The Los Angeles music scene has gained another powerful force in experimental music. Mari Kimura, a maverick performer, composer, and researcher, came to California this year as Professor of Music in the Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology (ICIT) program at UC Irvine. The position is fitting for Kimura, whose creative work fuses violin performance with research in extended techniques and performative technologies. As an introduction for our readers who may not be familiar with her work, I sat down with Kimura to talk about her past, current projects, and what she sees on the horizon for modern music.
Kimura is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking work in subharmonics—notes produced at fixed intervals below the fundamental of a violin string. She was the first to discover and master the procedure for producing these tones, but has also composed much of the core literature using the technique. One of her first such compositions, Gemini (1993), uses the distinct sound of both the subharmonic octave and the subharmonic minor third to expand not only the pitch range of the instrument, but also the timbral variety available on the violin.
The other significant contribution of Kimura’s work is in augmented performance practice. From electro-acoustic works, to intermedia performances, to playing alongside guitar robots, to motion-sensing gloves and bows, there is always an interest in tapping into the physicality of performance, rather than just the sounds. This strain of her work has received major interest from granting foundations and universities, including exhibitions at CCRMA Stanford, a teaching position the Interactive Computer Music Performance program at Juilliard (where Mari has taught since 1998), and a collaboration with IRCAM Paris that evolved into the Future Music Lab of the Atlantic Music Festival.
From all of this, you might be surprised to learn how Kimura first came to work with electronic music. As a graduate student coming to the United States to study at Boston University, she had tested out of theory and history and so needed additional classes to satisfy the full-time requirements of her student visa. She enrolled in the only class remaining, Electronic Music, in which she was the only woman, and the only musician. Soon she would be splicing a reel-to-reel project to manipulate a recording of violin pizzicato, and gaining familiarity with early studio synthesizers like the Buchla, ARP and Kurzweil. But until that credit-filling decision, she had no idea electronic music even existed.
Kimura says that it was while listening to the opening of Davidovsky’s Synchronisms, No.6, that something came over her: “That famous G [the opening reversed piano-decay gesture at pitch G5] … I basically kind of fell out of the chair. Oh my god, I thought, I had to do that on the violin.” That last part—”on the violin”—turns out to be an especially important impulse for Kimura, who was not interested in abandoning tradition completely for rotary dials and faders. “I have the best synthesizer in my hands already—the violin—so why should I try to make something that is going to be inferior to that? I would rather process or combine it with something else.”
Beyond the new sounds and methods, her time in the United States was also introducing her to alternative career paths that she had not considered as a classical violinist. In her upbringing, as she puts it, “you are going up the escalator and you do not really look around.” So when Marvin Minsky (a longtime supporter of Kimura’s work and pioneer in artificial intelligence at MIT) suggested she should start composing, “it sort of took my blinders off, and from there my life got kind of mixed up!” Mixed-up turned out to take the form of continuing her studies at Juilliard, with composition lessons at Columbia with Davidovsky himself.
The composer-performer-researcher trifecta gives Kimura’s music a natural balance rare among contemporary composers. She likens her approach to cooking; sometimes you know exactly what you want and use the exact recipe, but other times “you go to the supermarket with the intention to get fish, so you just talk to the fish guy and ask ‘what is good today?’” Sometimes the fish of the day is an interesting technique, as was the case for her Canon Élastique, which was inspired by the ring modulation effect. And while putting techniques into practice is crucial to her work, Kimura points out that “ideas like that could not be born without the technology.”
As for the future of music, Kimura is still searching and experimenting—she was inspired by a recent visit to the Allosphere, an immersive audio-visual laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and maintains an active schedule of recitals, research, and collaborations. But perhaps most important for the future is Kimura’s dedication to encouraging and facilitating her colleagues and students through her programs at Future Music Lab, Juilliard, and now at UC Irvine:
I do something nobody else does, but I also notice that there’s no place for me. I found myself with a machete having to clear the road that I am walking, so I thought ‘with other people like myself following me, we can all take machetes and widen the path. And then the people behind us can go faster and further.’ So that’s my thought for doing all this teaching;
I am too late to get wherever we’re going, but I can make the street wider and faster.
See below for Mari’s upcoming events, or visit her website for more information, videos, and descriptions of her work.
- June 22: Masterclass & presentation at Festival Chigiana, Siena
- June 25-26: Masterclasses & recital, Conservatory of Salerno
- June 27-28: Masterclass & recital, Conservatory of Sassari, Sardinia
- June 30: Recital at the Accademia Reale di Spagna
- Opening ARTESCIENZA Festival, Rome
- July 1-29: Director of Future Music Lab, Atlantic Music Festival
- Aug 11-19: New Music for Strings Festival, Aarhus, Denmark
- Aug 20-25: New Music for Strings Festival , Reykjavik, Iceland
- September: Co-producing festival at Tenri Cultural Institute, New York with
- Harvestworks Media Arts Center
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.
This Saturday, May 5th, soon-to-be-Dr. Nick Norton is premiering the first evening length concert of his music at Art Share, in an event titled Music for Art Galleries that is doubling as his PhD recital. Nick is the founder and editor of New Classic LA so felt a bit conflicted about covering his own event, but asked the other writers and me what we thought and we agreed that an interview would be appropriate so that we readers and listeners might have at least some background information on him, as well as some sense of his musical thoughts and activities. I know Nick from casual conversations but only in preparation for this interview did I immerse myself in his music. It was time well spent. Suffice to say, I urge you to check out his online recordings and, if you can, come to his concert on Saturday.
What was your entrée into music? At what age did you realize that music was a part of you? What kind of music spoke to you first and how did your stylistic identification evolve over time?
Whoa, we’re starting with a big one. Okay! I certainly started young with some piano and guitar lessons that didn’t stick. My mom was in film and TV, so I was always surrounded by all sorts of arts and entertainment. I expected I’d eventually become an artist of some sort, maybe a photographer or filmmaker, and I did always like music quite a lot – I remember how excited I was the first time I got to buy CDs for myself. I think things changed late in elementary school, when we moved from Los Angeles to a much smaller town called Newbury Park. It was a sports-centric town that was, at least at the time, pretty cut off from culture, and with how horrible and cliquey little kids are, I immediately became an outcast loner. I’d pretty much watch TV or read every day after school, and would leave MTV on all night back when they used to play music videos nonstop, I think mainly to distract myself from how lonely I was. Though I was totally unhappy for a lot of years, in hindsight I’m incredibly grateful for how that led me into music.
I’m not totally sure of the timeline here, but I remember two very specific events that got me into taking music seriously. The first was a school assembly where high schools kids came and played instruments for us. I heard someone play a saxophone and said “yes, I’ll take one of those please,” and joined the school band. Suddenly I had something to do other than watch TV or read after school! It was magical. The other, perhaps more important one, was discovering punk, probably sometime in middle school. This is cliche, at least among punks, but I went to a couple of shows in garages and at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center and Ventura Theater and thought “whoa, other loners! Maybe we have something in common! And they don’t seem to think I dress weird!” Plus the music was SO different from anything on the radio or that the “outside world” knew about, and so much more raw…I was just immediately in love. Punk isn’t technically hard to play – in fact it’s so focused on community and breaking down the audience/band barrier that it’s not supposed to be – so I started thinking “hey I can probably do that” and picked up guitar again.
It’s funny that you ask how my stylistic identification evolved over time, because as far as I’m concerned I’ve never actually left punk. The thing I realized, though, was that the things that defined the genre for me had less to do with music and more to do with ethics. I was reading all of Greg Graffin’s writings sometime early in high school, where he was discussing freedom of thought and self-determination and how the corporate desk jockey from a family of hippies might be just as much a punk as those of us in studded belts and safety pins, and something really stuck for me. I love punk music, and still do, but the thing I loved most about it was how self-driven it was, and how it didn’t care that it was different from what the masses (read: popular kids) were into. Following that line of interest, rather than the power chords/kick kick snare aspects of the sound (which I do love), I eventually got into hardcore, then really experimental rock. I’d never left the school band though, so was playing some jazz and classical music there, and when I got to college double majored in music and political theory. The timing and environment just worked out in that I was at UCSD and we started studying Cage and the downtown New York scene right around when I was getting into noise and drone bands, so the jump to the “classical” world felt totally natural. Even calling it a separate world of some sort seemed incorrect to me. I probably would have gotten there myself via La Monte Young and the minimalists if school hadn’t done it for me first. I was just like “whoa, there’s a path where you can get a degree in this?” That’s when I started taking theory and history and composition classes seriously, and like to say that I worked backwards into the canon from there. Nowadays if I’m writing a piece with, say, a very traditional classical vibe, I’m still thinking of it as an extension of my relationship with and growth in punk.
Europe. I’m a native New Yorker whose lived in a number of European cities, and as such, it’s something I’m instinctively aware of. But as someone who’s now been in LA for 20 years, my awareness of it is diminishing. I see that you did some of your studies in Paris (at Ecole Normale de Musique, a school I also attended!) and London. How important were those years to your musical development and how did they jibe with, or contrast with, the musical aesthetic you were developing and experiencing in California?
Attending a conservatory-style school in Paris was huge for me. For one thing, it made me realize that if I was going to do the composer thing, I had a LOT of work to do to catch up to these students who had been at it since age 3. I went in with my bachelors and was essentially a remedial charity case compared to the Juilliard kids in attendance. “Sorry, modulation is what now? Why do Germans have their own augmented chord?” At UCSD – like a lot of undergrads, I now know – I had tried to slide through the earlier parts of theory and history to get to the stuff I was into doing, which was largely either total serialism 60 years late or basically minimalism, which I still dig into here and there.
Anyway! I learned a lot there, though perhaps most important was learning how much I had to learn, or how little I knew. Socratic wisdom, if you will. That’s probably the first time I felt a real drive to analyze Bach, and do counterpoint exercises, and actually work hard on ear training. I’ll almost certainly never be as good at that stuff as a lot of those people, but at least it made me bone up on everything that I thought I’d need, which continues to this day.
There’s another side to this first Europe sojourn too: oh my god their music was boring! Other students could run circles around me in class, but if I asked them about a current artist they liked they’d draw a blank, and 90% of their music sounded like Hindemith lite. It was like they were only doing music because they had degrees in it and didn’t know what else to do, and weren’t even particularly interested in it. That’s not true of everyone there – I did make some great friends whose work I continue to respect and enjoy now – but it was definitely the general vibe. I wrote what I now consider to be a childishly-shallow attention-getter of a string trio. Harmonically it was really boring, and the teachers there didn’t seem into it, but it used, like, one extended technique and ended in a surprising way, and at the final concert of the program people – including the teachers – went totally nuts. Like they’d never heard someone tap on a soundboard before and I was a genius. That was completely insane to me, and gave me some resolve to say “okay, you’re doing something that doesn’t really fit with what the people in this classical slice of the world know, and if they don’t get it and they’re uncomfortable with it, fuck em.” But to say fuck them I’d have to catch up with them a little too, and make sure I was doing it well. Hence deciding to go to grad school in Europe and try to get the super traditional training I felt I’d missed.
King’s College, where I did my MMus, went as expected, which was wonderfully. I learned a ton! I loved London and went to concerts every night! I wish I’d kept in better touch with my friends and teachers there, because a lot of them are doing awesome things and I miss them. Rob Keeley in particular was a huge influence on my work today. I once spent like 30 minutes describing the system I was using to generate pitch and rhythmic material to him, and he said “okay, but what does it sound like?” I’d been writing stuff for my bands using my instincts, but most of my concert music up until then was still using algorithms or serialism as a crutch, or a shield against what I thought of as a lack of traditional classical abilities. Rob asking me that kind of made me re-assess my whole “I am in two worlds” view. I think my concert music, if we want to call it that, got a lot better very quickly, or at least suddenly felt a lot more like me than it had up to that point. There’s definitely a “before” and “after” to that lesson with Rob in thinking about my own musical past.
To prepare for this interview, I gave myself something of a crash course in “The Music of Nick Norton.” First of all, let me say that I very much enjoyed that, so thank you. I was familiar with a few of your pieces before but this immersive study made me realize the scope of your musical activities, especially with respect to genre. There are some composers whose music is poly-stylistic within a given piece. I didn’t find this to be the case with your music. Rather, I heard works, compositions, songs, whatever term works, that seemed rather pure with respect to the genre of that particular piece. Is that a fair observation?
I would say so. I try not to be too conscious of genre norms because they can be quite limiting, and instead try to ask “what does this piece need? Will this idea make the piece stronger?” In a lot of cases the result of that is something that makes a lot of musical sense – at least to me – and part of making musical sense is coherence. That said, while there are some polystylist pieces I dig a lot, I am wary of using genre signifiers in an obvious way, which is somewhat necessary in a polystylist piece. It can very easily become “guess the reference” rather than living in the world of the piece you’re hearing.
Genre, for me, has a lot more to do with socioeconomic circumstances or, at best, tone color and instrumentation, than with anything musically abstract, and in writing I often think in musical abstracts. For instance, when I’m writing with my bands Honest Iago or The Newports, I’m not asking “does this fit with a punk sound,” but am instead concerning myself with if enough tension has been built up to justify a release, or if a chord progression has repeated too many times in too exact a way, or something like that. One thing my bandmates have commented on, particularly in The Newports, is my obsession with not giving away your entrances. In almost every single Bach fugue the voice that is about to re-enter rests for a few bars before it does, which makes the entrance that much more exciting. Just like the trombones at the end of Beethoven 5. The other guitarist in The Newports now knows that if we’re gonna write a new section, I’m very likely going to take something out of the previous section so that the new one is fresher. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m the very same composer, using the very same skill set. If I’m wearing black denim and it’s distorted and amplified people call it punk, and if I’m wearing a blazer and there are program notes people call it contemporary classical music, and if the audience is lying on their backs they call it ambient. Whatever.
I will admit that I really enjoy messing with these discrepancies. ASCAP, for instance, arbitrarily divides their divisions into “concert music” and “pop/rock” and “country” and “rhythm & soul.” Concert music pays A LOT more per performance than the popular genres, so I tend to register my bands’ albums as song cycles for voices, two guitars, bass, and percussion, and let them figure it out. I can’t imagine what they would do with Ted Hearne’s piece for Saul Williams and string quartet.
You seem very busy, very willing to divide your creative psyche into multiple personae and work hard on all of them. Is this a conscious choice or just what feels good, right, fun, etc.? Is that something that is or should be more important to today’s musical participants?
It’s all an expression of the same basic passion. My first job, in high school, was as a counselor at Camp Emerald Bay on Catalina Island. I discovered that I LOVE introducing people to new things. Perhaps my favorite feeling is seeing someone else have a moment of realization about a new experience, of having their preconceptions challenged and ending up happy about what they learned. When I began composing and learning about the classical world, I essentially wanted to be the gateway drug between musical worlds for people from both, to let what I thought of as the conservative classical folks hear something in popular music and say “whoa, that actually is very good” and to show the people who are used to rock shows that what happens in the concert music world is vibrant and interesting. At a young age I thought I was unique for having this view, but it sure seems like a lot of interesting musicians are ignoring traditional boundaries these days, and I think that makes for better music for all of us.
It’s really beyond that, though: I started New Classic LA and Equal Sound for the same reasons, and I don’t think I necessarily need to be the composer or performer to allow someone to have that moment. Maybe a piece already exists that would mean a lot to someone, or open someone’s mind, in a way my music wouldn’t. If I think that’s the case, then the best thing I can do is send them a mixtape or take them to a show. This even extends into my love of craft beer, and starting the beer recommendation app Barly with my friends. The number of people who say “I hate beer” and have never had anything aside from a light lager kind of astounds me. Give them a sip of a Belgian quad, or something that fits their palate, and you often get a “whoa, I didn’t know beer could taste like that.” Their mind opens a little, and I really, truly see this as a way to improve the world. “I didn’t know beer could taste like that” or “I didn’t know that music could sound like this” or “I didn’t know that I like kayaking” might, for someone, somewhere, eventually lead to “I didn’t know not all Muslims are terrorists” or “I didn’t realize women are my equals” or, from my own perspective, “I didn’t know some Republicans aren’t horrible.” I’m still working on learning that one. But yeah, it’s really all the same, and I just try to do whatever seems most useful in any given moment or situation.
As to what “should” be more important, I don’t think I’m in a position to judge that for other people. And shoulds are dangerous anyway.
From what I can see, you play in at least two rock/punk bands. Are they side projects for fun or an integral part of your musical persona?
Absolutely integral. However, in both of those bands, the other members have very full non-musical lives, so the bands themselves are becoming a little more like “very very serious hobbies” than anything I’ll be able to do in a full time way. That’s talking from a career standpoint though. As far as writing music goes they’re incredibly important to me. I learn a ton through playing with them, and have a great time – perhaps we don’t talk about having fun enough, but it’s pretty damn important – so I don’t see my work with them really slowing down anytime in my life.
Would narrowing your focus (e.g., just writing “concert music” or just creating electronic works) spoil the fun of it all?
I think I’m incredibly narrowly focused on music. The things that sometimes get neglected are my health, finances, and personal life. That seemed like a worthwhile trade in my twenties. Now, especially with non-musician friends buying houses and having kids and stuff like that, I’m trying to put a little more emphasis on, say, making time to hang out with my girlfriend and her dog, or taking some down time here and there, or caring a bit more about what I am paid than I like to admit. Whenever I’m at home trying to take a break and watch a movie or something on a night when there’s a show somewhere in town (i.e. every night), I do have to turn off the little voice that says “you should really be at that show.” That’s a struggle.
You’ve mentioned community to me. I can’t tell you how important that word, that concept is to me. (I decided to go back to grad school not because I wanted to pursue an academic career but rather I needed to be immersed in a musical community and I wasn’t finding it in the real world.) You’ve got a big recital coming up on May 5th and it seems to me that a large part of your musical community is helping you realize this concert. Who do you consider to be the primary members of your community and what defines it as such?
I don’t really want to name people for this answer, because I am sure I would make someone feel left out, and that is something I am sensitive to. That said, I think the people in the community who I am most inspired by, and most want to work with, are the ones who are working hard to help other people in the community. I think – aside from great programming and performances – the thing that makes wild Up, the LA Phil, WasteLAnd, MonkSpace, and a bunch of our series and institutions here in LA so fantastic, are that they are focused on helping other people. WasteLAnd is NOT the Nick Deyoe show, it’s the “how can we provide opportunities for interesting music to get heard in a compelling way” show. Dudamel and John Adams may be the faces of the LA Phil, but the organization is great because of how many composers they program. They don’t focus on themselves. Hell, I feel weird about not having music by anybody else on my own PhD concert.
You and I have also mentioned the state, if not also the fate, of the musical scene, the community, I guess you could say, of our fair city. At the risk of flattering you (which I’m honestly not trying to do) I would go so far as to say that you are one of the people, one of the factors advocating for, shaping said community. What drives that?
That is incredibly kind of you to say. I am not sure I know what drives it, aside from the whole life-mission thing of trying to open minds that I talked about earlier. The thing is, community is a necessity. You can’t do all the things I want to do without involving other people. And you’ve gotta have humility and recognize that you’ll never be the best at everything, if at anything. You and I were talking about websites once, and you said that my personal one was really solid. That’s because I recognized that someone else, in this case Traci Larson, is way, way better at designing websites than I am. Of course she is! She’s a designer, and I’m a composer. I’d have to be pretty hard headed to think that I can make something as good as it can be when whatever that thing is is not part of my main skill set. If I want to make an awesome record, sure, I can learn a bit about mixing and engineering, or I can recognize that Nick Tipp is better at that than I will ever, ever be. But I’m better at writing music than he is. If the goal is to make a great record, we’d better work together. If the goal is to inflate my own name then I can do it all myself. And it will not be nearly as good. If the work truly comes first, before your ego, the community sorts itself out.
For all the talk of “music” as existing, even thriving in an environment where genre, style, underlying aesthetic or political motivations might seem to create a fractured landscape, I really feel like we’re living in something of a Golden Era. It is certainly not unified stylistically yet I do see it as a rather coherent, happily-multi-headed creature. Do you agree?
I think we’ve always lived in that era, and big institutions are just getting better at recognizing it. That said, the idea of being stylistically unified is a bit scary to me. It implies that some kind of Platonic asymptote for music may exist, and if it does then we can all just quit now. It doesn’t, though. The varying views of what makes music good are what makes music good.
One thing that I found really refreshing about LA’s “classical” scene is the relative abundance of non-traditional venues. One of my first classical encounters here outside of the major venues was through the folks at Classical Revolution. I believe you’re interested in similar issues, involved with similar issues as well, right?
This is something I think about a lot. Here’s the thing: what people in the classical scene call non-traditional venues are actually traditional venues. We have it backwards. How is putting music on at a bar or art gallery or outdoor festival in any way unique or interesting? I go hear bands and songwriters at bars all the time. Those are the places where 99% of the music in the world is performed. That’s normal. It’s weird that a traditional classical venue requires you to dress nicely, pay a lot, and sit there in silence. As far as I’m aware classical music in the modern era is the only genre where audiences aren’t expected to dance or move or react in some way.
I think this is, at its core, a marketing problem for the classical world. People say “we’re playing Haydn – in a bar!!!” and expect the public to show up, because “in a bar” is supposedly the interesting part. It’s not. I can’t stress enough how normal playing music in a bar is. If I asked you to come hear my band, and you asked why, and I said “because we’re playing with amplification and you can drink a beer,” you’d look at me like I was insane. The music has to be the key.
This is a big part of why Andrew Glick and I founded Equal Sound. A lot of the music in the new classical world is fucking awesome, and no one hears it because people have all these preconceptions about what classical music is. The fact that Tristan Perich is on the same shelf at a record store as Clara Schumann, and is marketed in much the same way, is completely absurd. What we want to do with Equal Sound is to essentially hide the fact that what we’re presenting comes from the classical world. Instead of saying “isn’t it interesting that we are putting a string quartet in a cool gallery space,” we are saying “come hear this rad show of music by these interesting artists!” We don’t see ourselves as competing, insofar as there is competition among presenters for attention, with series like WasteLAnd and Monday Evening Concerts and Green Umbrella. We see ourselves competing with Spaceland Presents and FYF and Goldenvoice. We just usually have more violins.
We basically stole this idea from wild Up, and probably from others before them. When they got started they were playing at the Echo Park Rec Center. DIY hipster heaven. If they’d started up with shows at the Broad Stage or something, they’d be just another chamber orchestra playing new music and begging for donations. By putting themselves into the popular music world, they stood out as incredibly interesting and worth seeing. My understanding is that their publicist came up with the idea to never use the word “classical” or “new music” or even talk about “the tradition” and a lot of the members were uncomfortable with it at first, but wow did it work. “Wait, your band has a huge string section? I have got to see that!” But they’ve got the musicianship and programming down to back it too. Sometimes that gets lost in these conversations, but it’s really at the core. A good frame can’t save a bad painting, but a bad frame can ruin a great one.
OK, a quick tangent pertaining to my own music-philosophical anxiety, if I may: Whether there is a unified “scene,” or even if it’s fragmented, positively or negatively, to me, the underlying and more important, even terrifying question is this: What is the role of music, for the individual and in society? Do we need it?
Of course we need it. Or at least I need it – I don’t want to speak for others. But if I had any questions about that I probably wouldn’t be doing this. I love my life in music, and I’m insanely lucky that I get to spend a lot of my time and energy on it. It can, though, at times be incredibly taxing. If I didn’t believe it was a necessary thing for me to be doing, I’d probably relax a little, get a job at a nonprofit or something that has a slightly more tangible or obviously measurable effect on the world or pays a lot more, and just make music as a hobby. That’s not me, though.
How much of music, your music and the music of our community, is political or in any way a critique of our society? (And how much should it be?)
I think hearing music as a critique of society would be up to each individual listener or musician, but I tend to think that for just about everything the meaning is defined by the individual experiencing it, so any sort of objective answer is really impossible.
I will say, though, that to me virtually everything I do is political. Fact is I get to try to make a living in music because I don’t have to worry in my daily life about shelter, food, clean water, being enslaved for human trafficking, getting shot when I walk out my front door, having a front door…I have a fucking iPhone that I get annoyed by when it is slow. The fact that I get to be annoyed by that, compared to how a lot of people live, makes me into an ungodly rich person who gets to make music. And I am very, very far from rich by Los Angeles standards. I think I have to use that privilege responsibly, and use these skills that I am so, so lucky to have the opportunity to have to try to do some good in the world.
At the same time, we do want to recognize sacrifices of people that allow us to do this. My great grandparents crossed Europe on foot with no money. We have to think that they went through a hardship like that so that someday someone like me could be more comfortable, and do something that makes them happy. If I get to draw some dots on a line that I think sound nice instead of going to work in hellish conditions to earn barely enough to eat, then in some way I feel like I’m honoring the aims of all the people who have struggled for better lives for everyone. And in whatever way we decide to approach it, we have to keep up that struggle for others. We owe it to people.
I think to understand the value, the excitement, the momentum towards polystylistic appreciation and acceptance (Kendrick Lamar’s recent Pulitzer win comes to mind), I think it would be wise to understand where that comes from. Was it not borne, decades if not centuries ago, of a strict, urgent stratification, categorization of the various musics? If so, why do you think that was? Is it racist? Classist? And not to be glib, but does it even matter?
It’s absolutely racist and classist, and it absolutely matters. When, to your previous question, I said that I am lucky to have had the opportunity to try, I wasn’t kidding. An artist like Kendrick – and I don’t know his whole history – probably didn’t have a lot of money for music lessons. He also probably – certainly actually – had a far higher risk of getting shot by a cop than I do. Yet he’s making incredibly creative and vital music that is complex and connected to a huge portion of society that many of us with money and degrees often ignore.
The thing we’ve seen in people’s reactions to the win, at least in racist assholes’ reactions, is like a fear of invasion. It’s not totally unfounded, as classical music as a “genre” is, at its heart, a tradition of wealthy European landowners or the most powerful churches in the world paying people to make things for them to put their names on. It is literally designed to be insular and exclusionary. That makes some people feel secure. Someone like Kendrick getting recognized by a big institution for making, I don’t know, really cool art? is a threat to the people who have felt secure with their institutional support.
The funny thing here is that this all actually lines up quite nicely with the “little tiny genre” thing we were talking about earlier. There’s so much awesome music in the world that some classical institutions love to pretend doesn’t exist. And let’s be honest, a lot of traditional academic composers would not really be surviving their own careers without grants and commissions and teaching positions. The socioeconomic structure of classical music is not the way most music-making works, but some of us who work in it or write about it treat it like the way the everything is. And a minority always wants to protect itself.
That all sounds glib, but I’m actually hopeful. Sometimes you need a good kick in the face. Maybe a few people got one and we can all be a bit more open in our listening and understanding now. And it’s not a competition. It’s very possible to love black metal and the Romantic era and hip hop and blues and noise rock and Frank Sinatra with the same passion. Music is just, you know, rad.
So this recital of yours is, if I’m not mistaken, part of your doctoral work as you complete your academic studies. When I was a student, it seemed like the academic path was practically a requirement if you were to function in the modern classical world. But for better or worse (much better, in my opinion) academic participation is considerably less crucial than it was just a couple decades ago. How do you see this, and is teaching and/or additional academic involvement part of your plan?
There are definite advantages to an academic career, or at least the promise of one: economic stability, getting to talk about music with students and colleagues, having summers off, all that. It sounds pretty cool. Unfortunately this is 2018 and actually getting one of those cushy jobs is incredibly unlikely. A lot of people end up teaching adjunct at five universities and having no time for actually making music. Did you see that university in Illinois advertising “volunteer” teaching positions for people with PhDs? That’s exploitation on the face of it, and maybe unions will do something useful, but much as we try to fight it we can’t really ignore the free market. If people are willing to take those unpaid positions there are going to be more of those unpaid positions. As far as I’m concerned the stable academic career path for composers is basically over, and people are just taking a while to realize it. I’m working on other options to essentially get out ahead of the rush.
One thing that I see as a problem is that a lot of people who are tenure track faculty now came up in the world when that was a viable option, and are still advising their students as if it is. I think it’s a disservice to students to let them think that there’s a stable career path there that they can access without an giant amount of work. I respect the people who make it in, but I don’t think it’s for me, at least not yet. It would be an enormous amount of work for something that isn’t my main focus.
The ironic thing here is that I teach at Chapman University and I’m lucky to have that gig. But it has shown me, to some extent, how limiting doing the adjunct life thing can be. I was never late delivering a piece before I started teaching. It’s a little like if I say “I want to be a musician!” and someone responds with “cool, you can be a teacher!” That just sounds so incongruous to me, it’s like telling a kid who wants to be a scientist that they can be a lawyer, or telling a kid who wants to be a lawyer that they can be a farmer. If someone offers me a cool teaching job I’m likely not going to turn it down, but I think my energy is better spent on writing pieces and putting on concerts.
Let’s discuss the actual music, shall we? I’ve seen the program for your recital. You’re presenting quite a varied program. There are many works that are not afraid to be, dare I say, beautiful. Are “beauty” and “beautiful” loaded words? What do they mean to you and how do they (or don’t they) pertain to your music?
I’m not sure. I try to be honest about what I think a piece needs, and take my own ego or any ideas about what I want listeners to think about me out of the equation when I write. Lately that’s had me turning to writing more “traditionally beautiful” music. I will say that, as a person who grew up in weird rock and went to UCSD, that it scares me a bit. Whenever I write an elegant line I’m still like “wait, isn’t this supposed to be more aggressive?” I’m not totally comfortable with that sound yet. If I was, though, it probably wouldn’t be very interesting to me. I can make horrible noises all day if I want to – and I don’t mean horrible in a bad way! Sometimes we need a bit of horror. But right now writing music that is somehow comforting is something I seem to be doing. Wonder what that means.
I feel like I started composing at the tail end of an era where you were either decidedly atonal or dissonant, or you were equally-decidedly consonant, usually in the form of something akin to what was called “The New Romanticism.” I found the stratification limiting, not to mention polarizing. Between your “classical” works and your various electric/electronic/rock/punk, such excluding stratification, compartmentalization, seems considerably less present. Is this a conscious decision rooted in revolt or simply the natural way of your musical expression?
Well, the pieces I sent you were pretty consonant as it’s what I’ve been doing lately. I think I started out being quite inspired by modernist anti-populism, which UCSD is still quite into. Early Boulez was my favorite stuff for a long time, and I definitely have pieces that stem from that tradition, though I haven’t written one in a little while….these days I try not to be conscious of things like that, though, and just write honestly. Sometimes the music gets pretty thorny, but that hasn’t happened in many recent pieces.
Actually I do have a really gnarly mixed chamber quartet that I think I want to rewrite as a piano concerto. That’ll be a cool one.
You seem comfortable with music that is virtuosic and difficult to play (your All The Wrong Notes and Mirror Smasher come to mind) as well as music that is not particularly challenging on a technical level. Do such things, as such, enter into your compositional calculus or is that, as an isolated criterion, not of interest to you?
As artistic expression it’s not particularly interesting to me, except to say that I do think hard-to-play music requires a certain energy level that is harder to attain in stuff that is easy to play. If I want something to feel really intense, I want the musician to feel really intense about it. Making it challenging can be a way to achieve that, but it’s not really the goal. It’s a means to the thing I am interested in, which is more like a musical-final-product sort of thing. I care a lot about that, and whatever means get me there in the most effective way are cool by me.
To follow up, you have a number of really lovely pieces that exist in various guises, whether acoustic or electronic. Quiet Harbor is a simple, peaceful chamber piece with acoustic instruments, evoking the sounds of the water, boats, foghorns, general mood of pastoral, calm space.. On Geology for electric guitar and electronic sounds is similar in its simplicity, its adherence to tonal centers, yet obviously created by a different sonic palette. Beach Song is almost shocking in its folk simplicity. (It reminds me of early 20th century Americana, with a hint of Ives’ modernism. Also some brash rock and jazz inflected interjections towards the end!) Is this simplicity a statement, a reaction, or just how music goes?
Well, it’s somewhat related to what I said about means in the previous answer. Those jazz and rock interventions in Beach Song are there because I wanted some dramatic contrast, and instead of merely using different harmony or rhythms or whatever, I thought I could get an even stronger contrast by mixing in things that are entirely foreign to what it seems like the language might be. I once heard Ted Hearne use the phrase “genre counterpoint” and that stuck with me. I kind of ask myself what my goal is, and then try to figure out the best way to achieve it, regardless of where that leads or comes from.
A note on On Geology: everything in that piece is guitar with some effects pedals. None of the sounds are synthesized. I don’t really care that they are or aren’t, and I’m happy to use whatever sounds are effective for the piece…but aren’t guitar pedals rad?
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just that this is far and away the most in-depth anyone has ever gone into my music, and I really, really appreciate it! Answering these questions was a lot of fun, and very interesting, and made me think about a lot of things. Thank you!
I also just want to take a minute to express my thanks to you, and the other New Classic LA writers, for contributing to this site. I had no idea when I started a concert calendar whenever that was that it would turn into this. And I’m thankful every day for the energy you all put in to keep it up.
Just in case anyone is curious about conflict of interest – I am, after all, the editor of this website – I wrote to all the writers and said “I’m having a concert that I want to have covered, but I’m very concerned about posting my own stuff on the site. I don’t want it to be self-serving or biased. Tell me what to do.” What you and Leaha came up with was the fact that if another composer putting on a show like this came to New Classic LA for an interview I would definitely say yes to them and put them through our normal process for getting coverage, which I was about to put myself through, so it felt okay. But if people don’t dig that I get it.
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.
On March 18, Daniel Corral’s latest work, Polytope, premieres at Automata as part of this year’s MicroFest, who have named their season after it. We were lucky that Daniel had a minute to answer some questions about this piece, which he will also be performing on March 23 at Seattle’s Wayward Music Series and March 25 at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. Here’s Daniel:
Tell me about Polytope.
I describe Polytope as a multimedia microtonal performance existing somewhere between a string quartet, Kraftwerk, James Turrell, and an Indonesian dhalang (master shadow puppeteer). Another apt description might be to call it an electronic mixture of Arnold Dreyblatt’s Orchestra of Excited Strings and Philip Glass’ classic Sesame Street video, Geometry of Circles.
Onstage there are four MIDI controllers on a small stand and a single video camera directly above the center, pointed straight down. The controllers are not traditional keyboards, but 8×8 grids of buttons that are turned 45° to make diamond shape rather than squares. One musician stands before each controller. The performance happens in the dark, and the overhead camera captures the interaction between the controllers’ colorful grids of lights and the fast-moving silhouettes of the musicians’ hands. This live feed video is projected in the space, creating a larger than life, colorful multimedia experience inspired by Light and Space art that also acts as an evolving visual score.
Polytope will premiere on Sunday, March 18 at Automata as part of MicroFest. MicroFest liked the piece enough to name the 2018 festival season after it, so I hope that might bring people out. The following weekend, we’ll also play it in Seattle at the Wayward Music Series and San Francisco at Center for New Music.
Was there a collaborative aspect to the composition for this quartet, or was it you delivering parts to be played?
I love collaborations, and have a few in the works right now. However, Polytope came entirely from me, for better or worse. I started working on it in early 2017 during a residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Since then, I’ve slowly developed it in between other projects. I had people in mind that I thought would be great to work with (Erin Barnes, Cory Beers, Andrew Lessman), and once they agreed to play Polytope I completed it with them in mind.
Do you feel that it’s a further exploration of your work on, say, Diamond Pulses, or were you more in a mindset of trying something new and different here? I ask this without intending to put a value judgement on either option.
Polytope absolutely builds on what that I started exploring with Diamond Pulses in 2015. I’ve long been intimidated by knowing so many incredibly knowledgeable composers of microtonal music, and Diamond Pulses was the first microtonal piece that I felt confident sharing. In developing more multimedia pieces that build on Diamond Pulses, one thing that has gotten more sophisticated (or complicated, at least) is the projected visual metaphor/score. Diamond Pulses progresses in one direction through a single visual metaphor of expanding and contracting tonality diamonds. Comma, which premiered at REDCAT in 2016, built on Diamond Pulses by exploring a Pythagorean grid through several different visual metaphors (some go up, some go down, some go in circles, etc.). Polytope builds on Comma by expanding it from a solo piece to a quartet, and by using a more complex tuning system. In contrast, my recent piece One Line (which Vicki Ray will play at Pianospheres on April 3) takes the opposite approach by using a mere 8 buttons in a single horizontal row. It’s important to me that each piece is informed by the successes and failures of past work, even if it’s drastically different.
When I was prepping these questions I was thinking “Daniel’s body of really does defy the concept of genre,” and then I read your bio which says almost exactly that. Is this variety something you actively pursue, and is there some sort of artistic mission associated with it? Or is it more just a consequence of your being a curious and open minded musician?
The musical multiverse is a weird and wonderful place! One of my favorite activities is going to the library and checking out a stack of music that I’ve never heard of. Most of it is depressingly adequate, but occasionally you find something either terribly amazing or amazingly terrible, and suddenly the world is a little brighter. It’s also a product of being in Los Angeles, where there are so many music communities existing right next door to each other that often don’t even know the others exists. It can be very exciting to move between them, like travelling between planets in a solar system.
In addition, the question makes me think of an essay by Trevor Dunn, which was published in one of John Zorn’s Arcana books. In it, he declares the platypus to be the spirit animal of the 21st century musician. My sloppy summary is that much like the diverse appendages of the platypus, a modern musician needs to be literate in the idiosyncrasies of a wide swath of styles and genres.
Have you noticed different audiences reacting to different aspects of your work? If so, how?
I used to consider Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” quote to be a bit of a cop out, but it has become very relevant to my musical identity. I think I’ve both won and alienated various audiences by the diversity of what I do. Some people love the caricatured drama of my music for Timur and the Dime Museum, while the LA Times once referred to an electroacoustic piece of mine as an “antidote” to sentimentality. I can only hope that audiences will recognize meaningful qualities in the music regardless of what manifestation it takes. For most of my work, I try to include multiple points of entry and levels of engagement. The multimedia format of Polytope came out of this approach. Audience members can follow along with the musicians’ fingers playing the projected “score,” or they can listen with informed ears to the tuning, observe the tech setup, or just enjoy the music as a surface-level experience.
What other LA musicians/composers/artists are you into right now?
Wow, this list could go on forever! I’m going to try to keep it relatively short, and refrain from listing groups I play in (like Qamar, Featherwolf, or Timur and the Dime Museum)
Dog Star Orchestra
Timothy Maloof and Rahman Baranghoori duo
Los Angeles Electric 8
A Horse A Spoon A Bucket
Anna Homler’s Breadwoman
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for the thoughtful questions, and for New Classic LA keeping a keen eye on contemporary classical-adjacent music in LA! Many other similar websites have come and gone (including my own Auscultations blog), and it’s great that New Classic LA is still going strong.
Also, I hope people will come out to Automata on March 18 to check out Polytope! I’ve put a lot of work into it and am quite pleased with how it has turned out.
Tickets for that show are available at artful.ly/store/events/14666. Follow Daniel and hear more of his work at spinalfrog.com.
LA scene regulars likely know pianist Nadia Shpachenko, whose tireless concert and recording schedule is a model to live up to. Nadia has premiered more than 60 works by Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Daniel Felsenfeld, Tom Flaherty, Annie Gosfield, Vera Ivanova, Leon Kirchner, Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, Missy Mazzoli, Harold Meltzer, Adam Schoenberg, Lewis Spratlan, Gernot Wolfgang, Iannis Xenakis, Peter Yates, Jack Van Zandt, and others. This Saturday, March 10, she teams up with People Inside Electronics for a show at Throop Church in Pasadena featuring both premieres and works from her upcoming album, Quotations and Homages. Nadia had a minute to answer some questions, so we asked some:
PIE’s concerts tend to focus on the interaction between human performers and electronics. Do you have a background in this type of performance, or is this new ground for you?
I have been performing pieces with electronics for many years now, this is an area of great interest for me! I love to explore how composers use their imagination to complement the acoustic instruments with all kinds of additional timbres and sound sources. I think the very first piece with electronics that I commissioned was Airdancing by Tom Flaherty. Airdancing was written for my first album of brand new works titled Woman at the New Piano. This piece was written for me and Genevieve Feiwen Lee on piano and toy piano, and has since become quite a favorite with performers and audiences! I have performed works with live electronics and with fixed media. The works on Saturday’s PIE concert will include diverse approaches to electroacoustic writing, from Annie Gosfield’s bold and wild Phantom Shakedown featuring malfunctioning short-wave radios, grinding cement mixers, and detuned and prepared piano samples, to Isaac Schankler’s poignant and heartbreakingly beautiful Future Feelings, featuring gentle piano passages reinterpreted through ambient synths and filtered noise, to Alex Temple’s captivating incorporation of pre-recorded interviews with her friends, colleagues, former students and family members sharing very personal and at times extremely painful experiences. Also, my husband Barry Werger is a recording engineer and a roboticist. When we met in Boston more than 20 years ago, he was working on his PhD at Brandeis University and part of his artistic output was touring the world with his robotic theatre troupe. The plays often featured my performances and robot actors, so the interaction between human performers and AI was an interest for me even then, although in a form quite different from what I will presenting this Saturday.
I see some old friends and some new ones on this program. What do you look for when you’re programming a concert?
This program features many composers who I worked with closely on multiple projects, and also some composers whose works I haven’t played before. When I commission pieces, I usually perform them dozens of times (often as many as 40 times for each commissioned piece), especially when the pieces are recorded and I then tour the programs to promote the works and the albums. Since I often create thematically inspired programs, it can be challenging for me to program single compositions not already part of my larger projects. My upcoming PIE concert presented me with a great opportunity to both showcase the works I commissioned most recently, and also to select works by composers with whom I did not collaborate before, all united by the common inspiration of the electronics component in the music. Tom, Annie, Vera, and Jack all wrote pieces for me that I premiered in the past. I was eager to work with Isaac Schankler for a long time now, and finally I got a new piece from him that I will be premiering on Saturday, inspired by Isaac’s baby boy, noise music, Romantic/teen angst, the melancholy of Chopin, and the composer’s worries and hopes for alternate future possibilities. This concert will be my first collaboration with Alex Temple and Julia Wolfe.
Vera’s piece is the only one that lists multimedia. What can we expect from it?
Vera’s piece exists in several versions and at the PIE concert it will be performed with all possible components – projections of the text of the poems over images, and the fixed audio part, which interjects the piano part. The fixed audio part makes use of original recordings of the poems (The Echo, In the Fog, Wind, and The Lake Isle of Innisfree) read by the poets themselves (Anna Akhmatova, Herman Hesse, Boris Pasternak, and William Butler Yeats). Overall the multimedia is created to bring back the presence of these poets and to connect the text of the poems directly to the music. And there will be one more piece with multimedia. Jack Van Zandt wrote his Sí in Bhrú for my upcoming Poetry of Places album, which will be released on Reference Recordings in Spring 2019. My Poetry of Places album will feature newly-written works by Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, Harold Meltzer, Andrew Norman, Lewis Spratlan, Nina C. Young, and Jack Van Zandt, all inspired by unique buildings. Jack’s piece was inspired by the oldest building in the world, built in Ireland during the Neolithic period, about 5000 years ago. This building, Sí in Bhrú (or Newgrange in English), is fascinating on so many levels. Like the passageway and the interior chamber of Sí an Bhrú itself, the electronic elements of the work (created in dozens of layers from several sources) resonate at a frequency of 110 hertz in support of the piano part that does the same. I will perform this work with an accompanying video that features images of this unique stone age monument.
Looks like you have a consortium commission on the concert, which seems like a great way for performers to bring new works into the world. Could you talk a little about how that process works, for our readers who may not be familiar with it?
The consortium commissioning is somewhat common in orchestral, wind band and choral worlds, but is relatively new for solo music. It was realized through the Global Premiere Commissioning Consortium, an organization which accepts applications from composer/performer teams and a group of commissioning consortium members who split the composer’s and the project leader’s fee. This approach makes it affordable for the selected teams to commission new music. A relatively small commissioning fee allows the consortium members to secure the premiere performance rights on their respective territory for a fixed amount of time and help the composer to get his/her work performed globally. It is a great project which is focused on promoting the composer and his/her performers. We currently have 25 members who will premiere Vera’s new piece in 10 countries and 16 USA states.
Tom Flaherty’s piece is on your upcoming CD, Quotations & Homages. Want to talk a little about the album?
My upcoming album Quotations and Homages will be released on Reference Recordings in early April (next month). This album features newly-written works inspired by a variety of earlier composers and pieces, from Mozart to Brahms to Stravinsky to Messiaen to Carter to Ustvolskaya to The Velvet Underground. It’s a program that’s both serious and lighthearted. Older works are brought to new light through piano/s, toy pianos and electronics by living American composers Tom Flaherty, Missy Mazzoli, Peter Yates, Vera Ivanova, Nick Norton (you!), Adam Borecki, Daniel Felsenfeld, and James Matheson. At my PIE concert on March 10 I will be performing the two works with electronics from my album. The first piece, written for me by Tom Flaherty, is titled Rainbow Tangle. It captures the otherworldly ecstasy of the seventh movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, using live electronic delays, transpositions, and reverberation to expand the sonic palette. I will close my PIE concert with Tom’s Igor to Please, a piece constructed using only the notes of Stravinsky’s “Augurs” chord from the Rite of Spring (an unusual spacing of an Ab harmonic minor scale). This piece exists in multiple versions for solo piano, solo toy piano, duo piano, and the original version for two pianos four-hands and two toy pianos, each with pre-recorded electronics. My album features the original version of this piece for 6 pianists, recorded with my amazing colleagues Ray-Kallay Duo, HOCKET, and Genevieve Feiwen Lee. On Saturday I will be performing the solo piano and electronics version of Igor.
What’s next on your schedule after this one that readers can look forward to?
After this week, which is keeping me busy with 2 days of recording sessions and six concerts (four of them at ArtNight Pasadena on Friday, previewing my PIE program, I will be going to Canada to promote the upcoming album release. Local performances next month will include collaborations with the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, bassoonist Judith Farmer, and clarinetist Edgar Lopéz (performing Gernot Wolfgang’s Trio WINDOWS, which we will be recording in May). My concert schedule is updated at nadiashpachenko.com/event and interested readers can subscribe to my newsletter to be invited to future performances at nadiashpachenko.com/contact.
Tickets for this weekend’s show are available at peopleinsideelectronics.com/nadia-shpachenko.
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.