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WasteLAnd talks with Stephanie Aston, Dustin Donahue, Nicholas Deyoe, Katherine Young, and Allison Carter

Soprano Stephanie Aston
Soprano Stephanie Aston

Here at New Classic LA we love it when musicians and composers talk with each other about their work. In what is becoming an ongoing series, flutist and wasteLAnd executive director Rachel Beetz had time to speak with the performers, composers, and poet involved in their concert this Saturday at 8pm at Art Share. Tickets and details are at wastelandmusic.org. Here’s Rachel:

Happy Valentine’s Day!

wasteLAnd’s upcoming concert on Saturday includes collaborations and realizations of some quirky and weird love songs. We’re featuring Stephanie Aston throughout the program, including a premiere by Nicholas Deyoe. I asked some questions of composers Katherine Young and Nicholas Deyoe, performers Stephanie Aston and Dustin Donahue and the author of the text of Deyoe’s new work, Allison Carter. We hope you can join all of us to celebrate all of the weird types of love this program has to offer!

Program:

Manoalchadia – Chaya Czernowin
Love Letter – Liza Lim/Dustin Donahue
and I am responsible for having hands (five Allison Carter songs) – Nicholas Deyoe (world premiere)
Cellogram – James Tenney
Folk Songs – Luciano Berio
Master of Disguises – Katherine Young

RB: Stephanie, this concert involves a huge range of vocal colors! Can you talk a bit about how you’re approaching each different style? Are there connections between pieces in your approach at all?

Stephanie Aston: A lot of what I do is based on not just the indications given by the composer, but also the text. The text I sing in Manoalchadia is very aggressive for the first two thirds of the piece, so everything I do, be it low notes in full chest register, vocal fry, breathy singing, etc. has an aggressive and raw feeling behind it. Later in the piece the text becomes loving rather than aggressive, so everything I do comes from a gentle place.

Deyoe’s settings of the Allison Carter texts are very much in his style of setting text. There’s an ease of production and moderation of sound, in a certain sense. I have “poco vib” or “no vib” written in several times because nothing should be taken to excess; it’s just a clear beautiful ringing sound. In a way that allows me to bring out the nuances of the text as they come by and respond to them uniquely each time I sing it.

Young’s piece has mostly extended techniques until the end. It feels like an arrival piece of sorts because there was a time when I couldn’t do a tongue trill. The piece gives you hints along the way. Then at the end, when the text is fully there, it still isn’t, because it’s quiet and divided. I have the vowels and Leslie has the consonants.

The Berio Folk Songs have a wide variety of texts, so each movement has its own character. I try to keep my approach simple, thinking of how someone in the countryside of each piece might go about singing it and just try and have some fun.

RB: Dustin, Liza Lim’s Love Letter for solo hand drum asks the performer to “write a letter to your beloved” and “translate the letters of each word into rhythmic information.” Could you describe your encounter with this process? Was there anything that was particularly challenging in realizing this piece?

Dustin Donahue: The open-ended nature of this brief score was particularly daunting. There is no suggested process for translating letters into rhythmic information – this must be a system of my own design. As a first step, I created my text, where my own “love letter” runs in counterpoint with texts by Margaret Atwood and Simone de Beauvoir which were read at my wedding.

Emphasizing the score’s instruction to make rhythms from letters themselves, I explored a range of coded methods for translating individual letters into sounds; these, at first, included standardized practices like Morse code and ASCII, all of which felt impersonal and mechanical. Ultimately, as I analyzed and copied these texts, I became enchanted by the sound of handwriting. This was an intimate, highly personal method of producing sounds from letters; I recorded myself writing each text, and then transcribed in meticulous detail the exact rhythms of my writing and the articulations created with each stroke. In my performance, these rhythms and articulations are reproduced on the frame drum not with the intent of imitating the sound of writing, but instead to create a new kind of percussive language based upon the idiosyncratic movements of the hand in writing.

RB: Katherine, Could you talk a bit about the connection of the tape players to Kelly Links’ “The Girl Detective?” To me, with the idea of searching, it reminds me of old times looking for a particular song on a tape and having trouble if the tape wasn’t in a clear spot to begin with.

Katherine Young: Absolutely – I had the same association from my childhood in mind – looking for that one particular spot on a tape that you remember… and then there were for me, those special investigations when you never find what you’re looking for. It’s like that part of the song never existed, or maybe it only existed in your imagination.

For me, the tape recorders could also signify searching in terms of research, the way people used to conduct interviews with small tape recorders.

But at some point, the machines stopped being directly related to the story, and I was just interested in the sounds they made. I love the whirring and murmuring of the rewind and fast forward and the percussive clicks and clicks of the eject.

These sounds then became the basis for the instrumental sounds. The percussive tape recorder sounds, in particular, they circle back and inform how I treated the text when it is finally sung completely, breaking up the attack of the sound (word) and the sustain and splitting it between the two voices. To me this displacement relates to the ideas of elusiveness in the text.

RB: What other ways does this piece “search?”

Katherine: In my experience, playing many extended techniques in a woodwind instrument feels like a form of searching. Unstable multiphonics and the overblown squeaks are very hard to find and control. They will be a little different every time. These are my favorite kinds of sounds – the ones that surprise you!

RB: Allison, Nick has written a lot of music with your text at this point! Have you had text set before? Has it changed your approach? How has that shaped your approach to writing or your creative process?

Allison Carter: Yes! I love that Nick has composed multiple pieces using text I have written. His music teaches me about the text and sort of opens up the perimeter around the text. Like – oh, yes, it can sound like that! It can feel like that! It can be about… something like that! I have had text set before. Several years ago Gabriel Kahane composed music using my work. The experience of hearing how the text is met and built on by a new composition opens my mind to new directions the writing could go, almost as though the music turns the light on in an adjacent room. Hearing the text sung also confirms and pushes some elements of my writing process, like always editing out loud.

RB: Allison Carter, the author of the poetry you set in “and I am responsible for having hands” mentioned that this piece really captures the ambience or aura she had while making these works. You also seem to capture and feed off of skills of specific players. Can you talk a little bit about how these worlds collide into this piece? How did you consider the text and then the players while composing this work?

ND: I was really touched (and relieved) when Allison said that in rehearsal last night. I wasn’t setting out with the assumption that I fully understood the essence of what Allison was feeling when she wrote those words, but was responding to what they made me feel. Reading Allison Carter’s poetry resonates with me because her words elicit in me the same difficult-to-define emotions that are driving a lot of the music that I write.

When setting the words into a vocal line, I try to respect what is printed as much as possible. Punctuation, grammar, space on the page, and line breaks all guide how I pace the text. I don’t repeat words, I don’t change orders, and I don’t intentionally distort anything regarding the words. My aim is to present the text in the way that most closely resembles how I read it and then to create a musical context around it.  For Allison to say that this piece has captured the aura that she was feeling when writing it makes me feel even more connected to her words, because my goal with the musical setting is to capture my own emotional state reading the words. It feels very personal to me. This is definitely related to the way that I like to work with performers. When I write music for you, Ashley, or Stephanie, the process becomes so rooted in our histories with each other. The whiskies and teas we drank together, the times we’ve spent sitting in a room and exploring sound with each other, the experiences we’ve had performing in ensembles together. I’m not writing for flute, cello, and voice. It’s for Beetz, Walters, and Aston. It’s about the way you interact with each other, how you sound as individuals, and the smartass remarks you make in rehearsals. This is the first time I’ve composed music for Alison Bjorkedal, but having her as a part of this ensemble has felt completely natural. After our experience of preparing Tenney’s massive Changes for six harps in 2017, Alison has felt like a good friend and a similar musical spirit.

Working with Allison Carter’s poetry makes me feel closer to her on a certain level, but also makes me feel like I understand myself a little better. I feel the same way working on a project like this with close friends. The openness and honesty present in these collaborations deepens my connection to all of you, but also sparks a self-reflection that continues to define who I want to be as an artist. And I am responsible for having hands is a cycle that engages poetry with an uncanny resemblance to my inner thoughts and is composed for some incredible friends. This is music designed to be created with people I love.

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