Here at New Classic LA we love it when musicians and composers talk with each other about their work. In what is becoming an ongoing series, flutist and wasteLAnd executive director Rachel Beetz had time to speak with the performers, composers, and poet involved in their concert this Saturday at 8pm at Art Share. Tickets and details are at wastelandmusic.org. Here’s Rachel:
Happy Valentine’s Day!
wasteLAnd’s upcoming concert on Saturday includes collaborations and realizations of some quirky and weird love songs. We’re featuring Stephanie Aston throughout the program, including a premiere by Nicholas Deyoe. I asked some questions of composers Katherine Young and Nicholas Deyoe, performers Stephanie Aston and Dustin Donahue and the author of the text of Deyoe’s new work, Allison Carter. We hope you can join all of us to celebrate all of the weird types of love this program has to offer!
Manoalchadia – Chaya Czernowin
Love Letter – Liza Lim/Dustin Donahue
and I am responsible for having hands (five Allison Carter songs) – Nicholas Deyoe (world premiere)
Cellogram – James Tenney
Folk Songs – Luciano Berio
Master of Disguises – Katherine Young
RB: Stephanie, this concert involves a huge range of vocal colors! Can you talk a bit about how you’re approaching each different style? Are there connections between pieces in your approach at all?
Stephanie Aston: A lot of what I do is based on not just the indications given by the composer, but also the text. The text I sing in Manoalchadia is very aggressive for the first two thirds of the piece, so everything I do, be it low notes in full chest register, vocal fry, breathy singing, etc. has an aggressive and raw feeling behind it. Later in the piece the text becomes loving rather than aggressive, so everything I do comes from a gentle place.
Deyoe’s settings of the Allison Carter texts are very much in his style of setting text. There’s an ease of production and moderation of sound, in a certain sense. I have “poco vib” or “no vib” written in several times because nothing should be taken to excess; it’s just a clear beautiful ringing sound. In a way that allows me to bring out the nuances of the text as they come by and respond to them uniquely each time I sing it.
Young’s piece has mostly extended techniques until the end. It feels like an arrival piece of sorts because there was a time when I couldn’t do a tongue trill. The piece gives you hints along the way. Then at the end, when the text is fully there, it still isn’t, because it’s quiet and divided. I have the vowels and Leslie has the consonants.
The Berio Folk Songs have a wide variety of texts, so each movement has its own character. I try to keep my approach simple, thinking of how someone in the countryside of each piece might go about singing it and just try and have some fun.
RB: Dustin, Liza Lim’s Love Letter for solo hand drum asks the performer to “write a letter to your beloved” and “translate the letters of each word into rhythmic information.” Could you describe your encounter with this process? Was there anything that was particularly challenging in realizing this piece?
Dustin Donahue: The open-ended nature of this brief score was particularly daunting. There is no suggested process for translating letters into rhythmic information – this must be a system of my own design. As a first step, I created my text, where my own “love letter” runs in counterpoint with texts by Margaret Atwood and Simone de Beauvoir which were read at my wedding.
Emphasizing the score’s instruction to make rhythms from letters themselves, I explored a range of coded methods for translating individual letters into sounds; these, at first, included standardized practices like Morse code and ASCII, all of which felt impersonal and mechanical. Ultimately, as I analyzed and copied these texts, I became enchanted by the sound of handwriting. This was an intimate, highly personal method of producing sounds from letters; I recorded myself writing each text, and then transcribed in meticulous detail the exact rhythms of my writing and the articulations created with each stroke. In my performance, these rhythms and articulations are reproduced on the frame drum not with the intent of imitating the sound of writing, but instead to create a new kind of percussive language based upon the idiosyncratic movements of the hand in writing.
RB: Katherine, Could you talk a bit about the connection of the tape players to Kelly Links’ “The Girl Detective?” To me, with the idea of searching, it reminds me of old times looking for a particular song on a tape and having trouble if the tape wasn’t in a clear spot to begin with.
Katherine Young: Absolutely – I had the same association from my childhood in mind – looking for that one particular spot on a tape that you remember… and then there were for me, those special investigations when you never find what you’re looking for. It’s like that part of the song never existed, or maybe it only existed in your imagination.
For me, the tape recorders could also signify searching in terms of research, the way people used to conduct interviews with small tape recorders.
But at some point, the machines stopped being directly related to the story, and I was just interested in the sounds they made. I love the whirring and murmuring of the rewind and fast forward and the percussive clicks and clicks of the eject.
These sounds then became the basis for the instrumental sounds. The percussive tape recorder sounds, in particular, they circle back and inform how I treated the text when it is finally sung completely, breaking up the attack of the sound (word) and the sustain and splitting it between the two voices. To me this displacement relates to the ideas of elusiveness in the text.
RB: What other ways does this piece “search?”
Katherine: In my experience, playing many extended techniques in a woodwind instrument feels like a form of searching. Unstable multiphonics and the overblown squeaks are very hard to find and control. They will be a little different every time. These are my favorite kinds of sounds – the ones that surprise you!
RB: Allison, Nick has written a lot of music with your text at this point! Have you had text set before? Has it changed your approach? How has that shaped your approach to writing or your creative process?
Allison Carter: Yes! I love that Nick has composed multiple pieces using text I have written. His music teaches me about the text and sort of opens up the perimeter around the text. Like – oh, yes, it can sound like that! It can feel like that! It can be about… something like that! I have had text set before. Several years ago Gabriel Kahane composed music using my work. The experience of hearing how the text is met and built on by a new composition opens my mind to new directions the writing could go, almost as though the music turns the light on in an adjacent room. Hearing the text sung also confirms and pushes some elements of my writing process, like always editing out loud.
RB: Allison Carter, the author of the poetry you set in “and I am responsible for having hands” mentioned that this piece really captures the ambience or aura she had while making these works. You also seem to capture and feed off of skills of specific players. Can you talk a little bit about how these worlds collide into this piece? How did you consider the text and then the players while composing this work?
ND: I was really touched (and relieved) when Allison said that in rehearsal last night. I wasn’t setting out with the assumption that I fully understood the essence of what Allison was feeling when she wrote those words, but was responding to what they made me feel. Reading Allison Carter’s poetry resonates with me because her words elicit in me the same difficult-to-define emotions that are driving a lot of the music that I write.
When setting the words into a vocal line, I try to respect what is printed as much as possible. Punctuation, grammar, space on the page, and line breaks all guide how I pace the text. I don’t repeat words, I don’t change orders, and I don’t intentionally distort anything regarding the words. My aim is to present the text in the way that most closely resembles how I read it and then to create a musical context around it. For Allison to say that this piece has captured the aura that she was feeling when writing it makes me feel even more connected to her words, because my goal with the musical setting is to capture my own emotional state reading the words. It feels very personal to me. This is definitely related to the way that I like to work with performers. When I write music for you, Ashley, or Stephanie, the process becomes so rooted in our histories with each other. The whiskies and teas we drank together, the times we’ve spent sitting in a room and exploring sound with each other, the experiences we’ve had performing in ensembles together. I’m not writing for flute, cello, and voice. It’s for Beetz, Walters, and Aston. It’s about the way you interact with each other, how you sound as individuals, and the smartass remarks you make in rehearsals. This is the first time I’ve composed music for Alison Bjorkedal, but having her as a part of this ensemble has felt completely natural. After our experience of preparing Tenney’s massive Changes for six harps in 2017, Alison has felt like a good friend and a similar musical spirit.
Working with Allison Carter’s poetry makes me feel closer to her on a certain level, but also makes me feel like I understand myself a little better. I feel the same way working on a project like this with close friends. The openness and honesty present in these collaborations deepens my connection to all of you, but also sparks a self-reflection that continues to define who I want to be as an artist. And I am responsible for having hands is a cycle that engages poetry with an uncanny resemblance to my inner thoughts and is composed for some incredible friends. This is music designed to be created with people I love.
WasteLAnd continues to impress audiences with a program of new music, most of it from LA-based composers. Each performer has their respective claim to fame in LA and is closely associated with wasteLAnd, and each composer is a long-time favorite of wasteLAnd’s. New to the scene, however, is Allison Carter, a poet whose words found their way into Deyoe’s new piece. Her work made quite the stir among the audience members, and I have a feeling we will begin to hear her name more in the future.
Before I review the concert itself, I find something worth mentioning: the gender representation. It was an even split. In my day job, I currently have my students writing a paper on 19th century gender roles and women composers in the Romantic era, so this has been on my mind a lot. One hundred years ago, women could not vote in the United States, and it was nearly impossible to earn respect as a composer or performer. Nowadays, female representation in the music scene is gaining. It is not yet even, but progress is happening. WasteLAnd’s October concert featured six composers; three were women and two were men (Erik Ulman had two pieces, so the ratio of compositions is 3:3). There were seven performers (including Allison Carter reading aloud), and four were women. The best part was that I didn’t notice until afterwards. I have come to recognize that gender equality is already quite common in the LA new music scene. So much so that this is the first time I put it together. I looked back over some old programs I’ve reviewed, and every concert has women as composers, performers, directors or all three.
Ok. Feminist aside complete. Moving on, because there is so much good about this concert to discuss.
The night opened with Kaija Saariaho’s Folia, performed by Scott Worthington on double bass and electronics. Like many compositions from the end of the 20th century, this piece focuses on dynamics and timbre over pitch and harmony. Sometimes the bass whistles like an icy wind, other times it rumbles like an earthquake, putting palpable pressure on your ears. Scott saws out some kind of textural melody, phrases build and climax and fade – textural intensity carries the musical line. The electronic aspect augments and echoes the timbres. It overlays overtones, resulting in both a more ‘open’-sounding composition and greater complexity overall.
Next on the docket was the duet Tout Orgeuil… by Erik Ulman. Stephanie Aston and Elise Roy are always an amazing team, and their performance on this piece was no exception. It begins with a piccolo solo, and Roy gradually descended down the flute family to alto flute. Aston sang sleepily about pride smoking in the night. Given that the text is from a Stephan Mallarmé poem, my mind turned to Debussy. Ulman is no Impressionist, but I feel Debussy would have approved of the modern counterpoint and expressive extended techniques. The pitches bent down, down, down into sleep, and the flutes became larger and the words grew heavier. Erik captured the good sinking feeling, the kind you feel in a cozy armchair while drifting to sleep.
Third up was Matt Barbier on trombone and electronics performing puddles and crumbs by Katherine Young. For me, this piece created a very specific soundscape: I, the listener, am a koi in the pond on a rainy day and the daily miracle of food raining from heaven is happening. Three of the major elements that contribute to this soundscape are 1. Sharply sucking air through the trombone, 2. Sharp plosives into the mouthpiece that are amplified by the electronics, 3. Dynamic tempi. Matt’s deep breathing combined with the electronic influence reminded me of snorkeling, the plosive pops like rain on water’s surface when I swim underwater. These are instinctive memories, of course, and it may be a coincidence that they play so well together. Now you understand my watery theme. The push and pull of the tempo took me a while to incorporate into my soundscape idea. At first I thought it felt like seasickness, but I eventually concluded it was more like watching fish dart in a pond. They sprint only a few inches or feet, depending on the size of the fish, and then hesitate. The tempo seemed to do exactly that. And then it all became clear, that the soundscape was from the point of view of a koi in a pond in the rain during feeding time. I’m sure many will disagree, whether they had another idea or didn’t find it so blatantly programmatic at all; one of the wonders of music is how everyone experiences things differently. For what it’s worth, I did come up with a secondary interpretation that involves heavy breathing, plosive pops, and sprinting-and-stopping: Darth Vader playing basketball. So really it’s all relative. Regardless of the loftiness or pop art-iness of my personal experience, Barbier proved yet again that the trombone is more than just a brass instrument in a marching band. He played every color in the palette, and demonstrated rigorous control over his body and his instrument to perform such a demanding piece.
Fittingly the 100th piece wasteLAnd has programmed, Erik Ulman’s this until is a flute solo, and Elise Roy absolutely nailed it. I’ve said before that she has superhuman control of her instrument, and she proved it again with this piece. She made her flute sing, speak, howl, wail and whisper. Though a solo composition, I could sometimes here a ghost of counterpoint when she effected heavy harmonics. I honestly couldn’t say if that was Ulman’s intention or Roy’s execution, but every so often a particularly turgid note would quietly sound the octave or fourth below, creating a beautiful, haunting harmony. this until was the only solo acoustic musical composition of the night and it was right in the middle of the program; Elise managed to keep up the energy on her own, and carried us into the final pieces of the evening.
The program ends with a sort of binary piece. First, Allison Carter read her Poems from A Fixed, Formal Arrangement; Nicholas Deyoe used the text for his piece Finally, the cylindrical voids tapping along, a line from the poem. I can’t say I have ever attended another concert that had the poet read their work first before the musical product, and I wish this would become the norm everywhere. As a general rule, increased understanding leads to increased appreciation, so knowing the text ahead of time (and from the author herself, no less) helped Deyoe’s work succeed. The instrumentation sounded like speech slowed down by a factor of ten. The melodies felt like they wanted to resolve up to a tonic, but they kept bending downwards, defying expectations. One thing I love about Deyoe’s style is that it’s always interesting and it never fulfills your expectations. Once you think you have it figured out, he changes it again. This piece feels like your mind wandering and getting lost – when it’s 4am and you have to wake up in two hours but you’re caught up in the twilight zone that is four in the morning. Knowing composers, that is probably the mindset he was in while writing. Also, knowing composers, that is a hard composition to pull off. I commend Nicholas Deyoe for a well-constructed and evocative ensemble composition.
WasteLAnd concerts are on the first Friday of every month at ArtShare. Check out Weights and Measures on November 4.
Editor’s note: WasteLAnd is currently running their annual fundraiser. Take a minute to support them at https://squareup.com/store/wasteland/