the same thing over and over. When I’m practicing it, I take great pains to make everything as rhythmically accurate as possible. There are definitely some very beautiful, lyrical moments, but, I think you have to cast aside that romantic idea of the “soloist” and focus on just playing as you would in any other chamber ensemble.

The ensemble is not very large, and it’s almost a celebration of the wonderful low frequency textures that the double bass can make. It’s like an inverted solo, where instead of trying to go above the orchestration, you’re going below it. Instead of cutting above the ensemble she’s cutting underneath it.

ZS: Do you have a favorite moment in it?

GC: That’s a great question. I haven’t really played it with the group yet, but I feel like there are going to be some really magical moments that present themselves when I experience the interaction. It’s one thing to listen to the recording, but I think it will be an entirely different experience, first-hand.

ZS: I guess my last question, then, is: as someone who has been freelancing in New York for a decade, I’m sure you’ve seen all kinds of crazy things. This is going on our website, so it has to be safe-for-work, but what’s one of the craziest experiences—musical or otherwise—that you’ve had in your time as a New York freelancer?

GC: One of my most surreal experiences as a musician in NYC has been with my current next-door neighbor in Brooklyn. The variety of methods used to express her displeasure in my practicing is perplexing if not at times terrifying. It started as long letters posted to my door and invitations to official mediation, but quickly escalated. At one point, she left a meticulous log of my practice schedule in the form of message submissions on my webpage. For a while the police would show up at my door whenever she called, but that ended once I got to know the officers (it was always the same officers on the beat, and one of them is a pianist at his church, so he understood). Oddly enough, she hasn’t resorted to playing loud music – only NPR radio. Her current weapon of choice has been singing along loudly (using headphones) with either Alanis Morrisette’s “Jagged Little Pill” or Nirvana’s “In Utero” in album order. Maybe she’ll progress to Meredith Monk at some point!

Tickets on sale now for April 13th, 8 p.m. at St. Peter’s Chelsea (346 W 20th St): Talea plays Bryan, Dulaney, Saunders, Walton. To learn more or purcahse tickets, please visit:


Greg Chudzik is an active performer across numerous genres on the double bass and electric bass.  Currently, he can be seen performing regularly with several new music groups, including Signal Ensemble, Wet Ink Ensemble, and Talea Ensemble.  Greg is also a member of several bands, including Empyrean Atlas, Bing and Ruth, and The Briars of North America.  He has worked with numerous influential figures in contemporary music, including Steve Coleman, Steve Reich, Pierre Boulez, George Benjamin, Helmut Lachenmann, Charles Wuorinen, Alex Mincek and Tristan Perich.  Greg’s recording credits include playing on the Grammy-nominated “Barcelonaza” by Jorge Leiderman, “Morphogenesis” and “Synovial Joints” by Steve Coleman on Pi Recordings, “No Home of the Mind” and “Tomorrow Was the Golden Age” by Bing and Ruth on RVNG records, the album “Americans” by Scott Johnson (Tzadik records), multiple recordings with Signal Ensemble on New Amsterdam and Mode Records, the album “Grown Unknown” by Lia Ices (Secretly Canadian records), the album “Inner Circle” by Empyrean Atlas, and the album “High Violet” by The National on 4AD records.  Greg’s debut album “Solo Works, Vol. 1″ was released in July of 2015 and features original pieces of music written for bass guitar and electronics.

Artist spotlight: Lauren Slaughter

Lauren Slaughter, Poet, author, and editor

Before Talea’s mainstage season finale on Friday, April 13th, I had the chance to sit down with Lauren Slaughter, who wrote the libretto to Maxwell Dulaney’s Already Root, a modern retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. We talked about Eurydice, feminism, re-runs of Friends, and more. By Zach Sheets.


ZS: Perhaps to start you could tell me a little bit more about yourself? What you’ve been up to, where you teach? Maybe, how you met Max and how you started working together?

LS: Yeah, sure! Well, Max and I go way back—we met in Tuscaloosa, Alabama years ago. When we were both at the University of Alabama, I had the chance to hear some of his work and have admired it since. It’s so intellectual and challenging and beautiful.

I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I’m originally from Philadelphia and come from a family that supports artists—and has writers within it—which is a ridiculously lucky thing. I went to Kenyon College where I studied literature and writing, and I worked on the literary journal, the Kenyon Review, while there. After graduating I pursued an MFA at the University of Alabama in creative writing: fiction and poetry. I’ve worked as an editor as well for years, and I edit a journal called NELLE, which publishes work by women. In many ways my project as an editor line up with my thoughts about Eurydice and the importance of feminist writing and interpretation.

As far as my writing, I have a book of poetry out called, a lesson in smallness—it came out in 2015—and my second book, The Mother Burlesque, is finished and will hopefully find a home soon!

lesson in smallness

ZS: Congratulations!

LS: I mean, don’t congratulate me yet [laughs]. Although, I guess finishing something is worth congratulations.

ZS: Absolutely, it is!

LS: Well, so, working on Already Root with Max came at a great time because I was just about to finish with the second book of poems and was noodling around with some fiction projects. So, it was kind of the perfect time to work on something totally new.

ZS: So, let’s dive right into your and Max’s Eurydice retelling. As you mentioned, it’s a story that’s been taken up countless times, from Ovid to Monteverdi to any number of classical retellings. But, it also has taken on a history of feminist retellings, like Margaret Atwood or Carol Ann Duffy. Can you tell us a little more about Eurydice and your decision to cut Orpheus out of it?

LS: Yes! I mean, it begins with Max. When he brought this idea to me he had a lot of these ideas formed, insofar as he wanted it to be a feminist retelling. The work of Joanna Klink and Rilke was also really important to Max and his thinking about the project. They are both poets I really admire—I mean, Rilke’s work is so totally foundational— so I think we had a lot of common ground and a really common vision from the start—almost creepily so! So, I think it fits within the larger context of it being an important time to have space as a woman and a writer to think about Eurydice; the choices she didn’t have. Thinking about agency as a woman seems as important as ever.

ZS: For people who might have skipped this lecture in mythology, can you give a brief synopsis of why this story—one that we think of as such a rosy love story that’s so wonderful—is maybe not so good? I find it’s like watching a re-run of an episode of Friends, or something. Like: “oh gosh, this is what I grew up watching? This is where I got my values around love and romance? This is no good!”

LS: [laughs] Um, yeah. Right. So, basically, Orpheus has this unbelievable power as a charmer—so, Joey? Anyway, he’s so alluring that trees uproot and dance to him, rocks roll to him, and so on. Nothing can resist Orpheus and his lyre. After Orpheus and Eurydice are wed, on the day of their marriage, Eurydice gets bitten by a snake, dies, and is sent to the underworld.

That’s where the opera picks up—Eurydice finds herself in the underworld. Of course, the underworld is not “hell”. It’s this other place, this other world, that might be way beneath the earth or it might be on the edge of some faraway ocean—but to me it seems like a place of the imagination. It’s not a place of bodies; souls separate from their bodies to go there. Also, the way that it’s engraved with rivers and water, it seems in some ways like a very feminine place.

ZS: And then there’s Orpheus. We’re used to this beautiful, charming story, but actually Eurydice doesn’t have a lot of say in the whole thing.

LS: Exactly. The sitcom version is that Eurydice dies and Orpheus tries to rescue her with the help of Hermes who helps guide her above. The deal is that if Orpheus does not turn around to look at Eurydice, then she gets to go back with him. But, of course, he can’t help himself and she is sent back below. As you suggested, some artists have entertained the idea that she compels him to turn around, because she would prefer to stay, which is something that I thought about too.

Death of Orpheus by Albrecht Dürer (1494)

ZS: So how does this moment of unification work in your retelling, without Orpheus there? What kind of moves can you make with that?

LS: Max and I worked this through together and it was one of the aspects of the opera we had the most fun figuring out. At least I did. So, should it end when Eurydice—accompanied by Hermes—is finally compelled to leave the Underworld but before she sees her husband? Or does the opera end when Orpheus turns around?

ZS: Can you tell me a little more about that? Working on an opera and working on a libretto? Either in general, or, specifically, working with Max?

LS: The logistics involved a lot of fits and starts—which is how I work naturally. In the very beginning, he sent me a sound file. The work was so complex but I felt like I completely understood: these incredible, ethereal breathy sounds: really intense music. From there we went back and forth a lot, via texting, via FaceTime, and a few in person sessions. One of my favorite things was that even on FaceTime we would have these wonderful “staring-off-into-the-distance” moments.

Our back and forth was anything from Max telling me he needed more fragmented words or specific sounds to more general questions about the narrative and arc of the piece. This learning curve felt steep for me, especially in the beginning stages. But I think artists in general love collaborating and having the opportunity to think about their work through a different medium.

But also think the two forms work complement each other; the way poetry works is also multidirectional. So much is happening simultaneously. For instance, in a line of poetry: how is that line independent and how does it reverberate against the music and patterns and images surrounding it?

ZS: That’s wonderful. I wonder: to what extent did you have to hold present in your work the fact that eventually this was going to be sung? I think English is especially difficult to set because the cadence of spoken (and sung) English has such a strong rhythm and rhythmic profile. If it merely sounds accurate it can be a little boring to sing, but if it’s not “correct” it just sounds weird. How does this filter into your own work as a poet, dealing with rhythm and cadence and assonance?

LS: That’s such a cool question. So, take for example iambic meter. It’s an unstressed followed by a stressed beat. And in English, you’re right, it naturally follows that cadence. And, yeah, I can’t imagine something killing Max’s piece more quickly than that kind of regular, monotonous footwalking of the English language.

The piece begins as Eurycide wakes up. She is getting used to her new surroundings, getting used to her new physical form, and if she were to begin to articulate this in our language’s natural cadences it wouldn’t make sense with what she is experiencing. She’s totally freaked out and so fragmented language needs to reflect that. I think that in poetry, after initial drafting, you want to find the form that fits the subject matter, and so that idea really helped me throughout the process for sure.

ZS: Great. Let’s talk a little bit more about your own work. You were kind enough to send me a few of your pieces in advance. There were two things that really jumped out to me about them, and I’d love to know how these features might be present in your Eurydice libretto. One of them is the way that everyday ritual and plain tasks are intertwined with really heavy observations and really weighty big life questions.

LS: Yeah.

ZS: For example, I was struck by one image of walking down the stairs every day and seeing the same dead moth on the window sill. You noticed it when you moved into the house and it’s still there as you’re pregnant, and eventually your son is born. Finding meaning and value and life in these daily actions is really meaningful and valuable, to me, personally. Can you talk about where that comes from and how that filters into your work?
[to read Pulse in full, please click here]

LS: Sure. I think you’re asking about writing; about daily-ness and maybe the mundane. If you look closely, even the most domestic, most dull moment can take on these crazy metaphysical dimensions. I guess I’m interested in that, because that’s what our lives are made of. It all adds up.

The poem that you’re talking about—I mean, I couldn’t explain death to my kid, basically. The poem isn’t necessarily factual—poems usually aren’t—but it is an amalgam of things that happened, or things that sort of happened, or just ideas and images that amplify what I’m trying to get at. But this idea that passing a moth that’s dead in the window every day and having your son look at that moth and ask “Why can’t it fly? Doesn’t it miss its mother?” And then, not being able to explain to him that that moth is dead because…well, why?

And I think a lot of what happened to Eurydice, what makes sense to me thinking about her story, is that I think everybody can relate to not having agency over your life. I mean, a life ends. So how do you find your imaginative self and your creative self, in a physical space, in a mundane space, like going grocery shopping, or something like that.

ZS: Thank you for such a beautiful answer to what was not such a good question: I just said a thing I thought, put a question mark at the end, and you gave such a nice answer.

LS: [laughs]. Well, thank you for asking it!

ZS: The final thing that stood out to me—and I’m once again going to observe something and leave a question mark hanging—is, what about humor? These moments in your work that make one smile, in contexts that are otherwise challenging and sometimes really painful?

LS: I think humor in my own work is really important. Not as a comic relief, though—not like “things are getting heavy, better put a joke in there!” I teach a class called “#funny/not/funny” that investigates the way that humor helps us understand the most significant, challenging moments of just… being a human. But, humor, as I talk about in the class, is also the absurd. It’s the fantastic, and, as far as that goes, the underworld has plenty of it.

ZS: Lauren, thank you so much.

Lauren Goodwin Slaughter is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and author of the poetry collection, a lesson in smallness (National Poetry Review Press), which was a finalist for the Rousseau Prize for Literature and the Eric Hoffer Award in poetry. Her poetry has recently appeared in Pleiades, 32 Poems, Sugar House Review, Nashville Review, Kenyon Review Online, among other places. She is an assistant professor of English at The University of Alabama at Birmingham where she is Editor-in-Chief of, NELLE, a literary journal that publishes writing by women.

Artist Spotlight: Michelle Agnes Magalhaes

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

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

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

ZS: The summer course with Chaya and Steve?

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

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

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

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

ZS: She was a very private person, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ZS: The aluminum pipes?

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

ZS: It’s like gardening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ZS: That sounds wonderful!

For more information, please visit the Americas Society website.

Artist Spotlight: Karen Kim

In advance of Karen Kim’s big debut as the newest member of Talea’s roster, we sat down to chat about her background, her preparations for the Nono, and her approach to such a mysterious and beguiling work….

Zach Sheets: Let’s see: first, to get to know you a little better, I’m wondering if you could tell us more about yourself! Where you’re from, where you studied, etc?

Karen Kim: I grew up in LaCrosse Wisconsin, and I lived there until I went to college. I did one year of school at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where I was studying with Donald Weilerstein. But, when he transferred to teach at New England Conservatory I went with him. I studied at NEC for 6 years, and I completed my undergrad as well as a masters in violin performance and in chamber music. While I was there, I was part of the Parker String quartet and I stayed with them out of school—about 10 years. We lived in St. Paul for 5 years, and for part of that time we had a residency with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. But, I decided it was time to move on, so I moved to NYC about 5 years ago.

ZS: Were you playing a lot of new music when you were at NEC, or not more until you moved to New York? Certainly with the Parkers there’s a great tradition of playing pieces by living composers. Is that how you got in to playing more work from recent years?

KK: Yeah, you know, I started dipping my toes into it when I was in college, and I realized I had a proclivity for the music, and I found it very interesting. Then, when I came to New York, there’s just so much new music here that it was kind of a natural fit to go down that path.

ZS: Have you played this Nono before? Did you know the piece well before we approached you about it?

KK: No, it’s new to me!

ZS: What has it been like to learn it? It’s such a massive piece, and so mysterious.

KK: It’s this way for a lot of pieces, but especially in this piece: the hardest thing was just that first step into it, because when I first glanced at the score it seemed so overwhelming. Largely, in part, because it’s a hand-written score, and it’s a little bit hard to read if you’ve never looked at any of Nono’s handwritten scores before. So, that was a challenge. And then, taking the first dive in to translate all this Italian for myself, figure out exactly what he wants me to do, what is supposed to be happening, etc. It just took a lot to get there. But, after that first step everything starts falling into place.

ZS: Had you played a lot of Nono’s other music before? Either with the quartet or in other contexts?

KK: I haven’t! This is my first piece by him.

ZS: Yeah, it’s funny, it’s the same for me. I’ve never played a piece by Nono. He’s such towering figure in new music, but his works are performed relatively rarely.

I’m curious: when you’re approaching something that has such a theatrical presentation (we’re going to do it with special lighting, largely in the dark)—and especially now that we have this amazing essay by Paul Griffiths, it feels like this big production. When it’s just you on stage, how do you prepare for that? The way you present yourself and deal with the theater of the whole thing?

KK: You know, he gives a lot of instructions in the score. You walk back and forth between different music stands when you’re playing the different sections of the piece. He gives instructions in the score for the manner of walking. And, it’s kind of interesting, because it’s very consistent with the mindset you have to have to play the piece, anyway. It’s as though you tell yourself: “I’m going to be there, feeling a certain way.”

With any music you play, you get into the zone, and you’re trying to embody the feeling of the music, and I think this just happens to involve also some choreography. But, it’s very natural. So, although I’ve never done anything quite like this before, I also don’t feel like I need to practice “acting” or anything like that.

ZS: You know, I’ve never actually gotten my hands on a copy of the score—there are actually specific instructions about the manner in which you walk? And your countenance as you move between the stations?

KK: Yeah; for example, he says “walk very slowly” or “walk uncertainly”, or “pause a lot”. And then, there’s one transition in particular where it says that you’re supposed to look very uncertain and then walk one direction and then turn back around.

ZS: I imagine for a lot of performers that might come across very hokey…

KK: I guess it could… I’ve never seen the piece done live, so I don’t know. I think we all just have to “be there”.

ZS: Well, I’m sure you’ll do an incredible job! I’m curious: I know it’s always a bit strange for me when I’m playing a flute and electronics work (some of the Saariaho music, for instance), when there are pre-recorded tracks of the same instrument, in some cases mimicking you. What has it been like to think of “blending” with these recordings of Gidon Kremer? I find it’s a funny thing to have to think about.

KK: Yeah! It’s so interesting because the electronics are pre-recorded, but there’s a specific way that Nono wants them to be manipulated…. Do you know about what David [Adamcyk] is going to be doing?

ZS: Well, I do… But you should tell everyone else who’s reading about it!

KK: (laughs) Ok! Well, the electronics are 8 different channels, and they’re in pairs. So, there are 4 different types of material, and then during the performance David will be fading up and down the different channels. So, he brings them in and out as he sees fit with what’s happening in my part. And, the only restriction is that it should never be all 8 at once. So, it’s this very interesting combination: his part is also improvised and reacting and in dialogue with the violin part, but in a way it’s also set in stone. The track just plays.

We’ve come across some instances in rehearsal where we get to a certain part, and David realizes that a certain type of material would be great to have—but there’s just not very much happening in the track! So, it’s very controlled and very free at the same time. It’s unique that way.

ZS: So, how do you stay synchronized with the track?

KK: Oh, it’s not supposed to be synchronized.

ZS: Oh!

KK: Nono talks in the score about how the relationship between the electronics and the violin is supposed to be autonomous but in dialogue. So, in my part there are a lot of fermatas and pauses and rests, and those are moments to really react to the electronics and shape the pacing of the piece. And then, of course depending on what’s happening in the electronics affects the gesture as well.

ZS: Well, I guess I was wrong—I didn’t quite know how it works. I know now! One thing that is very curious to me in the electronics is some of the speaking and the non-violin sounds in the electronics, like some of the resonant “rumbling”, or little fragments of spoken quotations. What do you make of that as someone who now knows the piece inside and out?

KK: I mean, it’s definitely a bit strange, because you wonder why he chose these different sounds, and what he’s trying to say. But, at the same time, I feel like he has created a space where the sound of the violin and the electronics exist. It all consistently sounds like it’s in the same space.

ZS: Do you find that the moments of coordination in the electronics are more—I don’t know if “complicated” is the right word—but, at least, maybe a little more difficult to shape, when it’s non-violin sounds? As opposed to passages where you’re bouncing off a pre-recording of a violin? In other words, something that’s closer in the nature of what you’re doing?

KK: Mmm, no. Because, I feel like the environmental sounds are still very gestural and they punctuate what’s going on in a certain way, and I feel like that energy is something that you can still be in dialogue with.

ZS: So, speaking of energy, one thing that I imagine is very difficult about playing “La Lontananza…” is the number of times where you have almost Romantic sounding little fragments. They almost sound like something out of Mahler or a very strange Puccini—but then very quickly afterwards you can change to very loud, brittle ways of playing, which I imagine put a lot of pressure into the instrument.

How do you keep the bow nice and light and free, and the left hand doing what it needs to do, in these more lyrical passages? But, then, at the same time, be able to turn the corner back to something really brash? Is that a question of headspace or is that a question of practicing the back and forth?

KK: Hm. Both. (laughs)

ZS: Ok!

KK: Yeah, I mean, practice it, try to do it… The nice thing about the piece is that the pacing has this very timeless quality. I think it’s meant to feel organic for yourself. There are definitely surprises, but you’re not playing with an ensemble, where somebody else is playing in time and you just have to be able to do it. If I can change emotionally, quickly enough, then I know I can do it with my violin.

ZS: That’s a very beautiful way to say that, I think.

Do you find, ever, that you stretch the pacing or the proportion a little bit to make it a little bit easier to jump from one character to another? Or did you decide first what you wanted as a framework for the overall pacing and then decide from there, like, ok, I really need to make this change in this amount of time?

KK: Hmm.

ZS: Hang on, you know, maybe that’s not a very good question.

KK: (laughs) No, it’s a good question! The pacing is definitely something we’ve been working on in the rehearsal process. It has become very clear to me that having a vision of the architecture of the piece is so important. And, it’s important for any work of music that you play, but I think especially so for a work like this, that’s so long and feels so improvised. If you don’t have a picture in mind it can just feel like you’re doing random stuff for a really long time—And then you’re definitely going to lose the audience. So, I’ve been focusing a lot on bigger-picture organization of the piece.

ZS: Could you give a couple examples of ways that you really try to put up some signposts or connect specific touchpoints to be able to tell a story?

KK: I don’t know if this is too technical, but there are definitely certain passages where you feel like it’s in one harmonic world. And, within that passage there will be a lot of back and forth between energetic outbursts and very long sustained notes, and then long pauses. And, I think it’s easy, especially in the pauses, to lose the shape of what’s going on. But, you know, as I keep working on the piece and getting to know it better, I’m seeing more and more “oh, this is really a corollary to something that happened before.”

ZS: I imagine in a lot of ways, compositionally, that’s very difficult to pull off. You don’t have a lot of information about a bass voice or a fundamental, since so much of it is treble register.

KK: Yeah.

ZS: I imagine, then, that that touches as much on the color of the sound you choose as the specific harmonic palette?

KK: I think so!

ZS: One of the last things that was really striking to me as I was listening again this morning were these moments where the violin falls back on iconic sounds, like open strings or a very Romantic, violin-esque mode of playing. It’s not something I would usually associate with this music. I think, for instance, of Nono’s student Lachenmann, where that kind of thing would almost never happen. But, they’re very arresting moments, here, and I wonder how you think about them in the framework—as you put it—of the entire thing? Are they special moments, for you? How do you approach them musically?

KK: You know, the whole piece is written in a very expressive manner. There are long sections of music that are just soft held notes. But, Nono gives the instruction that the sound should always be searching, and there should always be a very slight fluctuation of pitch. The sound should always feel like it’s traveling. He just sets up this very mysterious, introspective kind of a feeling within the piece. Then, I think those moments of “oh, I’m actually playing a short melody” come, and it does have more of a traditional sound, and it’s kind of a relief. I get to play something that’s contained within 5 seconds, as opposed to an entire movement as suspended and light as possible.

But there’s also a moment that quite frankly I’ve been struggling with, which is one that is very motivic, traditional writing. It sounds so weird! I was asking David about it in rehearsals—I feel strange every time I get to this part—and we were working on it. I don’t know; I’m not sure what else to say.

ZS: Yeah. It’s a very beguiling piece of music, I think. Have you had a chance yet to read Paul Griffiths essay about the work?

KK: I did, soon after Rick sent it out. The general feeling of it really sets the stage for the experience of the piece very well, I think!

ZS: I’m looking forward to going back and reading it again, myself, but I agree it’s a great way to set the stage. Is there anything else you’d like people to know? Any ways of listening or things you think will help bring people more insight as they experience this amazing performance and amazing work?

KK: This is not necessarily something that’s particular to this work—it’s just something that I hope people do when they listen to music, anyway—but I think it’s important to be very open. I always find it helpful, especially hearing music you’ve never heard before, not to have a pre-conceived notion of what’s going to happen. Just be there and be open to the experience…

Paul Griffiths on “La Lontananza”

Thanks to the support of the Columbia University Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, the British music critic, novelist, and librettist Paul Griffiths has written a specially commissioned long-form program note for February 21st’s concert, featuring Luigi Nono’s 1989 masterpiece La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura. We invite you to read it in advance of the concert, or join us at 7 p.m. to read a print version that will be available on-hand before the 7:30 p.m. performance.


A lone figure, violin and bow in hand, enters and walks across the stage toward a music stand, where this figure, musician, stops and begins to play. The notes may be abrupt, frenetically maintained, or quiet and long; they may come singly or in singing lines, may be assertively present or faintly redolent of former times. Whatever their nature, their character is one of search, because there is always this urge, within the continuity they create, to begin again. They search out the space into which they spill. They search, perhaps, for the impossible, for an exit from that space.

That space is already occupied – has been occupied from before the musician entered – by swarms, clouds, jets of pre-recorded sounds, many of them still evidencing their source in the same instrument, the violin. One might imagine an orchestra of violins in searing intensity, or a choir of voices that are reconstructed violins, or a group of violins tuning, or an industrial noise that still has within it the abrasive edge of hair on string.

The work being performed is La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura, composed in 1988 by Luigi Nono and revised the following year. Title, date and composer are all very relevant to what is going on here.

First, the title – “The Distance, Nostalgic Utopian Future,” one might say, keeping the Italian word order, or “The Nostalgic Utopian Future Distance.” We are being invited to listen to a distance that is a distance in time, a distance we simultaneously listen across, to something at the further end of that distance, and listen into, the distance itself the object of our scrutiny. It is a distance in the past (hence the nostalgia) and also in the future, which it can be because it is the distance to a dream, a dream of a Utopian future that has, with the passing of time, not come closer but rather receded.

Twenty years had gone by since the heady days of 1968, when it seemed that a noisy but peaceful and positive revolution was about to overtake the western world. To some extent, the hope had been fulfilled. A disastrous war had been brought to an end and not (so far) replicated. Constraints based on race, sex, and sexuality had been removed. And yet the heads of government – Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher – did not look or behave like proponents of radical change. Rather the reverse. The status quo had been patched up, ready to go on.

As for the composer, Luigi Nono, born in Venice in 1924, had grown up under Mussolini’s fascism and spent his late teenage years experiencing war. When that war ended, he was, like many of his generation, determined there should never be another. Responsibility for the war lay with the fascists. There had to be a wholly alternative polity, and Marxist communism, proposing equality of opportunity, participation, responsibility, and reward, seemed like the one.

Nono joined the Italian Communist Party in 1952, and his works gained a social-political edge; his first opera, Intolleranza 1960, concerns the hostility a migrant worker faces on every side. However, Nono’s vigorous adherence to an avantgarde language, post-Schoenberg, post-Varèse, gained him few friends in eastern Europe, while his insistence on messages of fierce political engagement lost him those he had among western European composers of his generation, such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Support from outstanding performers – notably Claudio Abbado and Maurizio Pollini, for whom he wrote his piano concerto Como una ola de fuerza y luz (1971-2) – must have helped, but there was irony here, too, since by this time he was distancing himself from normal concert life, preferring presentations in factories. He had composed a work specifically for such occasions, La fabbrica illuminata (1964), for soprano and tape. Increasingly alone, and probably feeling that to be inevitable, he began writing more interior music, notably his string quartet Fragmente–Stille (1979-80), which was his first work since the early 1960s with no electronic component.

Much of his work of the next several years revolved around Prometeo, a non-opera for solo voices and instruments, chorus, and orchestra, with live electronic transformation, a “tragedy of listening”, as he called it, that was also a treatise in listening, demanding close concentration on individual sonorities. Before we could listen to music again, we had to learn to listen to sounds, learn to navigate ourselves in aural environments lacking all the conventional gravitational forces and compass bearings.

Following the first performance of Prometeo, in Venice in 1984, Nono produced several live-electronic pieces for performers drawn to him by his music’s uncompromising difference and insistence: the flutist Roberto Fabbriciani, clarinetist Ciro Scarponi, vocalist Susanne Otto, and tuba player Giancarlo Schiaffini. During this period he also found a mantra in words inscribed on a wall in Toledo: “Caminante, no hay caminos, hay que caminar” (Wanderer, there are no ways, only the wandering), adapted from a poem by Antonio Machado. This line is variously contemplated in four of his last works, two for large forces and two for small, these being La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura and its successor for two violins, «Hay que caminar» sognando.

Hence, in part, the former work’s subtitle: “Madrigale a più ‘Caminantes’ con Gidon Kremer”, the “more wanderers” here being the eight electronic tracks on the tape that is playing alongside the violinist. These tracks, in pairs, convey different kinds of material, which the composer’s assistant André Richard describes as follows:

“Tracks 1-2: Very dense, variously overlaid harmonic material,

“Tracks 3-4: Original [violin] sounds of various playing techniques, single tones, and fifths,

“Tracks 5-6: Voices, words, noises of doors, chairs, etc., also violin sounds [all recorded during the recording process],

“Tracks 7-8: High melodic material, melodies in harmonics, fast tremolos, with the bow leaping or thrown off the strings.”

The tape – or, nowadays, a digitalized copy – plays for sixty-one minutes, which is therefore the maximum length of a performance. Its operator is free to cut or fade tracks in and out, in momentary response to the violinist’s playing or with regard to some larger concept of form. This person must therefore be almost as supple and sensitive as the violinist – and as acute a listener.

Nono in his subtitle places the electronic “wanderers” first not in order to diminish the soloist – whom, indeed, he names, and whose sound will be forever part of the piece, integral to the tape parts – but rather to underline how the work “is not in any circumstances a concerto for solo and accompaniment,” to quote his instructions from the score. The electronic tracks trace out paths the violin will not – cannot – take, but they engender, too, the environment within and around which it will – must – orient itself. And this is a madrigal because, like those of the Renaissance, it is a polyphonic composition.

The composer himself operated the tape at the first two performances, given in Berlin on September 3, 1988, and in Milan four weeks later; according to Richard, the result was different each time. By the time Kremer and the tape tracks came together again, to make the first recording, for Deutsche Grammophon, in December 1990, the composer had departed this world.

For those two earliest performances, Nono wrote a program note in short paragraphs, spaced out on the page in short lines, to reflect how the violinist’s several music stands are spaced out on the stage, and also potentially in the auditorium. The violin part is divided into six segments, each of which has its own stand, with two, three, or four empty stands also present, so that the musician is faced with many possible routes and with the possibility of (seeming) error. Nono’s note is given below, in italic type.


The nostalgic-utopian distance

is friend to me and despairing

in continuous restlessness.


The crucial word “distance” Nono took from the title of Salvatore Sciarrino’s solo flute piece All’aura in una lontananza. (Sciarrino was to supervise the electronic sound for a fascinating recording, on the Kairos label, that takes the music a little towards his own whispered world while using the full length of the tape.) But Nono, of course, made the word his own, relating it not merely to his political hopes but also to his sense of a widespread alienation from a world in cultural decay, of people living in distance from each other, and from themselves.


The rare qualities of the sounds

invented by Gidon bring about

a sounding in the various spaces

of the Kleine Philharmonie.


The small hall of the Philharmonie in Berlin was the site of the première. Seeking to challenge the hegemony of composers over performers, Nono was eager to involve musicians close to him in creating a work.


How the articulated spaces,

of the Kleine Philharmonie

offer other spaces for

Gidon’s original sounds:

far – near –

meetings – clashes – silences –

internal – external –

overlapping confusions.


Again, there is this concern with sound in space, with sounding space, this time, presumably, with regard to the live violin. Nono was a Venetian, and lived his whole life in Venice. He was familiar with the sounds of sloshing water, of voices, of boat engines, of birds, echoing through the city from unseen sources, and he was familiar, too, with the music written for St. Mark’s Basilica by Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi, music for diverse groups of singers and instrumentalists separated from one another, calling out and coming together from within the building’s many connected parts.


Magnetic tapes as voices

of madrigals joining together

solo violin and live electronics –

so many voices –



It is the idea of the subtitle: a madrigal of wanderers, of voices live and electronic. Obviously the violinist, alone on stage, achieving virtuoso feats, physically pacing out the wandering, will claim a different kind of attention from that given the invisible electronic sounds. Like the voices of a madrigal, however, they make sense only when they come together. Nono did not want the violin part to be performed alone. The only time that happened seems to have been shortly after the composer’s death, when Gidon Kremer gave a solo performance that would speak of absence.


No processing or transformation:

the sounds Gidon makes are original.

Three days devoted to recording at the

SWF Experimental Studio in Freiburg.


This Southwest German Radio (Sudwestfunk) location, in the Black Forest, was where Nono had been working on almost all his electronic endeavors for almost a decade, since 1979, building a close working relationship with the sound engineer Hans-Peter Haller. Nono’s assertion that the violin sounds are unmodified probably refers to the primary version made in the summer of 1988. This is not true of the revised version, for which Richard tells us the composer used harmonizers (transposing sounds), reverberation, filters, delay, and Haller’s own “halaphone,” with which sounds could moved in space.


Infinite listenings – attempts

at choices by way of elective affinities –

various compositional feelings

voice by voice.


The composer is principally a listener, the composition being principally an invitation to listen. It is, moreover, principally by listening – listening to how the electronic tracks will combine, with each other and with the violin, listening to how and where the several wanderers will go – that the composition is made.


like the old Flemings in their imaginings.


Nono refers once more to Renaissance polyphony, an art to which Flemish composers contributed mightily in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In Fragmente-Stille he had quoted from “Malheur me bat,” a three-part song attributed variously to Johannes Ockeghem and Johannes Martini, both of them born in what is now Belgian territory. He may also have been thinking here of a later Fleming, Adrian Willaert, who spent the second half of his life as chief musician at St. Mark’s.


And Gidon abandons himself

to the various spaces with the other



The violin sound must be directed to the space, and to the other sounds wandering there. This is the most selfless of solo performances.


And abandons them.


A lone figure, violin and bow in hand, leaves the stage to the sounds that for a while go on searching.

iNSIDE Out Returns

By Zach Sheets

A few days ago, I had the chance to chat with Chris Gross about the upcoming iNSIDE Out concerts on January 18th and January 20th at the Flea Theater. Our conversation touched on the music for this weekend, Chris’ vision for the iNSIDE Out series, on being a new father, and on how we listen to a piece of music we’re not familiar with.

ZS:  I guess a good place to start would be if you could share about the history of iNSIDE Out. It began with the Roger Smith Hotel series, right? Could you share how things got started—and what your vision is for now and for the future?

CG: The series started in 2007 or 2008 with a string quartet I was in, but it migrated to Talea at a certain point because we want to do more new music and more ensemble collaborations. Essentially, the vision remained the same, and, in a way, I think it remains the same today.

Basically, it’s a chance for an audience to explore a particular work, composer, or “theme”. iNSIDE Out tries to do this in a way that is “telescopic”: It’s about looking at something closely but it’s also about setting up situations and asking questions so that the work becomes personally meaningful to each person. It should allow them to hear more fully and should provoke thoughts or personal reflections as a result.

This is not a lecture series. It’s not for the performers to stand up and tell the audience information. Rather, we try to create ways for the audience to respond to the work on their own terms and to find ways for it to become meaningful for them.

The Thursday program, for example, is all about homages. Musical homage has played a role in classical music throughout history, from the very beginning. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to make an homage, and, more generally, what are the ways that we honor those who have come before us? How does that process shape who we are as people?

It’s about using the works as a chance to explore the theme more broadly: thinking about how each person might reflect the connections to their own lives or their own identities or their own sense of being.

ZS: As you said, the goal with this series is to find ways that music can be really personally meaningful, and I love that framing. I love putting it in terms of helping each person find these details that are vibrant and exciting to them. So, I’m curious: what are some examples of things that usually make the music you’re performing—or listening to—really personally meaningful for you? And, I guess, to turn the corner on that question: how do you then share that when you’re on stage for an iNSIDE Out?

CG: Well, the hope is—and this is true as a performer or as an audience member—that we’re really listening very closely, and noticing what the composer is doing. That might be something really basic in terms of how he or she uses certain materials. Or, it might be something more technical, but it’s always about relating it back to “what am I hearing”—and then relating that to other themes.

So, thinking about Lerdahl’s program for Saturday: his piece is all about time cycles and expanded repetitions of time. That made me think about how we all go through cycles of time in our daily lives, whether it’s day to day, or changing of the seasons. Each day and each week build upon one another.

I’m a new father, so obviously what’s really on my mind is my daughter and her development as a person. When you think about this tiny baby as a new parent, you’re doing these repetitive tasks like feeding and changing diapers and getting them to sleep. It’s really interesting how you’re in this constant rhythm of taking care of this person, but at the same time, each day, each week, each month, you’re seeing more. You’re hearing more from them. They’re becoming more complex, and they’re telling you more about themselves. Obviously this lasts for an entire lifetime.

I think Fred’s piece speaks to that metaphorically. And, as far hearing the piece itself, it’s sort of an interesting experience, I think, because you begin by hearing these little fragments. You hear them repeated several times, and each time you hear more of the story; you hear more elaboration, more complexity, more detail. And, it’s sort of like a kid; you might just hear a hint of a story, and you think, “oh, tell me more about that”, and then you get a little bit more. This piece is very literally that.  It’s a very concentrated expression of how we might think about our own ways of living.

I think this would be the same if I were an audience member, since both activities are centered primarily around listening. They feed on each other, you know. My experience with the Lerdahl has made me experience my daily life differently, and vice versa: Reflecting on my experiences of life have changed the way I interpret the Lerdahl.

I think that’s the sign of a great work of art: constantly experiencing something, even if it’s the 50th time. You’re still responding to it differently because you are a different person. And, I’m hoping that some of the questions and points of discussions that come up at the concerts will be interesting to a wide variety of people. Even if you’re completely new to a new music concert or you go to hundreds each year, your response to the music is authentic to you and who you are as a person at that given moment.

ZS: Exactly, beautifully said. I know that some of the best concerts I’ve ever seen are concerts where you get to hear the same work twice, especially when there’s a different framing the second time. For example, the Ensemble InterContemporain came to NYC this fall and did [Pierre Boulez’s] Répons at the Park Avenue Armory. The audience, which surrounded the ensemble, pin-wheeled 180 degrees around the stage before the second performance to hear from a different angle. Is there anything in particular that you hope people will hear differently the second time in the Lerdahl?

CG: Well, part of the decision to play the work twice is simply born out of the impulse that oftentimes a new piece of music is at a disadvantage because it’s not familiar in the way that Beethoven or Mozart is more familiar. And, getting familiar to the sounds, the rhetoric, the rhythms, the material of it… it’s hard. Personally, I can think of times where I heard a piece once and thought I didn’t enjoy it or didn’t get it, but then hearing it again, I was able to get deeper into the work and notice more.

My hope for this concert on Saturday is that it’s not just about hearing it twice and getting more familiar with it through exposure—although that is part of it. Rather, the hope is that we as a group of people—the audience and us as performers—can discuss some of these themes has Fred has decided to focus on, and discuss how they relate to us as people. What is the experience of listening to a piece of music that deals with time and cycles like for each of us?
And, of course, it’s about gaining insight from Fred himself—from the creator. It’s about learning more of what he was thinking and what his work is about. On all of these things I hope can help people draw their own connections to the piece so that then when they hear it the second time, not only is it more familiar just based on hearing it again, but some of the concepts—the higher level concepts and ways of thinking—are bringing people in and hopefully allowing them to hear more in the piece, hear more for themselves.

ZS: So, if someone wanted to pull on this thread of familiarity even more, and wanted to, for instance, listen to some music in advance of the concert, or learn a little bit more about the works before they came to the concert, what would you suggest that they do? Would it be more interesting—if given a choice—to listen to the works about which the homages were written, or listen to the works themselves to be performed on Thursday? I know you’re going to play recordings of some of the originals during the concert, right?

CG: Well, there will be some of that. In the case of the homages concert, I’m not necessarily assuming that anybody will know the pieces which are being referenced, or the composers or the pieces or the artwork. But, I don’t want it to just be “oh let’s look at the original, and hey, let’s see what the composer did with this”. I still think that one of the things that’s interesting about the homage or the idea of homages is really the act of choosing. Each composer has chosen this very specific person and has elevated him or her out of their own personal history and made them more important: they’ve constructed their own history.

So, I’m really interested in thinking about, well, “why do we choose certain things?” For instance, the first piece—the Knussen—is so directly referential of Purcell, I really do want people to be able to hear that and have that as a frame of reference. But, a different piece, like James Weeks’ Honey Celebration, is very much its own sound world. Its references are much more, shall we say, conceptual and oblique.

If people do want to do listening before, of course I would say “go for it!” Listen to the composers’ pieces; listen to the originals. In the case of Fred Lerdahl’s work, a lot of his ensemble work is about some similar issues. There’s several chamber pieces, one called Time After Time, which has a very similar compositional process. That’s for sextet. Time and Again is also great, and the structure mirrors the cello duo quite closely.

ZS: And, I imagine learning more about the composers would provide a lot of important context, too?

CG: Sure, and, I think the more you know about the creator of a work of art, where it’s music or painting or anything, the more you can make connections to your own aesthetic experience.

I would also really encourage people to think about each theme. With the idea of homage: Who are the people that we honor? How do we do it? How do those choices influence who we are as people?

Everybody’s going to have a different answer. If you’re a composer coming to this concert, your answer might be very musically-based. You might have certain performers or composers who are very meaningful for you. But, if you’re not, I think the process is still similar. So, I would encourage people to think about the different angles or lenses through which you can view these topics.

ZS: Finally, could you say a little bit about what people can expect in terms of the format of the shows? I know the answer, because I’ve seen the production cue-cards, but for anyone who’s thinking about coming: you’ve really created this beautiful interactive environment! As you said, it’s much more than a lecture. Can you summarize a little bit what people can expect for either night?

CG: Sure! I think an audience that comes to an iNSIDE Out series should be prepared that they will be asked to contribute. I hope it won’t be scary, and I would never put anybody on the spot! But, it’s not the kind of series which is just: you buy your ticket, you come sit, you listen, you leave. There will be questions after; people will be asked to share what they think. You might be sharing with the person sitting next you, or it could be sharing to the whole group, if that’s something you feel comfortable doing. It could even just be reflecting for yourself in writing.

It’s a chance for us as performers to learn what’s resonating with people, what people are hearing; and I think that’s one of the really cool things about the series. It’s not us telling you what to think or hear in the discussions, and I think people are very open to that experience, look forward to it, and embrace it. I think it can be a really powerful thing.

iNSIDE Out concerts are January 18 and 20 at the Flea Theater at 20 Thomas Street in Tribeca. Tickets are $10-15 and are available from the Flea Theater.

Billone: FACE

FACE for voice and ensemble (60′) (U.S. premiere)

Pierluigi Billone writes:

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…

Folk Tunes (part I)

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?

LD: Mostly just in the rehearsal process.

CT: Well, let’s see, when did you start Resonant Bodies Festival? Lucy, when was that?

LD: 2013. Did you come to it the first year?

CT: I went to the first night.

LD: So you saw me?!

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.

Folk Tunes (part II)

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.

ZS: Really?

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.

LD: Yeah.

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?

CT: Shawn?

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.

SJ: Right.

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.

Be the First

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.

Insider Look: Taylor Brook

Exploded Views (2016)

Taylor Brook

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.

Check out what Taylor’s music sounds like here.

Insider Look: Lewis Nielson

…in terra aliena…(2015)

Lewis Nielson

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.

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:’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).

Checkout more of Lewis Nielson’s music here.

Insider Look: Natacha Diels

Princess Nightmare Moon (2016)

Natacha Diels

Fairytales for performers:

Phantasms return

Adjourned spirits draw near

Six heads snap left

Nervous glances

Pages turn.

Scornful wistful slow singsong

Lonesome hiss of air expired

A silver lining, deceptive mirror

Pages turn.

Carved from cotton candy,

A transient ritual—

a fragile fancy.
Wanna hear and see what Natacha’s music is all about? Check out:
2.5 Nightmares for Jessie

La vie en rose

Marseille: May 2016
Matthew Gold

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.

Written for Talea 3

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.

-Anthony Cheung
Artistic Director, Talea Ensemble

iNSIDE Out: Georges Aperghis

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
Free Admission

Georges Aperghis: Dans le mur (2007)
Georges Aperghis: Rasch (2001)
Georges Aperghis: Fuzzy Trio (2006) *US Premiere
Georges Aperghis: Les Guetteurs de sons (1981)

Learn more about Happy End

Zorn @ 60

Chad Batka for the NY Times

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!

Steve Coleman

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.

-Anthony Cheung
Artistic Director, Talea Ensemble


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.
-Paul Griffiths

Tara on FAMA

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!

-Tara Helen O’Connor


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.

-Michelle Lou
Director of Communications and Outreach, Talea Ensemble

Against the Morning

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.

Play Ball!

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.
-Anthony Cheung
Artistic Director, Talea Ensemble


Mikrophonie I

The man who excites hardly can judge upon what he is doing…
(Karlheinz Stockhausen)

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.

-Matthew Gold, Talea percussionist

On Ralph

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.


– Bruce Hodges

(from  Monotonous Forest)


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.

-Beth Weisser
Talea Ensemble, Viola and Director of Development



Photo by Beowulf Sheehan


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.



DECEMBER 14, 2012 8:00 PM
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 and, 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.



DECEMBER 14, 2012 8:00 PM
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.





DECEMBER 14, 2012 8:00 PM



NEW YORK, NY 10024




SYNCHRONICITIES: Christopher Trapani


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.



DECEMBER 14, 2012 8:00 PM
NEW YORK, NY 10024


torsion: transparent variation

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.

-Adrian Morejon

Ca tourne ca bloque

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.

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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.

Zach Seely

Recording Romitelli

July 31, 2012!  Talea Record Release on Tzadik

Anamorphosis: Music by Fausto Romitelli

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.

James Dillon: New York Triptych

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?

-Chris Gross

***This piece was made possible by a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation.

Persephassa at Storm King

Free Ride Home by Kenneth Snelson

Persepolis, in Iran

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.

Now, let’s just hope it doesn’t rain.

-Matthew Gold, Talea Percussionist

Gala 2012

If you missed Talea Gala 2012, you can catch a glimpse of the festivities here!

Matthias Pintscher, Gala 2012 Guest of Honor

Thomas Stelzer, Talea Board Member

Talea Conductor James Baker talks about Fausto Romitelli

Bon appétit!

Victor Adan's Tractus

Stay tuned for announcements about Talea Gala 2013!


Listening to Gérard Grisey’s Talea

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.

-Bruce Hodges

A Tribute to Fausto Romitelli

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.”

Thomalla’s Capriccio

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.

Enno Poppe’s Holz

In preparation for Saturday’s Inharmonic/ (X)enharmonic concert at Merkin, Rane Moore tells us about mastering Enno Poppe’s clarinet concerto, Holz.

Listen Here: Enno Poppe: Holz (excerpt)

Klangforum Wien, Stefan Asbury (conductor)

“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.”

-Rane Moore

Come hear Rane shred Holz this Saturday, December 17th, at Merkin Concert Hall at 8 PM!

John Zorn Portrait

John Zorn Composer Portrait Video Preview

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.

-Willie Winant

Revisiting Kontakte

Photo by Wang Lu

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.

-Anthony Cheung
Artistic Director, Talea Ensemble