Microfest is teaming up with Tuesdays at Monk Space on March 14, featuring composer/performer duo Larry Polansky and Giacomo Fiore on guitars – with a variety of tunings. I had the chance to interview the performers about the program and more. Here are Larry and Giacomo:
The upcoming concert features microtonal works for two guitars by American maverick composers, including Ruth Crawford Seeger, Lou Harrison, James Tenney, Christian Wolff, and two new works that you will be presenting as composer/performers. As a collective, do you find something uniquely American about these works?
Larry Polansky: In the simplest sense — that they’re all American composers — yes. But more importantly, each of these composers, in very different ways, were (are, in Christian’s case) deeply embedded and woven into American culture and American music, particularly the most beautiful parts of each. None of them looked to Europe primarily as a model (though Lou looked often to historic Europe, and Christian’s musical and cultural viewpoint is pan-geographical and pan-linguistic).They emerge organically — like wildflowers — from the terrain American music in the best of all possible ways. Their ideas and music are not in contradistinction or opposition to other musical geographies or histories, but rather operate, as my friend the composer/poet Chris Mann would say, in a mammer that “doesn’t waste one’s own virtuosity”. They are all, in very real ways, related, and also to me personally. Three out of four of them were (are) among my closest friends, colleagues, collaborators, fellow musicians, mentors, and musical influences, and the one who left us before I was born (Ruth Crawford Seeger) has been a huge influence on my life and work.
Giacomo Fiore: Maybe—with the exception of my piece—I would say that all of the pieces share a degree of unpretentiousness. Each of them is clear in musical intent, generally focuses on a single idea or musical conceit, and doesn’t presume to unveil (or communicate!) some kind of cosmic truth. As I see it, those are characteristics of at least one branch of U.S. music—what we may call “American Experimentalism”—and I must say they’re what makes the genre so attractive for me both as a performer and in my research.
Can you talk a bit about your new piece, which you will be performing at Monk Space? What was the compositional process like for this work?
Larry: My piece, #4 (“34 More Chords: Charles Dodge in Putney” ) from the guitar duet 8 Fermentations has a happy history. 8 Fermentations was based on on a sketch for a never realized solo guitar piece for me by my friend and colleague — and wonderful composer — Charles Dodge. The piece is a tribute to his work, but written after he had stopped composing. For many years, Christian Wolff, Charles and I have had a regular lunch date. Some years ago, on a festival honoring Christian, I wrote him a solo guitar piece called 34 Chords: Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton, which I’ve played many times (as has Giacomo). 34 Chords… was intended as a gift to him to replace the “lost guitar piece” (now found) that Morton Feldman wrote for Christian. For me, it seemed logical to also write a similar piece for Charles, who had not “lost something” by no longer composing, but had in fact found a new passion (winemaking in Vermont!).
How has your experience as performers affected your work as composers, and vice versa?
Larry: For me, the older I get, the more all activities — most of life — become simply part of being a musician: composing, theorizing, performing, teaching, editing, researching, writing code…. living. For a number of felicitous reasons (including my close musical and personal friendship with Giacomo), I have been writing a lot more for guitar in the last few years. And fortunately for me, younger, gifted players all over the world seem to enjoy playing this material. I am however, very clearly, simply a composer who loves to play guitar (and not vice versa!).
Giacomo: Let me again clarify one thing—I don’t identify as a composer. I’m a performer and a musicologist, maybe I’d go as far as claiming to be a music theorist, but I don’t have the training nor the discipline to claim the title of “composer” (mainly out of respect for those who do have the credentials!). However, when I was asked to write a new piece for this concert, I figured I could use the opportunity to comment on some of the recurring tuning problems, approaches, and solutions that I’ve been exploring in my academic research as well as in my performance career, both as a soloist and in the duo with Larry. “Cognates” Is Just a Fancy Term for “Relatives”—as the title suggests—is not a particularly serious piece. It muses on tuning theory and its terminology (“cognates” are pitches who share the same name, but are tuned differently) and uses a fairly complicated tuning scheme for two guitars to try to show that these differentky-tuned pitches can be traced back to a common ancestor (both guitars tune the lowest string to D, which is the true fundamental of the piece). Nerdy stuff aside, the piece is simply an improvisational framework for Larry and me, referencing some of wacky the things we do in our playing, and serving as a small homage to the way he has inspired me as a musician, mentor, and friend over the past several years.
What do you find most compelling about microtonal music?
Larry: Pitch is so important in music that we are obligated to treat it with the respect it deserves, much as we treat other people with the cognizance of their individual extraordinary potentials, and the freedom and capacity to be what they want to be (not what they are told to be). If we use pitch, we should consider what pitches are, and can be. In that respect, as composers we should do what we can to contribute to the history and present of an unencumbered, ever-fecund world (universe) of musical pitch.
Giacomo: Before I answer that, let me say I’m not a fan of the term—maybe because it reminds me of microbes, or perhaps because it sounds overly fastidious. From a technical standpoint, much of the music Larry and I will play at T@MS is not microtonal—meaning it doesn’t necessarily feature tiny intervals. I prefer to think of it in terms of *tuning* music—music born out of concern about how we relate one note to the other. What I find compelling about that is manifold—I like how it puts me in touch with more rudimental aspects of music-making, forcing me to consider pitch (and its relationship to timbre) in a more attentive way. I also like how it questions commonly-held musical “givens”—that an octave should be divided into twelve equal parts, for example, or that every octave should feature the same pitches. Ultimately, though, I enjoy this music on a sensual and sensory level; I love the way it sounds, how it makes me marvel, and how it opens windows onto unforeseen musical worlds.
Tickets for the March 14 concert are available at http://tuesdaysatmonkspace.org/shows/microfest-presents/<./em>
Art Share LA in the heart of downtown Los Angeles was the site on Friday May 15, 2015 of Tactile Sound, a concert of new music featuring the wasteLAnd musicians, Trio Kobayashi and other assorted soloists and guests. A good size crowd filled the roomy spaces of the comfortable Art Share venue.
The first piece on the program was The Flypaper by Steven Kazuo Takasugi. The stage was populated by Elise Roy, flute, and Stephanie Aston, listed as a soprano, but who appeared holding a flute. Microphones were positioned very near the flutes and speakers were placed in front and behind the audience. A single recorded voice was heard coming from the speakers, and this consisted of stretches of disjointed speech in what sounded like a man speaking in German. The flutes were heard initially as rushing air, with no tones produced and the recorded voice faded away, seeming to recede to the back of the room. The valves of the flutes were heard opening and closing, still without any tone being produced – a technique that continued throughout the piece. This sound was amplified and the effect was similar to hearing the dripping of water in a leaky basement. The use of the flute as an amplified percussive instrument was unexpected, challenging the listener’s expectation – but this was exactly on target with the Tactile Sound theme. The voice returned, in English this time, as the clicks and pops increased there was an undercurrent of mysterious discomfort that stopped just short of threatening, providing the connection to title of the piece. The Flypaper is a remarkable combination of electronics and conventional instruments used in unconventional ways. Steven Kazuo Takasugi was in attendance and received a warm round of applause.
Invisibility by Liza Lim followed and this was a solo cello piece performed by Ashley Walters. For this piece Ms. Walters used a bow with the hair strands wrapped rope-like around the bow stick. This produced a lovely combination of warm cello sounds and sustained, yet scratchy tones that were often rough but never crude. The overall effect was one of complexity, a mix of the alien and the familiar and clearly ‘tactile’. There was a vague sense of anxiety running through the piece and this was heightened with the unorthodox bow. It sometimes seemed that more than one instrument was in the room; the playing always sounded assured and under control. Midway through Ms. Walters picked up a conventional bow and the sounds became noticeably smoother with more individual notes. This section contained perhaps a bit more dynamic range – very light at times, and much stronger at others, especially in the lower registers. There were some smooth and harmonious stretches here that provided a good contrast to the opening sections. Towards the end of the piece both bows were used – one in each hand – to produce an intriguing mix of sounds that was at once both rough and soothing. Any remaining doubts about the virtuosity of Ms. Walters were dispelled by the enthusiastic applause that followed. Invisibility, like The Flypaper before it, is a piece that challenges the expectations of the listener in new and unusual ways.
The world premiere of eiszeiten by Richard Barrett was next, and this featured the playing of Trio Kobayashi – horn, trombone and tuba. The piece began with the sound of air rushing through the horns and tongued so as to create a kind of pinging sound. This was picked up and amplified through the speakers and the effect was like hearing the cold wind blowing. These sounds eventually morphed into tones from each horn, forming sustained chords that were somewhat high in pitch and dissonant at times, producing an otherworldly feel. The harmonies here were indefinably unorthodox – reminiscent of train horns that are close in pitch, and not quite forming a conventional interval. Powerful tutti chords were heard and these became more traditional in character as they gained in strength. The electronics emitted a deep bass drone and the players joined at approximately the same pitch with some zero-beating becoming audible at times. The brass then began to play passages of moving notes and this brought a sense of movement to the texture. The electronics replied with a loud dissonant chord – in full 1950s Sci-Fi mode – and the brass added a syncopated line that enhanced the alien feel of this section. The electronic sounds suddenly ceased and the brass trio played the piece to a close. Eiszeiten, which translates to Ice Ages, certainly evokes a cold, alien landscape and the integration of the electronics with the playing of Trio Kobayashi was precise and effective.
CYMBALMUSIC II: Centerflow/Trails II by Eleanor Hovda followed, performed by Justin DeHart. This is the second piece of a five piece set, and was inspired by the rigors of cross country skiing as experienced by the composer. The graphical score, in fact, includes a series of marks and squiggles that resemble ski tracks. For this performance two cymbals were mounted on a single pedestal. The audience was asked to hum or sing a sustained tone as heard from the cymbals as they were bowed by DeHart. The sound produced by the bowing was generally high in pitch but full of overtones and this nicely suggested a cold, sunny day in a white landscape, with a stinging headwind blowing. The vertical motion of the bowing across the edge of the cymbals was itself was reminiscent of ski poles pumping up and down as the skier moved through a frozen landscape. The humming from the audience was mostly tentative, but added a smooth timbre and seemed to amplify the sounds coming from the cymbals. As the piece progressed the tempo slowed and the sound felt more labored, as if the skier was becoming fatigued. Towards the end the volume also decreased until there was just a low humming heard from the audience as the piece concluded. CYMBALMUSIC II: Centerflow/Trails II is an artful work that produces the maximum effect from minimal musical forces yet delivers a vivid imagery to the mind of the listener.
After the intermission, Trio Kobayashi returned to play Tones and Noise II by Dustin Donahue. This began with a low roaring from the stage speakers, sounding very much like a rocket exhaust at close range. The horns joined in, playing syncopated notes that provided an interesting contrast to the noise texture. The roaring became intermittent and the brass passages more animated as if we were in the presence of a large beast or mechanism. The roaring noise was renewed and perceived as coming from different directions through the speakers on both sides of the audience. The brass parts became louder and longer, as if combining with and matching the roar. The feeling was that of being inside a rocket in space, hearing the blast of the engines and the sounds of mechanical automata as portrayed by the brass. Tones and Noise II is an intriguing piece that manages to work effectively on the imagination by using amplified noise and simple brass figures.
The final piece of the concert was the world premiere of Saxony by James Tenney in a version for brass quintet. James Tenney, an influential West Coast composer and educator, died in 2006, but this piece from among his unperformed works was selected for premiere at this concert. Trio Kobayashi was joined by two trumpet players – Jonah Levy and Aaron Smith – to complete the ensemble. Saxony opened with a low, sustained tone in the tuba, matched by the electronics coming through the speakers. At length the trombone entered, doubling the tuba and noticeably changing the timbre of the chord. The trombone moved up what sounded like a third and the horn entered changing the timbre yet again. All the tones were sustained and this anchoring of the sound by the low brass seemed almost Wagnarian – certainly German – and in keeping with title. The piece proceeded in this way, the trumpets adding their parts, piling pitches on top of pitches within the chord, all combining to create a powerful sound. The intonation here was critical and the ensemble held together admirably. When all the players were engaged, a series of trills in each horn added pleasing new colors and shortly after, each horn began to play a series of short phrases that added an agreeable variety to the texture. The piece then reversed – the tones tapering downward and the trumpets going tacet. The sound became lower and more cohesive, producing some lovely chords. When only the trombone, tuba and electronics remained, the sound became lush and warm. The piece concluded by slow diminuendo with the remaining horns laying out until only the tuba held the bottom note. When the sound finally ceased the audience remained silent for a good 15 seconds, a tribute perhaps more notable than the enthusiastic applause which followed. Saxony is masterful work that extracts considerable emotional impact from its minimal structure and pitch palette.
Trio Kobayashi is:
Alan Fogle – Horn
Matt Barbier – Trombone
Luke Storm – Tuba