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.
Art Share LA in the heart of downtown Los Angeles was the site on Friday May 15, 2015 of Tactile Sound, a concert of new music featuring the wasteLAnd musicians, Trio Kobayashi and other assorted soloists and guests. A good size crowd filled the roomy spaces of the comfortable Art Share venue.
The first piece on the program was The Flypaper by Steven Kazuo Takasugi. The stage was populated by Elise Roy, flute, and Stephanie Aston, listed as a soprano, but who appeared holding a flute. Microphones were positioned very near the flutes and speakers were placed in front and behind the audience. A single recorded voice was heard coming from the speakers, and this consisted of stretches of disjointed speech in what sounded like a man speaking in German. The flutes were heard initially as rushing air, with no tones produced and the recorded voice faded away, seeming to recede to the back of the room. The valves of the flutes were heard opening and closing, still without any tone being produced – a technique that continued throughout the piece. This sound was amplified and the effect was similar to hearing the dripping of water in a leaky basement. The use of the flute as an amplified percussive instrument was unexpected, challenging the listener’s expectation – but this was exactly on target with the Tactile Sound theme. The voice returned, in English this time, as the clicks and pops increased there was an undercurrent of mysterious discomfort that stopped just short of threatening, providing the connection to title of the piece. The Flypaper is a remarkable combination of electronics and conventional instruments used in unconventional ways. Steven Kazuo Takasugi was in attendance and received a warm round of applause.
Invisibility by Liza Lim followed and this was a solo cello piece performed by Ashley Walters. For this piece Ms. Walters used a bow with the hair strands wrapped rope-like around the bow stick. This produced a lovely combination of warm cello sounds and sustained, yet scratchy tones that were often rough but never crude. The overall effect was one of complexity, a mix of the alien and the familiar and clearly ‘tactile’. There was a vague sense of anxiety running through the piece and this was heightened with the unorthodox bow. It sometimes seemed that more than one instrument was in the room; the playing always sounded assured and under control. Midway through Ms. Walters picked up a conventional bow and the sounds became noticeably smoother with more individual notes. This section contained perhaps a bit more dynamic range – very light at times, and much stronger at others, especially in the lower registers. There were some smooth and harmonious stretches here that provided a good contrast to the opening sections. Towards the end of the piece both bows were used – one in each hand – to produce an intriguing mix of sounds that was at once both rough and soothing. Any remaining doubts about the virtuosity of Ms. Walters were dispelled by the enthusiastic applause that followed. Invisibility, like The Flypaper before it, is a piece that challenges the expectations of the listener in new and unusual ways.
The world premiere of eiszeiten by Richard Barrett was next, and this featured the playing of Trio Kobayashi – horn, trombone and tuba. The piece began with the sound of air rushing through the horns and tongued so as to create a kind of pinging sound. This was picked up and amplified through the speakers and the effect was like hearing the cold wind blowing. These sounds eventually morphed into tones from each horn, forming sustained chords that were somewhat high in pitch and dissonant at times, producing an otherworldly feel. The harmonies here were indefinably unorthodox – reminiscent of train horns that are close in pitch, and not quite forming a conventional interval. Powerful tutti chords were heard and these became more traditional in character as they gained in strength. The electronics emitted a deep bass drone and the players joined at approximately the same pitch with some zero-beating becoming audible at times. The brass then began to play passages of moving notes and this brought a sense of movement to the texture. The electronics replied with a loud dissonant chord – in full 1950s Sci-Fi mode – and the brass added a syncopated line that enhanced the alien feel of this section. The electronic sounds suddenly ceased and the brass trio played the piece to a close. Eiszeiten, which translates to Ice Ages, certainly evokes a cold, alien landscape and the integration of the electronics with the playing of Trio Kobayashi was precise and effective.
CYMBALMUSIC II: Centerflow/Trails II by Eleanor Hovda followed, performed by Justin DeHart. This is the second piece of a five piece set, and was inspired by the rigors of cross country skiing as experienced by the composer. The graphical score, in fact, includes a series of marks and squiggles that resemble ski tracks. For this performance two cymbals were mounted on a single pedestal. The audience was asked to hum or sing a sustained tone as heard from the cymbals as they were bowed by DeHart. The sound produced by the bowing was generally high in pitch but full of overtones and this nicely suggested a cold, sunny day in a white landscape, with a stinging headwind blowing. The vertical motion of the bowing across the edge of the cymbals was itself was reminiscent of ski poles pumping up and down as the skier moved through a frozen landscape. The humming from the audience was mostly tentative, but added a smooth timbre and seemed to amplify the sounds coming from the cymbals. As the piece progressed the tempo slowed and the sound felt more labored, as if the skier was becoming fatigued. Towards the end the volume also decreased until there was just a low humming heard from the audience as the piece concluded. CYMBALMUSIC II: Centerflow/Trails II is an artful work that produces the maximum effect from minimal musical forces yet delivers a vivid imagery to the mind of the listener.
After the intermission, Trio Kobayashi returned to play Tones and Noise II by Dustin Donahue. This began with a low roaring from the stage speakers, sounding very much like a rocket exhaust at close range. The horns joined in, playing syncopated notes that provided an interesting contrast to the noise texture. The roaring became intermittent and the brass passages more animated as if we were in the presence of a large beast or mechanism. The roaring noise was renewed and perceived as coming from different directions through the speakers on both sides of the audience. The brass parts became louder and longer, as if combining with and matching the roar. The feeling was that of being inside a rocket in space, hearing the blast of the engines and the sounds of mechanical automata as portrayed by the brass. Tones and Noise II is an intriguing piece that manages to work effectively on the imagination by using amplified noise and simple brass figures.
The final piece of the concert was the world premiere of Saxony by James Tenney in a version for brass quintet. James Tenney, an influential West Coast composer and educator, died in 2006, but this piece from among his unperformed works was selected for premiere at this concert. Trio Kobayashi was joined by two trumpet players – Jonah Levy and Aaron Smith – to complete the ensemble. Saxony opened with a low, sustained tone in the tuba, matched by the electronics coming through the speakers. At length the trombone entered, doubling the tuba and noticeably changing the timbre of the chord. The trombone moved up what sounded like a third and the horn entered changing the timbre yet again. All the tones were sustained and this anchoring of the sound by the low brass seemed almost Wagnarian – certainly German – and in keeping with title. The piece proceeded in this way, the trumpets adding their parts, piling pitches on top of pitches within the chord, all combining to create a powerful sound. The intonation here was critical and the ensemble held together admirably. When all the players were engaged, a series of trills in each horn added pleasing new colors and shortly after, each horn began to play a series of short phrases that added an agreeable variety to the texture. The piece then reversed – the tones tapering downward and the trumpets going tacet. The sound became lower and more cohesive, producing some lovely chords. When only the trombone, tuba and electronics remained, the sound became lush and warm. The piece concluded by slow diminuendo with the remaining horns laying out until only the tuba held the bottom note. When the sound finally ceased the audience remained silent for a good 15 seconds, a tribute perhaps more notable than the enthusiastic applause which followed. Saxony is masterful work that extracts considerable emotional impact from its minimal structure and pitch palette.
Trio Kobayashi is:
Alan Fogle – Horn
Matt Barbier – Trombone
Luke Storm – Tuba
Though based in San Diego, bassist and composer Scott Worthington is no stranger to the LA scene. UPDATE: SCOTT HAS MOVED TO PASADENA.