This coming Tuesday at Monk Space, Mojave Trio (Sara Parkins, violin; Maggie Parkins, cello; Genevieve Feiwen Lee, piano) will be performing along with SAKURA Cello Quintet (Michael Kaufman, Benjamin Lash, Gabriel Martins, Yoshika Masuda, Peter Myers), for a program of music by composers Daniel Silliman, Daniel Allas, Thomas Kotcheff, Kaija Saariaho, and Nico Muhly. I had the opportunity to ask cellist Maggie Parkins some questions about the piano trio as a genre, performing the works of living composers, and the program on January 9. Here’s what she had to say:
As a standard of the classical canon, how has the piano trio evolved over time in your opinion?
Here is a quote from Kaija Saariaho: “I have written many trios for different combinations, but have been hesitant to compose for a traditional piano trio, maybe because of its long and weighty tradition.”
The chamber ensemble of the piano trio with its plentiful classic beginnings of Haydn and Mozart, its deeper development of Beethoven and Schubert, to its late 19th century peak of a romantic explosion of Mendelssohn (Felix and Fanny), Brahms, Schumann (Robert and Clara) Dvorak and Debussy, etc., has left an indelible mark on the repertoire for three mostly compatible instruments.
The early twentieth century has left some fantastic staples such as, Ravel, Shostakovich, Faure, Frank Bridge, Henry Cowell, Korngold, and of course Ives. One can develop a long list of later 20th and early 21st century works but there seems to be a wane of multiple explorations into the genre by well-known composers as other types of chamber ensembles using different instrumental combinations have developed. Now we see sextets, duos, percussion groups, and many other variations that capture the contemporary landscape. Contemporary piano trios are generally used to “fill out” programs of concert length. One sometimes wonders why some notable 20th century composers such as Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev or Barber didn’t write for piano trio.
The string quartet seems to have continued to capture the interest of composers more consistently than piano trio. There are multiple examples of quartets by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Ben Johnston, and John Adams.
There are built-in challenges for matching the timbres of the strings to the keyboard. Perhaps it is the weighty tradition itself and the focus to find fresh new combinations that satisfies the aural palette.
What are your thoughts about performing music from the classical repertoire versus works by living composers?
As a cellist focused on small ensemble chamber music, I find myself in a unique and enviable position. Conservatory trained on an instrument steeped in tradition, I am lucky to have studied with fantastic teachers handing down their classic wisdom and knowledge. I have had some amazing experiences performing at great festivals such as Tanglewood, Taos, and Banff, and in wonderful orchestras as well.
At the same time I have gravitated toward and truly enjoyed working with living composers, having shared the camaraderie and challenge of exploring new techniques with the ability to discuss performance issues with the composer to be so rewarding. My sister, who is a composer, initiated me into her world of composition through improvisation and dance collaboration and further opened up my eyes to possibilities of interpretation. But guess what? I have decided that the two concentrations nourish each other. After a stretch of doing only new music I find myself listening to Beethoven or Brahms or performing a Bach Suite and thinking, “Now that is a really good composer!” How delightful to play a piece I have grown up hearing and knowing and playing. It is comforting.
My luck is having the opportunity and ability to do both. The thrill of premiering a new work and working hard on a piece to get it just the way a composer wants it is very enjoyable to me. Who knows, it could be a piece that gets played again and again.
Can you tell us about the works you’ll be performing on the program at Monk Space?
Yes, we are really excited by these new works for our ensemble. I have been really into Saariaho’s compositions for quite some time. This is the fourth piece of hers I have worked on. I find her voice so unique and commanding. You won’t be whistling a tune into the wee hours of the evening though. Her music is about abstract color, timbre and contrast. Close your eyes and listen. She takes movement such as trills into tremolo and glissando, puts it over the fingerboard and on top of the bridge, maybe inside the piano, and then the overtones pop out. Her language creates such a wide pallet, changing simple notions of loud and soft, and occasional new sounds. She has truly explored some of the now accepted techniques of sul ponticello and sul tasto. She isn’t afraid to make the motion just stop and meditate on static sound which develops over the longer periods of time. Her music is a little more challenging for the listener and it often needs several listenings, but what a lovely door to enter.
Like Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon is also interested in color as a basis for compositional beginnings. It influences melody for her. Higdon is quite appreciated for her soaring tunes, and Pale Yellow doesn’t disappoint with its glorious romantic feeling. The music has depth too and feels authentic.
Nicho Muhly’s piece is all about rhythmic drive. Its energy is fun with bookends of material that have funky asymmetrical meters and conversational dynamic writing. The middle has a long melody popping through against the chatter. It’s a really fun piece to learn and play.
Next Tuesday, December 12, violist Diana Wade will be performing a solo recital at Monk Space, with some guest appearances from violist Linnea Powell and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Beattie. I had the opportunity to ask Diana some questions about the program, working with composers, and thoughts about performing and composing. Here’s what she had to say:
The title of the program is “You Made It Weird.” So, how weird is it?
SO WEIRD! HA. Actually, I think weird is in the eye (or ear, as the case may be) of the beholder and on some level I don’t think anything on my program is weird. It’s only weird if you make it weird. That being said, there’s some pretty strange stuff on the docket: I don’t imagine most people have heard an entire vocal duo in vocal fry, let alone anticipate hearing that at the top of a “viola recital.” What I love about this program is that no two pieces really embody the same aesthetic, so I’m really trying to go down the rabbit hold of each sonic world so far that maybe the strange, at very least, starts to make sense? I get bummed out when I hear that people feel alienated by new music or classical music, in general. I’m not at all planning on doing a lecture-recital, but I have taken into consideration the entertainment value of what I’ve programmed as well as thinking about what is an effective way to communicate and present these strange beautiful sounds to the connoisseurs and newbies, alike.
Can you tell us a bit more about your own piece, fry on fry? What was the inspiration behind it?
fry on fry was borne out of a “hey, wouldn’t it be funny if….” situation: I met Jen Beattie (who will be performing with me) at New Music on the Point, a new music festival in Vermont. Jen mentioned that she was talking to the singers there about vocal fry and I just said “hey, what if there was a piece in vocal fry, solely notated in types of fries?!” She and I giggled about it and over a beer (or three) came up with the general performance practice- a french fry will sound like this, a curly fry like that, etc. I didn’t think I would write the piece ever. Fast forward a few months and I get an email from Jen “I’m coming to LA, write the fry piece!” So I did, and it has strangely taken off. It’s been performed a handful of times on both coasts and just recently had its Australian premiere! While it is certainly a funny piece, from the minute I started writing I couldn’t get out of my mind some old podcasts and npr stories I’d heard about people complaining about the sound of women’s voices on the radio and, in particular, any use of fry in their voice. This just added a layer for me: considering all of these complaints about women’s voices and then choosing to write a piece that just bombards the listener with this supposed awful sound for a few minutes is really empowering. The last thing I’ll say about that is that Jen and I premiered the piece, but she has also performed it with a male duo partner and the Australian premiere was with two men: it’s so cool to experience the piece in each iteration. It takes on a new life with each combination. I will be projecting the score while Jen and I perform it, so everyone can see all the fries!
You’ll be performing the world premiere of a piece by Adam Borecki for viola, electronics, and projection. Can you tell us more about the piece?
Ok I don’t want to give away all the craziness that is Adam’s piece BUT I’m really excited about it. This is the first time I’ve had a solo piece so specifically written for me. Adam and I started working together on it in the summer – he recorded those early conversations and some of the movement titles are actually quotes of things, or references to things I said. Most of this piece was written with me sitting in the room next to Adam which was a luxury to both of us and led to a really beautiful collaboration. The piece is in 5 movements and some of the parts I’m most excited (and nervous) about require me doing things beyond playing the viola. I want to remain mysterious so I will just list things that are involved: video camera, lazy Susan, two pocket synthesizers, an mbira, office supplies, a quarter sized violin bow, a wooden frog and SO MUCH MORE.
In a way, this is a dream program for me: for example, I’ve wanted to play Viola, Viola (Benjamin) for a decade, but at first at seemed too daunting and then it was hard to find the right time and place to do it. I’m super thankful to my friend Linnea Powell for learning it with me, we’ve been chipping away on it for a few months and it’s been so fun to work with her.
I mean, all of these pieces are rad but the Sciarrino was one of the first pieces I knew I wanted to program- I had heard recordings of it and was completely enamored with sounds and textures I was hearing and I immediately knew I wanted to use them as connecting material throughout a program. Then, I got the music, and realized how wickedly hard this beautiful music was. So, there was an extended banging my head against the wall phase of learning it, but I think they are going to be a really special feature of this program.
In many ways, this program is incredibly personal and represents a fairly accurate snapshot of what’s going on in my mind right now from the beautiful to the completely bizarre.
What are your thoughts about working with and/or playing the music of living composers?
Whether it’s playing music by a friend or a living composer I’ve never met (like Sciarrino), I think it is of the highest importance to be playing music of our time. I absolutely love playing the “standard” repertoire, but being able to have conversations with composers: whether about a specific piece, or just getting to know them, informs so much about how I want to approach their music. Having the opportunity to bring a piece to life for the first time is an extra special thing to be a part of- getting to see and hear abstract ideas turn into a reality is completely thrilling.
What do you enjoy most about solo performance versus working with ensembles, such as Wild Up, Jacaranda, and others?
Well, this concert feels like a stepping out for me as an artist. For the majority of my professional life, I have seen myself in reference to an ensemble whether that’s an orchestra or chamber ensemble and so it’s really exciting (and a little scary) to take full ownership of a program to let people know who I am and what I’m about. I don’t have schemes or illusions that I’m on the road to becoming a famous viola soloist (I know, that’s sort of an oxymoron), but I see this as a step in the direction of carving out a little space for my voice in Los Angeles and, hopefully eventually, in the greater musical world.
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information on the December 12 concert or to purchase tickets.
Next Tuesday, November 21, cellist Nick Photinos of Chicago-based ensemble Eighth Blackbird will be performing works from his debut solo album, Petits Artéfacts at Monk Space, aided by pianist Vicki Ray. I asked Nick some questions about the album, performing, working with composers, and Eighth Blackbird. Here’s what he had to say:
Can you tell us about the process of recording your album, Petits Artéfacts?
The concept for the album happened after I premiered the Florent Ghys work, Petits Artéfacts, a 17 minute work of six small, tightly constructed pieces. I got thinking about all the short pieces I had played over the years and, when I started digging around, found that none of them had been recorded yet, so the content came together pretty quickly. So did the idea to collaborate with pianist Vicki Ray and percussionist Doug Perkins, two people I’ve played with for many years but not often enough. The recording sessions themselves happened in May and June of 2016 and January of 2017.
What are your thoughts on performing this music live? Does the live performance offer something the recording cannot, and vice versa?
The plan was always to tour this music live following the release, so it’s been really great to get this music out in the world more. As far as why go see this live, besides just that live music is and should be better than listening to recordings: the Ghys in particular has great accompanying videos that Florent made himself, so those are definitely worth seeing and something you can’t get from the album alone. A lot of the works also have more punch when seen live, from the politically-charged Little to the wit of the Norman.
Do you plan on more solo albums in the future?
I’ve started thinking about it, but I want to get as much mileage out of this album as I can, so that’s at least a few years down the road.
Did you work with any of the composers personally while recording the album? Can you tell us about this experience?
Not so much in the recording process itself, but I did work extensively with Florent for the editing and mixing process. I’ve loved his album Télévision, not just for the music but also the sound on the recording: full and rich but also close and present, with not as much reverb as a lot of solo classical albums have. He had a lot of great input and helped shape the sound of the recording in a big way.
So far we’ve been focusing on your work as a soloist in light of your new album, but you’re also the cellist for the Chicago-based new music ensemble, Eighth Blackbird. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences with Eighth Blackbird? In contrast with solo performing, what do you love most about performing with the group? Anything on the horizon for you guys that you’d like to share?
I’m the founding cellist of Eighth Blackbird, now in its 21st season, so it’s old enough to drink. There’s so much I love about the group–the repertoire, the staging and memorization–but it all comes down to simply getting to go to work every day, whether that’s at our studio or recently onstage in front of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and just play good music really, really well together, and have fun doing it. So much on the horizon for us, including a new album of a staged 90-minute work by Dan Trueman, called Olagón, that comes out on Nov. 10; performances of that and our regular rep; and this June the second year of Blackbird Creative Lab, our two-week summer festival in Ojai, CA that’s free of tuition, room, and board for accepted fellows.
On November 17 at REDCAT, the EXO//ENDO ensemble will be performing works by composers Braden Diotte and Ulrich Krieger, both of whom are known for pushing boundaries with their music. The ensemble will perform Braden Diotte’s General Manifest, a 48-minute musical meditation on freedom, using memories of soundscapes along with field recordings from a twenty-year period traveling through the American west. Composer Ulrich Krieger’s Black Sun Rebirth combines elements of contemporary chamber music, dark ambient, doom metal and microsound aesthetics, telling a story of destruction and creation, the demise of the cosmos and the rebirth from the oceans. The piece is inspired by Ragnarök tetralogy and the first book of the Edda. Both composers will be performing with the ensemble.
I asked Braden Diotte and Ulrich Krieger some questions about their work, views on collaboration, the cross-pollination between rock, metal, and contemporary music, and more. Here’s what they had to say:
EXO//ENDO will be performing General Manifest, which, in your own words, pays tribute to the fleeting music witnessed during a twenty-year span riding freight trains about the American West, and is about the broader notion of birthright freedoms. Can you tell us more about this time in your life, riding freight trains and experiencing the underbelly of this part of the country? When/how did you realize you wanted to translate the experience to music, and what was the process of writing General Manifest like?
General Manifest is the repository for a handful of sonic experiences upon which I made a cohesive connection between the music I was listening to and the sounds bellowing from moving freight trains. My reasons for being aboard those trains in the first place varies from year to year beginning with traveling to punk shows in Berkeley, to attempting to collect food stamps in three states at once, to eventually visiting friends in distant cities and states, and finally to reconnect with a lost sense of independence after the demise of a string of important relationships. On one of my decidedly final journeys, in 2011, I experienced a sound-world on the rails just southeast of the Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley, which fell somewhere between an epiphany and a religious experience. It was in that moment that it became apparent that General Manifest needed to be written.
The writing process for General Manifest was graced with a series of very happy accidents which took quite a while to unfold, evolving from a quasi-minimalist multi-pianist work into an electronic work and finally into its current state as an electro-acoustic work. It may continue to evolve, but at its core the work is getting closer and closer to the true sounds from which its inspiration was drawn. Eventually, General Manifest will exist as a personal tribute to those years and experiences, even after I’ve reached the end of the line.
Throughout your career, you’ve collaborated with many well-known artists in the progressive/avant-garde rock scene, such as Faust, Neurosis, and the Locust. What do you enjoy most about the collaboration process?
When it’s truly happening, the collaborative process brings out the best and worst of everyone involved. It is no different than any other intimate relationship, and may be happening with a roomful of people at the same time, which can make things far more complicated. To fully invest in a creative exchange, one should be vulnerable and expose themselves, not withholding passion to save face. Light investment produces light results, like casual dating. Some collaborations have legs, and in my experience the collaborations that have the strongest legs also have the strongest passions, egos, arguments, and so on. There’s a ton of potential for growing in all of it, but the flame that burns twice as bright also tends to burn half as long. So what you’re left with is the artifact: the collaboration in whatever form it was documented. At the end of it all, it’s these artifacts that I get the most enjoyment from.
What do you view as similarities and/or differences between the avant-garde rock scene and the contemporary art music community?
I see the greatest similarities between those two communities existing in the mutual desire to communicate a unique and personal expression built upon the back of their respective lineages. Both worlds tend to be well-informed, and each carries their own discourse surrounding the important mileposts in their lineage. But now, in the 21stcentury, another interesting similarity is the burgeoning crossover between those worlds, with both seemingly pulling from each other’s histories without the concerns that previously kept them divided. As long as that continues to happen, it would be counterproductive to expound upon the differences.
How did you and Ulrich Krieger meet? Do you collaborate often?
I met Ulrich during my stint as a graduate student at CalArts, where he assisted with my 2013 work General Manifest, which was a large part of what I did while there. I was a member of his ensemble Sonic Boom for a period of time, and have performed alongside him in a number of public presentations over the past five years. The collaboration between Ulrich and EXO//ENDO has resulted in numerous collaborative sessions, and has been in development since 2015 – partially due to the “ping-pong” collaboration process that we are using, as well as the fact that none of us live in the same city.
Can you tell us about your experiences with EXO//ENDO, as a founding member and co-director? What do you see for the future of the ensemble?
EXO//ENDO has no future. It is an ensemble that by its very design holds its weight in the present, whenever present that may be. Right now that present involves a collaboration with Ulrich Krieger, as well as several other collaborations that are in various stages of development. Each project has a flavor of its very own, and the personnel are a revolving door of talented soloists and contributors that each brings their wares to any given performance. This – combined with the improvisatory ethos that is the spine of E//E – results in one performance of any given piece varying substantially from any other performance.
EXO//ENDO will be performing your work, Black Sun Rebirth, which is inspired by the first book of the Edda and tells a story of destruction and creation. On a personal level, what does this work mean to you? What do you hope the audience will get from it?
Using classic Greek themes has since long been a staple in art music: Elektra, Prometeo, etc., but very few composers have looked at Nordic mythology for inspiration. Might it be due to less exposure of it, might it be due to Wagner having seemingly occupied that material, might be due to the misuse of the material by fascists and right-wing groups. This always bothered me. I am German and we didn’t even read the Edda in school but we read Greek and Roman mythology and discussed their culture, but not our ancestors. Christianity has done everything to cover up and discredit these Nordic traditions, because they were a threat to the Christian ideology and much more progressive than Christanity: in Germanic tribes women were sword fighting soldiers, women were land and farm owners, and tribes were organized democratically in the Althing, kind of a parliament of tribes. I am interested in looking into this tradition, my tradition more closely. It holds a lot of interesting material. And I hope that the audience will be exposed to these ideas and will be able to connect to these ideas through the music.
The score for Black Sun Rebirth combines elements from contemporary chamber music, dark ambient, doom metal, and microsounds. How did you arrive at this combination of musical language for this piece?
These are all elements I personally like and I am influenced by. Metal, especially black metal, is the only musical style that since decades shows an interest in this culture and is outspoken about the violent, aggressive and bloody ways Christianity slaughtered and oppressed these traditional pagan Germanic cultures. In chamber music I am mostly interested in the extended soundscapes of timbral music—so ambient or doom is not so far away from this. All these styles work with non-traditional musical material. There is no key signature and often not even a meter in a traditional sense in these styles. It seems perfectly contemporary and at the same time ancient material.
Can you tell us about your interest in the cross-pollination between art music and avant-garde rock? Do you have a background in rock music?
Yes, I do. I have been working with Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, we have the band Text of Light, with Lou Reed (Band and Metal Machine Trio), with the German krautrock band Faust and regularly record saxophone arrangements or soli for rock bands. Just recently I did a 4 contrabass-clarinet arrangement for a doom band in Berlin. I also have my own noise-metal band Blood Oath here in LA. At this moment I see avant-garde rock carrying on the torch of progressive music experimentation more than contemporary chamber music does, which seems as a whole to be in a phase of mannerism and getting conservative and retro. Rock music as well as contemporary art music is based on two main elements: sound and rhythm. Melody and traditional harmony are of minor importance to rock musicians and avant-garde chamber music composers.
You’re known for pushing the boundaries of saxophone through collaboration with many well-known and respected artists, including Lou Reed, John Zorn, LaMonte Young, and others. What do you enjoy most about the collaboration process?
About collaborations I enjoy mostly that the end result is more than the sum of its elements. The music coming out of collaborations is a music I would have never written alone. It is a group thing and in best cases even transcends the group itself.
What do you see for the future of new music?
This is a deep question, I could fill a book with. I talked about some of it already in the questions above. I think we are at the dawn of a major cultural change. I see contemporary chamber music declining due to its crisis and its clinging to the 20th century. I see rock and pop music, especially metal, hip hop and electronica, getting even stronger and developing, opening up more and more to the experiment. It seems that rock and pop will continue the tradition of experimentation and innovation of 20th century art music. We see this already with noise, doom metal and electronica, which are all non-academic, progressive, experimental styles.
Don’t miss out on the concert November 17. Check out REDCAT for more information and to get your tickets.
Karl Kohn is highly respected as a composer and pianist, not just in Los Angeles but also throughout the world. He’s also had a long career both as a teacher and on the board of directors of Monday Evening Concerts. In light of the upcoming Piano Spheres concert (this coming Tuesday, November 7), where Mark Robson will be playing a solo piano work by Kohn (Seven Brevities), I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about composing, his long performance career as a pianist, Monday Evening Concerts, and more. Here’s what he had to say:
Having served for two decades on the board of directors for Monday Evening Concerts, could you tell us about your experience there? Do any particular memories stand out?
The connection with MEC was very important for my wife Margaret and me. Under Lawrence Morton’s directorship the concerts were an opportunity to hear and to perform old repertoire as well as many new works, both by contemporary American and by European composers. Our collaborations and friendship with Pierre Boulez was special and delightful, but the list of other wonderful and meaningful composers and musicians with whom we worked is very lengthy.
Has your childhood growing up in Vienna informed the type of music you like to play/write? How so?
I was brought up in the Viennese Classics but also played some Debussy and Ravel. It was not until the years at Harvard that I played my first piece of twentieth-century music, Hindemith’s Third Piano Sonata. My freshman advisor at Harvard, Edward Ballantine, sent me packages of music while I served in the Army on Tinian in the Marianas, shipments that included works by Scriabin, Stravinsky, and the last two volumes of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. I was a lucky guy.
You’ve composed for a wide range of instrumentations/genres of concert music. Do you have a favorite instrumentation/genre that you like to write for? Least favorite?
I have no favorites, either in the instrumentations/genres, and no favorites, really, among the works that I have composed – I like “all my children!”
Having written extensively for orchestra, what are your thoughts about composing for this medium? Has your opinion changed over time?
I loved writing for orchestra, and also for symphonic band. But for a Los Angeles-area composer (and especially a reasonably shy one situated way out in Claremont) writing for orchestra is not rich in opportunities. Nevertheless I have written several large orchestral works and all have had performances. In recent years, however, I have written and continue to write mostly for smallish chamber combinations of instruments.
How has your performance career as a pianist informed your career as a composer, and vice versa?
I imagine that my career as a pianist has had a very powerful impact on my compositional career, and I have written very much music for the piano, both solo and duo, and also for chamber groups that include the piano.
Your wife Margaret also has a long career as a pianist, and the two of you have performed together as a duo across the world. How do you inspire/encourage each other? What has your career of performing together been like?
Margaret and I started performing together while we were undergraduates at Harvard, almost seventy years ago – wow! For me certainly it has been a great joy to rehearse and play together with her these many years – indeed a blessed life.
Along with composing, you’ve also had a long career as a teacher. What are your thoughts about teaching? Do you find that it changes the way you look at music?
I taught at Pomona College for 44 years and have been retired from teaching since 1994. I like to think that it was a mutually beneficial experience both for my students and me.
You’re known for having a unique voice as a composer, which links an innovative musical style with a deep understanding of European classical tradition. How did your voice as a composer evolve? Where do you find the main sources of your inspiration?
As for my voice as a composer: I was brought up at Harvard in the milieu of American neo-classicism, admiring the music of my teachers Irving Fine, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, and also Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. The Monday Evening Concerts and three sabbatical years in Europe gave me an opportunity to stay abreast of current developments from mostly in Europe while at the same time retaining my feet on the ground with teaching – albeit wonderful but more or less initially “unwashed” – undergraduates at Pomona College. I consider that my “style” since the late 1960’s has been referential to the broad historic past of Western, i.e. European and American, art music.
What advice do you have for emerging composers?
Get to know as much music of the past and present as possible, but be aware that this is getting to be ever more difficult in our current musical world. There is no any longer just one musical heritage but rather, in the words of David Noon, a former student: we live now in “a condominium of Babel!”
Check out Piano Spheres for more information on the upcoming concert, Tuesday November 7.
It was the night before Halloween, and the stage was set – the anticipation of a ghoulish silent horror film from the 1920s, a vintage theater full of charm, audience members in costume, even the pianist was dressed as the Grim Reaper. It was my first time at the Art Theater in Long Beach, a place I’ve been wanting to visit for some time. (I absolutely loved the venue. Anyone in Long Beach, go there now.)
In fact, it was a night of firsts for me, since it was also my first time seeing a silent film with live music. I was immediately struck by the pacing of the film – I found myself all-too-aware that I’ve become numb to absurdly fast-paced media. As such, it was refreshing to be able to sit back and enjoy the slower action of The Phantom Carriage. The pacing was in no way a reflection of the depth of the film, which seemed to be well ahead of its time. In fact, the unfolding of events allowed for layers of subtlety that a faster-paced film could not have achieved. Special effects abounded (ghosts walking through doors, etc.), flashbacks on flashbacks, plot twists…this film had it all, and a classic tale of morality to boot.
Needless to say, I didn’t just come to see this classic film – I also came to see the reimagined score by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble. The composer, Dubowsky, was also the conductor of the ensemble, which was comprised of Charles Sharp on bass clarinet/flute, Henry Webster on viola, Slam Nobles on percussion, Jeff Schwartz on double bass, and R. Scott Dibble on keyboard and electronics. The score was full of musical imagery, from cymbal swells to represent waves, flouncy flute lines as women laughing and bass clarinet riffs for men laughing. There was also a fair amount of mickey-mousing, such as the tick tock of a horse walking, ensemble members talking with hands over their mouths to represent the muffled chatter of the crowd in the picture, to drum hits as literal smacks and falls of the characters onscreen.
The music itself was mostly tonal, with a handful of themes that played through most of the film. These themes sounded traditional, often patriotic, meant to reflect the time period and the innocence of many of the characters on screen. Along with the conventional harmony implied with these melodies, there was an undertone of a more abstract, experimental score that could emerge at any moment, which perhaps was meant to represent an underlying evil. At the times when this part of the score did emerge, it was usually when something supernatural was happening onscreen. My favorite moments were these moments of abstraction – it was here that I felt the underlying character of the film was more present.
Instruments also became representations of character’s actions. For example, as a character onscreen shrugged off the command of someone, a bass clarinet line approached the scene with similar attitude. For the most part, I got the impression that the bass clarinet took on an emotive role, rather than portraying specific action. By contrast, the percussion largely seemed to reflect specific actions on screen, which is helpful when the film itself has no sound embedded within itself. Electronics played a subtle role throughout the score – mainly, they acted as a quiet force in the background, waiting to emerge.
Overall, the whole experience was a lot of fun. (And slightly spooky.)
Tonight, soprano Elissa Johnston will join the Lyris Quartet at Monk Space for what’s sure to be a beautiful night of music. In anticipation of the quickly approaching concert, I had the opportunity to interview Lyris Quartet members Alyssa Park (violin), Shalini Vijayan (violin), and Luke Maurer (viola) about the program, thoughts on collaboration, and more. Here’s what they said:
The program contains a set of lyrical, moving, and experimental works from a variety of composers, including Arvo Pärt, Pin Hsin Lin, John Tavener, David Hertzberg, and Evan Beigel. From a programming perspective, how do the pieces relate to each other, and/or how do they contrast?
Perhaps the unity of the concept for this program lies in the reflective and complex writings of each composer. Each of these pieces have their own unique meditative quality which is not to say that they lack power. On the contrary, because of the subtleties and contrasts within each piece, it creates a haunting beauty. We hope this selection of composers and their pieces will help the listener look inward and be able to escape all the chaos around us…to be in the moment and just feel. (Alyssa)
How often do you perform with vocalists? What has the process of collaborating with soprano Elissa Johnston been like?
We’ve had the opportunity to work with vocalists in a number of different settings. As the featured string quartet on Long Beach Opera’s production of David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field several seasons ago, we had the rare chance to support an entire cast of vocalists. That said, when we get the chance to work with a singer in an intimate setting such as this, it is always a special treat. The beauty of the voice is the ideal to which all instrumentalists aspire, in phrasing, tone and timbre. Elissa is always such a joy to work with because she can grasp such a wide array of styles with her captivating voice. Not to mention, that she is a fabulous person and really fun to be around! (Shalini)
Both you and Elissa Johnston are known for performing a wide variety of works, both from the classical canon as well as living composers. Has this repertoire informed your playing in any ways you’d be interested in sharing?
We do have a great foundation of having played many of the celebrated works for quartet together, and it’s always great to revisit pieces from past eras after working on those from this century. We are fortunate to often have the chance to work directly with composers on new music for quartet. Indeed, three of the pieces on Tuesday’s program are by composers right here in Los Angeles! Years of collaboration with many composers definitely has expanded our own individual instrumental technique, and it has built up our ability as a group to listen and react to each other. (Luke)
For more information about the concert or to get tickets, check out Tuesdays at Monk Space.
The next Tuesdays at Monk Space concert will feature a unique opportunity to hear almost all of Luciano Berio‘s famous Sequenzas – all in one place! Berio wrote these solo pieces throughout his life, starting in the 1950s up until his death in 2003. Numbering fourteen in total, they speak to the unique possibilities of almost every orchestral instrument. The concert will take place in the warehouse at Monk Space, with a simultaneous performance happening in the Annex across the hall. Audience members are invited to move between the halls at their own pace (and maybe stop for some wine in between).
An all-star cast of performers will be lending their talents to these works, and are graciously donating their performances to this fundraising concert. I asked some of the performers about their challenges, triumphs, and overall experiences with these pieces. Here’s what they had to say:
Elizabeth Huston – Sequenza II (Harp)
I find it fascinating how Sequenza II uses nearly every known extended technique for the harp, while simultaneously making the piece cohesive using thematic material. Often, when composers use too many effects and bizarre techniques, it comes off as just a showcase of weird sounds, not a thoughtful piece of art. This is not the case with Sequenza II, however, which really showcases Berio’s skill as a composer. I also find it incredible how many new rhythmic, melodic, and dynamic themes I find every time I practice the piece. It’s incredibly dense.
I first performed it on my own showcase of all the Sequenzas. Like any piece with this level of complexity, you can practice it indefinitely and it always has room for improvement, which is simultaneously frustrating and rewarding. It’s very significant to me because the challenge of putting together the showcase was, like the piece, incredibly frustrating and rewarding, and resulted in one of the most fun projects of my life. The research put into all of the pieces to create a cohesive show made me really understand the incredible thing that is the Sequenzas, and how the evolution of the Sequenzas in many ways maps the evolution of western music as a whole. I applaud Aron for taking this on!
Stacey Fraser – Sequenza III (Voice)
I think the most interesting and challenging thing is that you need to remain humble and continue to revisit the score despite the number of times you may have performed it! There really are so many notes, subtleties and nuances that it is essential for one to continue to study the score, vocal and silent practice are critical. This is not an improvised piece, Berio notated every note and every vocal gesture. I have been singing the piece since I was a student in the late 90’s and I think the fun thing for me is to see how the piece has matured in my voice over the last 22 years. I have the technical facility to do a lot more in the way of actually making tone yet the “young me” somehow still emerges every time I take the piece out to practice. Those were the days of rock and roll – Nirvana, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots and BERIO!
I first performed the piece on the stage of Borden Auditorium at the Manhattan School of Music on February 25, 1995 as part of their annual Festival of New Music. I was the first act on the program and the concert closed with Tan Dun’s Circle with Four Trios and he was indeed in attendance, I of course had no idea who he was at the time. Not only was it my first time performing the Sequenza III but this also marked my New City debut. I was a young soprano from Nova Scotia, Canada having just completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. I found myself enrolled in the Master of Music program at MSM and among a sea of 90 amazing sopranos, graduate and undergraduate combined. I figured out within my first month that if I wanted a solo opportunity in my first semester at MSM, it would likely only happen if I sang music that the other 89 sopranos would not be so interested in learning. I hoped and prayed that that my U of T training would allow me to tackle such a challenging work. Claire Heldrich, percussionist and Director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble entrusted me with the piece, she hadn’t even heard me sing but somehow my passion for new music convinced her that I could do it.
A few days before the concert I came down with sinusitis/laryngitis but by some miracle I was able to sing – I didn’t realize until my teacher Cynthia Hoffmann called me the following Saturday morning to tell me that a photo of my performance and a favorable review by Allan Kozinn was gracing the front page of the Arts Section of the Saturday edition of the New York Times. Although not a new music aficionado of contemporary music herself, Ms. Hoffmann was proud and felt that the piece was the key to me opening up my operatic voice; I believe she was correct. It is always fun revisiting the work, and I can’t help but feel like that 20 something year old naive soprano from Canada is somehow reflected in even my latest rendition of the piece.
Mari Kawamura – Sequenza IV (Piano)
This piece casts of variety of small sections with different characters that are sequenced one after another, and this demands of the pianist a great deal of concentration and delicate control. As the section move on, you have to change the technique immediately: the touch, speed of attack, amount of body weight…these constant shifts are the most difficult thing about this piece.
I first performed this piece last March, so our relationship is rather new. The more I learn it, the more charming and playful I find it to be.
Matt Barbier – Sequenza V (Trombone)
For me the most interesting parts about the trombone sequenza relate primarily to it’s place in the canon. It’s really the first piece in the trombone repertoire that asks a player to redefine their relationship with one’s instrument. It also has an interesting, and somewhat dubious, history, but I suppose it’s best to leave somewhat off the record. The biggest challenge for me is picking the sequenza back up as these moments arise. I always find it an interesting dichotomy when I return to the piece because the it’s ingrained on my memory for the view of a much less skilled trombonist, so my return visits always find me questioning if I’ve made the musical choice I’m remembering to cover a lack of skill or to embrace a past vision. I always enjoy trying to access my 22 year oldish brain and try to sort what was going on in there.
I first performed it in the fall of 2007. For me it’s gone from a piece that I thought would, at one point, be a repertoire cornerstone, but, as my relationship to traditional new music has changed, has really become something I view as quite old (it’s 51 years old). As something of that age, I came to feel that it’s important to know, but ultimately something to be moved past. Now my relationship with it is primarily in teaching it as a jumping off point with students who are more interested in exploratory techniques. That said, the piece does have a very nostalgic place for me as when I started to learn it I ended up having about ten days to do so for a master class with Mike Svoboda. That moment laid the foundation for our relationship and Mike has been an incredibly helpful resource as I’ve found my own creative path.
Trumpet player Daniel Flores has his mentor’s copy of Sequenza X, with handwritten markings from Berio himself.
Daniel Flores – Sequenza X (Trumpet)
For me, Sequenza X represents a unique blend of both technical challenge, and an opportunity to express oneself in a freer manner than one might find on a standard piece of trumpet literature. As you can hear throughout the different sequenze, Berio offered both a consistent set of textures and effects he wanted created, ranging from trilled notes on one pitch, frantic scale runs, and extreme dynamic contrasts, to more instrument native ideas. In the case of Sequenza X, Berio had both the great jazz trumpeter’s Miles Davis and Clark Terry on his mind, and really, jazz was certainly on the mind of Berio throughout. Whenever you hear the interval of a minor third from D natural to F natural in the first gesture of the piece, you are actually hearing Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You,” sang by Nancy Wilson in 1964! So, what I find most interesting about Sequenza X is the blend and balance of the evolution of Berio’s original ideas, coupled with the taste and information of what makes sense in the trumpet tradition.
I first performed this piece in 2015 at the Chosen Vale International Trumpet seminar, which was quite a year! I had the opportunity to learn the piece from two very special artists, the great Thomas Stevens, former principal trumpet of the LA Philharmonic, who premiered the first iteration of the piece, as well as the famous Italian trumpet soloist, Gabriele Cassone. In fact, I had to perform the piece in masterclass for both of them, which made me quite nervous, but things seemed to work out! That night, Thomas Stevens gifted Berio’s manuscript of the third iteration of the piece, which we play today, to Gabriele…what a special night that was!
So, Sequenza X has a very close place to my heart in that my teacher in Italy, Gabriele Cassone, worked directly with Berio in the recording studio, to create what many of us consider to be the benchmark recording of the piece. In fact, the score in front of me on stage is a copy of Gabriele’s part with Berio’s personal hand markings, as well as penciled in meters that were the genesis of what would become Chemins VI, otherwise known as Kol-Od, which Berio wrote specifically for Cassone.
I would definitely consider myself a 2nd generation student of Berio in that the information Cassone received was directly passed to me, and my relationship with the piece certainly has evolved from one of understanding the basic architecture of the work to that of being able to interpret the piece on a much more personal level, really striving to play it from the heart…to not worry about being surgical with the technique, but to play each and every gesture with as much freedom as possible. It never will sound the same twice, and in my opinion, that is the beautiful result of Sequenza X!
Mak Grgic – Sequenza XI (Guitar)
I find that the most interesting characteristic of the Sequenza written for guitar is also its biggest challenge. This might be the case with the others as well, but amongst the plethora of notes used in all the crazy permutations, which sometimes seem a bit repetitive, there is a clear progression and pathway from one “tonal” center to another. These tonal centers are sluggish to shift, as each lasts for a few pages easily. Battling through all the virtuosic material with grace while underlining such a global progression of musical mass is what intrigues me most with this piece and is also a very tasking thing to do well.
I performed this piece for the first time at Jacaranda Series, and had less time to prepare it than I would have hoped for. At that time, which I believe was a year and a half ago, I had told myself that it will be impossible to land every single of the notes, so I went for “the gestures”. The performance was just as nerve wracking as it was successful. Now, a year or so later, I have had the opportunity to play it a few times around, and have grown fond of its intricacies, which I hope will speak with grace and vigor at the performance on Tuesday.
Ashley Walters – Sequenza XIVa (Cello)
As a kid, I grew up playing both cello and percussion and I think part of why I love this piece so much is because it allows me to play both! In many ways, Berio set the precedent for composer/performer collaboration making the unique characteristics and capabilities of each dedicatee a central theme in many of his Sequenzas. In the case of this final Sequenza, Berio incorporates these Kandayan drumming cycles, which were shown to him by the great Sri Lankan cellist, Rohan de Saram. I first learned this piece 10 years ago and it has been a staple of my repertoire since.
Tom Peters – Sequenza XIVb (Double Bass)
Sequenza XIVb is a re-imagining of the cello Sequenza, by double bassist Stefano Scodanibbio with the blessing of Luciano Berio. The most challenging part is learning Stefano Scodanibbio’s crazy pizzicato harmonic techniques, something he was famous for. This will be my first performance of Sequenza XIVb.
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information about this event.
Brightwork newmusic (Sara Andon – flute, Aron Kallay – piano, Maggie Parkins – cello, Nick Terry – percussion, Tereza Stanislav – violin, and Brian Walsh – clarinet), joined by soprano Stacey Fraser, will be performing an eclectic set of works by Southern California composers on June 27 at Monk Space. I had the chance to hear some of Maggie Parkins’ thoughts about the upcoming concert and more:
The program includes a diverse set of works by Southern California composers. Can you tell us about your experience with these works? What do you hope to convey to the audience?
We are very excited to present these pieces by LA composers at Monk Space. We have performed all the works on the concert before, which is fantastic. Doing repeat performances of a new work is a great way for us to go deeper into the piece. Of course, the better you know a piece the easier it is to bring to life the composer’s vision. It is also more fun to present things you are familiar with because you can let go more in performance. It is great to play works by local composers because it strengthens our already burgeoning new music community. Also, you find yourself developing a bond with the composers that can last for years.
On the program are works by William Kraft, Chris Cerrone, Shaun Naidoo, Pamela Madsen, and Tom Flaherty (whose piece, Internal States,is a Brightwork commission). Have you worked with these composers before? What is the process usually like between the composer and performers when commissioning a new work for the ensemble?
We performed William Kraft’s Kaleidoscope at the annual Hear Now Festival a few years ago. Bill coached us before that performance. This is the second piece by Chris Cerrone we have performed. Last season we played the Night Mare with guest violist Cynthia Fogg. It’s great to collaborate with top notch guest artists! Soprano Stacey Fraser will join us for this concert on i will learn to love a person. She is a friend of the band and is amazing to work with. Shaun Naidoo of course was a dear friend of both percussionist Nick Terry and pianist Aron Kallay. It is still hard to believe that he passed away so suddenly five years ago. He was a larger than life fixture on the new music scene for years. His raucous energy lives on in his music, and we are honored to keep his memory alive by performing his music. In Pamela Madsen’s piece, Why Women Weep, for cello and electronics, I recorded myself speaking a text provided by the composer that I then play along with. I get to be my own accompaniment! Internal States is vintage Tom Flaherty; gorgeous lush harmonies, biting wit, rhythmically intricate ‘dancing’ figures. It’s a blast to play.
Brightwork newmusic is known for performing cutting-edge music from emerging composers, as well as classics from 20thcentury literature. What do you find similar/contrasting between these two areas?
The great thing about playing new music is the ability to work ‘hands on’ with the composer. Getting feedback and working through performance issues makes realizing their piece in front of their eyes a very satisfying process. The classics are like milestones; performing them is an honor. It’s like living with a piece of history when you perform a piece that has stood the test of time to become a cherished work.
Any future projects on the horizon you’d like to share?
The most exciting thing we have coming up is a recording project featuring three of the pieces on this concert!
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information about the upcoming concert on June 27.
Sitting in Bing Theater in the heart of Los Angeles, I found myself experiencing a unique insight into Hungarian culture at The Vision of Moholy-Nagy and Contemporary Music. The performance was timed to coincide with the Moholy-Nagy exhibition Future Present at LACMA. In all fairness, there was a dose of German culture mixed in too, since the ideals of the Bauhaus school (of which the Hungarian painter and photographer Moholy-Nagy was a prominent figure) were a resonating theme throughout the evening. The performers came from all over: Hungary, yes, but also Los Angeles and New York. True to the Bauhaus movement, different approaches to music, technology, and art were combined, necessitating the concert to be a multi-disciplinary event – even the walk to the theater involved passing some pretty spectacular sculptures and architecture.
The concert began with the fearless Gőz–Kurtág–Lukács Trio, who performed various selections of electro-acoustic works on cimbalom, trombone/bass trumpet/seashells, and synthesizer/computer, with mesmerizing visualizations by Szabolcs Kerestes. Partly through-composed and partly improvised, these works were a collective microcosm of the Hungarian classical electronic music scene, a creatively vital genre during the repressive decades of state socialism. Their performance transported me to a meditative, almost spiritual state, yet somehow simultaneously rooted me with technical, detailed focus. I was entranced by the immaculate, reverberant textures, ranging from pointillist and chaotic to celestial and broadly gestural. The accompanying visualizations featured rapidly moving lines, shapes, and colors, and were directly responsive to live sound. The exception to this rule was György Ligeti’s graphic score to Artikulation, which was comically incredible to watch on a big screen with surround sound.
Lukas Ligeti, who recently moved to Southern California for a new teaching position at UCI, was the featured composer after intermission. The art of the Bauhaus movement, and of Moholy-Nagy, seems to have a marked influence on Ligeti’s music, which showed impressive breadth, experimentation, and proportional symmetry. He presented three works with varying instrumentation and compositional approaches. The first, Language: PROUN: music (2016), had its west coast premiere by soprano Ariadne Grief and wild Up members Matthew Barbier (trombone), Matthew Cook (vibraphone), Derek Stein (cello), and Andrew Tholl (violin). The piece itself is a reaction to Moholy-Nagy’s exhibition Future Present, and follows the Bauhaus tradition in its unconventional exploration of balance and symmetry (however, this is done on Ligeti’s own terms). While in many cases text is made to fit the cadences of music, Ligeti turns the usual plot on its head by allowing the natural rhythm of freely-flowing speech to entirely dictate the music. Continuing on with the natural progression of this idea, the instrumentalists follow the cadences led by the soprano, which Ariadne Grief accomplished with radiant, playful sincerity.
Next was Thinking Songs (2015), a fiercely virtuosic five-movement work for solo marimba. Few marimbists could have pulled it off like Ji Hye Jung – she not only played it perfectly, but also somehow made it look easy (in fact, she danced through the hardest parts). The technical expertise required for movements such as Four-Part Invention and Dance was matched by a musical expressivity that was stunning to behold. The composition itself took us an incredible musical journey: exploiting timbral possibilities with different mallets in Dance, slow-moving lines in Lamento, technical impossibilities manifested into reality in Four-Part Invention, playful exploration of prepared marimba in Scherzo, and quasi-minimalist shifting accents in Two-Part Invention.
Closing the show were three works for Notebook, an ensemble founded by Ligeti to explore the intersection between composition and improvisation. These pieces featured not one but two electric guitars (Eyal Maoz and Tom McNalley), trombone (Rick Parker), violin (Amma Savery), saxophone (Daniel Blake), synthesizer (Ricardo Gallo), and the composer on drums. The performance was pure fun, with an exploratory energy that reconfirmed the experimental and playful side to Ligeti’s musical personality.