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>
Composer Nicholas Chase and violinist Robin Lorentz have a joint performance at Tuesdays @ Monk Space on February 21. This event will mark the world premiere performance of Chase’s electro-acoustic piece Bhajan, a four-movement work for electric violin and live electronics. This performance, celebrating the release of Bhajan as a new Cold Blue Music CD, will mark a rare return visit to Los Angeles for both musicians. I had a chance to interview both of them ahead of the concert. Here’s what they had to say:
What is the driving force behind Bhajan? What are the unifying elements across movements?
Exploration! That is the driving force behind Bhajan. There isn’t any aspect of it that isn’t designed as some form of investigation both theoretical and physical—including my friendship and musical relationship with Robin. I couldn’t have written this for someone else. Another violinist would have thought I was crazy!
The violin part in Bhajan is very simply constructed and focuses the tuning of the open strings. Virtuosity is a traditional western approach to a large piece like this, but my idea in was to take traditional virtuosic acrobatics out of the concerto scenario and bring the player back to the fundamentals of playing. As it turns out that approach brings out a whole different kind of virtuosity for both of us. So the investigation takes place on stage between the two of us, in a kind of musical conversation. That’s a good way to describe the piece: if you think of the four sections of the piece as parts of a conversation, you’ll hear how they evolve out of each other.
How did you first become involved with Hindi devotional music and Indian raga? What about this music speaks to you the most?
I’m not actually involved with Hindi devotional music and know very little about it. I studied North Indian Classical Music briefly with Rajeev Tharanath at the same time I was studying composition at conservatory. I had studied Schoenberg’s atonal serialism extensively and I felt like I that gave me an interesting springboard to dive into the deeper traditions of raga.
Rajeev discovered that I have a great ear for subtle tunings, tonalities and complex rhythms. I discovered that western formality—even serialism—was too constricting for me. What I love about raga is that within a single raga system the performer can shape her performance with limitless nuances and stylization. That makes the music both personal and alive. That is something I started putting into my writing early on in modular scores. Even though Bhajan isn’t modular, it tallies up everything I learned from writing those.
I started writing Bhajan during a research residency at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. At the time I was hanging out with acoustic technicians and I spent a lot of time talking and thinking about the physical phenomena of sound. I don’t know how I missed it early on, but I discovered that Hindustani music is also concerned with many of these aspects of sound making—with how the sound waves emanating from a string interact with sound waves emanating from another string!
I think it’s the unlikely but exquisite conscious union of science, skill, and craft that draws me to raga.
A good way to hear how I’ve brought all this into Bhajan, take a listen to Drshti, the second section of Bhajan, then listen to Ram Narayan’s performance of Raga Marwa on the sarangi. Wildly, I hadn’t heard this performance until after Drshti was recorded and mixed—I was surprised myself at how the two pieces echo each other. It’s exciting to think that I might have come to a musical conclusion outside of, but still reflecting, an ages-old tradition.
Bhajan was just released by Cold Blue Music in January 2017, but the performance at Monk Space will be its world premiere performance. What do you hope to communicate to the audience with the live performance of Bhajan?
You asked about my involvement with HIndi devotional music above. What I didn’t say is that, even though I’m not involved in devotional music, through nearly a decade of committed yoga practice which I had to take up for health reasons, I realized that making music is my devotion. It’s how I communicate back to the world and the “worlds beyond this world.” What I mean by that is scientifically, we understand that we’re all made up of vibrations. As musicians I think that we’re perhaps more, or at least differently, tied to an understanding of those vibrations. Bhajan is a celebration of the bridge between what we experience and its vibrational source and is a humble offering to that. You know, when someone waves at you, you wave back. Bhajan is me and Robin waving back!
How did you meet Nicholas Chase, and what was the collaborative process like with Bhajan?
I met Nicholas Chase through the CalArts Community and through The California EAR Unit. We were both heavily involved with Cal Arts at overlapping times and non overlapping times, so were aware of one another; but my first chance to work with Nick and get to know him was with the EAR UNIT. Nick wrote some musics for the Unit and so we worked, travelled and concertized together.
The collaborative process on Bhajan with Nick was indescribably and wonderfully prismatic. Every moment a new birth and breath…just like the piece. I love Bhajan so very very much. To have been involved with it in any way has been the richest gift.
You have performed for an incredibly diverse range of artists, composers, and projects. What have you gained from these diverse experiences?
Tickets for the February 21 concert are available at tuesdaysatmonkspace.org/shows/cold-blue-night.
The Laptop Ensemble from Cal State Long Beach is coming to Tuesdays at Monk Space on January 24 to perform Voyage, a reconceptualization of German lied by Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, and Brahms. In 2013 the group teamed up with a Korean theatre troupe led by Byunkoo Ahn and premiered the concept at the Spoleto Open Festival dei due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy. Nearly four years later, we are reimagining the concept once again in Germany with the same troupe. This time, we’re joined by local German singers and have some new works to premiere. The composers all come directly from the ensemble, something the CSULB Laptop Ensemble does almost all of the time.
Which leads to an important question: what is “Laptop Ensemble”?
The origin story begins with composition professors Martin Herman and Carolyn Bremer, who founded the ensemble in 2010. Composition graduate students Zach Lovitch, Andy Zacharias, Seth Shafer, and Brad Van Wick were already putting on elaborate concerts at the time. These concerts featured various analog and modular synthesizers, as well as electroacoustic music with live performance from laptops. After seeing these student-run concerts, Martin was so impressed by the group that they joined forces to create the Laptop Ensemble. From then on, the performers have always been alumni or current CSULB students. It’s always been a small group, typically around 5 or 6 members (with an all-time high of 13). In performance, however, the group is typically a quartet. The group is self-sufficient, writing all of their music mostly in Max-MSP. Their unique speaker arrays, following the PLOrk model, were built by founding member Zach Lovitch, Martin Brenner, and Martin Herman.
It was only a couple of years after formation that the group went to Spoleto to perform Voyage. This time around there are lots of new faces in the group, but most of the pieces are revised versions of works from the 2013 festival.
About the Program
The opener, Silbertöne by Seth Shafer, is nothing short of attention grabbing. It’s complete with punchy, arpeggiated synths and deep bass tones – a stark contrast to the violin samples that weave in and out throughout. Shafer is also the composer of Upon Return to Earth, a beautiful work that comes later in the program. Feldeinsamkeit, reimagined by the ensemble’s director Martin Herman, is both meditative and glitchy, with captivating sounds that trickle in and out. Long-time member Glen Gray wrote the next piece, Dein Angesicht. It is an abstraction of art song, with piano and voice filtered through an array of effects and electronic drone joining the duet later on. Assistant director of the ensemble Matthew Lourtie is the composer of Nacht und Trauma. His version is a complete turn from Schubert’s original Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams). Sinken by Justin Kennedy is a stunning underwater sound world, with melodic whale calls and resonant percussion contributing to the landscape.
Three of the works are newly composed for the 2017 tour. George Wheeler, a lecturer at CSULB and stand-in member of the ensemble, wrote a new version of Ave Maria. It features arpeggiated harmonies over a bed of musique concrète and long melodic tones. These overlapping melodies, along with the arpeggiation, gradually become more dissonant and distorted before returning to consonance. Next is my own version of Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh. It begins with a new art song using the same text, which is filtered to sound as though it could be coming from off-stage. This leads to a duet of filtered singing bowls and a resonant, melodic bass, and a processed version of the same art song overlaid. The concert closes with a new piece by Oscar Santos-Carrillo, Abendroth. It involves four layered patches, which are largely influenced by hip-hop and industrial sounds. In fact, two of the patches are essentially filtered kick drums with effects. The piece begins with a sample of the original art song by Schubert, a nod to the sampling pervasive in hip-hop music, which then morphs into a larger cluster of sound.
For more information about the program, click here.
This Tuesday, Tuesdays @ Monk Space presents an eclectic evening of new choral and brass music featuring a double bill with the Trio Kobayashi (Allen Fogle, Matt Barbier, and Luke Storm) and C3LA (Contemporary Choral Collective of Los Angeles). Cristina Lord, T@MS’ Social Media and Outreach Director, interviewed both ensembles ahead of the concert. This originally appeared on the T@MS site, and is reprinted here with permission.
T@MS Interviews C3LA
The Contemporary Choral Collective of Los Angeles has no single director, and is instead collectively run by its members (all of which are talented new music singers, many composers themselves). What unique insights, opportunities, and/or challenges has this approach led to for the ensemble?
One of our main challenges has been scheduling. We are all busy students and/or professionals, so finding times when we can all meet to rehearse, perform, or discuss administrational business is often difficult. Finding a consensus takes time, which is of course not an issue in a traditional ensemble with a single director who makes all the decisions.
Since the conductors vary piece to piece and come from the group as well, adapting to varied conducting and rehearsing styles keeps things fresh. Composers do not conduct their own pieces, which encourages collective music making and an openness to various artistic interpretations and aesthetics. Everyone brings their own unique and formidable skill sets to our concerts, from the planning stages to the actual performances.
The program at Monk Space on December 20th includes ten diverse pieces written by composers within the last 25 years. How do you go about programming new works together? For example, can you speak a little about how the pieces on this program relate to one another?
In our concerts, our primary concern as a group is to program interesting, well crafted pieces. Thematic continuity seems secondary, but its consideration can often help shape a program and assist us in deciding which pieces will be on a given concert, and in what order. Stylistic variation is also important to us. “Passing Flight” has various interpretations; there are pieces that deal with literal flight, ephemeral moments in nature, and philosophic contemplations.
What about performing new music do you find most rewarding?
I can only speak for myself, but as a composer it is always satisfying and exciting to have one’s own music performed. As a singer, it is wonderfully challenging and stimulating to encompass such stylistic breadth within a single concert, as well as to tackle the various technical hurdles each piece presents. Our goal as an ensemble and as individuals is to show people how vital, inventive, and intellectually and emotionally gratifying music written in the last quarter century is. Introducing and being introduced to wonderful new repertoire and composers is incredibly rewarding.
T@MS Interviews Trio Kobayashi
Plainsound Brass Trio (2008) was written for your ensemble by the German composer Wolfgang von Schweinitz. It involves 18 microtonal variations, and explores the trombone’s trigger valve action at various tuned slide positions. What has been your experience learning and performing this piece?
This piece was the impetus for the creation of Trio Kobayashi and has been a major part of our repertoire for more than eight years. Wolfgang, Matt Barbier, and I all arrived at CalArts in the fall of 2007—Wolfgang as the James Tenney Chair of Composition and Matt and I as graduate students. Conversations about just intonation and brass technique planted the seeds of this collaboration. The first performance took place after nearly a year of rehearsals and meetings with Wolfgang, an intensive process of learning a new notation system and unfamiliar intervals. The Plainsound Brass Trio continues to be one of the most challenging yet rewarding pieces we have ever faced and occupies a special place in our repertoire.
Your trio specializes in just intonation for brass. What about just intonation (or microtonal music in general) is most interesting to you, and what do you see for the future of microtonal music?
Microtonality is often thought of as a means of creating extra dissonance, exoticism, or just a general sense of ‘weirdness.’ In just intonation, all intervals come from the harmonic series, the theoretical collection of pitches that comprise musical timbre. Among these intervals are familiar consonances, unexpectedly sonorous dissonances, and shadings of microtonality.
Non-tempered tuning has been a fascination of composers since the earliest writings of music theory. The broad acceptance of a single tuning system—as we have today with equal temperament—is really an exception in musical history, which has seen a nearly constant debate over various systems and practices. What the future of microtonal music holds is anyone’s guess. It will be limited only by the imagination and skill of composers and performers.
Besides microtonal works, you’ve also performed vocal music arranged for brass, and will be sharing the concert with vocalists at the upcoming performance at Monk Space. From your perspective, what similarities do you find between brass and voice?
Brass players and singers share the distinction of being the only musicians to produce sound with their own bodies and early brass instruments were often used to accompany singers and to strengthen the choir. We are thrilled to share this program with C3LA, as this pairing reflects the natural affinity between these two families.
Iannis Xenakis wrote three pieces involving Game Theory, a branch of probability theory, including Linaia-Agon (1972), which you will be performing at Monk Space as well. The piece also involves free choice as a central component. What unique challenges did this piece pose? Can you talk a bit about the process of learning and performing it?
Linaia-Agon is a depiction of a mythological battle between Linus, the famed musician, represented by the trombone, and Apollo, the god of music, represented by the horn and tuba. In this piece, we are asked to make in-the-moment decisions that shape the overall form of the piece, affect individual musical events, and determine who is the victor of the ‘combats.’ This seat-of-your-pants approach lends an intense energy to every performance, each of which is different from the last.
Perhaps the title here is a hair misleading – as far as we know, Ashley Walters, cellist, does not have anxiety. We do know that she’s on of the most active cellists in the LA scene, specializing in microtonal music and repertoire featuring extended techniques and alternate tunings. Ashley, a member of the Formalist Quartet, has appeared as a soloist on concert series such as Green Umbrella, wasteLAnd music, San Diego New Music, Beyond Baroque, and many others. Tomorrow evening, she plays a solo set at Tuesdays at Monk Space, entitled A Sweet Anxiety.
T@MS’ Social Media and Outreach Director, Cristina Lord, interviewed Ashley ahead of the concert. The interview was sent out via email to their list, and I asked if we could reprint it here for our readers. Here are Cristina and Ashley:
The program contains a challenging list of works that explore the sonic possibilities of the cello. From your perspective, does the combination of these particular pieces affect their meanings as a whole?
The works on this program represent what I believe to be milestones of the recent cello repertoire. While there are parallels in this collection of pieces — four use microtonality, all use extended techniques, and all bear the imprint for the performer for whom it was written — the pieces, nevertheless, arrive at dramatically different expressive destinations as a result of their explorations in technique and timbre.
You’ve been praised for your performances of Liza Lim’s Invisibility, a dazzling, unpredictable work that is part of Lim’s ongoing investigation of Australian Aboriginal’s ‘aesthetics of presence.’ The piece has an overall shimmering quality, and uses two kinds of bows to offer different possibilities of friction that explore harmonic complexities within the instrument. What aesthetic qualities have you found most enrapturing about this piece, and how does the work speak to you?
Liza Lim has reimagined the personality and voice of the cello in an absolutely unique way. Although the modified “guiro” bow provides visual and timbral drama, it is the retuned strings that truly define the essence of this piece to me. Three of the four strings are tuned lower, darkening and obscuring the cello’s familiar, swan-like voice. The open and ringing perfect fifths of standard tuning are replaced with tense and unruly dissonances.
Also on the program is Berio’s Sequenza XIV, a work inspired by the Kandyan drum rhythms of Sri Lanka. As such, the piece utilizes the cello as a percussion instrument in addition to its traditional role as a string instrument. Given the diverse range of techniques required in this piece, what did you find most challenging or interesting?
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.
You’ve worked closely with multiple composers, including Nicholas Deyoe whose piece another anxiety will be opening the concert at Monk Space. What do you enjoy most about collaborating with composers? What was the process like for Another Anxiety?
Nicholas Deyoe has been a friend and collaborator for the past nine years, during which time I have premiered twelve of his works. Our first collaboration, developed in secret, was a piece performed as a surprise dedication to the great soprano, Stephanie Aston on her and Nicholas’ wedding day. The process of our collaboration continues to evolve, but risk-taking and honesty have been our anchors throughout. The inspiration for the opening of another anxiety, with its tiny microtonal intervals, came from Nicholas’ observation that I could easily divide a whole step into four notes in the lowest positions of the cello. To me, such collaboration, is the epitome of being a new music performer. I am so proud to be presenting the results of my collaboration with Nicholas Deyoe and Wadada Leo Smith as part of my program at Tuesdays @ Monk Space.
Tickets are available at asweetanxiety.brownpapertickets.com.
Tuesdays at Monk Space, the series run by Aron Kallay and Jason Heath in K-town, has a really cool mix of old and new happening tonight at 8. The first half of the program features Ensemble Hotteterre performing music by Couperin, Telemann and Phillidor on period instruments. The second is a Mark Robson solo harpsichord show, with pieces by Henry Cowell, Alexander Tcherepnin, Maurice Ohana, György Ligeti, and a premiere from Robson himself, along with selections from Froberger, Rossi, Scarlatti, and Giovanni de Macque for flavor.
Full info on the show is available at http://tuesdaysatmonkspace.org/shows/oldmusic-newmusic.