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.
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.
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.
In a diverse, capably executed program of Microtonal music for solo piano and violin entitled “Beyond 12,” Tuesdays@MonkSpace further solidified itself as a major presenting organization for contemporary music in Los Angeles. Pianist and T@MS co-founder Aron Kallay, a noted exponent of microtonality, joined musical forces with like-minded violinist Andrew McIntosh of the Formalist Quartet in a generous offering of harmonically-expanded music spanning three centuries. The concert marked the season finale of T@MS, as well as that of Microfest–the primary source for microtonal music in the area–which co-produced the event.
While the octave (8 lines and spaces on the musical staff), is generally divided into 12 equally spaced notes, microtonality allows for dividing the octave into many more notes and spacing them at varying distances from each other, providing for greater and freer expressive power.
The first selection on the program‑‑a staple of Kallay’s repertoire—Kyle Gann’s Fugitive Objects (2004), exemplified the extraordinary harmonic richness possible in microtonal music by dividing the octave into 36 discreet pitch classes—three times the usual number of notes on the piano. With sweeping romantic intensity and lyricism–heightened by Kallay’s expressive playing—the piece meanders through original, unexpected dimensions of pitch. Listeners are kept on track by memorable ostinatos that define a form amidst a spongy, vibratory tone-massage.
Acoustic pianos are incapable of sustaining the pressures of such extreme tonal fission. Consequently, Kallay used a midi-controller with timbre and tuning courtesy of Pianoteq, a real-time piano modeling software.
“The changes in tuning required by Gann are so great as to be impossible on an acoustic piano: the strings would simply break,” Kallay pointed out. “Even when we can change the piano’s normal tuning system to a microtonal variant, it requires many tunings to stabilize the new tonal scheme, followed by additional tunings to restore the original temperament,” Kallay elaborated.
Such practical factors have led to the accepted and widespread use of electronic technology in live microtonal concerts.
Andrew McIntosh did not use software to produce the tunings of his program for solo violin. The simultaneous blessing and curse of the string player is the ongoing onus of intonation, note by note. The violin’s flexibility of pitch is ideally suited to microtonal music, where subtle tone-warps add expressive range, in many cases complementing programmatic content.
Taking the stage alternately with Kallay, McIntosh opened his survey of microtonality for solo violin with, “Intonation After Morton Feldman, 1” by Marc Sabat, from his suite Les Duresses (2004). McIntosh introduced the piece with enticing context-building commentary, adding an impactful additional element to the concert experience. All evening long, in standard T@MS form, the performers served as musicologists, drawing on extensive academic training in sensitizing listeners to each work’s essential attributes.
Combining a love for the music of Morton Feldman, icon of twentieth century experimental music, with a passion for precision, Marc Sabat pinned down Feldman’s allusions to microtonality in a fully worked out, rigorously notated adaptation of Feldman’s late string writing style.
“In his final few years, Feldman seemed to suggest microtonal inflections of pitch in his music for strings. When pressed to explain his methods, he seemed to avoid the question but hinted that some notes would weigh more than others,” explained McIntosh, who went on to perform the piece with clear, convincing modulations of pitch, indeed evoking weight in some notes, buoyancy in others.
The Weasel of Melancholy, a terse, humorous work for piano solo by Eric Moe, followed, closing out the first half with microtonal whinings and abstract figuration. Animal sounds and songs are always microtonal. Moe drew on the versatility of microtonality to convey animal emotion, and Kallay dispatched passages of virtuoso figuration with abandon and effortless fluency.
A jovial crowd, remaining close at hand throughout intermission, drew to attention as the stage was set for a substantial second half.
In a refreshing reminder that microtonality is nothing new, McIntosh presented a lengthy suite for violin solo, “the first example of microtonal music for solo violin,” by the Baroque composer Johann Joseph Vilsmayer.
Microtonal effects were common in the Baroque, having been used widely by Antonio Vivaldi and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber for subtle undercurrents of meaning in program music and character sketches. Vilsmayr’s Partita number 5 is a fusion of Austrian folk melodies, French ornamental writing, and poignant microtonal leanings modeled on Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.
In an original scordatura tuning devised by Vilsmayr, the E string became a D string (for two D strings in total), allowing for numerous harmonic possibilities otherwise inconvenient in violin writing.
Aron Kallay, characteristically warm, acknowledged departing interns as well as MonkSpace owner Michael Lane, then continued to inform without lecturing. “There are pockets of microtonal communities throughout the country, especially Boston, as well as Birmingham, Alabama.”
The History of Elevators in Film, by Birmingham composer Holland Hopson, depicted the sensory experience of riding in elevators with virtuoso compositional prowess. Doppler-like expansion and contractions of pitch evoke that unmistakable sensation of “Moving while standing still,” the title of one movement, as well as the ominous destination of floor number 13, in “Floor 13, please….”
Hopson’s History might be considered the sole collaboration of the program: a duet between piano soloist and technology itself. The keyboard’s tuning dynamically shifted in response to programmed triggers using Max, an interactive framework for real-time musical processes. Kallay would “play a low note, repeat a chord a certain number of times, leap by a given interval, etc.” and the tuning would audibly shift concomitantly. The process lent a spontaneous, interactive chamber music quality to the piece, further conveying the reduced independence of elevator passengers.
Apart from Vilsmayar’s Partita, all the pieces of the program were composed in the current century. Many were commissioned by Kallay himself. “I began to grow tired of equal temperament 10 years ago and began playing microtonal music then, but not much had been written for piano solo,” Kallay noted at the program’s outset. “I began commissioning works, and hope to continue building the repertoire forever.”
Among the latest additions to Kallay’s growing compendium is The Blur of Time and Memory, by Los Angeles-based composer, Alex Miller, which brought the program to a dramatic finale.
Miller’s Blur integrated uniquely microtonal effects with idiomatic, even traditional piano writing for a holistic listener experience. An inventive microtonal tuning allowed for seamless glissando-like transitions through the entire range, inducing a haunting, surreal atmosphere of liquefied pitches and flowing masses of sound. While inextricably linked to microtonality, the piece was not dependent upon it, drawing power from striking tone clusters, singing lines, and undulatory dynamic gestures.
Building energy progressively, Miller’s Blur seemed to conclude with its climax. A torrent of sonority reverberated in the lively MonkSpace acoustic, shortly giving way to authentic, spontaneous applause by a nourished audience.
The mood was set for a reception that would last hours—a known T@MS phenomenon—drawing together friends, new and familiar in the joy of a shared adventure, the sense of something meaningful in music, and the promise of another season.