On June 19, pianist Nic Gerpe will be performing an explorative program centered around the idea of “tocar” – meaning, “to touch, to play.” He goes beyond the basic definition of the word to explore other connotations, meanings, and ultimately how the different pieces on the program touch and interact with each other. I had the chance to interview Nic about the program, working with violinist Pasha Tseitlin (Panic Duo), and his relationship with new music. Here’s what he said:
As you’ve described in your program note, “Tocar” will be a program of works that touch one another, in both obvious and ephemeral ways. With this idea in mind, what are some of the ways the works relate to each other? Which works on the program take a more literal versus indirect approach?
I have wanted to pair Alexander Miller’s Actions and Resonances with Vera Ivanova’s Black Echo for quite awhile. The connection between the two pieces’ titles made them a great fit, in my mind, and I thought that from a purely scientific/acoustical/sound-world perspective Oscillations would be a great compliment to actions, resonances and echoes. Incidentally, I found that “Tocar” can also be translated as “to ring” or “to sound” – words which fit these three pieces very well.
As I started thinking of what other works to program alongside these three, I started finding many more bonds between the pieces. For instance, Corigliano’s Fantasia On An Ostinato is based on a famous piece of Beethoven (7th Symphony, 2nd Movement), Ivanova’s Black Echo takes as its inspiration a lute ayre of John Dowland, and (without giving too many hidden gems away!) Schankler’s Oscillations contains all kinds of references to past music. All of these three pieces are touched in some very direct way by the hand of history, and share that link.
Most of the solo works on the first half of the program also prominently feature repeated-note figurations, but used in many different ways and contexts. The “touch” aspect of “tocar” is also evident in the virtuosic aspect of the works – for instance, Schankler describes the “furious toccatas” in his piece, and of course “toccata” comes from the Italian word “toccare”, which means the same as the Spanish word “tocar”. In Higdon’s String Poetic, the composer utilizes extensive virtuosic writing. As well, the pianist is required to mute several strings inside the piano with the fingertips, creating a totally different type of touch than what we normally associate with piano playing.
I also associate the way that Higdon utilizes these muted piano notes with Saariaho’s description of her piece Tocar – ” One of my first ideas for “Tocar”, about the encounter of two instruments as different as the violin and piano, was the question: how could they touch each other? … In spite of such different mechanisms, both instruments also have some common points, purely musical, noticeably they share some of the same register… I imagine a magnetism becoming stronger and stronger – the piano part becomes more mobile – which draws the violin texture towards the piano writing culminating in an encounter in unison.” Although Higdon and Saariaho’s pieces are incredibly different, the way that Higdon places the muted piano notes against the pizzicato of the violin makes the timbres of the instruments match almost exactly – there are several very striking moments in String Poetic where these two very different instruments actually sound the same.
Kaija Saariaho’s and Jennifer Higdon’s pieces feature both violin and piano, for which you’ll be joined by Pasha Tseitlin, the other half and co-founder of Panic Duo. How has your work in Panic Duo influenced your playing as a soloist, and vice versa?
I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with Pasha since 2009, and we’ve shared many adventures over the years. One of the biggest ways that working with such a great violinist has influenced my solo playing is in the sense of line and phrasing – since the piano is essentially a percussion instrument, we have to work harder to make the incredibly long, linear phrases that string players can (as well as singers and wind players). The way that a violinist takes time over a phrase, particularly on larger intervals and in the higher registers, definitely has influenced my own concept in shaping a melodic line. Also, the violin’s timbre changes noticeably depending on its register, and what kind of bowing or bow placement the player is using – sul ponticello and flautando playing, for example. A fantastic player like Pasha can really exaggerate these coloristic differences on the instrument. The piano has a much more monochromatic sound than the violin does, but I find that it helps my playing to try and emulate the range of sound and color that the violin is capable of.
What do you typically look for when selecting new works to perform?
I have a “wish list” of pieces that I want to play that only ever seems to get longer! Sometimes I’ll build a program around a single piece and its concept/subject matter, particularly because I love the idea of finding connections between music and people. I also love trying completely new things to expand my horizons – one of my favorite concerts recently was Panic Duo performing on the People Inside Electronics series, because we played an entire program of electroacoustic music for violin and piano, which was something we had never done before. We were very lucky to collaborate with a cast of incredible composers on that concert, and it was definitely a unique experience for us. One of my favorite things about being in LA is that I have the opportunity to work with so many amazingly talented composers, who represent such an eclectic and diverse array of styles and aesthetics.
As a pianist, what originally drew you to new music?
When I was young, my parents raised me on a very eclectic mix of music, very little of which was classical. I grew up listening to jazz, fusion, oldies, and rock. My first piano teacher taught me classical music, but he was also a jazz player. I thought when I was younger that I wanted to play music like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. When I was about 13 years old, my dad gave me a couple albums of Emerson, Lake and Palmer to listen to, and I was completely hooked. Keith Emerson is still one of my favorite musicians. I loved their original compositions, but also their transcriptions and adaptations of Classical composers – I recognized Bach in their output, but they also introduced me to the likes of Copland, Bartok, Janacek, and Ginastera. As soon as I started seriously listening to the output of these composers, I knew that I wanted to pursue contemporary music. And listening to these composers led me to Messiaen, Crumb, Szymanowski, Corigliano, and down the rabbit hole I went!
For more information about Nic’s upcoming concert, or to get tickets, visit Piano Spheres.
Next Tuesday, gnarwhallaby (Richard Valilutto, Matt Barbier, Brian Walsh, and Derek Stein) will be performing an adventurous program at Monk Space, including two world premieres and some recent commissions. I interviewed Matt Barbier (trombone) about the program, the future of gnarwhallaby, commissioning, and more. Here’s what he said:
On June 5, you’ll be performing “Lullaby 4” by Nicholas Deyoe, world premieres by Olga Rayeva and Daniel Tacke, and recent commissions by Elise Roy and Richard Barrett. Can you tell us a bit about the works on the program?
It’s a fairly personal program for us in a lot of ways, especially at the group’s current juncture. Nick’s piece was the first major work written for our iteration of the quartet and what we made our Carnegie debut with, so it’s always been a very special piece that’s at the core of our repertoire and the work that is most closely tied to us as individual players. Dan’s piece is quite exciting for us because we’ve played a pre-exising work of his that had no trombone, but did have voice (the change to trombone is questionable), so we’re looking forward to being able to have a work of his that we all play. His piece is based on Morton Feldman’s Half a minute, it’s all I’ve time for, which is an actual 30 second piece Feldman wrote for the original group that we’ve enjoyed playing over the years, but can be a little odd to program. We look forward to playing something that is based on it, but has a little more room to breathe. Elise’s piece is a bit like Nick’s in the sense that it was written by a friend who we’ve all known quite a while, however we mostly know Elise from performing with her (she’s a very good flutist on top of her great composing). Because of this, her approach to us is from a very different angle than Nick and a very different type of familiarity, but we look forward to them sharing that space. Olga’s piece is a bit of wild card for us. I met Olga when she was a fellow at the Villa Aurora and she came to a concert I gave that included Michelle Lou’s colossal HoneyDripper and really enjoyed it. From there we started conversing a little bit and she asked to write us a piece. It’s really excitingly out and feels, in certain ways, to tie to some of the more ethereal works written for the early Polish group, who, I think, everyone in the group feels a kinship (or fondness?) for. Richard’s piece is probably our ‘biggest’ commission to date and something that was in the works for quite a while. We’re big fans of his music and have been discussing doing a concert of his music for a long time. The idea of getting a new piece came up a few times and so I ended up just asking and he was, very kindly, interested in writing quite a large piece for four people in jumpsuits. His piece is in four movements, each based on an important jazz artist for him: Cecil Taylor, Thelonius Monk, Eric Dolphy, and Miles Davis.
Were all the works you’ll be performing on this program gnarwhallaby commissions? What do you enjoy most about commissioning new works?
Everything on the program was written for us by people we know, or got to know in the process. Commissioning new works for gnarwhallaby has been an especially rewarding process because our group exists as the third iteration of an ensemble founded in Poland in the late 1960’s and we’ve tried to be very cognizant of the instrumentation’s history when contributing new works. The Warsztat Muzyczny had a very particular bend to their own commissions and the Quartet Avance did a lot to keep the repertoire alive while adding their set of works that related but also reflected the generation that they were of. It’s been an exciting challenge to find composers whose music fits into that progression but also reflects our own interests, particularly as the first American group.
How did you get started as an ensemble? Has the group’s goals and/or focus changed since you formed in 2011?
Our origins come from CalArts where we were all students. We weren’t there together but everyone overlapped as MFAs (Brian’s last year was Matt’s first, Matt’s 2nd was Derek’s first, and Derek’s 2nd was Richard’s first). I (Matt) had a very keen interest in this one specific piece by Gorecki, which Brian, Derek, and I all played together before Richard arrived, and that interest led to finding a treasure trove of other works (over 60). At first our focus was to primarily revive that repertoire and occasionally add new pieces. However, over time our focus has really shifted to a much heavier focus on new works by people we like to work in close collaboration with.
What are your thoughts about how gnarwhallaby’s repertoire fits within the existing canon, either in the context of your particular instrumentation or in the wider context of chamber music?
It’s a fun group in a lot of ways given that we’ve got three instruments that can be quite loud and one that can only be…moderate? So our instrumentation has kind of violated some understood orchestration rules from it’s very origin, while also functioning as a micro orchestra. It has a very traditional but also somewhat unique place in the canon in terms of the way the ensemble functions. A huge portion of our repertoire functions as the clarinet, cello, and trombone as a meta instrument that fits with the piano. This isn’t a particularly new idea, but it is something that happens quite consistently from a wide range of composers so one wonders if it is something inherent to the nature of the group. On the personal side (as a trombonist that is), it fits in the canon in a very unique way because of this. Many composers (whether related to range, touch, velocity, color, etc.) demand that the trombone not only do things that’s not quite in it’s understood nature to do, but do them as well as the other three instruments. So it’s fairly unique in the canon of brass music that you’re being held against very idiomatic writing for instruments that do very different things than your own.
What’s in store for the future of the band?
Well we’re entering quite a new and kind of terrifying stage. Very shortly Richard will be leaving LA to get a doctorate at Cornell so we’ll have to sort out a new mode of existing and this will be our last show for a little while. We’re all quite close friends and we rehearse a lot over long periods of time. And drink lots of coffee. So we’ll have to, sadly, find a new mode. We’re planning Exhibit B, however. It’ll include music by Nicholas Deyoe, Michelle Lou, Andrew Greenwald, and Adriana Holszky. We’re also planning some more large scale concerts, including the full Barrett cycle.
For more information about the concert or to get tickets, check out Tuesdays at Monk Space.
May 29, Piano Spheres will be featuring Belgian virtuoso pianist Steven Vanhauwaert in a solo recital, “All-Italia.” As the name suggests, the program will exclusively feature works by Italian composers, ranging from Busoni‘s epic Fantasia Contrappuntistica to later Italian works by Scelsi and Bussotti. I had the chance to ask Steven about the program, his inspirations, how he selects new works, and more. Here’s what he said:
The Piano Spheres program features works exclusively by Italian composers. What was the motivation behind an all-Italian program?
I am inspired by Italian music and its fascinating history, and I’ve always wanted to program the Fantasia Contrappuntistica by Ferruccio Busoni; an epic ode to Bach’s Art of the Fugue. It features four massive fugues interspersed with Busoni’s own unique harmonic language and it is bigger than life in all aspects! Around the beginning of the 1900’s, there was a search for a unique national voice in many European countries. In Italy, this was personified in people like Casella, Malipiero, Busoni, Respighi, and many others. They looked for inspiration to their own past (like Gregorian chant, harpsichord music) and to a new future (with people like Russolo and their Futurist movement). I wanted to situate the Busoni Fantasia along with a more individual work of his, the Indian Diary, in their historical context (with the early futurist Pratella) and features some of the later Italian works as well (Scelsi, Bussotti).
You’re known for discovering less familiar works in the classical repertoire, and for collaborating with today’s leading composers. How do you normally go about selecting new works to perform?
I have a strong appetite for new repertoire. I collect scores whenever possible, and I sightread through music very frequently to get a feel for a particular composer’s total output and style. I have a bucket list of pieces I want to program that is so long I will likely never be able to play all of them! For this particular recital I was toying around with the idea of doing music by Busoni, Casella, Respighi, Francesconi, Malipiero, Scelsi, Bussotti, Berio, Nono, Dallapiccola, and many others. I usually try to narrow down the program closer to the concert, but I will often make some substitutions a week before the concert if I feel it benefits the flow or audience experience of the concert. Sometimes I wish I could tell the audience – after we all had a post-concert drink – to go back inside the hall so I can share some more pieces that I couldn’t include in that evening’s program.
I enjoy all three of those formats. Playing with other musicians often brings in the magic of playful communication through music. When I’m playing by myself I enjoy striving for the feeling of being a prism through which the composer’s intentions flow. When it all works out well it’s a very rewarding experience.
What would you say is your biggest inspiration in music, and how does this influence your playing technique and style?
My biggest inspiration in music is the giddy effect that music has on me when I listen to it myself. As for influence, I find myself more influenced and inspired by other instruments, opera, and orchestral music. It helps me get out of the rather closed ‘piano world’ and focus more on the imagination and purely musical ideas.
For more information about the upcoming concert or to get tickets, check out Piano Spheres.
In anticipation of the upcoming Tuesdays at Monk Space concert tomorrow night, I sat down with composer Jim Fox, founder of the Cold Blue Music record label. The concert will feature music by Fox, as well as John Luther Adams, Stephen Whittington, and Peter Garland, with performances by Eclipse Quartet, clarinetist Phil O’Connor, and percussionist Jonathan Hepfer.
You’re the founder and director of the Cold Blue Music record label — can you tell us about how it all got started?
I started Cold Blue in the early 1980s. Why I started it is not clear anymore. Perhaps it wasn’t even clear at the time. (I’m not sure I’ve ever needed much in the way of particularly well-defined goals. In other words, I enjoy a certain amount of wandering.)
In the late 1960s I developed an awareness of record labels—particularly jazz- and classical-based new-music labels—as often possessing fascinating individual personalities. So, perhaps in view of that, starting a little new-music record company just seemed like the right thing for me to do. However, I had little money to throw at such a venture then—working in a bookstore for a little better than minimum wage, living in a $120-per-month Hollywood apartment, and enjoying a diet that relied heavily on 15-cent packets of ramen noodles.
Cold Blue in the 1980s was a frugal label. I started by releasing a series of 10-inch EPs (about 20 to 25 minutes per release)—a format that I felt allowed an inexpensive taste of a composer’s work—followed by a few LPs.
At its inception (and still today), my general vague intention was simple: put out some music that I particularly liked that wasn’t otherwise reaching a broad listenership. This was music by composers who were perhaps loosely united by a common interest in music’s basic sensuality and, as it just turned out, very often had strong links to the West Coast. Soon Cold Blue became known as an outlet for a certain stripe of West Coast music. Joan La Barbara, writing in High Fidelity/Musical America, deemed the label “an invaluable resource for what might be called the new ‘California School’ . . . a label with a particular viewpoint and consummate good taste.” And others also noticed the highly curated sound of the label—an LA Weeklycritic wrote at the time that “The label defines a certain ‘Southern California sound,’ uncluttered, evocative and unusual, with a wistful emotional edge.”
After just a few years of Cold Blue’s existence, its two primary distributors went out of business; and with the then-new and then-expensive CD technology (in which I didn’t have much interest at the time) starting to bloom, it seemed like a good moment for Cold Blue to close up shop as well. And that’s what I did.
Following 15 years of inactivity, I brought the label back to life in December 2000. (Don’t ask me why. Again, I don’t have a clear answer for that question.) As this reincarnated Cold Blue began to get CDs out into the world I was delighted to find out how many listeners and musicians and critics remembered the label fondly and cheered its rebirth. Since then, I’ve put out 54 discs, including a three-CD boxed set and, in homage to the old vinyl EPs, a number of CD EPs. And at the moment I have a half-dozen forthcoming releases in the works.
This music, while still heavily West Coast in its leanings, includes music from east of the Rockies as well as Australia and Europe. At the same time, some of the composers championed in the 1980s—such as Daniel Lentz, Peter Garland, Michael Jon Fink, and a few others—have continued to find a home at Cold Blue. And some who first appeared on the label in the early 2000s—such as John Luther Adams—have continued to consider it a home for current and future releases.
I tend to have a rather hands-on presence on most of the recordings, working closely with the composers to pick and sequence the works for each album and then actually producing or co-producing most of the music in the studio. I’ve even designed almost all of the CD packages. Without that sort of top-to-bottom hands-on intimacy, a little company like this would run the risk of turning into a dreary business. (So I wander on in that vein.)
How has Cold Blue Music evolved over time, and what do you envision for the future?
It has evolved. (Everything evolves, I suppose.) But I’d have a very hard time defining Cold Blue’s evolution in concrete musical or aesthetic terms. At the same time, people who’ve followed the label since day one often say that they sense something akin to a through-line that embraces all of the label’s offerings. And I, too, can sense a sort of through-line that seems to unconsciously unite the releases. That I suppose is the definition of a noticeably curated label that at the same time does not have an explicit agenda.
On Tuesday, your piece Between the Wheels will be featured as part of the program, performed by clarinetist Phil O’Conner and Eclipse Quartet. Can you tell us a little about this piece?
It was written in 1992 for clarinetist Marty Walker and the Amelite Consortium, a chamber ensemble run by violinist/violist/composer Maria Newman. It’s a quiet—perhaps even fragile—piece in which simple bits of music tend to reappear and recombine in various ways.
I usually don’t program my own music on Cold Blue events, because it seems self-indulgent. But after I had hired the always wonderful Eclipse Quartet to play the Adams and Whittington works, I realized that I needed a bit more music to fill out one half of the concert. So I tossed in Between the Wheels—a piece that was already in the Eclipse’s repertoire (they had performed it with Marty Walker some years back).
Is there anything you’d like to share about the other works on the program?
I’ve enjoyed long friendships with composers Peter Garland (since the late ’70s) and John Luther Adams (since the mid ’80s), and I love the music that they each write. They’ve each had music on seven Cold Blue releases. I’ve known Stephen Whittington, an Australian composer whose music I also regard very highly, for perhaps a half-dozen years. His work appears on two Cold Blue CDs.
Adams’s eerily beautiful string quartet untouched (from which the final movement, “Falling,” will be performed at Monk Space) was written two years ago, and this concert will mark its LA premiere. It is one of the pieces that John has written for the JACK Quartet in which the players’ fingers never touch their fingerboards—all the notes are natural harmonics or open strings. A technically challenging piece, it will be recorded this summer for a Cold Blue release next winter.
Whittington’s entrancing string quartet Windmill is an unusual tone-painting—the music inspired by the sounds of old metal windmills (the sort commonly found on farms) listlessly turning and halting and turning again in the wind. As these sounds occur and pause and reoccur, one finds oneself drawn deeply into the piece’s hypnotic soundworld. Cold Blue released a recording of Windmill last year.
Written in the winter of 2016, Garland’s hushed, pensive six-movement Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1) is scored for a small grouping of low Thai-style gongs and a large tam-tam. Each of its movements is based on a short poem or haiku about the moon. As the composer notes about moon viewing, “If autumn is the moonlight of nostalgia, winter is the moonlight of . . . an inscrutable stillness.” Cold Blue released a recording of this piece, performed by new-music percussionist William Winant, in February of this year.
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information on the concert tomorrow night and to get tickets.
Oboist Claire Chenette will be sharing her WORK with Tuesdays at Monk Space — specifically, a passion for cultivation, both in the worlds of new music and the fermentation of food. The program explores the often mysterious concepts of invisible processes over time, experimentation, and the complexity of crafting. The upcoming concert on April 17 will feature works by composers Helen Grime, Nicholas Deyoe, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Toshio Hosokawa, and Marin Marais, along with a selection of her own handcrafted fermented foods. I had the opportunity to ask Claire some questions about the program and the inspiration behind it. Here’s what she had to say:
The concept behind your upcoming concert is fascinating. What interesting relationships do you find between the fermentation of food and creating music?
I’d like to answer this question with the help of fermentation expert Sandor Katz–“we use the same word —culture—to describe the community of bacteria that transform milk into yogurt, as well as the practice of subsistence itself, language, music, art, literature, science, spiritual practices, belief systems, and all that human beings seek to perpetuate”.
For me, fermentation and music are adjacent in the patterns of my daily life. I’ll be bringing an alpine-style cheese that I made last fall when I was brainstorming ideas and ordering music for this show. I’ll also be bringing a batch of sauerkraut that I made last Monday, the same day that I tied the reeds I’ll use on Tuesday. This show is part of Wild Up’s WORK series, and I can’t imagine a better or more real way to share not just my oboe playing, but my work and ways of working.
How did you get started fermenting your own foods, and do you have any favorites? What do you find most interesting about the process?
Some people approach fermentation for its health benefits. Traditionally, it was mostly about preserving the harvest pre-refrigeration. I was drawn to fermentation by my taste buds. The flavors of home ferments are often much more complex and interesting than anything I can find in the grocery store (which is why they go well with the music in this show, which is more complex and interesting than anything I can find on the radio). One of the most unexpectedly simple and delicious ferments I’m bringing is a carrot-ginger relish that I made using way-too-big, overwintered carrots that I found when I was digging up the garden this spring.
The most interesting thing about the fermentation process is that you can’t really control it, which means that what you create is bound to be unexpected. You set up a controlled environment, and then you tend to it while it does its thing. Microbial communities and time are transformative.
The concert at Monk Space features works by composers Helen Grime, Nicholas Deyoe, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Toshio Hosokawa, and Marin Marais. Can you tell us a bit more about the works on the program? For example, do they relate to each other in any ways you’d like to point out?
Nick Deyoe wrote NCTRN 2 for me in 2015 and this will be my first performance. Virginia Woolf writes “The living poets express a feeling that is actually being made and torn out of us at the moment,” and that is the best phrase I can think of to describe NCTRN 2. I can’t imagine that it will be something anyone is expecting. With the traditions of fermentation on display, I wanted to bring in history and an older sense of innovation with the French Baroque composer Marais. Ruth Crawford’s “Diaphonic Suite” is playful and modernist. Hosokawa’s “Spell Song” is heart-wrenchingly lyrical and expressive. And Helen Grime’s “Arachne” is a perfectly crafted little story about what might befall you if you think you’re the best at weaving. A good reminder to take it easy on the crafting.
Anything else you’d like to share?
All of the ferments I’m bringing will be displayed on ceramic art by Saul Alpert-Abrams. Potter Shannon Garson writes “The privilege of using handmade pots is that they contain the idea of human endeavor, a link with other people, not with factories or corporations.” It is truly a privilege to bring Saul’s pottery to this event. His work will highlight the radical idea that a simple object can be a place where people can meet and share a life-affirming experience of beauty.
For more information about the upcoming concert and to purchase tickets, visit Tuesdays at Monk Space.
The virtuosic Aperture Duo (Adrianne Pope and Linnea Powell) will be performing at Tuesdays at Monk Space this coming Tuesday, February 27. I had the opportunity to ask Adrianne Pope (violin) and Linnea Powell (viola) about the upcoming show, working with composers, and more. Here’s what they had to say:
Our Monk Space program has been incredibly fun to put together, as it features some of our favorite composers and people whose works center around memories, reunions, and reflections. Sciarrino’s short and fleeting “La Malinconia” and Georges Aperghis’ enthusiastic “Retrouvailles” are pieces that we’ve wanted to perform for years. The program also features two Aperture Duo commissions: a world premiere by Sarah Gibson and a commission by Nicholas Deyoe from 2015. These two commissions give a window into our wide ranging interests as a duo, as they are very contrasting in sound and style.
From whistles to claps, beautiful lyricism to deafening scratches, we aim to create programs that challenge the assumptions of what a violin and viola duo can sound like. This will show be no exception!
You’ll be premiering Sarah Gibson’s piece, tiny, tangled world at the concert. What has your experience been like with this new work?
Whether it’s performing, teaching, or composing, working with Sarah is always a joy for us. As a composer, Sarah has a perfect balance of clear ideas and flexibility. We got to workshop new sounds, different notation options and extended techniques from the very beginning stages. We have loved seeing it evolve each step of the way!
When Sarah gave us the final draft, we were thrilled to see how virtuosic and unique it is from our other rep. She even included a specific extended technique that was new to us! Her title, tiny, tangled world, has been in place from the beginning sketches, and it has been intriguing to see the work really come to fit the title perfectly.
How often have you worked with LA composers Sarah Gibson and Nicholas Deyoe in the past? Can you tell us a little about these experiences?
With Sarah, we have performed as colleagues, performed her works in other ensembles, and worked with and performed her composition students’ works. Tiny, tangled world is the first piece Aperture has worked on solely with Sarah.
With Nick, we have performed a little bit together, and we’ve played many of his works with different groups in LA. We recently got to work with his students at CalArts on new works, and we recorded 1560 for his most recent album, for Duane. 1560 was one of our first commissions and we can’t wait to play it again at the end of this month.
Besides being colleagues, both Sarah and Nick are good friends of ours and we jump on any opportunity to collaborate with them.
Any upcoming performances or projects you’d like to talk about?
In April, Aperture Duo is ensemble in residence with the Black House SoCal New Music Workshop at UC Irvine. We’re very excited to work with the selected composers and musicians there, it’s going to be a wonderfully creative workshop! In May we’ll be in residence in Northern California at Las Positas College and in June we’ll be performing at Bread and Salt in San Diego, where we’ll be premiering a new work by Courtney Bryan. It’s going to be a great spring! More information can be found on our website.
In anticipation of their upcoming show “L.A. Stories” at Monk Space on February 18, I interviewed Phil Popham (oboe) and Sarah Robinson (flute) from Helix Collective, a Los-Angeles based ensemble specializing in multi-media, collaborative performance, and recording. The show will feature works by composers Eugene Micofsky, Dale Trumbore, Reena Esmail, Mark Carlson, Jamie Thierman, and Helix Collective’s own Phil Popham. Here’s what Phil and Sarah had to say:
How did you get the idea for “L.A. Stories,” and how did you go about programming this particular set of pieces for the concert?
PHIL: We had been performing our show “The Cocktail Stories” which involved Hollywood screenwriters sending us stories about their favorite mixed-drinks. We read the works while simultaneously performing the original music for each story. The music was very fusion and cross-over. It mixed electronics, loops, hip-hop, techno, you name it! We decided to create an all acoustic show, that would involve more new-music composers here in Los Angeles. We assembled a group of 8 composers. We had LA authors and poets submit their works. Each composer personally chose the story and writer they wanted to work with. Once the works were completed, the group began rehearsals. We all had to dig deep for the dramatic speaking. We were mostly classically-trained musicians. It’s funny though, I don’t see a big difference in being dramatic through the oboe vs. my voice. The similarity is still strikingly odd to me.
SARAH: We really enjoyed doing music and storytelling programs in the past and we loved the depth of experience it offers to the audience. There are so many levels on which to engage with the music and the words, and the way they interact. With this program, we wanted to celebrate our adopted home town and utilize the depth of writing talent there is in the city. The instructions for the composers were fairly open-ended so we have a very cool variety of ways that they incorporated the spoken word with their music. We tried to represent a variety of musical perspectives – one composer, Eugene Micofsky, has a rock band background and another, Reena Esmail, specializes in the intersection of Western and Hindustani music. We wanted to make the whole project representative of the city.
How do you hope the audience will react to “L.A. Stories?”
PHIL: I want them to feel the excitement and wonder of being part of such a great place. Even with its quirkiness, trials, and tribulations, there is a power that draws us here. They have made it. They have stayed, and in its own way, the city wants to give back to them. The show should remind them of why they stay, and give them a sense of validation and community for their struggles. I want them to feel that even when they are hitting rock-bottom, there are offerings here they could get nowhere else. This show is really about everyone in the audience as well as those of us on stage. It’s about all of us. I want them to be proud of where we live, where we are from, and that we are survivors here each day. When leaving the concert venue, I want them to look in amazement at the city before them, look in amazement at themselves for being part of it, and see the outstretched arms of a truly creative, inspiring, and humbling town.
SARAH: I think this city is so vast and complicated. As musicians we have the unique experience of traveling all over the area and working with so many different people – from Skid Row to Beverly Hills – sometimes in a matter of hours. I hope what we can share with this program is the individual experiences of a variety of artists. I think each writer and composer involved in this project has their own Los Angeles and I would love for our audience to feel like they’ve seen the city through their eyes.
What do you find most engaging or interesting about multi-media and collaborative performances?
PHIL: From an artist’s standpoint, multi-media and collaborative shows communicate incredibly efficiently. It also gives you the ability to add emphasis, context, and conflict into a moment instantly. With so many brilliant people contributing expertise toward relaying the message, it can be delivered, colored, or altered by different disciplines simultaneously. It’s so vivid! Once the writer has written the story, the delivery of the actor can provide more context. Likewise, the music being performed can emphasize, corroborate, or even complicate the story. When we’re collaborating like this, I think the composer must be visceral. You have to think of your heart and nerve endings more than your head. It’s a very fun way to create. You’re getting down to the fundamental reasons music exists. Then, you combine the dramatic power of the writers with the engaging music by the composers and the energetic talents of the musicians/actors. Everyone has now come together to tell a multi-faceted story through each of their disciplines. It’s very powerful.
SARAH: I think a project can only be as interesting as the people who put it together. The more artists, the more perspectives, the more genres you have represented, the more we can speak to the universal human experience. Of course, there are limits to how many people you can have collaborating at one time but I find the quality and the importance of what we’re doing benefits exponentially when we incorporate other artists from far and wide in the artistic landscape.
Helix Collective is known for performing at a wide range of venues. Are there any unexpected similarities or differences that you’ve found between performing at nightclubs versus concert stages?
PHIL: They are very different, but each is priceless. A grand stage with stellar acoustics, 1000’s of seats, and a captive audience could certainly a good environment for a show. They tend have to have nice pianos, as well. The intimacy of a bar/nightclub concert is invigorating. A crowd which can interact, yell, applaud, and laugh whenever they feel moved to do so is incredibly rewarding for the musicians. I love being with the audience while performing. I love hearing them if they say things to us and respond to what we do. If the natural acoustics aren’t great, with a good audio engineer, you can be pumped through the house sound system. This actually gives you much more flexibility and variety in the sound, if you go for it. You can also add a huge variety of lighting to the show. This makes it more collaborative/multi-media as more talented people are adding a perspective and skills to the performance.
SARAH: It’s hard for me to overstate how much performing in casual spaces like nightclubs has taught me about being an artist and performer. What is beautiful about a classical concert environment is the focus and concentration that it helps engender. But the real danger for musicians is that it is really easy to lose touch with your audience. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how many of them might be asleep much less how much they are enjoying your performance. In a club, though, I can really read the room. I know what people are thinking. They are shouting, or in rapt attention, or on their phones – whatever it is that they’re doing, I can get information from that about how effective my performance is for them. Helix Collective has done so much playing in these spaces and it allows for the best market research and through that we’ve developed programs that really sing – whether you’re in a dive bar or a big hall.
Any upcoming performances or projects you’d like to talk about?
PHIL: After our performance at Monk Space, we are going to start raising money to record all of these great works! We plan on releasing the album by May or June. We are discussing whether it will be pure audio or a DVD! Let us know, folks!
SARAH: We are excited about our Monk Space debut Sunday, February 18th at 6pm! Monk Space has been such a key player in supporting adventurous music here in L.A. and we are so happy to be part of their programming. We’ll be repeating the L.A. Stories program at Brand Library on March 3rd. Also this spring we are collaborating with composer Mark Weiser and librettist Amy Punt to present the premiere of their opera “The Place Where You Started” at Art Share L.A., May 17-19. We’re also hosting our 5th season of the Los Angeles Live Score Film Festival this summer at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre and composer applications are open now through March 25th.
Check out Helix Collective to get tickets for the show February 18.
The Nouveau Classical Project, a New York-based, all-women contemporary ensemble, makes it their mission to integrate music with other arts disciplines and to show that classical music is a living, breathing art form. On February 7, Equal Sound presents The Nouveau Classical Project’s first Los Angeles concert, “Currents.” Currents features music composed for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and electronics commissioned by NCP. I interviewed NCP’s artistic directors Sugar Vendil and Mara Mayer about interdisciplinary arts, commissioning new works, and the upcoming concert, featuring works by Odeya Nini, Olga Bell, Gabrielle Herbst, and Isaac Schankler. Here’s what they had to say:
Can you tell us about the works on the program? What is the inspiration behind the title, “Currents”?
Currents is a program that consists of pieces commissioned specifically for NCP that use our acoustic instruments of piano, flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, and some form of electronics. The title refers both to electric currents and the fact that the music is brand new. Each piece explores the boundaries between acoustic and electronic timbres in a different way, from field recordings in Bell’s piece to acoustic buzzing sounds created through extended techniques on a deconstructed clarinet in Kifferstein’s work.
What are your thoughts about interdisciplinary arts, and what kinds of interdisciplinary works do you hope to see evolve in the future?
Interdisciplinary collaboration can be great, but can also be tricky to do really well. We both attended E|Merge interdisciplinary collaborative residency in 2015 and learned a lot about communication during the collaborative process and how to clearly define roles and potential decision-making hierarchy between collaborators. Artistically it’s important to understand how the elements fit together and interact and not just slap things together at the last minute. Ideally, collaborators work together throughout the artistic process so that ideas can evolve together and the finished work can be cohesive and fulfilling for all parties. We hope to see our work with fashion designers evolve in the future in a way where they are more involved earlier in the process.
How often do you commission new works for Nouveau Classical Project?
We commission new pieces every year, and this happens in a variety of ways: a composer can be awarded a commissioning opportunity via our annual Commissioning Call for Scores competition (we are accepting submissions until April 20, 2018 you can apply here: http://www.nouveauclassical.org/call-for-scores/). We reach out to composers we want to collaborate with; or occasionally a composer sends us a random proposal and we’ll work with them if we love their music and decide their proposed project is a good fit.
Sugar, you’re known for combining classical music with new fashion – what parallels do you see between the fashion and music worlds?
They’re both nonverbal ways of communicating. A score or a piece of clothing is activated by a human. Music and fashion – and I use fashion here in the sense of personal dressing – are two expressive art forms that already exist in a musical performance. What we try to do at NCP is make these parallels intersect.
Any future projects you’d like to talk about?
On May 31, 2018 we are premiering a new opera by Gabrielle Herbst at Roulette in Brooklyn. We love her music and working with her, so this project is really special to us.
Check out Equal Sound for more information about the upcoming concert Feburary 7 and to get tickets.
This coming Tuesday at Monk Space, Mojave Trio (Sara Parkins, violin; Maggie Parkins, cello; Genevieve Feiwen Lee, piano) will be performing along with SAKURA Cello Quintet (Michael Kaufman, Benjamin Lash, Gabriel Martins, Yoshika Masuda, Peter Myers), for a program of music by composers Daniel Silliman, Daniel Allas, Thomas Kotcheff, Kaija Saariaho, and Nico Muhly. I had the opportunity to ask cellist Maggie Parkins some questions about the piano trio as a genre, performing the works of living composers, and the program on January 9. Here’s what she had to say:
As a standard of the classical canon, how has the piano trio evolved over time in your opinion?
Here is a quote from Kaija Saariaho: “I have written many trios for different combinations, but have been hesitant to compose for a traditional piano trio, maybe because of its long and weighty tradition.”
The chamber ensemble of the piano trio with its plentiful classic beginnings of Haydn and Mozart, its deeper development of Beethoven and Schubert, to its late 19th century peak of a romantic explosion of Mendelssohn (Felix and Fanny), Brahms, Schumann (Robert and Clara) Dvorak and Debussy, etc., has left an indelible mark on the repertoire for three mostly compatible instruments.
The early twentieth century has left some fantastic staples such as, Ravel, Shostakovich, Faure, Frank Bridge, Henry Cowell, Korngold, and of course Ives. One can develop a long list of later 20th and early 21st century works but there seems to be a wane of multiple explorations into the genre by well-known composers as other types of chamber ensembles using different instrumental combinations have developed. Now we see sextets, duos, percussion groups, and many other variations that capture the contemporary landscape. Contemporary piano trios are generally used to “fill out” programs of concert length. One sometimes wonders why some notable 20th century composers such as Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev or Barber didn’t write for piano trio.
The string quartet seems to have continued to capture the interest of composers more consistently than piano trio. There are multiple examples of quartets by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Ben Johnston, and John Adams.
There are built-in challenges for matching the timbres of the strings to the keyboard. Perhaps it is the weighty tradition itself and the focus to find fresh new combinations that satisfies the aural palette.
What are your thoughts about performing music from the classical repertoire versus works by living composers?
As a cellist focused on small ensemble chamber music, I find myself in a unique and enviable position. Conservatory trained on an instrument steeped in tradition, I am lucky to have studied with fantastic teachers handing down their classic wisdom and knowledge. I have had some amazing experiences performing at great festivals such as Tanglewood, Taos, and Banff, and in wonderful orchestras as well.
At the same time I have gravitated toward and truly enjoyed working with living composers, having shared the camaraderie and challenge of exploring new techniques with the ability to discuss performance issues with the composer to be so rewarding. My sister, who is a composer, initiated me into her world of composition through improvisation and dance collaboration and further opened up my eyes to possibilities of interpretation. But guess what? I have decided that the two concentrations nourish each other. After a stretch of doing only new music I find myself listening to Beethoven or Brahms or performing a Bach Suite and thinking, “Now that is a really good composer!” How delightful to play a piece I have grown up hearing and knowing and playing. It is comforting.
My luck is having the opportunity and ability to do both. The thrill of premiering a new work and working hard on a piece to get it just the way a composer wants it is very enjoyable to me. Who knows, it could be a piece that gets played again and again.
Can you tell us about the works you’ll be performing on the program at Monk Space?
Yes, we are really excited by these new works for our ensemble. I have been really into Saariaho’s compositions for quite some time. This is the fourth piece of hers I have worked on. I find her voice so unique and commanding. You won’t be whistling a tune into the wee hours of the evening though. Her music is about abstract color, timbre and contrast. Close your eyes and listen. She takes movement such as trills into tremolo and glissando, puts it over the fingerboard and on top of the bridge, maybe inside the piano, and then the overtones pop out. Her language creates such a wide pallet, changing simple notions of loud and soft, and occasional new sounds. She has truly explored some of the now accepted techniques of sul ponticello and sul tasto. She isn’t afraid to make the motion just stop and meditate on static sound which develops over the longer periods of time. Her music is a little more challenging for the listener and it often needs several listenings, but what a lovely door to enter.
Like Saariaho, Jennifer Higdon is also interested in color as a basis for compositional beginnings. It influences melody for her. Higdon is quite appreciated for her soaring tunes, and Pale Yellow doesn’t disappoint with its glorious romantic feeling. The music has depth too and feels authentic.
Nicho Muhly’s piece is all about rhythmic drive. Its energy is fun with bookends of material that have funky asymmetrical meters and conversational dynamic writing. The middle has a long melody popping through against the chatter. It’s a really fun piece to learn and play.
Next Tuesday, December 12, violist Diana Wade will be performing a solo recital at Monk Space, with some guest appearances from violist Linnea Powell and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Beattie. I had the opportunity to ask Diana some questions about the program, working with composers, and thoughts about performing and composing. Here’s what she had to say:
The title of the program is “You Made It Weird.” So, how weird is it?
SO WEIRD! HA. Actually, I think weird is in the eye (or ear, as the case may be) of the beholder and on some level I don’t think anything on my program is weird. It’s only weird if you make it weird. That being said, there’s some pretty strange stuff on the docket: I don’t imagine most people have heard an entire vocal duo in vocal fry, let alone anticipate hearing that at the top of a “viola recital.” What I love about this program is that no two pieces really embody the same aesthetic, so I’m really trying to go down the rabbit hold of each sonic world so far that maybe the strange, at very least, starts to make sense? I get bummed out when I hear that people feel alienated by new music or classical music, in general. I’m not at all planning on doing a lecture-recital, but I have taken into consideration the entertainment value of what I’ve programmed as well as thinking about what is an effective way to communicate and present these strange beautiful sounds to the connoisseurs and newbies, alike.
Can you tell us a bit more about your own piece, fry on fry? What was the inspiration behind it?
fry on fry was borne out of a “hey, wouldn’t it be funny if….” situation: I met Jen Beattie (who will be performing with me) at New Music on the Point, a new music festival in Vermont. Jen mentioned that she was talking to the singers there about vocal fry and I just said “hey, what if there was a piece in vocal fry, solely notated in types of fries?!” She and I giggled about it and over a beer (or three) came up with the general performance practice- a french fry will sound like this, a curly fry like that, etc. I didn’t think I would write the piece ever. Fast forward a few months and I get an email from Jen “I’m coming to LA, write the fry piece!” So I did, and it has strangely taken off. It’s been performed a handful of times on both coasts and just recently had its Australian premiere! While it is certainly a funny piece, from the minute I started writing I couldn’t get out of my mind some old podcasts and npr stories I’d heard about people complaining about the sound of women’s voices on the radio and, in particular, any use of fry in their voice. This just added a layer for me: considering all of these complaints about women’s voices and then choosing to write a piece that just bombards the listener with this supposed awful sound for a few minutes is really empowering. The last thing I’ll say about that is that Jen and I premiered the piece, but she has also performed it with a male duo partner and the Australian premiere was with two men: it’s so cool to experience the piece in each iteration. It takes on a new life with each combination. I will be projecting the score while Jen and I perform it, so everyone can see all the fries!
You’ll be performing the world premiere of a piece by Adam Borecki for viola, electronics, and projection. Can you tell us more about the piece?
Ok I don’t want to give away all the craziness that is Adam’s piece BUT I’m really excited about it. This is the first time I’ve had a solo piece so specifically written for me. Adam and I started working together on it in the summer – he recorded those early conversations and some of the movement titles are actually quotes of things, or references to things I said. Most of this piece was written with me sitting in the room next to Adam which was a luxury to both of us and led to a really beautiful collaboration. The piece is in 5 movements and some of the parts I’m most excited (and nervous) about require me doing things beyond playing the viola. I want to remain mysterious so I will just list things that are involved: video camera, lazy Susan, two pocket synthesizers, an mbira, office supplies, a quarter sized violin bow, a wooden frog and SO MUCH MORE.
In a way, this is a dream program for me: for example, I’ve wanted to play Viola, Viola (Benjamin) for a decade, but at first at seemed too daunting and then it was hard to find the right time and place to do it. I’m super thankful to my friend Linnea Powell for learning it with me, we’ve been chipping away on it for a few months and it’s been so fun to work with her.
I mean, all of these pieces are rad but the Sciarrino was one of the first pieces I knew I wanted to program- I had heard recordings of it and was completely enamored with sounds and textures I was hearing and I immediately knew I wanted to use them as connecting material throughout a program. Then, I got the music, and realized how wickedly hard this beautiful music was. So, there was an extended banging my head against the wall phase of learning it, but I think they are going to be a really special feature of this program.
In many ways, this program is incredibly personal and represents a fairly accurate snapshot of what’s going on in my mind right now from the beautiful to the completely bizarre.
What are your thoughts about working with and/or playing the music of living composers?
Whether it’s playing music by a friend or a living composer I’ve never met (like Sciarrino), I think it is of the highest importance to be playing music of our time. I absolutely love playing the “standard” repertoire, but being able to have conversations with composers: whether about a specific piece, or just getting to know them, informs so much about how I want to approach their music. Having the opportunity to bring a piece to life for the first time is an extra special thing to be a part of- getting to see and hear abstract ideas turn into a reality is completely thrilling.
What do you enjoy most about solo performance versus working with ensembles, such as Wild Up, Jacaranda, and others?
Well, this concert feels like a stepping out for me as an artist. For the majority of my professional life, I have seen myself in reference to an ensemble whether that’s an orchestra or chamber ensemble and so it’s really exciting (and a little scary) to take full ownership of a program to let people know who I am and what I’m about. I don’t have schemes or illusions that I’m on the road to becoming a famous viola soloist (I know, that’s sort of an oxymoron), but I see this as a step in the direction of carving out a little space for my voice in Los Angeles and, hopefully eventually, in the greater musical world.
Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information on the December 12 concert or to purchase tickets.