In anticipation of their upcoming show “L.A. Stories” at Monk Space on February 18, I interviewed Phil Popham (oboe) and Sarah Robinson (flute) from Helix Collective, a Los-Angeles based ensemble specializing in multi-media, collaborative performance, and recording. The show will feature works by composers Eugene Micofsky, Dale Trumbore, Reena Esmail, Mark Carlson, Jamie Thierman, and Helix Collective’s own Phil Popham. Here’s what Phil and Sarah had to say:
How did you get the idea for “L.A. Stories,” and how did you go about programming this particular set of pieces for the concert?
PHIL: We had been performing our show “The Cocktail Stories” which involved Hollywood screenwriters sending us stories about their favorite mixed-drinks. We read the works while simultaneously performing the original music for each story. The music was very fusion and cross-over. It mixed electronics, loops, hip-hop, techno, you name it! We decided to create an all acoustic show, that would involve more new-music composers here in Los Angeles. We assembled a group of 8 composers. We had LA authors and poets submit their works. Each composer personally chose the story and writer they wanted to work with. Once the works were completed, the group began rehearsals. We all had to dig deep for the dramatic speaking. We were mostly classically-trained musicians. It’s funny though, I don’t see a big difference in being dramatic through the oboe vs. my voice. The similarity is still strikingly odd to me.
SARAH: We really enjoyed doing music and storytelling programs in the past and we loved the depth of experience it offers to the audience. There are so many levels on which to engage with the music and the words, and the way they interact. With this program, we wanted to celebrate our adopted home town and utilize the depth of writing talent there is in the city. The instructions for the composers were fairly open-ended so we have a very cool variety of ways that they incorporated the spoken word with their music. We tried to represent a variety of musical perspectives – one composer, Eugene Micofsky, has a rock band background and another, Reena Esmail, specializes in the intersection of Western and Hindustani music. We wanted to make the whole project representative of the city.
How do you hope the audience will react to “L.A. Stories?”
PHIL: I want them to feel the excitement and wonder of being part of such a great place. Even with its quirkiness, trials, and tribulations, there is a power that draws us here. They have made it. They have stayed, and in its own way, the city wants to give back to them. The show should remind them of why they stay, and give them a sense of validation and community for their struggles. I want them to feel that even when they are hitting rock-bottom, there are offerings here they could get nowhere else. This show is really about everyone in the audience as well as those of us on stage. It’s about all of us. I want them to be proud of where we live, where we are from, and that we are survivors here each day. When leaving the concert venue, I want them to look in amazement at the city before them, look in amazement at themselves for being part of it, and see the outstretched arms of a truly creative, inspiring, and humbling town.
SARAH: I think this city is so vast and complicated. As musicians we have the unique experience of traveling all over the area and working with so many different people – from Skid Row to Beverly Hills – sometimes in a matter of hours. I hope what we can share with this program is the individual experiences of a variety of artists. I think each writer and composer involved in this project has their own Los Angeles and I would love for our audience to feel like they’ve seen the city through their eyes.
What do you find most engaging or interesting about multi-media and collaborative performances?
PHIL: From an artist’s standpoint, multi-media and collaborative shows communicate incredibly efficiently. It also gives you the ability to add emphasis, context, and conflict into a moment instantly. With so many brilliant people contributing expertise toward relaying the message, it can be delivered, colored, or altered by different disciplines simultaneously. It’s so vivid! Once the writer has written the story, the delivery of the actor can provide more context. Likewise, the music being performed can emphasize, corroborate, or even complicate the story. When we’re collaborating like this, I think the composer must be visceral. You have to think of your heart and nerve endings more than your head. It’s a very fun way to create. You’re getting down to the fundamental reasons music exists. Then, you combine the dramatic power of the writers with the engaging music by the composers and the energetic talents of the musicians/actors. Everyone has now come together to tell a multi-faceted story through each of their disciplines. It’s very powerful.
SARAH: I think a project can only be as interesting as the people who put it together. The more artists, the more perspectives, the more genres you have represented, the more we can speak to the universal human experience. Of course, there are limits to how many people you can have collaborating at one time but I find the quality and the importance of what we’re doing benefits exponentially when we incorporate other artists from far and wide in the artistic landscape.
Helix Collective is known for performing at a wide range of venues. Are there any unexpected similarities or differences that you’ve found between performing at nightclubs versus concert stages?
PHIL: They are very different, but each is priceless. A grand stage with stellar acoustics, 1000’s of seats, and a captive audience could certainly a good environment for a show. They tend have to have nice pianos, as well. The intimacy of a bar/nightclub concert is invigorating. A crowd which can interact, yell, applaud, and laugh whenever they feel moved to do so is incredibly rewarding for the musicians. I love being with the audience while performing. I love hearing them if they say things to us and respond to what we do. If the natural acoustics aren’t great, with a good audio engineer, you can be pumped through the house sound system. This actually gives you much more flexibility and variety in the sound, if you go for it. You can also add a huge variety of lighting to the show. This makes it more collaborative/multi-media as more talented people are adding a perspective and skills to the performance.
SARAH: It’s hard for me to overstate how much performing in casual spaces like nightclubs has taught me about being an artist and performer. What is beautiful about a classical concert environment is the focus and concentration that it helps engender. But the real danger for musicians is that it is really easy to lose touch with your audience. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how many of them might be asleep much less how much they are enjoying your performance. In a club, though, I can really read the room. I know what people are thinking. They are shouting, or in rapt attention, or on their phones – whatever it is that they’re doing, I can get information from that about how effective my performance is for them. Helix Collective has done so much playing in these spaces and it allows for the best market research and through that we’ve developed programs that really sing – whether you’re in a dive bar or a big hall.
Any upcoming performances or projects you’d like to talk about?
PHIL: After our performance at Monk Space, we are going to start raising money to record all of these great works! We plan on releasing the album by May or June. We are discussing whether it will be pure audio or a DVD! Let us know, folks!
SARAH: We are excited about our Monk Space debut Sunday, February 18th at 6pm! Monk Space has been such a key player in supporting adventurous music here in L.A. and we are so happy to be part of their programming. We’ll be repeating the L.A. Stories program at Brand Library on March 3rd. Also this spring we are collaborating with composer Mark Weiser and librettist Amy Punt to present the premiere of their opera “The Place Where You Started” at Art Share L.A., May 17-19. We’re also hosting our 5th season of the Los Angeles Live Score Film Festival this summer at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre and composer applications are open now through March 25th.
Check out Helix Collective to get tickets for the show February 18.
Choral Arts Initiative’s debut album, out today, features the works of LA-composer Dale Trumbore; the bulk of it is dedicated to the composer’s secular requiem, How to Go On. I was lucky enough to be at the premiere performance of this work, and was deeply moved by its wisdom, quiet strength, and feeling. As such, I was excited to spend more time with it. In its entirety, the album tackles the universal questions of mortality and the challenges of life’s journey – no easy undertaking, but one that Trumbore takes on with elegance and grace (and, importantly, without making things too heavy). Choral Arts Initiative, a non-profit choral organization under the direction of Brandon Elliott, successfully convey its powerful messages. Their talented performance achieves that delicate balance of strength and fragility.
Contemporary poet Barbara Crooker asks a simple question: “How can we go on / Knowing the end of the story?” This question is the germinating seed of the eight-movement requiem, as Trumbore seeks to find an answer – or, perhaps, to ask more questions (can we ever really find an answer?). Movement 1, How, is set to the text of this question. It features rising clusters, increasing in dissonance and culminating in a sublime stacked harmony, which leaves the listener with a sense of reverence for the unknown. The altos and sopranos continue this sentiment in the next movement, However Difficult, (set to text by Laura Foley). This is juxtaposed by the tenors and basses, who ground us with the message that however difficult life may be, it is still yours, and there is solace to be found in this simple truth. Movement 3 (To See It) feels like a warm blanket, its soft lines unfolding delicately over a quiet, soothing drone and holding the listener in close. CAI delivers this text (again by Foley) with patience, warmth, and sincerity.
Movement 4 (Relinquishment) is where the pacing begins to quicken. The growth and decay in dynamics, orchestration, shifting tempo, and harmony reflect a larger metaphor for the cyclical nature of life and death – learning “how to give it up again and again.” The following movement is similar in theme, but where Relinquishment calmly beckons, Requiescat is more direct in its urgency. It represents a larger gamut of emotions – from the peace of spring rain to the fury of earth and fire – and makes us confront the concept of mortality head-on. More questions lead us to the final movement, a calm acceptance of our ultimate fate, that culminates in a musical meditation to allow us the space to reflect.
The remaining pieces on the album are some of Trumbore’s earlier works, which further showcase her ability as a choral composer (and pianist, in the case of In the Middle). Embedded in these pieces are moral tales of some of life’s many challenges, from our need to connect with others to the feeling after a storm has passed. Combined with How to Go On, these works tell a complete story of life and death, acceptance and defeat, and growth and decay. They remind us that life is about the journey, and that questions are often more important than answers.
Dale Trumbore is about to have a huge secular requiem premiered by Choral Arts Initiative. We thought that merited an interview about the work, and what she’s been up to since last time we talked to her. Given that the piece deals with death
So you’ve got a big piece being premiered by Choral Arts Initiative on July 16 and 17. Talk to me about that.
Yes! That piece, How to Go On, is a secular requiem for virtuosic a cappella chorus. It’s 35 minutes long with eight movements. The piece treats the chorus like an orchestra in many ways; texture is every bit as important as text here, and soloists constantly weave in and out of the greater blend of voices.
The text is by three contemporary writers I’ve worked with in the past: Barbara Crooker, Amy Fleury, and Laura Foley. Together, the seven poems—one text is set twice—address grieving over the loss of a loved one, confronting one’s own mortality, and learning to live with the painful uncertainty and beauty of everyday life.
On the same program, we’re doing five of my other choral pieces that tie in thematically. We’ll be recording the same program in early August for CAI’s debut commercial recording, also called How to Go On.
What attracted you to this secular requiem idea? Were you dealing with mortality in some way in your personal life, or noting a lack of pieces for comfort to those of us with non-Judeo-Christian spiritual lives? Or was this something CAI gave you the impetus for?
When Brandon Elliott [CAI’s Artistic Director] and I were discussing the possibility of my writing a larger piece for CAI, the secular requiem idea seemed like an obvious fit. I knew CAI could handle a technically challenging piece, and I’d been mulling over this idea in a vague way for a long time, something like six years. I’ve been struggling for a while with the idea that there might be no afterlife; I’m agnostic, and I find the thought of my own death and that of those I love absolutely terrifying. I’ve found that I have to consciously avoid thinking about it at all, because when I do, it’s almost paralyzing.
How to Go On is an attempt to make peace with that. If music can accomplish such a thing, then this is an effort to do exactly what you said: provide comfort for those grieving a loss, but without the lens of religion. Though obviously this piece doesn’t have all of the answers, I do think the secular poetry here deals with these questions beautifully, in a way that still feels spiritually fulfilling.
Have the poets heard the work yet?
They haven’t! That’s the one downside to working with collaborators who live far away. We can discuss everything else over email, but they can’t just pop over to rehearsals if they live in Vermont (Laura Foley), Pennsylvania (Barbara Crooker), or Louisiana (Amy Fleury). I’m looking forward to sharing the performance and album recordings with them very soon, though!
What’s your artistic relationship with CAI like?
I’ve been working with CAI and Brandon since 2014, when they commissioned a piece of mine called I am Music. This project happening now—a new, big piece to be recorded alongside some of my other choral works on CAI’s debut album—has been in the works almost as long as that commission.
I adore CAI. They only perform new music, and everything and everyone involved in the group operates at such a high level of professionalism and musicality. How to Go On can get very rhythmically complex and texturally dense, and CAI’s Choral Artists have really risen to the occasion. Their rehearsals are sounding spot-on to what I’d envisioned when I was writing the piece with this ensemble in mind a year ago.
I hope this isn’t touchy, but I imagine you’ve heard yourself described as a “choral composer.” I remember when we spoke a long time back you saying that you planned to make the bulk of your work about voice. Is this still something you embrace and/or pursue, or do you at times feel pigeonholed?
Not touchy at all. I’ve always been drawn to writing music with text, regardless of instrumentation; it’s what I naturally gravitate to if left to my own devices. That’s not to say that I don’t like writing straight-up chamber or orchestral music—I do—but I think I used to view that tendency toward composing music with words as a weakness or a crutch. Lately, I’ve been embracing that and the fact that I usually work with texts by living poets as something that sets my music apart.
You’ve been big on going to residencies – in fact a few of my own as a composer have followed seeing what you do. Could you talk about that a bit?
I love artist residencies; I’ve been to four now, with another planned next spring. At a residency, I’ve realized, I’m almost certain to experience two things: getting a tremendous amount of work done in a short time, and doubting everything about my work and my creative process. The latter is never pleasant to go through in the moment, but I’ve learned a lot about the way that I work and how I work best. Ultimately, that’s a wonderful thing, which may be why I keep going back.
What’s next after this? Finishing that record with Dr. Ian Malcolm, perhaps?
Ha—I was just talking to Dennis Tobenski on his new Music Publishing Podcast about how that project has been more or less a complete failure. I’m still hoping to do something else to fulfill that project and provide something beyond the two tracks we did release to the people who contributed to it. This has been a long process, but hopefully we’ll get some sense of closure on that project by the end of this year.
In the more immediate future, I’m about to start writing a piece for soprano & chamber ensemble. Soprano Gillian Hollis, who I made an album of art-songs with five years ago, will premiere it with a Chicago-based new music ensemble called CHAI Collaborative Ensemble. That’s going to be around 15-20 minutes, another big-ish piece. I’m eager to start that, but it’s going to have to wait until after How to Go On has gone on.
Full info on the premiere this weekend is up at choralartsinitiative.org/july-16–17–how-to-go-on.html. More about Dale is up at daletrumbore.com.
#Armada, an international group of composers writing music collaboratively via Twitter, just completed and released the score to their first piece. I’m attached to it, because the project was my idea, but it features another composer from LA who has been interviewed here on the site, Dale Trumbore. This first piece, which is for solo piano, will also be performed in LA early in the new year, although details about that are forthcoming.
Basically, whoever starts the piece writes one bar, then tags someone on Twitter to write the next bar, and so forth, until someone decides to use their tag to insert a final double bar line. The tags get crazy. Here’s an example:
This piece started way back in July, and 29 composers participated. The score and a MIDI version are available at #Armada’s site, hashtagarmada.com. Check it out!
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.