Editor’s note: Aron Kallay will be performing on Piano Spheres’ Satellite Series at REDCAT this Tuesday, December 16, at 8:30. GO!
Inoo/Kallay Duo – Five Conversations About Two Things
Aron Kallay, Piano Yuri Inoo, Percussion
From populist records comes an inaugural CD by the Los Angeles-based Inoo/Kallay Duo, that includes seven varied pieces from five different composers. Together with versatile percussionist Yuri Inoo, Aron Kallay explores an amazing variety of textures and timbres through premiere recordings of contemporary Southern California composers.
The first track is Like Still Water by Thomas Osborne and this begins with a series of solitary piano notes followed by periods of silence that allow the overtones to hang incandescently in the air. The vibraphone joins in with a series of solid, syncopated chords that at first counterbalances the airy lightness, but this evolves into series of delicate tones that mix and hover overhead. The ensemble of piano and vibraphone here is nicely done, producing just the right conditions for a ghostly interplay. Like Still Water is precisely descriptive of the liquid feel in this piece – it is like hearing the ripples you see when a stone drops into a quiet pond.
The Question Mark’s Black Ink by Bill Alves follows and this has an entirely different feel – cool, remote and with a soft whirring sound like some alien machinery running in the basement. The sound steadily increases, as if we are approaching the source, and the crescendo builds to a single strong piano chord. A series of syncopated rhythms in the vibraphone and piano follow and these mix to form a lovely melody while a warm, sustained pedal tone rises from underneath. This develops a nice groove that is soon dominated by a powerful piano line – the texture here turns bolder and more percussive. Quiet introspection follows, with solitary piano notes heard over a warm wash. In it’s quieter moments The Question Mark’s Black Ink is beautiful music and the playing has just the right sensitivity and touch.
Cantilena III by Karl Kohn is next and this begins with a low sounding marimba trill that immediately creates an exotic feel. A strong piano entrance follows, providing some nice riffs that seem to bounce off the marimba in a mix of the sophisticated and the relaxed. The interplay produces some interesting textures, combining the soft mallets and the slightly harder edge of the piano. Cantilena III suggests a visit by an American to a rural Mexican cantina – there seems to be a gentle clash of cultures occurring and by the end of the piece the marimba and piano, interestingly, seem to be on completely different wavelengths. Cantilena III is an intriguing exploration of contrasting sensibilities and the playing is carefully balanced.
Tracks 4 through 6 comprise the three movements of Elliptic by Caroline Louise Miller. The first of these, Distorted Sundown – Golden Moonrise, begins with a low, almost inaudible hum that crescendos into a series of sharp piano notes. A soft metallic clang is heard along with the sounds of gentle waves – like standing on a distant lake shore at sunset. The piano soon predominates with a series of slow arpeggios that add to the introspective feel. The piano fades softly away, followed by a short silence, and then re-emerges in a stronger, brighter line as the moon rises. There is just enough that is strange and unnatural here to evoke a certain alien remoteness, as if we are experiencing a natural phenomena in an unusual way.
The middle movement, Earthrise – Anarchy, begins with a more pensive feel – with tentative piano flourishes and light, bell-like percussion – we seem to be hovering in space. A sudden piano crash and a series of bass drum rolls add a burst of drama and energy that suggests a chaotic process unleashed. A rapid snare drum solo gives the sense of standing in the center of a battle. This is followed by an ominous rumbling by the piano in the lower registers that explodes upward into a series of crashing chords and thunderous waves of percussion. The movement concludes with a massive chord that recedes like a distant explosion.
The final movement, Exodus, is just a little over two minutes and has an ominous start, continuing the decrescendo from the the middle movement as if rolling outward in the distance. Soft piano notes follow, like watching a ship slowly sailing off towards a horizon. Elliptic is dealing with big, planetary issues and embraces a wide range of dynamics and textures. The playing here is well-matched to the moods as the story unfolds.
The last track is Wagon Wheeling by Tom Flaherty and this starts off softly with a syncopated repeating melody in the piano followed by a dramatic buildup in the percussion. The intensity increases with a good sense of balance in the percussion – always building but always under control. A smoother section follows with the piano and marimba weaving in and around each other with remarkable precision. This piece is quiet at times and at other time boisterous, but with a sound that is always carefully contained and shaped. The percussion especially stands out – so many notes and passages but always finding the right feel. The ending is a crescendo that comes to a sudden halt. Wagon Wheeling is a complex piece with a lot of moving parts produced by just two players.
Five Conversations About Two Things brings together a wide range of composers and compositions performed by two excellent musicians who are ideally suited for each other.
Aron Kallay will perform in the Piano Spheres Satellite Concert Series at RedCat on December 16, 2014.
Five Conversations About Two Things is available from populist records.
Dedicated readers may remember pianist, composer, teacher, and concert organizer Aron Kallay’s interview about his Beyond 12 project. If not…well, that was a link, and here’s a picture of him with a toy piano:
In any case, he’s released a CD of works by composers who have drastically retuned and reorganized the piano. And it rocks. It’s out now on Microfest records. Composers include Isaac Schankler, Kyle Gann, Tom Flaherty, Brian Shepard (with the standout All The Pretty Colour of The Rainbow) and others. It’s absolutely fascinating listening. Available via Mircofest Records’ store at microfestrecords.com/store, iTunes at itunes.apple.com/us/album/beyond-12/id707673261, and pretty much all the other big ones.
Andrew McIntosh has a lot going on. His new recording of Tom Johnson’s music came out last week (and is great, and is available by clicking here), he’s a full time member of both wild Up and The Formalist Quartet, he runs Populist Records, and, tomorrow afternoon, he’s giving a free performance of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s Mystery Sonatas at the Hammer Museum. He also, based on his photo, takes good care of his cats. They look pretty happy. I’m amazed that he found time to answer a few questions.
Between the cd, the wild Up residency, and performing Biber’s complete Mystery Sonatas this weekend, it’s been a huge couple of weeks for you. How’s it all going?
To be honest, it’s been quite intense. I’ve been up until 1 am or later working pretty much every night lately, because in addition to everything you just listed I also have to finish two compositions in the next week or so, prepare for a violin and piano recital with Dante Boon in Amsterdam in early September, and prepare for a recording session in Berlin of Marc Sabat’s music! The Biber concert is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, though, and I feel pretty well-prepared for it since I started learning the music over 2 years ago. However, it is around 120 minutes of music, so that much material is always going to feel pretty overwhelming no matter how well prepared you are – especially when you are playing in a total of 14 radically different tunings throughout the piece!
As a matter of fact, the whole year has been a bit insane, although very rewarding. For the past several years I have been juggling five different large-scale multi-year projects and 2012 is seeing the completion of all five of them, Biber being the last: the Tom Johnson CD, Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s 80-minute violin/bass duo (performed several times earlier this year), a 45 minute composition for two clarinets and violin (premiered at the Hammer in July), a 50 minute composition for two microtonal pianos (being premiered at the Gaudeamus Festival in Holland this September), and this Biber cycle. It’s an exciting time and I feel very grateful to be able to do all of this work, collaborate with great musicians, and have it all presented!
Tell me a bit more about your interest in Biber. When I hear your name and think about the projects I’ve seen you involved in, music from 1675 definitely isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, and the smattering of Bach and Vivaldi on your performance calender is pretty minimal. Is baroque music a passion of yours you’ve been looking to engage with more, or is it this work by Biber in particular that’s got a hold on you?
Well, baroque (and earlier) music is actually something of a focus for me. If that’s not reflected in the calendar on my website than that’s my fault for not keeping it up to date and comprehensive (I’m not as good at that as I probably should be, but a new and more representative website is in the works…). Early music is in fact such a strong focus for me that I actually went back to school at USC recently to do an additional part-time graduate degree in early music performance, which finished this past May. Also, I’ve played a couple of solo baroque concerts in the past year or so (mostly with French and early Italian repertoire), as well as performing with Musica Angelica, the Corona del Mar Baroque Festival, and a variety of other random engagements. A large portion of my CD collection is filled with the likes of Dowland, Ciconia, Couperin, etc.
Biber has been by far my favorite baroque composer since I was first introduced to his music about 10 years ago by my older sister. You may know that I already have an inclination towards music that uses tuning in unusual ways, which Biber does brilliantly. That’s just a starting point, though. Besides that, his music is wonderfully imaginative and playful, using the violin in ways that were not only unique and unheard-of at the time, but which are still very unique and fresh even when compared with the 300 years of violin repertoire that’s been written since. I can’t think of very much music that feels more joyful to me to play, even when the pieces are quite dark or somber. I tend to think of Biber as the 17th century counterpart to Messiaen, another of my favorite composers.
It has been a dream of mine to play these pieces for quite a long time, and going back to school for an early music degree, restoring an 18th century German violin, playing concerts of lots of baroque and renaissance repertoire has all been in a way leading up to this goal. I’ve invested an absurd amount of time and energy in the project so I hope to keep playing the pieces in the future as well.
With a lot of Tom Johnson’s music, as well as music by other minimalist composers, it seems like the challenge in performing it may be more mental than technical (though of course whatever you’re thinking is expressed via technique). How do you go about preparing pieces like these? Is there anything different in your approach to learning and practicing them?
Good question! I’d say that ultimately the challenge of pretty much all music is more mental than technical. I always tell my students to develop their imagination as much as possible, since you can only play as well as you can imagine.
That being said, these pieces are actually excruciatingly difficult from a technical perspective – which is part of why I am attracted to them in a strange way. The simplest music is often the hardest to play, like Mozart, for instance. I imagine that most of the music on the correct music CD would be fairly easy on piano, but on the violin or viola it feels full of risk at every moment. The tiniest little bow squeak or finger movement that you wouldn’t usually even notice sticks out like a sore thumb in Tom’s music. To give you an example, we had to record one of the movements of Tilework for Violin several times simply because it was early in the morning and I’d had a lot of coffee. My stomach kept growling at exactly the same point in the piece and each time it ruined the take – that’s how exposed the music is!
The preparation was a long and multi-faceted process – like the Biber actually. It started with working with Tom in San Francisco at the Other Minds Festival performing a string quartet of his in 2010. I was very struck by the beauty and strictness of the music, and also his charming personality. Naturally, I asked him for some solo pieces and he delivered a great big pile of them. I started incorporating them into concerts and eventually I had enough for an entire solo program of his music. It wasn’t until I was already performing the music quite a lot that I seriously started thinking of recording the pieces. Everything sort of came together very naturally at just the right time (by “naturally” I actually mean “with a whole lot of work”) and Tom was very enthusiastic about the whole thing, so now we have a CD!
The notation in Tom’s music is generally pretty open, so interpretively there are some interesting parallels to early music there: flexible instrumentation, flexible tempos and even register, no indications written for phrasing or articulation. One has to make a lot of decisions when playing Tom’s music, but I always try to approach it from the perspective of figuring out how each piece wants to be played – as if they have their own unique characters and opinions that are just waiting to be discovered.
What, as a composer, initially attracted you to working with just intonation and alternate tunings?
I don’t think I can provide a simple answer to this question. I remember experimenting with tuning quite a lot as a kid. I grew up in a rural area of the Nevada desert and I had a lot of time on my hands to practice, but I almost never practiced what I was supposed to (to the eternal frustration of my poor teachers!). Instead I would spend hours improvising and “composing”, although I rarely wrote down my compositions at that age, and many of those improvisations involved retuning the violin and bending notes and who knows what else. Sometimes I tried to notate these improvisations or play them on piano, but I often couldn’t figure them out once I tried to analyze them – and in retrospect I am pretty sure that it was because I was using microtones but didn’t have the vocabulary to actually understand what I was doing. When I shared some of this kind of playing once with my violin teacher she didn’t know what to do, so she gave me a CD of Alban Berg and said I should see if I liked it, which I didn’t at the time. To her credit, she was actually a very good teacher and I was probably a very stubborn and difficult student to teach. I wish I had some kind of documentation of these improvisations to go back and listen to, but unfortunately no such thing exists.
When I was exposed to the music of Gerard Grisey and Harry Partch in grad school at CalArts I finally felt like here was the harmonic language that I had been looking for all along. My music generally sounds nothing like either of those two, but nonetheless they are the ones who first inspired me to move in this direction. I was also studying microtonal theory and some composition at the time with Marc Sabat (who, together with Wolfgang von Schweinitz, developed the Hemholtz JI notation that I use), and so my path became more clear once I had a way to notate and articulate the musical thoughts that had been percolating since childhood.
Just intonation is more or less just a representation of the way that sound works naturally, and that’s always been a fascination of mine. I don’t exclusively write in just intonation, though, because I believe that imperfection and compromise are also very important ideas for music.
It seems like we’re seeing a resurgence of the composer/performer persona in concert music in recent years, and while I have a feeling it’s got something to do with those of us who are establishing themselves today having grown up steeped in popular music, where that’s the norm, I’m interested in your take on the subject. Are performing and composing, for you, two sides of the same coin of being a musician?
I don’t really have much to contribute to the composer/performer resurgence discussion, other than that it seems to me a very logical and stimulating way for music to be made. As a matter of fact, and this has been said by many people recently, composing and performing went hand in hand for most of musical history. Perhaps the middle of the 20th century will be read about in history books as the time when musicians were uptight and judgmental and thought it necessary to limit ones activities in order to be taken seriously. I tend to see the more recent trend as a logical return to a very healthy way of making music.
For me, they are two strongly related pursuits, but definitely not two sides of the same coin. For instance, anyone who knows me well knows that I hate performing my own music (although I often end up doing it anyway). Composing is something done in solitude and it doesn’t develop linearly, whereas performing is done in a community and happens in real-time. Composing is meditative and freeing, while performing is thrilling but stressful. I guess they are both acts of artistic creation, but they fill very different roles in my own life and it’s an ever-increasing challenge to reach a balance between them.
Also, I often seek out music to perform that will nurture and develop particular ideas in my writing. A few years ago I was performing a lot of Grisey, Nono, and Feldman for this reason. There was something in the music that I could only truly learn and understand by performing it, and now that’s a very valuable experience to have had. More recently I’ve been playing Tom Johnson, Schubert, Biber, and Wolfgang’s music for that reason.
What are your thoughts on the LA scene? What’s good about it, and what would you like to see change?
It’s a little hard to define even what the “LA scene” is, since it’s a constantly-shifting and not-geographically-centered entity, but I can say that there is an exciting community of musicians here who are dedicated to their work, very talented, and great people. My wife and I were confronted with the opportunity to move to Montreal a few years ago and thinking about that made us realize how much we like it here and appreciate the people around us. Obviously, we’re still here!
It would be nice if LA could develop a little bit more of a support system for its modern classical music (and early music!) – in terms of venues, funding, education, infrastructure, and things like that, but these things seem to be gradually developing anyway. I’m excited to see what the music scene will be like here in a decade or two.
Same here. Thank you, and good luck this weekend!
Thanks to you too!
For details on tomorrow’s show, visit wildup.la/events/chamber-music-andrew-mcintosh-plays-biber. More about Andrew McIntosh can be found at plainsound.org.
Last Tuesday Dale Trumbore released her first CD, entitled Snow White Turns Sixty, on her own Dissonant Gorgeous Productions imprint. I caught up with Dale after the release party to talk about her music and life as a composer in LA.
Tell me about the impetus for this record, and the decision to feature songs for voice and piano for your first release.
The decision to record a CD of art-songs as my first album was largely a practical one. I wanted to release a CD as a way of getting my music out into the world; I knew that, logistically speaking, it would be much easier to produce a CD with only two performers than, say, a CD of my choral works. I also knew that at some point I wanted to record the song cycle Snow White Turns Sixty, which, at half an hour long, could practically be an album all by itself.
I’ve been working with soprano Gillian Hollis since 2008, and we’ve been good friends since before then; I knew that Gillian would be willing to take on all of this music and do an incredible job with it. I also wanted the CD to be as much about Gillian’s performance of the songs as I did the music itself. Gillian’s an incredible musician: her range is incredible, her tone quality is unique, her diction’s impeccable, and she’s completely willing to tackle any music I give to her, all of which makes her a natural choice for a muse and collaborator. We actually started discussing making this CD in early 2010, so it’s been in the works for a while.
So you wrote this specifically for Gillian’s voice, and I understand you had some contact with the poets as well. Did you collaborate throughout the process and allow for critique and suggestions, or was it more of a process of working on your own with them in mind?
Although the Snow White Turns Sixty songs were premiered by the Chamber Opera of USC (and have been performed separately in concert by several singers at USC), I definitely wrote them with Gillian in mind. The reason I started writing the cycle in the first place was that Gillian had wanted to put together a concert of songs related to fairy
tales, spanning opera, art-song, and even Disney films; even though that concert has yet to happen, I did know that Gillian would ultimately end up performing these songs. I don’t think I sent her the music until after it was completed, though. (The experience of writing Sara Teasdale Songs for her in 2009 gave me a pretty good understanding of her voice, although her voice has definitely matured since then, too.)
The newest song cycle on the CD, This thirst in the lungs, is probably the most hand-tailored for Gillian’s voice. We did a lot of experimenting with specific passages that sit in Gillian’s upper register, finding text that was ideal—both in terms of vowel placement and emotional content—to have Gillian hit a high D or stretch out a word in a longer, melismatic setting. We wrote probably 90% of the cycle during the three weeks while Gillian was in Los Angeles to rehearse for the CD, and that process was extremely gratifying.
As far as collaboration with the poets goes, I asked some specific questions in the initial text-setting process; for instance, Diane Thiel’s poem “Kinder- und Hausmarchen” (“Children’s and Household Tales,” the original German title for the Grimms’ Fairy Tales) ends with the German phrase “Es war einmal im tiefen tiefen Wald,” though the rest of the poem is in English. Diane puts the English translation of this last phrase as a footnote at the end of the poem. With Diane’s permission, though, I chose to set the German text and then the English translation of that text as part of the song, so that the audience understands—without having to read any footnotes in the program—that this last line of text means “Once upon a time, in the deep, deep wood.” If I hadn’t set the translation as part of the song, the wonderfully cyclical quality that that line lends to this song (the last of the cycle) might have been lost.
It’s wonderful working with contemporary poets in the performance process, too. While rehearsing this summer, Gillian and I emailed poet Eileen Moeller to ask how she preferred we pronounce the word “quay” in performance, since there are several technically correct possible pronunciations. Eileen quickly sent back a response: she wanted the word pronounced “key” (presumably to align with the word “keening” immediately thereafter). All of the poets involved with the project have been absolutely lovely to work with, and I’m incredibly grateful to them for allowing me to set their words to music.
At a few moments in Snow White Turns Sixty almost seem to take a turn toward musical theatre (I’m thinking specifically of Hazel tells Laverne). Was that intentional, or have you had much experience in that realm?
There was a phase, when I was probably 5 or 6 years old, when I watched the 1955 movie version of the musical Guys and Dolls (with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando) every single day; I think I still know most, if not all, of the songs in that musical by heart.
While my penchant for watching Guys and Dolls daily is long gone (thank goodness), my love of musical theater is not. I’ve accompanied six or seven full-length musicals and countless musical revues; at UMD, I served as the pianist for every student-produced musical theater production put on during my sophomore through senior years.
So to return to the question: yes, the allusions to musical theater in my compositions are very much intentional. It feels like a bit of a dirty little secret in the classical music world to love musical theater; most classical musicians I know scoff at musicals (barring West Side Story, the single musical that it’s socially acceptable for composers to like). But I’m a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, George Gershwin, and John Kander, in particular, and the American Songbook in general. It’s highly likely that I’ll end up writing a musical before I ever write an opera.
Being that you’re from Jersey but live here now and have been here for a little while, and that this blog is dedicated to LA’s scene, and that this is the first interview, tell me something you like and something you dislike about our fair city.
I’ve lived in LA for over two years now; I love that each different neighborhood within LA can feel like a different city, and I love the abundance of good food, particularly the fact that incredible, locally grown food is available year-round. I’m a huge fan of the Larchmont Farmer’s Market, and right now I’m rejoicing over the fact that fresh figs and passion fruit are in season.
But—and this is the native New Jerseyan in me—I miss having distinct seasons, especially fall, which was my favorite season until I moved to a city where it doesn’t exist. I’m really excited to visit the East Coast for a whirlwind trip in late October: a friend’s wedding in MD, a NJ concert with Gillian as part of our national Snow White Turns Sixty tour, and a NYC performance of my piece for string quartet by the new-music ensemble ACME. I hope the trees are still changing colors in one or more of those states when I’m there, so I can get at least one weekend of fall in before I return to LA.
And your favorite:
I have to go with Silverlake, where I live.
2. Place to hear music
I recently went to the Blue Whale for the first time, and it’s a fantastic venue.
4. Bar/hang out
Right now, probably The Thirsty Crow.
Crossroads (in Silverlake).
6. Thing to do/see
Right now: attempting to teach myself how to surf at Venice Beach, with some help from Juhi Bansal, a fellow composer, and Nic Gerpe, who premiered my piano concerto last February. I have yet to completely stand up on a board, but I’m determined to get there soon!
What is one question that you wish interviewers would ask you, and how would you answer it?
“What’s your absolute favorite piece of all time?” And the answer is Messiaen’s O Sacrum Convivium, which—aside from one high Bb in the soprano section that’s just impossible to sing at that moment with the grace that the piece requires—is absolute perfection of form, melody and harmony, and pure joy to listen to, captured in only 5 minutes of music and 4 voice parts. It’s a gorgeous little piece.
You can listen to (and buy!) Snow White Turns Sixty at daletrumbore.bandcamp.com.