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.
Art should make you feel something. Be it the discomfort of eye contact, mirth at the absurdity of a bitterly happy man (nope, not a typo), or literal vibrations in your skeleton, the winning pieces of the 2015 American Composers Forum National Composition Contest dealt it all through wild Up. The concert began with When Eyes Meet by Nina C. Young, a variably atonal work narrating the palpable awkwardness of eye contact with a stranger. Segments of pointillism and others of smooth lyricism portray sneaking glances and the development of silent rapport, cut short audibly by one party guiltily turning away. In short, an aural captivation of “the struggle is real.” Next up was The Man Who Hated Everything by Alex Temple. The title alone speaks volumes on what this tribute to Frank Zappa contains. It’s a witty collage of quotations barreling through a train of thought that could exist equally in Zappa or Temple’s heads, and spills out in jazz improvisation and big band bellows and words spoken by the performers assuming characters almost but not quite themselves. The performers have entirely too much fun, and it afflicts the audience delightfully, and laughter mingles with the applause. The third and final piece is Chiaroscuro by William Gardiner. Beginning with two notes in the middle range of a vibraphone, the sound seems to come physically forward from the stage into your body as the sound is transformed into sound waves with subharmonics. The other instruments play high and light over the thick, visceral vibrations, and though there is a rhythm in the high end only the harmonic rhythm in the bass is truly observed. Each chord moved a different part of myself; first my feet, then my knees, and then my chest and finally my face. Have you ever had your sinuses stuffed from the LA haze, and then inexplicably and gently stirred by pure bass notes? It is a strange thing to claim, and an even stranger thing to experience. It was emotional without emotions, and utterly spellbinding. I wanted to hear it at least a dozen times more over the course of the night.
My wish was partly granted. After the three pieces were presented in this order, the composers came down and answered a few questions with Chris Rountree, the conductor of wild Up. As a former Seattlite who has only lived in California for a year, I am still pleasantly surprised that the whole creative process seems present in the end product; the composers and artistic directors are always at the shows and still involved. This seems, forgive my poeticism, to give the art the loving support it needs to be a real triumph, not just one more modern, off-the-wall sound coming out of crazy ol’ LA.
But, it just wouldn’t be LA without being a little off the wall. After the chat with the composers and intermission, the second half of the concert was the same set, just in a different order. The best part of this experiment was that I could move seats, and thus experience the pieces from a different perspective. Also, about half the audience departed, leaving only those who seriously love their modern music. To be fair, usually after finishing a meal you don’t jump right into eating the same meal again. But this wasn’t a meal; it was more like finishing a good book and wanting to read the whole thing again. The energy was different and the room felt smaller, but there was more rapport between all the audience members. So we heard William’s piece again, and from my new vantage point I could feel the vibrations move me in different places than before, and I could imagine seeing the floor in rings of emanating pulses, which had not occurred to me before. I heard more themes and patterns in Nina’s work, and I wished I could have followed along in the score but I was mollified by this second listen through. Alex’s piece was also enhanced by the fact I could finally see the pianist’s and reed player’s faces and better hear their words. The cellist and flutist hammed it up at the very end, and the audience, as small as we were, ate it up. The second round was a stroke of genius. The stress and reverence of the big, bad world premiere was over and we were graced with the best encore we could hope for: something exactly the same but different. And it felt great.